‘Football at Slack’ by Ted Hughes is an image-rich poem that talks about a few men who were playing football on a hill. The football in the first section is their source of merriment. However, in the next section, they start to enjoy the rhythm of rain forgetting about the football itself. Apart from that, the poet captures the momentary beauty of nature in this poem. The images of the clouds thronging the sky, the sudden starting of rain, and at last, the sun peeping through the clouds, are what makes the poem an interesting one to read and imagine about.
‘Football at Slack’ by Ted Hughes presents a beautiful image of a hill and a few men playing football there. In the poem, during the match suddenly the football went down the hill and got stuck on a tree. Those men gathered there and shouted at the ball. But it rolled down in the valley. During this moment, clouds covered the sky and it started raining. The splash of rain made them forget about the ball. Therefore, they started to enjoy the moment. At the end of the poem, the rain stopped and the sun appeared in the sky again like a “golden holocaust”.
You can read the full poem here.
‘Football at Slack’ by Ted Hughes consists of eight stanzas. Some stanzas of the poem are short and some are comparably long. However, the poet doesn’t use a fixed rhyme scheme in the poem. The overall poem is in free verse. However, there are some instances of rhyming found in a few sections of the poem. As an example, in the second and third stanzas, the poet repeats the words “it” and “wind” for creating an internal rhyming. There is a slant rhyme in the last two lines of the fourth stanza. Here, “glooms” closely rhymes with “press”.
Moreover, there isn’t any regularity in the line lengths of the poem. Like the stanzas, some lines of the poem are comparably long. Whereas some lines are contracted for the sake of emphasizing the images or ideas present in those lines. However, the poet uses a mixed metrical scheme in the poem. In the first section, the use of the trochaic meter resembles the slope of the hill on which the kids were playing. In some cases, the poet uses the spondee and the anapestic meter too.
‘Football at Slack’ by Ted Hughes contains several literary devices. The poet uses several metaphors, alliterations, metonymy, and repetitions in the poem. Likewise, in the first line of the poem “plunging valleys” and “bareback of hill” are metaphors. There is an alliteration in the third line of the stanza. Here, “blown ball bounced” contains a repetition of the “b” sound in succession. Moreover, there is a personification in the line, “The blown ball jumped”. In the second line of the second stanza, the poet uses a simile. Here, the poet compares the energy of those men to a spout of water.
Moreover, in the phrase, “rubbery men” there is a synecdoche. Here, the poet refers to the flexibility of rubber and associates this idea with that of those men. There is a consonance in the “blown ball blew back”. However, there are several important metaphors in the poem. The phrases “fiery holes”, “mad oils”, “steel press”, and “humped world”. The poet also uses personal metaphors in “mad oils” and “humped world” too. Apart from that, there is hyperbole in the line, “And the valleys blued unthinkable”. In the last two lines, there is hyperbaton, metaphor, and irony in the phrase “a golden holocaust”. Here, the sun’s appearance in the sky seemed to the poet as a holocaust of those men’s happiness.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
Between plunging valleys, on a bareback of hill
Men in bunting colours
Bounced, and their blown ball bounced.
‘Football at Slack’ by Ted Hughes there is a description of a football that was going on a “bareback of hill”. The poet metaphorically describes the slope of the hill by comparing it to the back of a man. In this word, the repetition of the “b” sound is significant. The poet uses this sound throughout the poem and abundantly in the first stanza. However, in “plunging valleys” the poet associates two distinct images. One is of a waterfall that drains the water in a “plunge pool”. Another image is of the hill itself that resembles the structure of a waterfall.
Thereafter, the poet refers to the men dressed in bunting or bright color jerseys. It is also a reference to their child-like spirit and spontaneity. Apart from that, the poet refers to their flexibility and energy in the last line. The use of the verb “bounce” in this line, refers to how passionate those men were about the football match.
The blown ball jumped, and the merry-coloured men
The ball blew away downwind –
‘Football at Slack’ by Ted Hughes presents two images. In the first image, the men were jumping to head the ball. In the following image, the ball went downhill for the sudden gush of air. Here, the poet refers to those men being “merry-coloured”. It refers to their actual state of mind during the match. They were all happy. Thereafter, the poet compares their sudden rush to head the ball to the spout of water metaphorically.
