Concepts of Nature in Ted Hughes’ poems "Hawk Roosting" and "February 17th"

Term Paper 2014 11 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature




Definitions of terms and concepts

The anti-pastoral concept of nature in Hawk Roosting

The post-pastoral concept of nature in February 17th


The poems

Hawk Roosting

February 17th



To call Ted Hughes (1930-1998) a nature poet, should not be considered pejorative. It simply means that nature is a frequent subject in his poetry. However, while a great many of his predecessors expressed nature as the idyllic, romantic, and peaceful opposite of a denatured and technological world, Hughes highlighted the darker and more realistic aspects of nature by putting its murderousness in the foreground. Thus, the recognition of violence and aggression in nature became one of Hughes’ dominant themes in numerous of his poems. Yet, looking at his work, we can state a significant change when it comes to describing nature. With Terry Gifford’s analysis of Hughes’s poetry in mind, two different concepts of nature can be traced which may be called ‘anti-pastoral’ and ‘post-pastoral’ (Gifford 1994: 131pp). While a lot of his early works reveal a militant opposition to any Arcadian descriptions of nature, Hughes later on creates his post-pastoral poetry in which he reconnects ‘our own natural energies with those at work in the external natural world’ (Gifford 1994: 129). Such classification of poetry as suggested by Gifford should not be an end in itself; instead, it ought to be relevant to all contemporary readers who take an interest in clarifying for themselves ‘which writing is likely to raise the most useful questions for our time’ (Gifford 2012: 69).

In the following, I will devote myself to Terry Gifford’s classification of Ted Hughes’s poetry and illustrate whether or not it can be regarded as appropriate when it comes to the poet’s concept of nature. In order not to remain in pure theory, I will concentrate on Hughes’ poems Hawk Roosting and February 17th which can be referred to as palpable examples either of Hughes’ anti-pastoral or post-pastoral reference to nature. For a better understanding, I will initially define the terms ‘anti-pastoral’ and ‘post-pastoral’ as used and understood by Gifford, before I will prove them in the concepts in Hawk Roosting and February 17th by also clarifying the different effect that Hughes’ approaches to nature necessarily have on the reader. At the end, I will come to a conclusion in which I briefly state the results of my investigation.

Definitions of terms and concepts

Before using the perceptions ‘anti-pastoral’ and ‘post-pastoral’ in his essay, these terms ought to be defined, initially. It is clearly apparent in the first place that both terms are used to mark, more or less, a strong opposition to poetry that is referred to as ‘pastoral’. Pastoral writings usually represent an idealised, often nostalgic, and mysti-eyed image of reality (Gifford 2012: 49-59) by using illusions or romanticisations in order to expose the best sides only of (life in) nature and by concealing its brutality and its arbitrariness (Williams 1973: 30). In this way, pastoral concepts aim at making the ‘Industrial Man [look] away from technological Wasteland to an older and better world’ (Barrell and Bull 1974: 423).

While such pastoral concepts distort the historical, economic, and organic tensions between humans and nature (Gifford 1994: 130), the ‘anti-pastoral’ way of relating to nature is marked by the correction of any idealisation ‘by presenting counter evidence that emphasises the opposite features in a gritty realism’ (Gifford 2012: 59). Consequently, the characteristics of anti-pastoral literature is bound to be summed up as perfectly the opposite of those of the pastoral: Anti-pastoral authors depict an unidealised and unattractive image of nature by stressing tensions, disorder, hasrshness, and inequalities in the natural world (Gifford 2012: 60). Nature ceases to be the idyllic and romantic counterpart of the modern and technological life and is displayed as a brutal environment where merely the fittest can survive.

