Pike by Ted Hughes: Critical Analysis

Pike by Ted Hughes is a poem in which the persona's observation of the natural world provokes the realization of how human beings have been wrongly imposing their own angle of vision and interpretation to the world of animals, where nothing of human perspective and understanding can apply.

Ted Hughes (1930-1998)

The persona begins with an objective description of the fish: ‘Pike, three inches long, perfect/ Pike in all parts, green...Killer from the egg’. The description is, however punctuated with thoughtfulness. The title focuses immediate attention on the creature’s under scrutiny and on the natural world, which informs most of Ted Hughes's work. The poem can be divided into three parts and three changing perspectives.

The first part, (stanza 1 and 2), sets the scene, describes the voracious, ruthless nature of this fish and establishes its green water world. In these stanzas, Hughes maintains an objective narrative perspective in which the fish and its environment occupy the center of attention. The next part (stanzas 3-7), begins a consideration of the attention of the predatory nature of the pike and describes it as it moves thought a green gold shadow habitat. Hughes vividly describes the fish’s 'jaws' hooked clamp and fangs and makes the reader also almost terrified as he describes the pike’s ruthless nature as it lurks silently waiting in the weed for its prey.

The last part (stanza 8-11) brings the narrator into direct contact with this coldly grim predator. The last stanza of ‘Pike’ concludes with an image of the silent fish slowly surfacing to consider the fisherman who has dared to disturb it’s a nighttime lair with his puny fly-casting. It is clear from Hughes’s choice of detail that this world, both pond and bank, belongs to the pike and that the narrator violates the fish’s domain at his peril. Finally, Hughes leaves the reader with the impression that the fisherman, not like pike, is the real intruder perhaps even the only source of true violence in the natural world. By doing so, the poet invites the reader to examine his or her attitudes about the natural world, about whom or what has the ‘right’ to behave in a particular way. It is the narrator, not the pike, who feels fear; the pike, on the other hand, rises to the surface prepared to stare down this intruder.

Ted Hughes has used the natural world as habitations where the human species are only one of the thousands of inhabitants and are in many ways not as powerful as they would like to believe. Hughes’s poetry dwells on the innate violence in the natural world and on instinctive predatory behavior; yet he sees to view it as appropriate. He attempts to reconcile what at first appears to be a horrible violence in nature. Perhaps human beings are no different from a creature such as the pike, driven by impulse and appetite in a universe that follows no moral law but eat or be eaten. Hughes clearly views the pike as a creature that belongs in its water world, an animal that exemplifies survival of the fittest. The fish is a part of the natural world in which it feeds. The pike shares the colors of the water, the weeds, the pond bottom, and the shadows; it is in harmony with and a necessary part of the world, but it is a type of creature that many will view as unwholesome because of its very drive to survive. Hughes clearly believes that the pike belongs where it is and has a ‘right’ to behave as it does, no matter the violence, for it follows a naturally preordained path, instincts that drive it even when the fish is only a three inch fry: pike are ‘killers from the egg’. Those who find the fish’s appetite and killer instinct unsettling do not see the world as Hughes does; to them, killing to survive is repugnant. Hughes, on the other hand, expresses subtle admiration for the one pike out of three that remained alive in his aquarium prison, having outlived…. and later …. its kin.

If anything, it is the narrator who is out of place in this natural world. He has not only removed the pikes from their natural habitat and imprisoned them in a glass cage but also invaded their sanctuary. Gradually the narrator is overcome by fear; the violence that the pike directs at their prey seems to be turned toward him as the fish rises slowly to the surface of the bottomless pond to regard him, who foolishly thinks he will catch the natural killer. Hughes skillfully juxtaposes the natural with the human world, pairing the images of the fish with those of an artificial world that imprisons the creature for the cruel or whimsical purposes of the human that has captured it. Because Hughes contrasts what he regards as naturally appropriate, such as the pike’s very existence, the pet is able to call into question the behavior of the people who capture the fish in the first place. The conversational tone of ‘pike’ heightens the tension and impact of the poem’s violence.

The poet also makes the poem a kind of parable from which he derives inspiration; by understanding the natural scheme of things, he comes to be enlightened about the way he can live in harmony with the rest of the natural world, without any fear and without any arrogance of being superior to the fellow creatures. He also develops his meditation on the animal world so as to let his imagination bear him away to the ancient world of the pre- Christian past of his country in the primeval era when the spirits of nature (now deeply hidden) confronted a man in his daily life. Fearsome anticipation of what destructive visions form England’s past may visit him seems the focus of ‘Pike’. The pond where the fisherman persona fishes is ‘as deep as England’, and its legendary depths might produce cultural dreams from the past as dark and malevolent as the viselike jaws of a pike. Hughes finds a malevolent heritage ready to seize his poetic line with visions, ‘immense, and old’. The poem ends essentially in an epiphany, and the reader is supposed to understand that vision – that the pike, representing the animal world, will be first and last itself, whatever the human hunter would think of it.

The conventional tone of ‘pike’ serves as an effective device for Hughes to heighten the tension and impact of the poem’s violence. Hughes choice of language is simple: with few polysyllabic words; his phrases are stark, almost bare –without the frills that people seem to need in order to escape from the brutal realities of living. Such simplicity allows Hughes to make ‘Pike’ a highly visual poem. His descriptions evoke sharp images for the reader in which the fish becomes tangible. One can see the water, see the weeds, and sense the presence of the pikes as it blends in, waiting to lunge at its unsuspecting quarry. The descriptions are rhythmic, lulling the reader and allowing the final stanzas to take on additional sinister imports.

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Sharma, Kedar N. "Pike by Ted Hughes: Critical Analysis" BachelorandMaster, 19 Nov. 2013, bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/pike.html.