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Analysis of Poem 'The Thought Fox' 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

'The Thought Fox' Summary

'The Thought Fox' is an animal poem with a difference. Ted Hughes 'captured' his fox at the same time as he completed the poem. The fox manifests within the poem, the fox is the poem and both are a product of the poet's imagination.

'So you see, in some ways my fox is better than an ordinary fox. It will live for ever, it will never suffer from hunger or hounds. I have it with me wherever I go. And I made it. And all through imagining it clearly enough and finding the living words.' Ted Hughes (Poetry in the Making)

This was no coincidence. Ted Hughes, through his lifelong interest in mythology and symbology, considered the fox his totemic animal. It would turn up in dreams at critical times in his life as a kind of spirit guide.

One such dream occurred whilst he was at Cambridge University, studying English. In a particularly busy schedule, he found himself with lots of essays to write and struggled to finish them. In a dream, he was confronted by 'a figure that was at the same time a skinny man and a fox walking upright on its hind legs.'

This incinerated fox-man approached, put a bloody paw-hand on his shoulder and said 'Stop this - you are destroying us.'

Ted Hughes accepted this as a message from his subconscious, a symbol - stop all this academic nonsense because you are destroying the creative impulse within.

'The Thought Fox' could well have been created for this very reason - the poet wanted to permanently safeguard his totem by combining the two worlds in one poem, the fox slowly, carefully forming out of the poet's language.

'The Thought Fox'

I imagine this midnight moment's forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock's loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox's nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox,
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

Literary Devices and Stanza By Stanza Analysis

'The Thought Fox' is a six-stanza poem, all quatrains, with one or two full end rhymes and hints of slant rhyme here and there.

There is no set metre (meter in American English) but through careful use of punctuation and enjambment (where one line runs into another without losing the sense) the rhythms of the fox as it moves onto the page come through.

Set in the present, this poem entices the reader in to an intimate midnight world that is not quite real and not quite imaginary. The poet, the speaker, is all alone near the window with just the clock ticking.

In his mind there are stirrings, something else is alive and very close but it is deep within the interior, perhaps in the subconscious, almost an abstract entity. The only way to coax it out is with words, conscious living words.


The tone is one of mystery and dream-like suspension; the speaker is alone so all is quiet as the imagined time of midnight approaches. It's dark. Just what is this person up to as they move from the mind to the real world and back again?

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The atmosphere is pregnant with anticipation in the first two stanzas. Something is entering the loneliness but the reader isn't given explicit details, in fact, this is not an objective look at a fox at all.

  • This fox, this hybrid thought-fox, is subjected to the quiet will of the poet who slowly but surely draws the fox out of the imagination and onto the page in an almost magical fashion.

'The Thought Fox' touches on the mystery of creation and brings to the reader the idea that the act of creating, in this case the writing of a poem, is sparked by something beyond time and space.

Stanzas 1-2

The first two stanzas set the scene. They suggest that within the loneliness and darkness is a life process, an energy that exists and moves instinctively into time. It has no form or shape or consciousness at this moment. The poet has to write it into reality.

The alliterative soft consonant m is gentle (and similar to the first line of the The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins) and compliments the repeated loneliness, the deeper within darkness. Note, too, the long vowels that stretch out time as the consciousness awakens.

Stanza 3

In the third stanza the soft consonant d and skilfully placed punctuation, help keep the pace and rhythm slow. The reader knows something is about to appear but is uncertain until line 2 when the fox's nose manifests, smelling a twig, a leaf in the imaginary forest.

This is a wonderful image. The dark snow is the blank page; the poetic energy is about to be released, is being released. But both silence and solitude are necessary for the words to form, for the fox to make progress.

Ted Hughes chose to use the fox as the poetic impulse because it was a creature close to his heart, a symbolic guide. The flow and rhythm of the latter part of the poem capture the silky movements, the light measured skips, the quick trot of the now lively fox.

The third stanza beautifully reflects the careful steps the fox has to make, as now repeats four times and the reader is taken along into the fourth stanza with the tracks already being 'printed' in the snow.

Stanza 4

Imagery intensifies in stanza four as the shadow of the fox, the poetic doubt, makes progress through the snowy wood, slowing down, being wary, then bold and always instinctive.

Stanza 5

Fifth stanza. This is the poem as the mind and finger construct it out of imaginary material, the personified fox transformed into words that seem to form of their own accord.

And the poet's vision finally in the sixth stanza, unmistakably becomes one with the page as the darkness of the mind and Reynard meet once again, the senses alive with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox, the real world left none the wiser as the poem is crafted.


Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

© 2017 Andrew Spacey

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