Wolfwatching by Ted hughes

It has been a long time since I posted anything from great poets so here is one I love from a fabulous poet of the 20th century. It comes from Hughes’ collection of the same name published in 1992.

Ted Hughes was born in Yorkshire in 1930. He attended Pembroke college, Cambridge where he met his future wife. Hughes was known as a nature poet and wolves were often a subject and symbol in his work. He was famous for his seven year marriage to the American poet Sylvia Plath and he was the subject of much criticism and scrutiny when she committed suicide in 1963, following their separation the previous year. They had two children together and Hughes was publicly silent on the subject of Sylvia for more than 30 years out of his sense of responsibility to protect them. Only months before his death in 1998 did he break this silenece with the publication of his collection called Birthday Letters. It is made up of 86 poems, many of them quite brief, and they are said to narrate his relationship with Plath, from their first meeting to her tragic end.

Throughout his career, Hughes won many prestigious awards for his poetry and children’s literature and in 1984, he succeeded the late Sir John Betjeman as England’s poet laureate. He was prolific in his publications following this appointment and produced both poetr and prose right up until his death.

After suffering from cancer for nearly 18 months, Hughes died in England, on October 28, 1998. Just prior to his death, Hughes was awarded the Forward Poetry Prize for Birthday Letters. He also received the prestigious Order of Merit in Britain, becoming one of only 24 holders of the award.


Woolly-bear white, the old wolf
Is listening to London. His eyes, withered in
Under the white wool, black peepers,
While he makes nudging, sniffing offers
At the horizon of noise, the blue-cold April
Invitation of airs. The lump of meat
Is his confinement. He has probably had all his life
Behind wires, fraying his eye-efforts
On the criss-cross embargo. He yawns
Peevishly like an old man and the yawn goes
Right back into Kensington and there stops
Floored with glaze. Eyes
Have worn him away. Children’s gazings
Have tattered him to a lumpish
Comfort of woolly play-wolf. He’s weary.
He curls on the cooling stone
That gets heavier. Then again the burden
Of a new curiosity, a new testing
Of new noises, new people with new colours
Are coming in at the gate. He lifts
The useless weight and lets it sink back,
Stirring and settling in a ball of unease.
All his power is a tangle of old ends,
A jumble of leftover scraps and bits of energy
And bitten-off impulses and dismantled intuitions.
He can’t settle. He’s ruffling
And re-organizing his position all day
Like a sleepless half-sleep of growing agonies
In a freezing car. The day won’t pass.
The night will be worse. He’s waiting
For the anaesthetic to work
That has already taken his strength, his beauty
And his life.

He levers his stiffness erect
And angles a few tottering steps
Into his habits. He goes down to water
And drinks. Age is thirsty. Water
Just might help and ease. what else
Is there to do? He tries to find again
That warm position he had. He cowers
His hind legs to curl under him. Subsides
In a trembling of wolf-pelt he no longer
Knows how to live up to.
And here
Is a young wolf, still intact.
He knows how to lie, with his head,
The Asiatic eyes, the gunsights
Aligned effortless in the beam of his power.
He closes his pale eyes and is easy,
Bored easy. His big limbs
Are full of easy time. He’s waiting
For the chance to live, then he’ll be off.
Meanwhile the fence, and the shadow-flutter
Of moving people, and the roller coaster
Roar of London surrounding, are temporary,
And cost him nothing, and he can afford
To prick his ears to all that and find nothing
As to forest. He still has the starlings
To amuse him. The scorched ancestries,
Grizzled into his back, are his royalty.
The rufous ears and neck are always ready.
He flops his heavy running paws, resplays them
On pebbles, and rests the huge engine
Of his purring head. A wolf
Dropping perfect on pebbles. For eyes
To put on a pedestal. A product
without a market.
But all the time
The awful thing is happening: the iron inheritance,
The incredible rich will, torn up
In neurotic boredom and eaten,
Now indigestible. All that restlessness
And lifting of ears, and aiming, and re-aiming
Of nose, is like a trembling
Of nervous breakdown, afflicted by voices.
Is he hearing the deer? Is he listening
To gossip of non-existent forest? Pestered
By the hour-glass panic of lemmings
Dwindling out of reach? He’s run a long way
Now to find nothing and be patient.
Patience is suffocating in all those folds
Of deep fur. The fairy tales
Grow stale all around him
And go back into pebbles. His eyes
Keep telling him all this is real
And that he’s a wolf–of all things
To be in the middle of London, of all
Futile, hopeless things. Do Arctics
Whisper on their wave-lengths–fantasy-draughts
Of escape and freedom? His feet,
The power-tools, lie in front of him–
He doesn’t know how to use them. Sudden
Dramatic lift and re-alignment
Of his purposeful body–
the Keeper
Has come to freshen the water.

And the prodigious journeys
Are thrown down again in his
Loose heaps of rope.
The future’s snapped and coiled back
Into a tangled lump, a whacking blow
That’s damaged his brain. Quiet,
Amiable in his dogginess,
Disillusioned–all that preparation
Souring in his skin. His every yawn
Is another dose of poison. His every frolic
Releases a whole flood
Of new hopelessness which he then
Has to burn up in sleep. A million miles
Knotted in his paws. Ten million years
Broken between his teeth. A world
Stinking on the bone, pecked by sparrows.
He’s hanging
Upside down on the wire
Of non-participation.
He’s a tarot-card, and he knows it.
He can howl all night
And dawn will pick up the same card
And see him painted on it, with eyes
Like doorframes in a desert
Between nothing and nothing.

Here is a short movie of a report about and readings by Ted Hughes himself:

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