Wilderness of Freedom behind Bars. The Dichotomy of Civilization and Animality in Ted Hughes' Poem "The Jaguar"

Essay, 2017
14 Pages, Grade: 1,0




I "breathing straw" ... civilisational lethargy

II "short fierce fuse" ... animality

III "wilderness of freedom" ... the dichotomy of civilization and animality


The Jaguar



... behind windows, façades, and hush

there's something's constant,

terrifying rush ...

... while his fellow animals appear to have accepted their imprisoned reality in a zoo as being comfortable and safe, a jaguar rushes through his cage with restlessness and rage. It is not his restlessness and rage alone that mesmerize the human spectators who gather with awe in front of his cell. Rather it is the amazing contrast to the other animals' behaviour that makes them turn towards the jaguars' cage in a state of fascination. Something is bodily captured that is spiritually free.

The difference between vitality and lethargy cannot be shown more drastically than in Ted Hughes' "The Jaguar", the second poem of his first anthologyThe Hawk in the Rain(1957). Indeed, Hughes was obsessed with the struggle between these two concepts, which he equated with life and death (see Brown/Paterson 122). Both vitality and lethargy manifest themselves, at the extreme, in the fundamentally different reactions of the animals to their confinement. Deeply connected with this contrast is Hughes' criticism of modern western civilization, which he poetically formulates in his poem: by his sympathising with the enraged jaguar, he turns strictly against the apathetic cosiness of modern civilizations (see Drangsholt 87), the most blatant failure of which he identifies in the loss of humans' animality. This animality, the magical closeness and return to the instincts and the primordial, inherent strength in human beings, is not only respected, but passionately emphasized by Hughes as a prerequisite for any vital humane existence. Modern societies that live in disregard for their animality and replace it completely with science and rationality (see Drangsholt 88) lose their inner vital power and must eventually expire into lethal stagnation. That is why Ted Hughes depicts civilization and animality as diametrically excluding each other.

The following analysis aims at elucidating the thesis of a metaphorical allusion to the dichotomy of civilization and animality in "The Jaguar". Therefore, it is indispensable to point out at first which images Ted Hughes creates to depict the relation between civilization and lethargy. In a second step, his imagination of what animality actually is has to be presented, before it must be portrayed finally to what extent, according to Hughes, the oppositeness of modern civilization and animality manifests itself and whether or not it may be resolved.

I "breathing straw" ... civilisational lethargy

Like a great many modernist writers, Ted Hughes uses the portrayal of animals "as a strategy of indirection in poetry that responds to social and moral crises" (Essert 293). The crisis to which he alludes is the lethargy of modern western civilizations, which must eventually result in their spiritual stagnation and downfall. As will be shown below, this lethargy is depicted both in the metaphorical image of a zoo and in the reactions of the majority of the animal inhabitants to their lives in captivity.

According to the British rhetorician Ivor Armstrong Richards, a metaphor is based on the interaction of three elements: thetenoras the actual issue, thevehicleas the object whose characteristics are taken to describe the tenor, and thegroundas the sum of all common attributes which are shared by both tenor and vehicle (see 118). In Ted Hughes' poem "The Jaguar"[1], it is the zoo that functions as the vehicle and provides characteristics which are akin to modern western civilizations and their lethargy. Therefore, by analysing the attributes of the zoo-reality as depicted by Hughes, one can show in what manner the poet expresses his disdain for the so-called "civilized" societies. Hughes does not bother at all to clearly name potentially positive aspects of a zoo life (such as safety, protection, or provision of food). By the way he describes the behaviour pattern of almost all animals in response to their being caged, he merely reveals instead his overt disregard for such an animal prison. Words like "yawn" (1), "fatigued" (4), "indolence" (4), "lie" (5), "still" (5), "fossil" (6), "empty" (6), "sleepers" (7), "breathing straw" (7), and the participle "painted" (8) characterize the life in a zoo as dull, monotonous, and devoid of any vitality. The animals' reaction to such a motionless life in confinement betrays their preferred manner of coping with their predicament.