The rubbery men bounced after it.
Then they all shouted together, and the blown ball blew back.
In the third stanza of ‘Football at Slack’, Ted Hughes the poet refers to the men running after the ball as rubbery creatures. It seems that the football injected elasticity into those men. However, the ball got stuck in a “gulf of treetops”. After seeing what had happened naturally they became agitated and shouted at the ball together. But, without giving an ear to their frustrations rolled down to the valley. The description present here seems like those men had forgotten about their age and enjoying being kids again after a long time.
Winds from fiery holes in heaven
Then the rain lowered a steel press.
In the fourth stanza of ‘Football at Slack’, Hughes quickly paints a new picture in the poem. While those men were busy shouting at the ball, suddenly winds started to blow and clouds like stones gathered in the sky. The mood of the poem in this section reflects the men’s state of mind after losing the ball.
However, the poet uses personification in the third line. Apart from that, “mad oils” in this line contain a personal metaphor as well as a metonymy. The reference is made to the color of “oil” for illustrating the scene. Moreover, in the last line, the heavy rainfall is compared to “a steel press”. It seems like the rainfall was putting pressure on those men.
Hair plastered, they all just trod water
Coming fine and thin, washed and happy
In this section of ‘Football at Slack’, the poet captures how those men forgot about the ball and started to enjoy the rainfall. Here, it seems that they were no longer mature men. They were kids, behaving, and playing just like little children. They were “washed and happy”. However, the images referred to by “plastered” hair and “puddle glitter” are interesting enough.
While the humped world sank foundering
Under the depth of Atlantic depression –
In the sixth stanza, Ted Hughes refers to the cause of this sudden rainfall and presents a rain-drenched picture of the landscape. The hill appeared to the poet as a “humped world”. The valleys turned blue for the clogged water. At last, the poet refers to the “Atlantic depression” which was the cause of the precipitation.
But the wingers leapt, they bicycled in air
And the goalie flew horizontal
In this section, the poet refers to their activity during that time. Here, the poet uses hyperbolic expressions to present their level of excitement. After losing the ball, the match wasn’t over. They still kept their playful spirit alive and enjoyed the rain just like kids. Some of them started cycling and the goalie ran horizontally across the place.
And once again a golden holocaust
Lifted the cloud’s edge, to watch them.
In the last stanza of ‘Football at Slack’, Ted Hughes ironically refers to the sun’s sudden appearance. The poet refers to the sun as a “golden holocaust”. Here, the poet implies that as the rain stopped and the sun started to appear in the sky, those men again returned to reality. The child inside each person again faded away. The poet holds the sun responsible for it. That’s why he uses “holocaust” as a reference to the sun’s cruelty. In the last line, the poet uses personification for investing in the sun with the idea of lifting the cloud’s edge and watching those men.
‘Football at Slack’ by Ted Hughes talks about a local football match on a hill. The location of the poem is interesting enough. The slack is located in West Yorkshire and it is a village in Calderdale. The poet was also born and brought up in Yorkshire. The description of the place seems like the poet had an association with this place. He might have played on that hill slope and lost a football just like those men in the poem lost theirs. However, the description of the hill in the poem reflects the poet’s keen sense of detail and mastery over depicting natural imagery surprisingly with urban terms.
Like ‘Football at Slack’ by Ted Hughes the following poems also present similar kinds of themes and make use of vibrant imagery.
- Sport by Paul Durcan – In this poem, Paul Durcan similarly describes a football match and a son’s worries about his father’s approval.
- A Terre by Wilfred Owen – Here, Wilfred Owen talks about how men from the same football team were sent to join the army.
- Sub by Carol Ann Duffy – Here, Carol Ann Duffy metaphorically uses sub or substitutes, a term used in football.
- Us by Zaffar Kunial – In this poem, Zaffar Kunial refers to the football fans for associating it with the idea of the singularity.