In 1994, Terry Gifford offered the term ‘post-pastoral’ for writings about nature that outflank the subdivision into pastoral and anti-pastoral (Gifford 1994: 134-140; (Gifford 2012: 61-68). Initially, he related the term solely to Ted Hughes’ poetry, but later on he also applied it to different kinds of literature. Gifford’s alternative term to Leo Marx’s ‘complex pastoral’ (Marx 1964) can be traced in writings which feature a) tensions between pastoral and anti-pastoral elements showing a dynamic process in nature; b) the contradiction between divineness and intraworldliness as confrontation between all beings as animals and gods at the same time; c) the direct responsibility for the management of nature; d) the fact that outer processes in nature reflect inner processes of humans and culture; and e) the interchangeability of images which means that animal life, culture, human life, landscape and weather are all parts of an interactive whole that can be expressed by interchanging images (Gifford 1994: 134-140).

Even though Terry Gifford admits that rarely all aspects of anti-pastoral or post-pastoral elements can be expected to be found in a poem (Gifford 1999: 150), the subdivision into these terms remains helpful for a better understanding of poetry dealing with nature because the presence of these elements betray the poet’s relation to the world.

The anti-pastoral concept of nature in Hawk Roosting

According to Terry Gifford, Ted Hughes’ anti-pastoral concept of nature is rather obvious in his earlier animal poems such as Hawk Roosting published in 1960 in his collection Lupercal (Gifford 1994: 133). To illustrate that, it has to be asked which anti-pastoral aspects Hughes utilises in this poem and which effect such presentation of nature is likely to have on the audience.

In the previous chapter, anti-pastoral concepts are defined as unidealised depiction of nature as a sphere of tensions, disorder, and inequalities where merely the fittest can survive (Gifford 2012: 60). And indeed, Ted Hughes uses deeply realistic images in order to represent nature as an environment of pessimistic realism and brutality. The cold and unvarnished language violates any pastoral concept of natural harmony. Nature appears to consist only of predators and prey and apparently repeats nothing more than this permanent and unsettling subdivision into hunter and hunted (L-24). The poem is written in 1st person to create the impression as if the hawk were speaking. His tone of voice is arrogant, proud, boastful, self-confident and shows that he considers himself the best of creation (L-10). His whole existence solely revolves around hunting and killing (L-16). Wilderness, death, and dominance are permanently recurrent isotopies in this poem that disenchants nature completely by reducing it to a place that seems to be owned by the most brutal and ruthless creatures who take for themselves the right to kill what they please (L-14). Even though there seems to be a natural order for the conservation of species, it is merely a biological one which makes the readers concerned because they may consider this order a disorder in comparison to that of human beings. In Ted Hughes’ poem, nature is not the idyllic place of pastoral writings any longer. Instead, Hughes composes a cynical concept of nature by, on the one hand, using romantic images of creation (L-10) and, on the other hand, destroying these images altogether when he unmasks this creation as no more than a brutal bunch of prey and predators (L-12).

Hawk Roosting creates very severe an effect on the reader who is likely to notice very soon that the hawk may be understood as a metaphor of humans. The hawk shows clearly human characteristics in his reflecting on the past and the future (L-10 and L-24), in his thinking (L-4), his concluding (L-7), his claiming (L-14), and his showing consciousness (L-2). As humans do, he refers to himself as superior: it is not nature but himself who is ‘going to keep things like this’ (L-24). However, the hawk is more than just a metaphor of humans; he rather serves as a mirror in which humans are forced to recognize their beastlike nature. Human beings dominate the world, as does the hawk in this poem, and think of themselves as the sophisticated pride of creation. But this assumed sophistication is merely imaginary and therefore has to be unmasked as a ‘falsifying dream’ (L-2). In the end, humans are nothing more than simply predators that have the power and the willingness to take lives. Like animals, they live out the struggle for a survival of the fittest by permanently striving for ascendancy. By giving his hawk human characteristics and making him speak in 1st person, Hughes does not let the reader feel superior to this creature, but crosses out any comfortable distance between humans and wild creatures. Even with our ‘sophistery’ (L-15), we are hardly any better than the hawk. All civilization is just an illusion and has failed completely in changing the brute human nature in us which is still that of wild beasts using each opportunity to kill what they long to because it is all theirs (L-14). Yet, unlike the hawk, humans do not simply kill out of livelihood and nature, but also out of pleasure and proof of superiority. Nature here is exposed as the dark side of human psyche.

