Ted Hughes, “Wodwo”

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What am I? Nosing here, turning leaves over
Following a faint stain on the air to the river’s edge
I enter water. Who am I to split
The glassy grain of water looking upward I see the bed
Of the river above me upside down very clear
What am I doing here in mid-air? Why do I find
this frog so interesting as I inspect its most secret
interior and make it my own? Do these weeds
know me and name me to each other have they
seen me before do I fit in their world? I seem
separate from the ground and not rooted but dropped
out of nothing casually I’ve no threads
fastening me to anything I can go anywhere
I seem to have been given the freedom
of this place what am I then? And picking
bits of bark off this rotten stump gives me
no pleasure and it’s no use so why do I do it
me and doing that have coincided very queerly
But what shall I be called am I the first
have I an owner what shape am I what
shape am I am I huge if I go
to the end on this way past these trees and past these trees
till I get tired that’s touching one wall of me
for the moment if I sit still how everything
stops to watch me I suppose I am the exact centre
but there’s all this what is it roots
roots roots roots and here’s the water
again very queer but I’ll go on looking

* * *

For whatever reason this poem is the most visited on my blog. Which is pretty cool, because this is one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets. So I feel I should write some more on this poem, update it and move it up out of the depths of my blog.

In Britain, Hughes is a modern poetic juggernaut, casting a long shadow over the half-century of poetry from the 50’s until the late 90’s, rivaled only by the likes of Phillip Larkin or T.S. Eliot. Yet he is virtually unknown in America except by other poets – he is perhaps more known as Sylvia Plath’s husband, as their wild and erratic story is told and retold. In an era that saw poetry virtually dissolve into formlessness, Hughes kept his poetry squarely in a Modernist/traditional context (sounds paradoxical I know, but it does make sense if you read his poems) anchored in metaphysics, mysticism, and ancient British mythology. “Wodwo,” and the entire collection of the same name of which the above poem is a part, forms the heart of that aesthetic.

In the mythology of the British Isles and Europe, the wodwo is a “wild man,” a missing link of sorts between forest creatures – such as elves and nymphs – and modern man. Close analogies would be Puck (for those who remember their Midsummer Night’s Dream) or perhaps Pan. (In the Old English word wodwo you can see wod – add another o and you have wood – wood-man.) The wild man is a deep, ancient, and vital myth in Europe and across the world – the wiki gathers up a number of cultural references for comparison – and scholars see his existence in myth as a necessary connection to humanity’s primal, savage force. The wild man’s opposite (or “companion,” perhaps) is “the goddess,” who represents humanity’s natural and spiritual half. Together these are the yin and yang – masculine and feminine – sides of the human consciousness.* To lose the fundamental link with the wild man, according to those who study the nature of myth and their connection to the human psyche, is to lose a part of one’s essential humanity.** The same would be said of losing one’s connection to the goddess. For men especially, to lose the wodwo link is to be emasculated. This theory is espoused in Robert Bly’s Iron John. In that book, Bly explores the modern male’s disjointed existence and his lack of place in the world in the context of the story of Iron John, a wild man held captive by a king.

Whew, right? Myths, consciousness, wild men – all this brings us to Ted Hughes’ poem. Here we’ve left the world of mythology and metaphysical theory – Hughes has taken us direct into the mind of the wild man himself as he snuffles around the side of a creek. It’s unclear how we have arrived here – in fact the wodwo is unclear about his own existence and the purpose of it – he is an instinctual and curious being. “What am I?” he asks himself at the beginning of the poem, and as the verse progresses he revises his definition of himself. What am I? What is my name? What does the forest call me? To whom do I belong? The wodwo is “touching one wall of me” – he is in a constant state of exploration, of definition, of understanding. He finds that he is of the world but not anchored to it:

I’ve no threads
fastening me to anything I can go anywhere
I seem to have been given the freedom
of this place what am I then?

How does a person who can go anywhere and do anything – someone who has complete free will – define him/herself? Without context, or even a mode of reflection, how does one not only justify one’s existence, but verify one’s existence in the first place? This is what the wodwo asks himself, constantly. This wodwo is us. Or one half of us, to be specific. In Hughes’ view, this sense of exploration and curiosity, this ceaseless searching, this “touching one wall of me” – constitutes an essential fact of human nature. The searching for consciousness defines the nature of consciousness itself. Don’t you love being a paradox? He wants us to know – the wodwo is inside all of us.

*Check out Robert Bly’s Iron John and Robert Graves’ The White Goddess.
**Jung, especially. Joseph Campbell as well.

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  • “Wudwo” is poem which deals with the human curiosity to know about its own existence. What is the purpose of man’s creation and has he given the freedom? The poem uses the metaphor of Wudwo to make a contrast between man and bird. It is also analysis that the world is very ruthless but a person should make a effort to be an anthropist in the world, as in the poem;” the water is again very queer but i will go on looking.”

  • I belong to Bristol Old Vic Young Company and we are basing a show on this very poem! I have never read a more imaginative poem than Wodwo. It is definitely for those who dare to dream.

  • Maybe this is a way to late comment, but for those who might been reading this or have expresed in previous comments that they like this poem, I will say that I arrived here thanks to a beautiful and melancholic song in which this poem is read (at least a small part of it). I thought at the begining that it was a monologe of a film or something like that. I did not knew the author or the poem since he is not very famous here in Spain and not very easy to read if you are foreign.
    The song I would like to share is called “Day in, day out” by Neroche:

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