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Pike - Ted Hughes

Analysis of the poem from the IGCSE Literature syllabus

Mark Seldon

on 5 December 2016

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Transcript of Pike - Ted Hughes

Pike - Ted Hughes
The life cycle begins with birth
"Pike, three inches long, perfect
Pike in all parts..."
"Killers from the egg..."
Visual imagery
"green tigering the gold"
Pike in motion
"stunned by their own grandeur"
The plosive alliteration begins Hughes' apotheosis of the pike.
As predators, they look dangerous from birth.
"the malevolent aged grin"
They dance on the surface among the flies.
Hughes uses the neologised verb 'tigering' to describe the young pike's appearance. Why?
Can fish grin?
Can fish dance?
This is a careful observation about young pike - older pike swim in the deep. Hughes is clearly an enthusiast. He begins to describe their habitat, too.
"Or move.../
Over a bed of emerald, silhouette
Of submarine delicacy and horror."
The pike is camouflaged
and can be difficult to
see from above.
Suggests stealth?
The pike is considered a prize
fish for its mild taste and flaky
texture in some countries...
...but it is also respected as a
dangerous fish to go after.
Hughes continues to describe the pike as a majestic fish. 'Grandeur' also suggests it has a significant place within the world it inhabits.
By describing the pike as 'stunned', he seems to be guessing a reason for the pike's sudden movements - as when a pike quickly changes direction or darts away for no apparent reason.
The 'grandeur' of the fish in its 'emerald' world makes the fish sound almost regal.
"A hundred feet long in their world."
Hughes also uses hyperbole to emphasise the position of the pike in the hierarchy of their environment.
Biology question: what position does the pike hold in the food web of a lake or pond?
The pike in its habitat
"In ponds, under the heat-struck lily pads -
Gloom of their stillness:
Logged on last year's black leaves, watching upwards.
Or hung in an amber cavern of weeds..."
[Pike] undergo a form of foraging known as sit-and-wait. Unlike species such as perch, pikes will undergo bursts of energy instead of actively chasing down prey. They prefer a tree structure habitat.
Here, the liquid alliteration is used to evoke the slimy, shady underwater surroundings of the pike's favoured dwelling.
But Hughes even finds this place beautiful, using another precious gemstone to describe its colour. (As with emerald.) And the assonance of 'amber cavern' provides more phonetic excitement...
"The jaws' hooked clamp and fangs
Not to be changed at this date"
A born killer
"A life subdued to its instrument"
Leading a boring life, despite its impressive weapon, the pike is designed only to kill but does so infrequently.
"The gills kneading quietly, and the pectorals."
Mostly, the pike's activity is limited to breathing and floating. There is a sadness to the tone of this description, as though Hughes feels its great power is underused.
"Three we kept behind glass,
Jungled in weed: three inches, four,
And four and a half: red fry to them -
Suddenly there were two."
Pet pike
"Finally one..."
We see in pikes that there is a fairly high young mortality rate. This occurs from cannibalism when food is short. Cannibalism is more prevalent in such conditions as the upcoming pike will not reach a size that deters the larger pike to back off. Cannibalism is likely to arise in low growth and low food conditions. Aggressiveness also arises from a need of space. We see that young pikes have a tendency to have their food robbed by larger pikes.. The reason why pikes are aggressive if not given enough space is because pikes are territorial species.
A hint of the danger to come...
"With a sag belly and the grin it was born with.
And indeed they spare nobody."
Two, six pounds each, over two feet long
High and dry and dead in the willow-herb –

One jammed past its gills down the other's gullet:
The outside eye stared
'Your eyes are bigger than your belly'
"as a vice locks"
The simile is used to show the power of the pike's bite.
The same iron in this eye
Though its film shrank in death.

The metaphor "iron in his eye" shows that the pike has a fixed intent and is not put off by fish too big for it to swallow; it will even die for its kill.
"A pond I fished, fifty yards across,
Whose lilies and muscular tench
Had outlasted every visible stone
Of the monastery that planted them –

Stilled legendary depth"
Hughes draws upon a personal memory to convey his long relationship with the pike. He makes it sound as though the fish is almost mythical, being older than the monastery, almost 'legendary'.
"It was as deep as England."
The hyperbole here is used by Hughes to turn a personal memory into a national mythology - as though the pike is an important figure in English history.
"It held
Pike too immense to stir, so immense and old..."
Hughes continues to describe the pike as a figure from mythology. Them lake, he says, holds huge, old pike. He uses further hyperbole, writing that they are 'too immense to stir' to develop the myth he has created.
"...so immense and old
That past nightfall I dared not cast

But silently cast and fished
With the hair frozen on my head"
The mythological power and size is used to make the fear that Hughes remembers seem justified. The tone of awe and sense of suspense create an excitement, as Hughes felt as a fisherman.
Having made the pike seem dangerous at the start of the poem and created a myth of its size and power, he makes us sympathise with his feelings in his memory.
The repetitious 'I dared not cast/ But silently cast' creates a sense of Hughes' fear.
"For what might move, for what eye might move."
Hughes uses repetition again to create suspense.
Hughes concludes with a series of aural images, using them to show the vividness of his memory. The sounds seem to stand out more because of - or are 'freed by' - the darkness of the surroundings.
"The still splashes on the dark pond,

Owls hushing the floating woods
Frail on my ear against the dream
Darkness beneath night's darkness had freed"
A metaphor that describes the scene at night as the horizon between pond and woods is blurred.
This oxymoron is used to give a sense of the unsettling calm of small sounds in the darkness.
"That rose slowly toward me, watching."
The pike has danced on the surface, hidden in weeds and sunk to the bottom; now it rises in the darkness.
By noting that the pike is 'watching' Hughes reminds us that the pike is a predator.
He ends with more suspense as the outcome of the narrative section is uncertain. The present tense verb 'watching' that concludes the poem leaves us wondering what will happen.
Probably not this:
Full transcript