In Nutshell: With his fingers poised over a blank paper, the speaker sits by himself in the solitude of a winter night. The poem is finished when the fox enters the speaker's head after leaping across the snow and appearing outside the window, at which time the "page is printed." This "thought fox" can be seen as a metaphor for inspiration and original thought, both of which appear to originate from an unidentified source outside of the speaker's conscious awareness.
The Thought Fox: Original Text
I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:
Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now
Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come
Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Coming about its own business
Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.
In the middle of the night, the speaker is by himself and surrounded by what may or may not be an imaginary forest. While the quiet is broken by the ticking of the clock and his fingertips resting on an empty page, he feels that something other than himself is living.
Although he cannot see any stars through the window, he senses that something is moving towards this lonely sight from the depths of the night.
In the shadows, a fox delicately brushes leaves and twigs with its cool nose. It continuously scans its surroundings with its eyes from one minute to the next.
As it moves between the trees, the fox leaves clean paw tracks in the snow. Its shadow follows in its wake like a wounded animal. However, the fox's physique travels across woodland clearings with assurance and purpose.
As the fox focuses on what lies ahead, its eye expands and its green hue intensifies and becomes more vivid—
until the fox abruptly enters the speaker's darkened thoughts and its scent becomes immediate and visceral. Stars are still invisible to the speaker via the glass. The poem has been written, but the clock is still running.
Analyses in Bullets
- The poem figuratively compares creative inspiration to a fox that sneaks through the night of the imagination, being enigmatic, restless, and unexpected.
- The poem illustrates through this metaphor how writing involves persistence, focus, instincts, and a little bit of luck.
- Hughes wrote,
‘And I suppose that long after I am gone, as long as a copy of the poem exists, every time anyone reads it the fox will get up somewhere out of the darkness and come walking towards them’.
- Ted Hughes in his work Poetry in the Making writes:
So you see, in some ways my fox is better than an ordinary fox. It will live for ever, it will never suffer from hunger or hounds. I have it with me wherever I go. And I made it. And all through imagining it clearly enough and finding the living words.'
- The poem's murky, unsettling tone is set with the phrase "Something else is alive." It's unclear if the speaker feels apprehensive, terrified, or delighted to come upon this "something."
An Event in Ted Hughes Life
While he was studying English at Cambridge University, he had one of these dreams. He found himself with a lot of essays to write and struggled to finish them during a particularly hectic timetable. He encountered "a figure that was at once a tiny man and a fox walking erect on its hind legs" in a dream. When the burned fox-man approached, he slapped his shoulder with a bloodied paw and said, "Stop this, you're ruining us." Ted Hughes interpreted this as a sign from his subconscious telling him to quit engaging in pointless intellectual discourse because it is killing his creative drive.
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