The apes devote themselves completely to a life in boredom and apathy. Their lack of activity and excitement is stylistically symbolized by the inactivity and bleakness of the sentence itself that describes their fate (1). Sentence length and line length correspond to each other and thus reveal the monotonous dullness of the apes' situation. They simply "yawn" (1) and are concentrated on adoring "their fleas in the sun" (1). Since playing with fleas has to be considered unspectacular in an ape's natural environment, the explicit mention of this activity in conjunction with the exaggerated usage of the word "adore" (1) suggests that the apes regard this banal pastime as a pleasant distraction from their uneventful everyday routine in the zoo. In a world of safety and being fed by others any small trifle becomes the centre of excessive interest and amusement. Tiger and lion, actually impressive predators, spend their time being fatigued and indolent (4-5). They do not move at all. Neither does the constrictor, another beast of prey, the motionlessness of which is illustrated as well by syntactic passivity: As the sentence coils unexcitedly in form of an enjambment from Line 5 to 6 (see Dienhart 250), where it just remains lying like dead, the boa with its "coil" (5) remains lying too, motionlessly like a "fossil" (6). All cages in the zoo seem empty because of the inactivity in there (6). The lethargy is shown very expressively by the image of "sleepers" (7) who have turned into nothing more than "breathing straw" (7). The only mentionable movement comes from the parrots. But their activities appear distorted, dysfunctional: their exaggerated shrieking as if "on fire" (2) seems to refer rather to a behavioural disorder than naturalness. Their strut like "cheap tarts" (3) is not natural either, but more like a willingly adopted strategy only aiming at attracting zoo-visitors and getting petty treats from them.

Even though it might as well be considered idyllic by the visitors, the zoological scenery created within the first two stanzas is enormously gloomy. By their imprisonment in the zoo, wild creatures are reduced and frozen to a still-life that better goes with the harmless and peaceful decoration on an innocent and motionless "nursery wall" (8). As indicated by the word "sun", not randomly mentioned twice (1 and 5), their lives are warmly carefree and safely sunny, but also repetitive, lazy and hopeless. There seems to be nothing confined behind the bars except for the straw from which the animals have become inseparable (7). The visitors are hardly able to notice whether or not the cages are occupied at all. No vitality is in there, so that they appear to be devoid of life. Emptiness is everywhere. Existential troubles - the fundamental basis for the willingness to move - are as far away as particular excitement, passion or meaning. The fight for existence does not have to (and must not) be fought in the zoo, where security is provided and bodily needs are met. Life is nothing more than constant repetition, monotony, and lethargy.

The metaphorical allusion to western civilizations and the inward experience of modern lives comes to mind: the animals, probably having been held in captivity for their whole life and "being spiritually hollowed and lacking religious belief" (Yudi 96), embody modern man's facing a senseless existence in a meaningless world of increasing rationality and science. Following the French philosopher Georges Bataille - whose thoughts about civilization and animality are utterly helpful to shed light on Hughes conception of the two -, the term "civilization" should be regarded as a "'cultural logic of prohibition and limit' that reduces 'nature' to an 'order of things'" (Marsden 37). Taking this into account, the animal life in the zoo is ruled by clear and artificial limits (the most obvious manifestations of which are the cages and the bars) and unequivocal prohibitions (i.e. to leave the cages) that reduce formerly wild and dangerous creatures to apathetic recipients of a social welfare system: by providing them with nutrition as well as protection from each other, the zoo takes away from the animals their inward eagerness and capability to survive by themselves and deprives of them their natural vitality. No animal must kill, and no animal must be (afraid of being) killed. The imprisonment is therefore a perfect one since all life depends on its continued existence, and all escape from it would mean to be pushed back into the fierce fight for an existence that might as well (and even more easily) be guaranteed by the very same imprisonment. The price for that civilized (i.e. neatly ordered and safely categorized) life is the animals' increasing alienation from their own animality. They do not live according to their nature or their capacities. They live in accordance with limits and prohibitions that have not been made by them. They live without movement. They would not be capable of surviving behind their bars and therefore are doomed to idleness and gradual death.

That is what civilisational lethargy, according to Hughes, is meant to be: the loss of inner vitality as a result of an order of things that is maintained by limits and prohibitions in favour of safety, predictability, and convenience.

II "short fierce fuse" ... animality

"But" (3) is the expression that out of a sudden marks the ferocious transition from the dull banality of the inhabitants' lives at the zoo to the concept of animality, the key factor in Ted Hughes' poem. By contrasting the jaguar's behaviour with the other animals' resigning themselves apathetically to their imprisoned existence, he starts his introduction of animality by giving initially an impressive negative definition of it: animality is what the other animals appear to lack themselves.

