Middle of Nowhere Productions

Middle of Nowhere Productions

Ted Hughes: That Morning (From River). Commentary.

Ted HUGHES: "That Morning", from The River.



Ted Hughes, Poet Laureate of England, is famous for the presence of animals in his texts. Some of his best pieces were either inspired by his own experience as an angler (which is the case for this poem), or by the time he spent at his father-in-law's farm, helping him to look after the sheep. One hard-toothed critic even nicknamed him Dead Ewes after a few poems dealing with the birth and death of ewes and lambs. Basically, the poem we are dealing with describes a fishing party in Canada, with scores of salmon heading to their spawning beds and grizzly bears feeding on that manna. Yet, obviously, the poem is not a mere description, and its apparent unintelligibility calls for analysis.

There are two mainstreams in the poem, one which must be used as a starting point because it concerns the symbolic value of the salmon, especially in terms of life/death relationships, and a second one, which is more intrinsic to the writing itself, an experience Hughes himself once dubbed the ritual, and is related to religion and mysticism.


A fair number of items in the poem point at the salmon as what it is in terms of biology. Basically, two species of fish can be considered as potent symbols of life/death relationships: the eel and the salmon. the eel is the morbid one, the salmon the mystic. The eel comes to life in the Sargasso and takes a long trip back to the river to live there; it is a strange fish which feeds on cadavers and that is very hard to kill. The salmon is much more positive, as it lives in the seas and swims back to its native spawning bed to spawn again and die, standing forth subsequently as an ideal embodiment of both life/death and Eros/Thanatos relationships.

Other zones of the poem feed that lexical unity of biological replenishment: the pollen light, in stanza 3, is a fine rendering of the clouds of pollen that some pine trees emit in the wind during their reproduction period; what is more, pollen can also be seen here as the botanical translation of semen, one of the possible near-homophones of salmon. Further, in stanzas 4 and 5, the swarming, teeming abundance of the fish is expressed, in imperishable and That came on, came on, and kept coming.

The first two verses already give a fair image of the salmon's life energy: so many,/so steady, so spaced, so far aimed; but the poem then seems to be capsizing slowly into opacity as Hughes brutally shifts from the biological reality of the salmon's inner map, which refers to their innate capacity to find their birthplace again, to the sooty twilight of South Yorkshire/Hung with the drumming drift of Lancasters.

Yet there are several keys to that enigma. The first one may be surprising, as it is simply the meaning of Lancasters, with a capital L and a plural, which does not refer to the famous ex-royal house of Lancaster, but to bomber planes of WWII. There is a parallelism, in Hughes vision, between the formations of salmon (the word is used in stanza 5, together with the counterpart to swam: As if we we flew slowly) and formations of Lancasters on their way to bomb Berlin, Hamburg or Dresden, which can indeed be visualized as steady, spaced and far-aimed. The first symbolic bearing of that parallelism is of course the destiny of both salmon and planes; very few, if any, came back from their mission. Second, another morphological parallelism: like the salmon, the Lancasters were loaded with something they must drop upon arrival; but there, the fundamental life/death link surfaces in the parodic counterpoint played by eggs and bombs. Third, and foremost, the mystic exploitation of the life/death paradox, which can only be found in sacrifice, and which is embedded in the poem through the repetition of hung (stanzas 2&8), a word that cannot be separated from its connotations of capital punishment, and also of sexual power, because of its two past participles, hanged and hung. The word unites the sacrifice of the salmon, the working sacrifice of the people of England during WWII, what the sooty twilight of South Yorkshire refers to, and the sacrifice of the Canadian pilots, who, like the salmon, came back to their land of origin to offer their lives for a noble cause. What is more, that word hung refers to the sacrifice, which leads us to the second mainstream of the poem, the death of Jesus.


There is already material enough for an ichtyological development in the Christian religion; the first Christians used the symbol of a fish as a way to recognise each other, after a clever linguistic operation which was both an acronym and a play on words, leading from the initials of Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour to the Greek word ichtus, meaning fish. Jesus' first apostle, the very one to whom He said Follow me and I will make you fishers of men (Matt, 9, 18), was Simon Peter, the fisherman, and who can resist naming him Salmon Peter, exploiting another near-homophone? After all, Christ himself performed another play on words on his second name… Obviously, Hughes' own mysticism is here richly fed by his religious background; yet, that mysticism remains his own, an original vision.

