‘Relic’ by Ted Hughes is a poem of modern literature that talks about the metaphorical relics of the sea. Relic means a person or thing that has survived in an earlier time but is now outmoded or dead. Hence, the “jawbone” in the first line of the poem is that relic that the poet centers his discussion in the poem. However, this poem also touches on the themes of mortality and the futility of life as a whole. Moreover, the vanity of human wishes also gets featured in the poem. Such, an organization of several important themes makes this poem an interesting one to read.
‘Relic’ by Ted Hughes revolves around the “jawbone” that the poetic persona has found from the seashore. After gripping it in his hand, he looks around and comes across “crabs” and “dogfish” lying dead on the shore. The scene depicts the cruelty of the sea that topples lives. In the second stanza, the poet thinks about the jaw that he is holding. The jaw was active at a time but now it’s of no use. Here on the shore, it lies with shells, skulls, claws, and other useless things. In the last stanza, referring to the cruelty of the sea again the poet, at last, portrays that the jawbone in his hand “is now cenotaph”. As the poet writes about it and makes this useless piece of bone a lifetime existence in his poem.
You can read the full poem here.
‘Relic’ by Ted Hughes contains a total of three stanzas. In the first and last there are five lines in each. Whereas in the second stanza, there are six lines in it. The poet employs a specific rhyme scheme in the poem. The last two lines of each stanza rhyme together and form a couplet. As an example, “cold” and “hold” in the first stanza, “shells” and “skulls” in the second stanza, and “laugh” and “cenotaph” in the third stanza rhyme together. However, in the second stanza, the first and third lines end with the same word “jaws”.
Being a modern poem, there isn’t a specific verse structure in the poem. It is in free verse. Apart from that, the line lengths of the poem are also irregular. However, there is an internal rhythm in the poem. The poet employs both the iambic meter and trochaic meter in the poem. Moreover, the poet uses some spondee and pyrrhic feet in the text.
‘Relic’ by Ted Hughes makes use of several literary devices and those devices make the poem more interesting to read. Likewise in the first line, “jawbone” represents a synecdoche as well as metaphor. It represents the human beings in totality. The poet employs asyndeton in the second line of the first stanza. There is a metaphor in the phrase “Continue the beginning”. Here, the poet refers to the cycle of life. There is another metaphor in the same line too. Here, “deep” metaphorically presents the sea.
Moreover, in the second stanza, there is an alliteration in “go gnawn”. Here the “g” sound gets repeated in the neighboring words. As the consonant sound is repeated, it’s also an example of consonance. However, the poet employs this device in several lines of the poem. In the last stanza, the poet uses personification. He personifies both the sea and time. The last two lines present a paradox as the “gripped” jaw surprisingly becomes a “cenotaph” in the poet’s imagination.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
I found this jawbone at the sea’s edge:
In that darkness camaraderie does not hold.
‘Relic’ by Ted Hughes talks about the futility of life and the ruthlessness of the sea in the first stanza. At first, the poet introduces a “jawbone” that he has found at the seashore. It was there with dead crabs and dogfish. The image represented here depicts death and the futility of life. The first section also constitutes the overall mood of the poem. However, there is also an image of the sea. Here, the sea also acts as a symbol of death. It devours lives and ends every wish in a flash of a second. There are no feelings in the heart of the sea. For this reason, the poet says, “the deeps” of the sea is cold.
However, there are some important concepts in the first stanza. As an example, “Continue the beginning” refers to life’s cycle. Nature keeps this cycle in motion. Likewise, in the last line, the poet presents an epigram. Here, the poet implies during the time of death one has to accept it or fight for life. None comes then to help. Every creature on earth first thinks about their own life while the climax of life appears in the form of death.
Nothing touches but, clutching, devours. And the jaws,
Vertebrae, claws, carapaces, skulls.
‘Relic’ by Ted Hughes presents the theme of vanity of human wishes in the second stanza. The reference to the jaw for this purpose is innovative. Like Hamlet in William Shakespeare’s play holding Yorick’s skull broods over the futility of life, here, in this poem, Ted Hughes holding the jaw of a dead person, thinks about the vanity of human wishes.
In this stanza, the poet says the sea never touches at lives with an emotion. There is extreme cruelty in her heart that can’t be measured by the standard of humanity’s scale. The sea clutches and “devours”, like a beast who never feels satiated no matter how much it eats. Apart from that, the poet refers to the jaw that was also not satisfied with reality. Like the sea, it also needed more. And at last, the person whose jaw it has died but the burning passion in his heart was still there. It’s the nature of human desire, that is like a burning fire. It devours and grows in size but the ignition never ceases.
At last, the poet says the remnants of life forms are the relics of the sea, her achievements. Like a gallery of one’s achievements, the sea showcases hers on the sea beach. It includes shells, Vertebrae, claws, carapaces, and at last skulls. The last line contains a climax that ends with the most important idea at its end. The underlying idea is anticlimactic though.
Time in the sea eats its tail, thrives, casts these
But gripped, gripped and is now a cenotaph.
‘Relic’ by Ted Hughes continues to talk about the sea in the last stanza but there is an interesting idea in the last two lines. Whereas in the previous stanzas, the poet personifies the sea, here the poet invests the beastly features into time. Both time and sea devours lives and casts the “indigestibles” on the shore. It is important to note here that the first two lines depict two ideas simultaneously. One is the cruelty of nature and another is the futility of the human body. The body that once was adored by a man or woman, is now turned into “indigestible” of the sea’s diet.
However, the line “None grow rich/ In the sea” is a paradoxical reference to the sea’s severity and the idea of possibilities associated with the sea in the previous era. The poet questions the image of nature or the sea as the bringer of joys. Apart from that, in the last two lines, the poet talks about the helplessness of the jaw as it has no life in it. And the poet ironically says at the end that the jaw “is now a cenotaph” since the poet has written this poem influenced by it. Hence, the poet implicitly compares his poem to a memorial built for the person whose jawbone it was.
‘Relic’ by Ted Hughes is a postmodern poem that innovatively employs the theme of naturalism. However, there is also a reaction against Victorian ideals in this poem. The reference to the sea as a beast or ravisher of lives is in contrast with the image of the sea in the previous age. Then it was compared to a “gateway of new possibilities”. Moreover, the poem depicts the theme of the futility of human life and projects the ideas of naturalism through it.
Like ‘Relic’ by Ted Hughes, the following poems are consonant with the themes present in Hughes’ poem.
- Sea of Death by Thomas Hood – Here, Thomas Hood describes the nature of the sea of death.
- The Sea Eats the Land At Home by Kofi Awoonor – Kofi Awoonor similarly presents the ravishing nature of the sea in this poem.
- Finisterre by Sylvia Plath – In this text, Sylvia Plath talks about the “black sea” and how the shore observes the sea’s cruelty.
- The City in the Sea by Edgar Allan Poe – Here, Edgar Allan Poe describes a city of sin that the sea devours.
You can read about 10 of the Best Poems about Time here.