Envisage the Yin and Yang emblem. The idea behind it is that there is no such thing as purity. You can’t have pure evil – there is an element in all things of some good, however small. Similarly, you can’t have pure goodness – there is an element in all things good that is itself bad. We see the idea in great poems like Chinua Achebe’s “Vultures” and in our day to day actions as member of a fickle and capricious human race.
This is the idea of Pike. It is attempting to demystify; debunk a stereotype. It’s kind of like a love poem to what many consider a hideous animal – such is Hughes’s awe and veneration of the creature. Hughes more than anything else is trying to make us realise the beauty of the pike, its power, its wonder, its awesomeness and its importance, to both him and us.
Don’t get put off by its size – if you break down Hughes’ Pike into logical sections, then this poem will make perfect sense. The basic shape is an exploration of identity in stanzas 1-4; personal experience in 5-7; and in stanzas 8-11, a shift in and reassertion of the pike’s power.
The primary idea behind Pike is pike: the beauty of pike, the malevolence of pike, and Hughes essentially tries to communicate how in one simple, often overlooked animal exist two profundities of existence, the good and the bad.
There is beauty in how it moves, how it lives, how it is made – beauty in its power and sense of threat. The first 4 stanzas basically give us this paradox and underpinning this is Hughes’ sense of awe and disbelief. The tone is quiet, appreciative, impersonal – as if a connoisseur appreciating and marvelling over the contradictions of such an animal.
Stanzas 5-6 shift and give a personal account of Hughes trying to keep them as pets, to no avail, and linking his experience to the gruesome aggressiveness he seems to have witnessed in the wild in stanzas 6-7. These animals are fearsome, programmed to be killers, and intolerant even of each other. Though the images are more grim and violent, there is no sense of judgement – at worst its detached and neutral; at best, even within its informative tone, there is a sense of admiration: for its power, for its solitariness; for its authenticity to itself.
Stanzas 8-11 suddenly expand outwards, and return us to a personal experience – Hughes fishing in an ancient pond, fishing for pike that he imagines to be as ancient as the monks that created it, as ancient as the idea of England itself. And as he fishes for the pike, we get a sense of reversal – the poet, who spoke so convincingly of his expertise, experience and veneration for the animal for so much of this poem, may have narratorial power (after all, it is he who controls the poem – the pike is the object of Hughes’ gaze), but in reality, he possesses none – he is nothing more than potential prey for the violent fish. The final stanzas see a defined emotional shift to one founded upon a sense of uncertainty, of vulnerability – how he is decidedly a target for the predator. However, you get the sense that Hughes wouldn’t judge or even begrudge the pike this – it is merely doing what it is meant to do, and, Hughes would argue, that is just as it should be.