“The Thought Fox” and “Digging” are both poems which explore their respective authors’ attitudes towards writing poetry. They both employ extended metaphors to this end, but their views differ greatly.
Digging is by Seamus Heaney, and portrays poetry writing as a mundane yet skilful activity. At the beginning of the poem, Heaney uses the simile “as snug as a gun” to describe his pen. This image suggests that Heaney views the pen as something powerful, which, whilst strong, requires someone to trigger it. Guns also require ammunition, which is supplied by the user. In this analogy, the ammunition is Heaney’s ideas, which he ‘fires’ at the paper using the pen. The fact that it is “snug” suggests that Heaney is not writing with it, which implies that he cannot think of anything to write.
The Thought Fox, by Ted Hughes, begins in a somewhat similar vein. Hughes, like Heaney, mentions his stationery when he says “this blank page where my fingers move”. This implies that Hughes is also stuck for ideas, but whilst Heaney is trying to actively think of something to write about, Hughes seems to be simply waiting for an idea to come to him. The first line, “I imagine this midnight moment’s forest”, presents to the reader an image of a forest at night, dark and quiet. In a dark forest, whilst you may not be able to see any sign of life, it is likely that if you wait long enough, something will stir, just as Hughes, when he says “something else is alive”, seems to know that whilst he cannot see any ideas, they will come to him eventually, from the forest that is his subconscious. This idea that inspiration comes from somewhere beyond the conscious control of the poet echoes that of the Ancient Greeks who prayed to the muses – goddesses who bestowed inspiration upon those who excelled in the arts and sciences. In this sense, I feel that Hughes has rather an arrogant attitude towards writing poetry, implying that he has been especially picked to receive ideas and inspiration from some celestial being.
Thus a major difference between these poems is that whilst Heaney sees his pen as the vessel for the ideas which he thinks of, Hughes sees himself as the vessel for ideas given to him.
In the second stanzas of the poems, they become more dissimilar, although they still retain some similarities. Hughes gets drawn closer into his subconscious, creating an aura of mystery and exciting the reader’s curiosity. The second and third lines – “Something more near Though deeper within the darkness” – emphasise this. The word “something” leaves the reader guessing as to what could be out there, and the idea that it is “more near” and yet “deeper within the darkness” seems oxymoronic, which confuses the reader and mirrors Hughes’ own feelings of disorientation within this subconscious world that is beyond his control. It also reflects the process of ideas occurring to a poet; he senses something is close (i.e. in his subconscious), though he cannot yet fully form it.
Heaney, on the contrary, gets distracted from his work. He hears the “clean rasping sound” of his father digging, and takes a look out of the window. The fact that the noise comes from “under [his] window” and he has to “look down” implies that he thinks of his father as somewhat inferior to himself. When Heaney notices “My father, digging.”, the full stop at the end of the diminutive sentence add a somewhat disdainful edge to the stanza, bolstering the reader’s impression that Heaney holds his father in slight contempt. Despite the contrast between the poets’ views on how active the creative process is, this nevertheless likens him considerably to Hughes, who, as we have seen, also exhibits a certain arrogance.
Both poets use the second stanzas as a means of drawing the poem away, out of the real world of the first stanza, and into the third stanza, which to Hughes is his subconscious, and which to Heaney is his memory. They also both mention windows in the second stanzas, and it is as if for both, these are windows from the real world into the imagination and memory.
In the third stanza, Heaney is prompted by the familiar sight of his father’s backside to regress into his memories. The undignified image of his father’s “straining rump” reveals how Heaney feels about his father in the present; what seems to be a mixture of distaste and embarrassment. He then slips back into a time “twenty years away”, a time when he was presumably quite young. The use of language here – employing the word “away” instead of a more typical word such as “ago” – makes the reader feel as though Heaney is very distanced from his past, and has perhaps tried to put it behind him. He grew up on his family’s farm, winning a scholarship to St. Columb’s College when he was 12. Heaney later described his move from the farm to the school as moving from “the earth of farm labour to the heaven of education,” which implies that farm labour, despite any expectations his family might have of him, was not something which he excelled at. This no doubt made him feel insubstantial and insecure, which explains why his childhood would be something he would wish to forget.
