After all my panda nonsense last night, I turn my attention to “The Jaguar” by Ted Hughes. This is a poem about a zoo also, so I seem to be on a zoo theme. Not that I’ve been to a zoo for a couple of years. I don’t think Ted Hughes would particularly approve, come to think of it…
I plan to do a line-by-liner on this. Here goes:
The apes yawn and adore their fleas in the sun.
The opening image is sunny and relaxed. The apes are sitting about scratching – all they are focused on is their fleas – there is nothing else to do.
The parrots shriek as if they were on fire,or strut
Like cheap tarts to attract the stroller with the nut.
Here we have a pair of similes. The calm of the first line is disrupted by the parrots shrieking, as parrots do – but we are unsettled by the image “as if they are on fire” – just like Katniss or something… – it is as if they are in distress or in danger of being consumed. Their other behaviour is to “strut like cheap tarts” – again they are described as being vulnerable, undervalued – they are cheapening themselves to beckon the members of the public who have come to the zoo to see them. Parrots do strut – but again, it is the poet’s image that it disturbing. He sees the parrots as perhaps prostituting themselves.
Fatigued with indolence, tiger and lion
To be “fatigued with indolence” is paradoxical – the big cats are tired out from too much laziness – they are fed up. This is not a healthy place to be, or a natural state for these powerful animals. The stanza break at this point emphasises the next word: “lie” – as if there is some deception beneath it all:
Lie still as the sun. The boa-constrictor’s coil
Is a fossil.
Here we have another pair of similes – the tiger and the lion are supposedly lying as still as the sun. Perhaps this is supposed to convey a steady oppressive heat that is draining the animals of their energy. Perhaps it is a lie – and this lack of activity is a front (did you see that news story today about the cheetah in South Africa? Maybe it was lying”). Anyway – to what extent is the sun “still”? I am no physicist. Sorry. But from our perspective it appears to move, even although it is really us. Do other things orbit the lion and the tiger? I suppose they do. They lie still and the world rushes by… The next image is also a simile. (Is it also synecdoche?) The snake is being compared to an animal that is extinct. The poet goes beyond the peril of being on fire, or the vulnerability of strutting… it is as if this animal has been dead for countless millennia.
Cage after cage seems empty, or
Stinks of sleepers from the breathing straw.
The pattern established so far is taken on by the poet’s use of repetition here “cage after cage” – with apparent emptiness – where it is uncertain whether or not there is life. Then we have only a bad smell of animals that cannot be seen. It is the straw that has been personified here. The straw is breathing – by (tenuous) implication – the animals are not.
It might be painted on a nursery wall.
We have the idea from this image that the zoo scene is like a picture in a nursery – safe, static, animals. The kind of poster a child would like to point at and identify animals by name – rather than the immediacy and fear of seeing them in real life in the wild.
But who runs like the rest past these arrives
At a cage where the crowd stands, stares, mesmerized,
As a child at a dream,
The pace of the poem changes here with “But” – the poet is taking a different tack here. We have the alliteration of runs, rest and arrives that rolls us along to see this amazing sight. Like the crowd, the second line of this stanza also stalls with the list (alliteration of the ‘s’) “stands”, “stares”, “mesemerized” – So we have a set of three words linked by the letter s -that have a cumulative effect. First you stand, then you stare – then that stare is so engaged with what it sees that you are mesmerised. The reader at this point wants to see too – to by drawn in my the hypnotic sight that Hughes is holding back. There is another simile here – “as a child at a dream” – the safe images on the nursery wall that can be pointed at and rationalised are now in the terrifying realm of the dreamworld. The crowd are like children staring at something totally other, totally detached from their usual reality.
at a jaguar hurrying enraged
The stanza ends with the concise description of the animal – speed and fury! This animal is in stark contrast to the other animals. It is “hurrying” rather than fatigued or indolent – if you are hurring, you have a place to go, a thing to do – there is a sense of urgency and purpose about his behaviour. He is also enraged – he is emotionally engaged – he is full of his own wildness. He is naturally furious.
Through prison darkness after the drills of his eyes
Here we have the powerful word “prison” – which you could argue was a metaphor – or you could argue is literal. It is interesting that the jaguar is going through darkness when it is clearly a very hot and sunny day. Is he coming out of his sleeping quarters? Or is it metaphorically dark for him as he cannot see where he is going?
On a short fierce fuse.
His eyes are described as drills on a short fierce fuse. Here the images are that his eyes are sharp and penetrating – and also that there is something of the imager of a bomb here – that he is furious and there may be some explosion of anger, metaphorically.
Not in boredom—
The eye satisfied to be blind in fire,
By the bang of blood in the brain deaf the ear—
He spins from the bars, but there’s no cage to him
The poet makes the point that this animal is not bored, as the others were. This animal is still wild in itself – “blind in fire” – the animal is unaware of its captivity – it cannot see that is “as if he were on fire” – in that vulnerable, unhealthy state of being held captive. Great alliterative line here as the jaguar charges into the cage side bang/blood/brain – he crashes into the cage as he is still wild – it is as if it is not real to him. (He too is in a dreamlike state of hypnosis – the reality of captivity has not yet become real for him). Again, great image – as the animal “spins” – which would have been dramatic for the onlookers – but even although the animal has crashed headlong into the cage – from the point of view of the jaguar – there is no cage – he is as wild as ever.
More than to the visionary his cell:
Here he is compared to a visionary – someone with wisdom and accurate perception (?). The jaguar is compared to someone who, although he lives in a tiny and simple cell, he understands profound truth. The jaguar -although contained – knows he is wild – and because he is convinced of that, he is, in his own mind, free:
His stride is wildernesses of freedom:
The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.
Over the cage floor the horizons come.
I love how the world rolls under him – just as I was considering whether or not the sun was still – there is the idea as to whether we walk and the earth stays still – for the jaguar, he stays still and the earth moves – as if her were balancing on a ball – which, in a way, he is. He makes the earth turn for himself – he is free. But he is not.
The reader is left with a question as to how long this profound wildness, this profound freedom will stay with the Jaguar, in the hot oppression of the zoo.