In Hawk Roosting, Hughes formulates a deeply pessimistic and disenchanting image of nature as a place where predators dominate their prey. The animalistic nature of humans is harshly unmasked. We can trace all elements of an anti-pastoral writing that are suggested by Terry Gifford. Thus, nature ceases to be an idyllic counterpart of human life and is represented as an unidealised sphere where the weak and the meek get killed.

The post-pastoral concept of nature in February 17th

When we take a look at Ted Hughes’ work twenty years after the publication of Hawk Roosting, we notice a remarkable shift in his poems that can be labeled as shift from anti-pastoral to post-pastoral concepts of nature. The poem February 17th is quite good an example to be examined in this respect. In the following chapter, it has to be asked, whether Terry Gifford’s classification of Ted Hughes’ later poetry as post-pastoral can be proved there and which impact such depiction of nature might have on the reader.

All characteristics of the post-pastoral approach described by Gifford can indeed be traced in Hughes’ poem February 17th (Gifford 1994: 134-140). First of all, the tension between pastoral and anti-pastoral elements as a dynamic process in nature is rather obvious and creates a disturbing atmosphere. The natural brutality of a lamb’s birth shows dramatically the rigour of what untouched life in (our romantic imagination of) nature can look like. Here we find anti-pastoral approaches that unmask nature in its cruelty and in the simultaneity of life and death. While nature is shown in a pastoral manner as the idyll and peace of birth, it is also illustrated in its lethal haphazardness. The romantic image of a lamb’s ‘safe landing’ (L-20 and L-45) is juxtaposed with the cruel manner in which it gets born in the end (L-12 and L-45). As suggested by Gifford, these tensions between pastoral and anti-pastoral elements are exploited as contradiction between divineness and intraworldliness which means as confrontation between all beings as animals and gods alike. In February 17th, the ewe represents the divine nature in every creature. She is godlike in her being capable of giving birth. But at the same time, she is a creature of intraworldliness and therefore beastlike because the lamb that was supposed to be born was ‘[s]trangled by its mother’ (L-12). What is brought out, in the end, of that divine creature is merely a dead body with a head that is hacked off (L-45). It is only man’s intervention into this disastrous process of giving birth that rescues the ewe’s life and shows dramatically the responsibility for the management of nature that the shepherd feels obliged to. The relationship between human being and animal is produced in the powerful urgency of an action with which, despite the bestiality of it, the shepherd is trying to save his sheep’s life. As for Terry Gifford, outer processes of nature reflect inner processes of humans and culture in post-pastoral writings so that they are parts of a whole. In February 17th, the concept of nature seems indeed less transcendental than in any pastoral writings. The ewe, suffering from its painful circumstances, is almost entirely tangible and understandable to the shepherd. In their mutual struggle for the birth which is to safe the mother’s life they are acting as parts of an interactive whole. And even though both of them fail eventually to give birth to a healthy newborn, the two of them succeed in rescueing the ewe. Both are parts of the same outcome which is lucky and tragic at the same time. Human and animal life becomes one for a terrific moment. The struggle for life is expressed in interchanging images. The shepherd and his sheep form a unity, ‘a to-fro futility’ (L-36), in the dynamic process of pushing against each other in their dependence on each other.



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Free University of Berlin – Englische Philologie
Ted Hughes Hughes Poetry Poems Nature Concept of Nature Gifford February 17th Hawk Roosting Literature English Literature 17. Februar Hawk Roosting Animal Poem British Poet Ted Terry Terry Gifford Gedicht Literatur English Poetry Englische Poesie Poem



Title: Concepts of Nature in Ted Hughes’ poems  "Hawk Roosting" and "February 17th"