Ted Hughes uses the jaguar to picture nature. This powerful, dark and mysterious creature shows the almightiness of animals. Whereas most of the animals in the zoo are “fatigued with indolence”, the jaguar still rages and runs in his cage. The poem can be interpreted in many ways. One can picture it as an image of the violence of the jaguar, or one can see it as a symbol of freedom for Men and animals combined. Hughes uses this ambivalence to let the reader experience what it wants with the duality of the poem.
The poem is based on uneven rhymes and alexandrines, the first two stanzas have regular beats suggesting the monotony of the zoo life. Then, the beats become very irregular and respect no rhythmic pattern highlighting the wild fury and effervescence of the beast. The numerous caesuras and cuts in the rhythm translate the movement of the animal, switching direction furiously at any moment.
The first two stanzas put the jaguar into context: all the animals of the zoo are yawning and nearly in a lethargic state, this is emphasized by the long “a” syllables employed: “The apes yawn and adore their fleas in the sun”. These apes, normally great, powerful and dignified creatures seem tired and incapable of any effort whatsoever. The lifestyle these animals have seem irrelevant to their nature. In the next verse the parrots are compared to tarts trying to attract a stroller.
This comparison takes all the wildness out of the animals; these parrots seem gaudy and fake. The animals have been consumed by this lifestyle; they are tired of it, but too tired to do anything about it: “Fatigued with indolence”. In the second stanza the alliteration of ‘s’ conveys a sense of weight, how the sun is weighing down on these mortified beings. Hughes emphasizes the immobility of this scene by comparing the boa to a fossil and the zoo to a nursery wall painting. We find another alliteration of ‘s’ that conveys this time the immobile and suffocating ambiance: The cage “stinks of sleepers from the breathing straw”, the air is stale there is not the slightest rage in any of these creatures who appear to have given up on any form of resistance. All we can see is the straw slowly moving in pace with the animal’s breath. The simile between the scene and a nursery wall painting is particularly effective. These supposedly dangerous and king-like creatures have been reduced to nothing more than a background. Tamed by society, they slowly disappear into nonchalance. Hughes uses these two first stanzas to create a greater contrast between normal zoo life, and this untamable creature.
Hughes uses powerful imagery to picture the strength of the jaguar. He imagines the jaguar running like a child chasing his dreams. Hughes wants to picture the jaguar as not only a strong and powerful symbol of nature but also an idyllic one. For example the jaguar sees beyond his cage “more to the visionary his cell” and continues to live freely behind the bars. Hughes pictures nature with no limits, no barriers.
Hughes places the reader behind the crowd watching “mesmerized” the jaguar, as if to create suspense. This suspense is brought to its apogee after the enumeration of verbs: “stands, stares, mesmerized”. The Jaguar represents all that is expected from a wild animal. His rage is admired by the public. His anger is what creates the passion. “…after the drills of his eyes”, this verse shows the intensity of the jaguar, thus of nature. His dark eyes are a portal to the pain and anger caused by his capture. The caesura in the next verse emphasizes the word fuse, showing once again the velocity of the actions of the jaguar.
The alliteration of ‘f’ conveys too the rapidity and the burning power within the beast. Hughes explains how the jaguar does not see the cage: “the eye satisfied to be blind in fire […] there’s no cage to him”. The poet uses the lexical field of explosions and fire to convey his sense of the overwhelming power of the creature: “fire”, “bang”, “deaf”… He also uses many “b” alliterations, adding violence to the verses with its explosive pronunciation. In the last stanza there is a dominance of ‘r’ sounds highlighting the freedom of the animal; these sounds added to the very evocative image of the jaguar rolling the world “under the long thrust of his heel” create a very barrier free world. The final fall “Over the cage floor the horizons come” sums up the whole poem: this incarnation of nature has no barrier and even though humans think they control it they don’t have the least influence on it. This poem is a beautiful tale of freedom and liberation.
We all believe we control everything, that nothing is out of grasp, and yet this jaguar is over our rules, he is stronger than our society and his cage and more limits generally don’t matter for him. This poem reverses the role of the spectator: in a zoo we watch animals, this time he is watching us, in our caged society.