Heaney moves on to set the scene – his father is digging again, but instead of in flowerbeds, he is now digging potato drills.
The memory continues into the fourth stanza, in which words and phrases such as “lug”, “shaft” and “rooted out tall tops” emphasise that he is slipping back more completely into the memory, and using his father’s terminology as he no doubt did when he was young. Moreover, an admiring tone seeps into his language, which is a stark contrast to the disdain of previous stanzas. We can see that whilst Heaney feels differently about his father in the present, he once admired him as every small boy admires his father.
There follows two lines which show this admiration well: “By God, the old man could handle a spade, Just like his old man.”
Heaney then moves back even further into his memory, reminiscing about his grandfather. The stanza has a very matter-of-fact, mundane tone, but through it, his admiration for his grandfather can be seen. In the first two lines, his pride can be discerned clearly when he describes how superior his grandfather was at cutting turf. His portrayal of his memory of taking milk to his betrays his feelings of inadequacy in comparison to the surpassing skill of his forefathers. He depicts himself as sloppy (the milk he carried was “corked sloppily”), while he uses words such as “neatly” to describe the actions of his grandfather, emphasising how he envies their efficiency and precision.
In the third stanza of The Thought Fox, Hughes introduces us to the fox, which, as the title implies, acts as a metaphor for his idea. In the first line, Hughes makes a second oxymoronic statement – “dark snow”. This adds to the air of mystery around the fox, and the sense that we are ??? a strange, surreal universe rather than the real, ordinary world of Digging. The fox’s movements; the way it’s “nose touches twig, leaf”, and the image of its eyes moving, suggests caution, as though the idea is approaching the poet as slowly and warily as a fox would. The third, fourth and fifth stanzas are composed of enjambed lines which emphasise the fox’s fluid movements.
In the fourth stanza, Hughes talks about the fox’s “neat prints”. We can see a similarity here between this poem and Digging, because “neatly” is an adverb used to describe the actions of Heaney’s grandfather, whom he admires greatly. Similarly, in the fifth stanza, Hughes describes the fox’s eye using words such as “brilliantly” and “concentratedly”, implying that he is in awe of the fox as Heaney is in awe of his grandfather. An element of awe seems to be a necessary ingredient for the inspiration of both poets.
The final stanza of Thought Fox, and the final two stanzas of Digging, bring an end to the poems. Both poets are brought ‘back to reality’ with physical sensations.
Heaney remembers smells and sounds vividly, using sensuous language such as “the cold smell of potato mold” and “the squelch and slap”. The onomatopoeic quality of the words “squelch” and “slap” adds to the immersion of the audience into Heaney’s past. He returns to the present with the statement “I’ve no spade to follow men like that”, words which seems to betray his insecurities about being unequal to the family tradition. However, in the final stanza, he repeats what he said in the first stanza about his pen being in his hand, but instead of saying “as snug as a gun”, he replaces it with “I’ll dig with it”. This shows that whilst he is bad at manual labour, which he feels ashamed for, he considers writing poetry to be his form of manual labour, a job that he works hard at, gets paid for, and can be proud of. The absence of the simile is significant because it implies that he has accepted the value of writing poetry and no longer needs to glamorise his pen – in the final stanza it is simply a pen.
Hughes is brought out of his subconscious by the “sudden sharp hot stink of fox” which occurs when the idea suddenly comes to him. Like in Digging, this language is also very sensuous, but much more abrupt than the more nostalgic descriptions of the poet’s childhood. He ends the poem with the words “The page is printed”, showing that he has successfully taken the thought and used it.
Something obvious to anyone who reads these poems is that they are written in very different ways. The Thought Fox feels very magical and strange, whilst Digging is mundane and ordinary. This seems to reflect how the poets feel about the process of writing a poem. On the one hand, Hughes sees it as a gift, something given to him by some deity on a higher plane, whilst on the other hand, Heaney sees as something to be striven for – a conscious effort, not dissimilar to manual labour.
In my opinion, neither poem is better than the other; they are both very pleasing to read. Whilst I enjoyed reading The Thought Fox more, and felt that it is more engrossing and almost exotic, I concur with the views on writing poetry which are set out in Digging; that ideas have to be found, not simply waited for.