"Not in boredom" (13) and singled out from "these" (9) other zoo residents, which are nothing more than a disdainfully named group of insignificant objects, Ted Hughes has his jaguar race through his prison in a terrifying fit of anger. By an electrifying outburst of furious enjambments, images are created that revolt to the extreme against the idle motionlessness and indolent comfort demonstrated in the first two stanzas. Sentence lengths and the eruptions of the message form a unit: the sentence's running from line 9 ("But who runs ...") across every following sequence into line 13 of the forth stanza ("... fuse.") coincides not merely with the crowd's running from the previous cages to the feline predator's, but particularly with the jaguar's "hurrying enraged through prison darkness" (11-12). This anger culminates in the jaguar's spinning "from the bars" (16) and is intensified by an additional infuriated sentence that spins from the first line of stanza four into the third line of stanza five. "'There's no cage' for this sentence" (Dienhart 250). Apart from the syntactical irascibility, the language itself seems to be celebrating the jaguar's wrath as the most vigorous form of vitality. While the angrily generated grammatical confusion of the sentence's elements (15) has the power to make the reader "deaf" (15) at first for the actual message, the phonologically symbolic alliteration of "by", "bang", "blood" and "brain" (15) reinforces the effect of a deaf dizziness after having jumped against and bounced off the bars (16). Additional expressions such as "stride" (18), "rolls" (19), "thrust" (19), and "come" (20) also highlight the constant motion in the last three stanzas, which eventually leads towards the shattering of the rhyme scheme.[2]Whereas the first four stanzas are rhymed according to the patternabba,the rhyme scheme in the last stanza switches toababand sets free theb's formerly encaged by thea's (see Dienhart 251). A more effective symbolization of the jaguar's "wilderness of freedom" (18) cannot be achieved.

The blatant dichotomy of the lethargy in the first two stanzas and the vitality in the remaining three illustrates impressively what Ted Hughes must have regarded as animality. In accordance with this, animality must be understood as wild nature's vivid refusal to be confined (by humans), physically or mentally, and is therefore the very opposite of civilisational lethargy (defined as lack of vitality as an outcome of the submission to limits and prohibitions that have been established for the sake of a safe, predictable, and convenient order of things). In this way, returning to Georges Bataille, animality is an "unknowable inherence or 'continuity' that resists categorization" (Marsden 38) and "constantly evades conceptual determination" (Marsden 40). Consequentially, animality resists any order of things brought by modern civilizations' progressive thinking.

This animalistic resistance is felt by the "crowd" (10) of spectators who "stands, stares, mesmerized" (10), and cannot do otherwise than be passively fascinated and hypnotized by the jaguar's restless rage. Their motionlessness, an obvious and dramatic reference to the other animals' lethargy, puts them into harsh contrast to the jaguar: whereas they have just run "like the rest past these" (9) empty cages, it is now the jaguar who runs enraged past the spectators' now being encaged themselves, encaged in fear and awe. This contact with animality captures the observer and wrenches them into something long lost. Yet this return "is not a return to the bosom of a benevolent nature; it is the re-intensification of anguish, dread, and utter loss" (Marsden 2004: 44). The slender members of a lethargic civilization are brutally confronted with a distressing and intimidating nature that only bars can prevent from attacking ferociously whatever may be behind.


[1]The lines of the poem are numbered for the sake of a convenient traceability (see page 11).

[2]The pairs do not necessarily form a rhyme (e.g. "sun"/"lion", "coil"/"wall", or "arrives"/"eyes"). If that is to say that Hughes was not interested in form, a formal analysis of the poem in relation to the content would be pointless. However, John Dienhart, who refers to Ted Hughes' explicit keenness on formal conception, (see 250), suggests that the irregular rhymes either augment the image of a zoo "with its variety of disharmonious sounds" (251) or relate to the jaguar's state concerning his ears and eyes.

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Wilderness of Freedom behind Bars. The Dichotomy of Civilization and Animality in Ted Hughes' Poem "The Jaguar"
Free University of Berlin
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Ted Hughes, Hughes, Animal, Animality, violence, vitality, lethargy, civilization, jaguar, zoo, bataille, georges bataille, richardson, order of things, apathy, poem, hawk in the rain, poet, cage, confinement, thesis, metaphor
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Magister Artium Dominik Jesse (Author), 2017, Wilderness of Freedom behind Bars. The Dichotomy of Civilization and Animality in Ted Hughes' Poem "The Jaguar", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/366046


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