“The Thought Fox” and “Digging” are both poems which explore their respective authors’ attitudes towards writing poetry. They both employ extended metaphors to this end, but their views differ greatly. Digging is by Seamus Heaney, and portrays poetry writing as a mundane yet skilful activity. At the beginning of the poem, Heaney uses the simile “as snug as a gun” to describe his pen. This image suggests that Heaney views the pen as something powerful, which, whilst strong, requires someone to trigger it. Guns also require ammunition, which is supplied by the user. In this analogy, the ammunition is Heaney’s ideas, which he ‘fires’ at the paper using the pen. The fact that it is “snug” suggests that Heaney is not writing with it, which implies that he cannot think of anything to write.
The Thought Fox, by Ted Hughes, begins in a somewhat similar vein. Hughes, like Heaney, mentions his stationery when he says “this blank page where my fingers move”. This implies that Hughes is also stuck for ideas, but whilst Heaney is trying to actively think of something to write about, Hughes seems to be simply waiting for an idea to come to him. The first line, “I imagine this midnight moment’s forest”, presents to the reader an image of a forest at night, dark and quiet. In a dark forest, whilst you may not be able to see any sign of life, it is likely that if you wait long enough, something will stir, just as Hughes, when he says “something else is alive”, seems to know that whilst he cannot see any ideas, they will come to him eventually, from the forest that is his subconscious.
This idea that inspiration comes from somewhere beyond the conscious control of the poet echoes that of the Ancient Greeks who prayed to the muses – goddesses who bestowed inspiration upon those who excelled in the arts and sciences. In this sense, I feel that Hughes has rather an arrogant attitude towards writing poetry, implying that he has been especially picked to receive ideas and inspiration from some celestial being.
Thus a major difference between these poems is that whilst Heaney sees his pen as the vessel for the ideas which he thinks of, Hughes sees himself as the vessel for ideas given to him. In the second stanzas of the poems, they become more dissimilar, although they still retain some similarities. Hughes gets drawn closer into his subconscious, creating an aura of mystery and exciting the reader’s curiosity. The second and third lines – “Something more near Though deeper within the darkness” – emphasise this. The word “something” leaves the reader guessing as to what could be out there, and the idea that it is “more near” and yet “deeper within the darkness” seems oxymoronic, which confuses the reader and mirrors Hughes’ own feelings of disorientation within this subconscious world that is beyond his control. It also reflects the process of ideas occurring to a poet; he senses something is close (i.e. in his subconscious), though he cannot yet fully form it.
Heaney, on the contrary, gets distracted from his work. He hears the “clean rasping sound” of his father digging, and takes a look out of the window. The fact that the noise comes from “under [his] window” and he has to “look down” implies that he thinks of his father as somewhat inferior to himself. When Heaney notices “My father, digging.”, the full stop at the end of the diminutive sentence add a somewhat disdainful edge to the stanza, bolstering the reader’s impression that Heaney holds his father in slight contempt. Despite the contrast between the poets’ views on how active the creative process is, this nevertheless likens him considerably to Hughes, who, as we have seen, also exhibits a certain arrogance.
Both poets use the second stanzas as a means of drawing the poem away, out of the real world of the first stanza, and into the third stanza, which to Hughes is his subconscious, and which to Heaney is his memory. They also both mention windows in the second stanzas, and it is as if for both, these are windows from the real world into the imagination and memory.