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Analysis of Poem 'Pike' by Ted Hughes

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Ted Hughes

Ted Hughes

'Pike' Poem Summary

'Pike' is one of Ted Hughes's best-loved animal poems. It is a tribute to a freshwater fish he respected and feared, one which he knew of as a child and carried with him in his dreams.

The poem is a sequence of ten stanzas which take the reader from a descriptive present to a boyhood past which rather magically becomes present again as the speaker turns full circle with the always watching pike.

  • The reader has to be aware of the unusual syntax- the way clauses and grammar work together- and the varied often interrupted rhythm within certain lines, reflective of the actions of the fish and the angler.

And there is Hughes's special animal language to contend with, quite characteristic. Look out for words such as: killers, malevolent, stunned, gloom, clamp and fangs....all part of the poet's idea of what some of the inhabitants of the natural world are about. Hughes was no romantic when it came to expressing his thoughts about wildlife.

But for Hughes, fishing was extra special:

Fishing provides that connection with the whole living world. It gives you the opportunity of being totally immersed, turning back into yourself in a good way. A form of meditation, some form of communion with levels of yourself that are deeper than the ordinary self.

So for the poet, the pike represented something quite profound, a creature capable of reaching down into his deepest feeling, taking him back to his human essence. Hence the admiration and the fear, balanced precariously in the poem.

The pike (Esox lucius) is a carnivore and can grow to large lengths in deeper waters. They are known for their ambush style of hunting, lying in wait for smaller fish behind reeds and plant-life before striking.

Armed with sharp teeth and lightning speed, they're at the top of the food chain. Having said that, there are recorded incidents of larger pike attempting to devour smaller pike but not quite succeeding. They've been found locked together, the larger failing to swallow the smaller, and both dying as a result of this cannibalism gone wrong.

The poem mentions this phenomenon. Hughes witnessed it as a boy and it stuck with him into adulthood. As a poet, the feelings came out in ordered words. To understand a little of where a poem like 'Pike' comes from- the passionate human response to the natural world- we should listen to Hughes again:

These are the remains of what the world was once like all over. They carry us back to the surroundings our ancestors lived in for 150 million years ― which is long enough to grow to feel quite at home even in a place as wild as the uncivilized earth. Civilization is comparatively new, it is still a bit of a strain on our nerves ― it is not quite a home to mankind yet, we still need occasional holidays back in the old surroundings. It is only there that the ancient instincts and feelings in which most of our body lives can feel at home and on their own ground. … Those prehistoric feelings, satisfactions we are hardly aware of except as a sensation of pleasure ― these are like a blood transfusion to us, and in wild surroundings they rise to the surface and refresh us, renew us.

Poetry in the Making. TH

It's as if the poem (and others Hughes wrote) is a necessary part of a more natural life lived out by the poet. Hughes again:

If I were deprived of that kind of live, intimate, interactive existence ― allowing myself to be possessed by and possessing this sort of world through fishing, through that whole corridor back into the world that made us as we are ― it would be as though I had some great, vital part of me amputated.

This is why the poem 'Pike' is of such significance to followers of Ted Hughes. It perfectly encapsulates his poetic approach to wild animals, taking the reader from boyhood fishing in Laughton Pond (South Yorkshire in the UK, where Hughes grew up) into this primal, raw and beautifully predatory world.

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When I was feeling good I'd have dreams of giant pike that were perhaps also leopards....They'd become symbols of really deep, vital life. My obsession with pike maybe was my obsession with those energies.

In the end what the poem suggests is that, even though the human feels a need to fish, to hunt and catch such a fish as a pike, it is the pike's aura and essence that will in the end prevail. It's the pike still and watching, taking form as it moves slowly up out of the dark.

'Pike' was first published in 1960 in the book Lupercal.


Pike, three inches long, perfect
Pike in all parts, green tigering the gold.
Killers from the egg: the malevolent aged grin.
They dance on the surface among the flies.

Or move, stunned by their own grandeur,
Over a bed of emerald, silhouette
Of submarine delicacy and horror.
A hundred feet long in their world.

In ponds, under the heat-struck lily pads-
Gloom of their stillness:
Logged on last year’s black leaves, watching upwards.
Or hung in an amber cavern of weeds

The jaws’ hooked clamp and fangs
Not to be changed at this date:
A life subdued to its instrument;
The gills kneading quietly, and the pectorals.

Three we kept behind glass,
Jungled in weed: three inches, four,
And four and a half: fed fry to them-
Suddenly there were two. Finally one

With a sag belly and the grin it was born with.
And indeed they spare nobody.
Two, six pounds each, over two feet long
High and dry and dead in the willow-herb-

One jammed past it gills down on the other’s gullet:
The outside eye stared: as a vice locks-
The same iron in this eye
Though its film shrank in death.

A pond I fished, fifty yards across,
Whose lilies and muscular tench
Had outlasted every visible stone
Of the monastery that planted them-

Stilled legendary depth;
It was as deep as England. It held
Pike too immense to stir, so immense and old
That past nightfall I dared not cast.

But silently cast and fished
With the hair frozen on my head
For what might move, for what eye might move.
The still splashes on the dark pond,

Owls hushing the floating woods
Frail on my ear against the dream
Darkness beneath night’s darkness had freed,
That rose slowly towards me, watching.

