Thoughts on Ted Hughes’ poem November
Ted Hughes’ poem November is about as bleak an evocation of the month of November in England as one can get. Its opening phrase/sentence characterises the month as ‘The month of the drowned dog’ and sets the context and the tone of what is to follow in the poem – a description of all that the speaker sees and experiences as he walks along a familiar country lane on a bleak, cold and wet November day.
Hughes’ descriptions of the landscape, the weather and what he encounters are concrete and vivid. We have no difficulty at all in visualising what is being described. In the simile ‘drawn in/Under his hair like a hedgehog’s’, for example, we are immediately able to conjure up an image of the tramp’s hair because of its comparison to a hedgehog with its characteristic covering of bushy and bristly quills.
Another example: ‘a glittering’ in the line ‘a puff shook a glittering from the bare thorns’ captures the movement, the sparkle and play of light of the drops of water as they fall from the tips of the thorns on which they had been delicately poised ready to be sent into a glitter of drops by a mere ‘puff’ of wind.
Hughes often incorporates a dynamic element into his images, often by way of a modifier, whether it be an adjective used in an unusual way (‘long rain’, ‘fresh comfort’, ‘strong trust’), a past or present participle (‘gulleyed leaves’, ‘mist silvering’, ‘trickling furrows’), or by way of an unusual but apt verb (‘treed with iron’, ‘smudged the farms’, ‘a puff shook a glittering’). Unpacking these images is rewarding because we get to see how the choice of qualifier adds movement and life to the noun. Take the image of the ‘rushing wood’, for instance. Here the present participle ‘rushing’ brings movement into the image of the wood (the movement of the trees being blown around by the wind, on the one hand, and the movement of the speaker running towards the wood in search of shelter, on the other). So, too, sound is brought in. ‘[R]ushing’ suggests the sounds made by the trees as they are blown about in the wind, as well as the sound of rain hammering down on the trees. Furthermore, when Hughes describes ‘a tramp’ sleeping ‘in a let of the ditch’ and later in the poem the animals hanging from the ‘keeper’s gibbet’, it is as if we are there with him, seeing what he is seeing. The images are concrete and immediate, making our reaction to what is happening sharper and more acute.
The poem is written in the first person, so the speaker is both an observer of and a participator in the action. He describes what captures his attention and also decides when to stay (‘I stayed on under the welding cold’) and when to move (‘and I ran’) and where to go (‘the rushing wood’, ‘by a black oak leaned’). In addition, by using first-person narration, Hughes draws the reader into closer association with the world of the poem: the speaker’s ‘I’ to some extent becomes our own ‘I’ too. Think of it in this way, had Hughes opted for third-person narration for the speaker, he would have ensured a greater emotional distance between reader and the concerns of the poem. If you were to substitute “he” for the first-person ‘I’, we’d have “his boots”, “he took”, “he ran” and so on. It is definitely easier for us to keep our distance, emotionally, in that situation than it is with ‘my boots’, ‘I took’, ‘I’ thought’. However, in addition to trying to draw us closer into the world of the poem, there is somewhat of a counter movement going on as well. In this poem, Hughes’ style is objective in the sense that he describes what he sees objectively, that is, he describes things compellingly but without revealing what he feels about the matter: he does not make judgements. Both ‘a tramp bundled asleep’ in a ditch in mid-winter and woodland creatures hung ‘by the neck’ on a keeper’s gibbet are shocking and elicit a strong response from us as readers: empathy and indignation at the very least. Hughes, himself, does not venture an opinion directly in order to influence how we interpret the situation. Not at all. Instead he describes the situation vividly, evokes it so pressingly that it condemns itself. The reader sees for her or himself the horror and cruelty at the heart of both situations. The combination of the first-person narration and an objective style is extremely powerful in the poem because it does not let the reader off the hook: we have to think deeply about these matters and see the barbarism of both.
From the 1500s to about the 1940s, the gamekeepers on large farming estates used to kill on sight creatures they deemed to be “vermin” – ‘owls and hawks/By the neck, weasels, a gang of cats, crows’. They would then hang these creatures from a gibbet (a gallows) especially set up in the woods for all to see. The appalling fact is that these animals were killed in vast numbers because, as the natural predators of the pheasants and ducks, they competed with the interests of the estate owners who liked to shoot them for sport!
To sum up; it is a feature of Hughes’ poetic style here to make little attempt to influence our thinking directly. What he does do is to describe what he sees so vividly that we have to come to our own opinion about the horror and injustice of what it all.
The final quatrain of the poem gives us some help in interpreting the poem and arriving at an understanding of its underlying, deeper meaning.
………Some still had their shape,
Had their pride with it; hung, chins on chests,
Patient to outwait these worst days that beat
Their crowns bare and dripped from their feet.
In the opening quatrain Hughes has given us a wider frame of reference beyond the immediacy of the moment by using a simile where the sodden ground is likened to a ‘bed of an ancient lake/Treed with iron and birdless’. By extending the time frame back to ancient times and forward to some unspecified time in the future ‘[p]atiently outwait the worst days that beat/Their crowns bare and dripped from their feet’, Hughes ensures that we widen our perspective from the immediate situation to a time in the future when keeper’s gibbets will be prohibited and woodland creatures will live out their lives untroubled by gamekeepers and their ways. The animals that the speaker lists in the context of the ‘black oak’ are dead and the rain drilling down on their heads will make their crowns bare, but it is the ones still living and to come that need to ‘patiently outwait the worst days’ to reach a time when their ‘pride’, their integrity is assured and keeper’s gibbets are a thing of the past. Laws prohibiting these practices did eventually come to pass, but not before many species were all but wiped out. The statistics of numbers of animals needlessly killed in this way are horrifying to say the least!
November is a complex poem and there is so much more to it than what I have touched on in this article. As it happens I am working on a study guide which examines some of Ted Hughes’ poetry in detail. Hopefully, it won’t be too long before I complete it. I will keep you posted on how it is progressing should you be interested in going deeper into his poetry and prosody.
For more on Ted Hughes’ poetry, you may be interested in another article I have written entitled “Imagery in ‘Wind’ by Ted Hughes”
I hope you have found this article on Thoughts on Ted Hughes’ poem November helpful. If you have any questions about the material or comments to make, please don’t hesitate to post them in the Comments Box below and I will get back to you as soon as I can.
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