Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.
'Thistles' Poem Analysis
'Thistles' is a short poem that focuses on the qualities of the thistle. Hughes uses a combination of literary devices and harsh, physical language to create a history and context for this much-maligned plant of field and wasteland.
The poem's language is particularly powerful and instinctive, so typical of Ted Hughes, who often portrayed nature as a battleground, with violent struggle, blood, death and regeneration as major themes.
- Note that first word...Against... here we have a plant that is antagonistic, opposing even the summer air. And in the final line, the phrase fighting back further reinforces the combative character.
- As the poem progresses it becomes clear that Hughes is using the thistle as a metaphor for the repeated battles inherent in life. The thistle is under pressure and so is humankind.
- In this sense the poem is an extended metaphor for ongoing strife, specifically the ongoing nature of the war between humans and the natural world.
There's no doubting that Hughes had a particular genius for describing the natural world. He brings sensitivity, bloody realism and mythology together like no other poet in modern times; his visceral language and unorthodox rhythms challenge the reader because they often elicit tension and danger.
- The speaker in this poem, never revealed as Hughes in first person, delivers a curious narrative based on the life history of thistles, close-up observation and figurative insights.
- The strong imagery works with specific language to produce a powerful portrayal of survival, struggle and regeneration.
Hughes takes the reader right into the prickly world of thistles, using hard consonants, broken rhythm and unusual syntax to explore the nature of a plant that, according to the poet, is more of a warrior than a collection of shaped cells.
'Thistles' first appeared in the book Wodwo, 1967, Hughes' fourth publication.
Against the rubber tongues of cows and the hoeing hands of men
Thistles spike the summer air
And crackle open under a blue-black pressure.
Every one a revengeful burst
Of resurrection, a grasped fistful
Of splintered weapons and Icelandic frost thrust up
From the underground stain of a decayed Viking.
They are like pale hair and the gutturals of dialects.
Every one manages a plume of blood.
Then they grow grey, like men.
Mown down, it is a feud. Their sons appear,
Stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground.
Line by Line Analysis
'Thistles' is a free verse poem in 4 stanzas, a total of 12 lines of varying length. There is no rhyme scheme, no consistent metrical beat.
Lines 1 - 3
That first line is long and rambling, fifteen syllables long, mostly iambic so it has an initial steady beat which eventually breaks up. And why start the line with a preposition? Against..which basically means opposing.
- This opening line creates a contrast between the sensitive flesh of cow and human - tongue and hand - and the thistle's spikiness. It is against both, the curling tongue that helps a cow eat, and the working hand that helps the human make a living.
These are essentials, the tongue and the hand, whilst it is implied that the thistle exists merely to oppose them.
Thistles spike the summer air simply because of what they are. The season of warmth and pleasant pastime is somehow endangered by the thistle's profile, almost as if the plants are out to do harm.
They crackle (note the hard consonants in spike and crackle) because of a self-imposed pressure. This suggests a natural tension, again a sharp contrast to the balmy, calm summer season. Thistles open and send their seeds out under this blue-black pressure which is an echo of something bruised and dark.
Lines 4 - 6
The language maintains its powerful, dark energy as the speaker focuses in on an individual thistle, and suggests to the reader this duality of revenge and resurrection - the thistle is naturally out to make amends for past injustices and is born again for this sole purpose.
This is Hughes taking the bull by the horns and the thistle to the metaphorical limits. This is a raw kind of personification.
The thistle is gripped in the same hand perhaps that was spiked in the first stanza; another sharp combination of weapon and frost adds to the already spiky identity. But now the introduction of history and war deepen the imagery.
Lines 7 - 9
A long-dead Viking is the source of the thistle's warring features. The flowing lines of the second stanza (enjambment to the fore) build-up to this bloody and historical climax. Vikings invaded Hughes' land centuries earlier (7th-10th century AD) and were a strong force in and around Hughes's birthplace in the Calder Valley in what is now Yorkshire.
So, from the hidden to the fully visible, from the slain warrior to the upright battler; thistles are reborn from those who invaded, settled and started new bloodlines.
They also appear like pale hair (the spikes?) similar to the Vikings who originated in Scandinavia and brought a new language - guttural, language of the throat, raspy and rough, like many who still speak the Yorkshire dialect.
The plume of line 9 is either a feathery appearance or liquid effect, a smoke-like emission, which could be the flower of the thistle, often reddish-purple when mature but in the poem relates to blood.
Lines 10 - 12
The final stanza sees the thistle in old age, after the flower has bloomed and the seeds ready themselves for bursting. They're like men who become grey-haired. It is necessary to cut them down (parallel with soldiers who are often deemed to be mown down) but it's never easy. They fight back, they feud.
Then the seeds return as new plants - sons - who carry the same sharp weapons ready for battle on the very same ground where their 'fathers' were cut down.
What Are the Literary Devices in the Poem?
'Thistles' has a number of literary devices, including:
When words starting with the same consonant are close together in a line they are said to be alliterative. This adds texture of sound and interest for the reader and can heighten meaning. For example:
hoeing hands....spike the summer...blue-black...Then they grow grey...
When vowel sounds are similar in words close together they produce resonance and echo. For example:
A caesura is a pause in a line usually caused by punctuation. The reader has to pause for a fraction. For example:
In line 5 - Of resurrection, a grasped fistful
When a line continues into the next without punctuation so the sense/meaning flows on and the reader is encouraged to not pause or halt. This poem has a lot of enjambed lines:
Lines 1,2, 4,5,6
Note the contrast with the flowing lines and those that are end-stopped.
When a thing or object is given human characteristics. Examples would be in the second stanza, line 4...revengeful...and in the final line fighting back.
When one thing is compared to another and the words like or as are used to help contrast. For example in line 8....They are like pale hair and the gutturals of dialects.....and line 10.....Then they grow grey, like men.
The Hand of the Poet, Rizzoli, 1997
100 Essential Modern Poems, Ivan Dee, Joseph Parisi 2005
© 2019 Andrew Spacey