Stanza By Stanza Analysis

'Pike' is a free verse poem of eleven stanzas, all quatrains, 44 lines in total. On the page, it looks rather neat and formal, as if the poet is looking for order and efficiency. Closer observation brings a varied line length within each stanza and no rhyme.

Stanza 1

It's a truly direct opening, a repetition of the title, Pike, as if the fish was there at the surface of the poet's mind, and he has to start describing it immediately. Here is the perfect little pike, only three inches long - that's around 7.5 centimetres.

So this image is of a young pike and it is wholly a pike even at this tender age, with green tigering the gold an evocative phrase typical of Hughes, fusing colour and raw animal power.

To introduce predatory language, albeit somewhat camouflaged, so early on in the poem is significant. This is the poet making a statement of intent. Here is no ordinary marking on a fish; here is active, even aggressive colouring.

In the third line this idea of the pike being an extraordinary aggressor is reinforced. Just look at the language...killers....malevolent and with a knowing grin as they dance on the surface with flies, as if innocent.

Note the curious stop-start rhythms in the first stanza, with caesurae (pauses in the line caused by punctuation) and enjambment (when a line runs on into the next without punctuation) together with end-stops (full stops).

Stanza 2

Hyperbole mixes with metaphor - the pike becomes a submarine, delicacy juxtaposed with horror as the silhouette glides past, a hundred feet long. This poetic exaggeration harks back to the speaker, Hughes, being a child, when size and stature impress and cause over-reaction.

Again the imagery is vivid, and the notion of pike not being in control of their own powerful movements turns astute observation into fine art.

Stanza 3

The reader is taken to a specific environment - ponds - to be with pike as they sit like exotic gothic lords logged on black leaves, waiting presumably for prey to pass. This is what they do, wait and wait and then strike.

The next scenario is an amber cavern of weeds a wonderful image which adds to the already busy palette of, gold, emerald, black...amber. The intentions of the pike are straightforward, it lives to eat other fish, but what a gallery to perform in.

Stanza 4

Enjambment takes the reader straight on into the fourth stanza - and note the sharpness of those vowels in amber/cavern/clamp and fangs...the pike's jaws however a poignant focal point, because they are shut fast, part of a vital streamlining so peculiar to Esox lucius.

It is this instrument (the jaw) that rules over this particular predator. Yet the patient pike waits, the gills (necessary for extracting oxygen from the water) and pectorals (fins either side of the pike just behind the gills used for balancing) kneading - a very descriptive verb of a specific movement.

Detailed observation again, the quiet stillness of the waiting pike contrasting with the predatory attributes. The anatomy lesson builds and builds.

Stanza 5

So the reader has been given a tour of the pike and its environs, the language reflecting the raw power, beauty and still quality of this fish.

A change occurs now. The speaker takes a step back out of the present and into a past, a time when he kept pike in an aquarium or at least behind glass, with weed. These were small pike, young, of various sizes. They were fed fry (small fish) but in no time one pike was eaten, then another.

The reader is given a series of mini-snapshots, the syntax altering to reflect the oddity of the time warp as the pike began to disappear.

Stanza 6

Again enjambment means the sense continues into the first line, the largest pike ending up with the two others swallowed and that big grin.

Perhaps the strangest line in the whole poem.... And indeed they spare nobody....suggests the pike's absolute need to finish everything off, cannibalism or not.

Then the speaker goes on to document another case of cannibalism, this time involving two bigger pike.

Stanza 7

This whole stanza tells the story of the two gripped pike, one attempting to swallow the other, both ending up dead ironically in the desperate struggle for survival.

Again the language is strong and purposeful...jammed, vice locks...iron...shrank... the reader can really get their teeth into these words as the incredible story unfolds.

Stanza 8

We're going back again in time to a pond the speaker (Hughes) fished as a boy. Note the flow of the lines as enjambment rules. It is 50 yards - 45 metres - across and is deep, so deep.

There are tench, a fish that is compact and strong, a bottom feeder, which stays well away from the surface as it lives below usually. Here we have an ancient pond once attached to a monastery.

Stanza 9

In the mind of the boy, the pond's depth is fathomless; it's as deep as the country he lives in, England, with all its rich history. And, as every angler knows, the biggest most fearsome pike are always lurking in these kinds of ponds. These are the legendary monster fish.

Could it be that here the pond is a symbol of the speaker's deep and dark emotional base, the unconscious? Hughes was clear - fishing to him was a re-connection to the primal past, to those energies we as humans still need to tap into every so often, to feel free and wild.

So powerful are these energies the speaker dare not cast - to use the rod and line as the conductor, the bait as the lure that finally secures the connection to the fabulously frightful pike.

Stanza 10

In the end, the cast is made, out into the dark, deep water. Once this action takes place there's no turning back. The lure hits the water, the unconscious stirs, the eyes of the pike are watching, the wild energy returning.

Stanza 11

The finale, so to speak, is an anticipation- there is the speaker waiting as reality changes and something unknown is freed, a dream, in the guise of a pike.


100 essential Modern Poems, Ivan Dee, Joseph Parisi, 2005

© 2019 Andrew Spacey

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