We are first invited to a certain solemnity, without having to resort to deciphering, in stanza 3: Solemn to stand here in the pollen light; and this necessity can be understood immediately, in the following verse. We are here for a ritual, and the salmon is here for a ritual, as it is swaying massed/As from the hand of God. The polysemic value of massed is so obvious that the adjunction of swaying (a possible evocation of certain protestant congregations, Quakers or negro spiritual singers, or even, perhaps more plausibly if one refers to another poem by ted Hughes, one about gnats, where he calls them little Hasids, of the way Jews pray) was not necessary to evoke a mass. A mass indeed, as the climax of the effect the salmon has on the narrator of that ritual fishing party is clearly expressed, once again in technical ritual terms, in stanza 5: lifting us towards some dazzle of blessing. What we have here is a communion indeed, an epiphany of experience in which nature mingles with religion, a phenomenon that is very well demonstrated in stanza 8: They hung in the cupped hands of mountains. There, the hand of God of stanza 3 is recuperated to become part of the environment, in a powerful evocation of the Holy Communion, through the image of the cup, a natural chalice.

The originality of Hughes, when he evokes those milestones of mysticism, probably lies in his perception of the materiality of things, which can even be felt as complete recomposing of values. In stanza 4, he clearly expresses a superiority of the body over the once spirit, the body becoming the spirit itself: There the body/Separated, golden and imperishable, /From its doubting thought-a spirit beacon/Lit by the power of the salmon. His communion then can be understood as parodic, bringing back the consumption of a symbolic body to actual devoration, which is performed by the two gold bears of stanzas 9 and 10, who are described as eating pierced salmon, as if the fish itself bore the stigmata of crucifixion. Similarly, it does not only appear as a communion, but as a baptism as well (and dived like children), so that there is also here a mixing of two distinct rituals into one.

Then Jesus said unto them, Yet a little while is the light with you. Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you: for he that walketh in darkness knoweth not whither he goeth. While ye have light, believe in the light, that ye may be the children of light. (John, 12; 35/36). For Ted Hughes, the body must escape from thought to escape darkness; One wrong thought might darken (st.6), and the creatures of light which appear on the scene help him, a man, to be himself a creature of light, which explains the repetition of the phrase in the last verse. The bears, which actually bear in their name the concept of birth, of being born (the female corollary of salmon/semen), are infused with a Godlike quality, standing in deep water as on a throne, in majesty, both gold and God, as golden as the body and as imperishable, bringing the light that allows the poet to know whither he goeth (So we found the end of our journey), and to stay alive in the river of light while the world pass(es) away- (st.7). One can note here the admirable consistency of this text, the missing l of salmon feeding the passage from gold to god. One last look at the scriptures (Luke, 24; 42) confirms the divine status of those bears; according to Luke, when Jesus last appeared to the apostles right after the resurrection, he asked for some food And they gave him a piece of broiled fish, and of an honeycomb…More recently, an American author (Arthur Miller?) concluded that God is Pooh Bear.


The poem has formal qualities, which are yet never striking, as if the linguistic material had had to be simplified and clarified in order to make the progression towards the final blessing more soft than dramatic. No wonder then that the only remarkable alliteration is to be found in stanza 3, and concerns the labelling of the ritual: Waist-deep in wild salmon swaying massed. Yet, there is another characteristic that has to be noted: the enjambements, which tend to emphasise the sustained invocative quality of the text, and that may become a problem of delivery in case of an oral reading; the poem should be treated as a piece of religious chant, with some kind of a physical participation, which could serve the motivation of Hughes, the body. What is certainly remarkable is the composition, which duplicates the baptism of the end of the poem, by which the bears make of the men other creatures of light. In the name of the father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: one, two, three. One-, two- and three-verse stanzas are a very logical composition indeed for such a ritual.

To conclude, there would be a lot to be said about intertextuality, and how texts, even the best-known, can be re-written. What we can draw from such a poem is the remanence of fundamental questions over Life and Death, and the everlasting challenge of managing those two antagonistic, yet inseparable milestones of humanity. What we can also draw from it is the consciousness of the infinite possibilities of literature, which can turn a totally codified, ancient and over-edited piece of writing such as the Scriptures into a brand new vision. If Bible actually means book, then every book is a bible in its own right, and what Ted Hughes demonstrates through his fishing/writing ritual is the fact that every piece of literature is something of a Holy Scripture, and that by reading it, we can all be creatures of light, readers of write.

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