Ted Hughes’ ‘The Jaguar’ Essay

Hughes’ poem portrays various zoo animals. However, as the title suggests, his focus is upon the jaguar, from which he distinguishes the other animals using a few literary devices.

In the opening verse, the mood of faineance has an almost narcotic effect on the reader, created by the presence of punctuation and reinforced by the poet’s use of words such as ‘yawn’, ‘Fatigues’, and ‘indolence’. The parrots’ shrieking “as if they were on fire” might perhaps stand out as a contrast to the relative dull and somnolence of the atmosphere if it were not for the fact that the entire verse is interrupted here and there by punctuation marks, which indicate pauses and which slow down the pace of the poem, thereby establishing the mood of boredom and sleepiness. The shrill noises made might not even be loud enough to be deafening or distracting, in which case the image conjured up in our minds would be one of the animals being lulled to slumber by the stillness and placidity of the zoo atmosphere, punctuated only occasionally by the squawks of the parrots.

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This lack of physical movement is further evidenced in the next stanza, where Hughes uses metaphorical language, calling the coils of the boa constrictor a ‘fossil’. Here it is almost as if he is implying that the animals lie so still all the time they seem to have died already. Apart from the idea of indolence and sleep-inducing inertia, there is a sense of eternal exhaustion bordering slightly on decrepitude. Hughes writes that each cage ‘seems empty, or Stinks of sleepers from the breathing straw’, which suggests the degree of uncleanliness of the cages; either they are laden with the excrement of the animals they incarcerate or the carcasses of the animals themselves. If the animals are not well taken care of, if they are breathing in their own waste, a possible reason for their apparent lack of vigour could be that their health is suffering or that they are feeling weak with illness.

In the subsequent stanzas, in sharp contrast to the other animals, the poet begins to write about the jaguar that is the subject of his poem. The crowd “stands, stares, mesmerized”, observing the jaguar, apparently the centre of interest and attention in the zoo. As the lines are longer and disrupted by fewer punctuation marks, the hypnotic quality established earlier on in the poem is diluted and the pace is suddenly increased.

In the third stanza, the first line–“But who runs like the rest past these arrives At a cage where the crowd stands”–runs on to the second line, in which there is also the assonant phrase “stands, stares, mesmerised”. The poet’s repetition of similar vowel sounds in successive words, coupled with the accompanying commas, seems to enhance the sense of awe and majesty about the jaguar, something that is not observed in the other animals. In the fourth line–“Through prison darkness after the drills of his eyes”–the poet hints at the big cat’s amazing visual acuity, its ability to see in the dark. Again, this super-sensory prowess is not evident in the other animals mentioned earlier.

Another example of a run-on line can be found in the third line of the third verse. That line runs on to the next stanza, ending with three monosyllabic words–“short fierce fuse”–which are nearly emphatic in nature. This phrase is perhaps indicative of the jaguar’s temperament, that it is irascible and ireful. Also, in the previous verse, it is described as “hurrying enraged”. Aside from anger, the poet also attributes contentment to the animal, as seen in the phrase ‘satisfied to be blind in fire, as well as freedom, stating “that there’s no cage to him”. He also uses imagery, apparently to convey the effect of its roar, in the third verse–“By the bang of blood in the brain deaf the ear”. The poet is perhaps trying to say that the roar of the jaguar alone is intimidating enough to curdle our blood and loud enough to shatter our eardrums. This is highly contrasting to the rest of the animals, which either make soft, insignificant sounds or no noise at all.

In the final verse, the poet uses the metaphor ‘His stride is wildernesses of freedom’, as if to say that the jaguar embodies freedom itself, in spite of the fact that, like the other animals, it is confined by bars. Hughes also makes the animal seem very powerful in “The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel”, which is true to some extent since a big cat like a jaguar is capable of wounding a creature larger than itself.

Summarily Hughes uses imagery, enjambment, and assonance to distinguish the jaguar from the other animals. The jaguar is interesting to look at, due to its ability to attract a crowd, and able to feel human emotions like fury and satisfaction, unlike the rest of the animals which only experience boredom and soporific sensations. This is further supported by the fact that the poet refers to the animal as “him”, instead of “it”. It is an august image in comparison to the sleeping animals and has a sense of vigour about it that is missing in the other inhabitants of the zoo. Furthermore, it is capable of evoking our feelings; its roar inspires our fear. Again, this is something not observed in the other animals, which appear impervious to any sensation except that of sleepiness and which seem incapable of eliciting feelings and responses from their observers. While the jaguar is very much alive, the other animals are almost dead.

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