Notes on Ted Hughes’ October Dawn
In this short note on Ted Hughes’ October Dawn, I will focus on just one aspect of the poem: how the triple concentration of colour in the title and opening two couplets acts as a vivid backdrop against which the actions of winter are juxtaposed. This richly coloured and textured autumnal setting is the one into which ‘ice’ is said to ‘ha[ve] got its spearhead into place’ (line 10), ready to bring into being the freeze of winter.
The opening section of the poem goes
October is marigold, and yet
A glass half full of wine left out
To the dark heavens all night, by dawn,
Has dreamed a premonition
The title, October Dawn, carries with it two sets of intense colour:
- ‘October’ carries with it the beautiful rich colours of autumn as the leaves of the trees turn into a myriad shades of rust, russet, ochre and yellow.
- ‘Dawn’, defined as the light before sunrise, is also rich in colour – pinks, yellows, lilacs and oranges in a range of hues.
Together the colours of the dawn sky and autumn make a brilliant show and even before we reach the body of the poem, our minds are adazzle with colour. Hughes doesn’t stop there, however, but further condenses and concentrates these colours by bringing into play the vibrant colours of marigolds in the opening words of the poem, ‘October is marigold’.
- Marigolds are bright yellow, orange and deep red on bushes of dark green, as the following illustration shows:
Colour is heaped upon colour as a final splash. The half glass of wine, the ‘overtrodden and strewn’ grass showing that there has been a party in the garden; that the weather has been fine enough to allow for relaxation and entertaining.
By setting up the world of autumn so vividly and by projecting how the winter is going to come in and change the scene entirely, Hughes sets up a powerful contrast between the fullness of life/nature and the inert and dying world of winter, where ‘a fist of cold ‘squeezes the fire at the core of the world/Squeezes the fire at the core of the heart’, (lines 17 – 19). Winter is severe enough as it is to threaten life and comfort, but an ice age would virtually destroy the inner fire of the world that keeps nature on course, as well as, and the fire of the heart – our passions, desires, endeavours, our very existence, in fact.
Winter is shown to make its appearance subtly at first (as delicately as ‘restraining a ripple from the air’ (line 12), but soon subtly gives way to such severity that, Hughes suggests, this winter could well turn out to be a new ice age where causalities of the last ice age ‘Mammoth and Sabre-tooth’ could find themselves on the move again as glacial rivers move them where they have been buried to ‘celebrate/Reunion’ (lines 15 & 16).
I hope you find these few observations in Notes on Ted Hughes’ October Dawn a good starting point for you when you do a more detailed analysis of the poem. In addition to the concentration of colour and use of contrast, be on the look out for how he creates cadences and echoes in the poem – all of which serve to add texture and bring about cohesion.