‘September’ by Ted Hughes is a moving poem that touches on a troubled and important relationship.
The poem was published in Birthday Letters in 1998. It was released only a few months before his death. It came after the death of his wife, Sylvia Plath, and the establishment of her legacy as one of the most important feminist poets of all time. Rightly or wrongly, Hughes’s own reputation was tied to his treatment of Plath during their marriage. (Some believe that he drove her to kill herself through his emotional abuse and affairs.) It was with this collection that he sought to redeem himself in the eyes of the public.
The book is autobiographical in nature and it immediately hit the top of best-seller lists. It was awarded the Forward Poetry Prize, the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, as well as several other prestigious awards.
The poem takes the reader through a series of images that outline a state of being outside of time and within memory. The speaker describes how “we,” presumably him and his lover, sit and watch the world changing around them. There is no “clock” to count the changes that are occurring, it is something more emotional and ephemeral.
Hughes focuses on small moments, like the feeling of someone’s wrist, while repeatedly emphasizing that time means nothing. The poem concludes with the entrancing image of “trees casting their crowns / Into pools” which alludes to the change that Hughes has been hinting at throughout the piece.
You can read the full poem here.
In ‘September,’ Hughes addresses themes of relationships and time. The latter is the most obvious, but it is also paired with change and tragedy, two things which are commonly associated with Hughes and his most famous relationship, his marriage to Sylvia Plath. It is a well-known fact that many of the poems in his collection Birthday Letters were either about Plath or directed to her.
While it is not stated explicitly that this is the case with ‘September,’ it is quite easy to connect the imagery in the poem to their relationship. He speaks on the power of memories and how one can live outside time within them. The imagery in this poem is complicated, leading readers to many different conclusions in regards to what Hughes was getting at with the text. But, no matter what one’s interpretation of the poem is, it’s clear that Hughes still dealing with overwhelming emotions while facing his own terminal illness and recalling Plath’s death 35 years prior.
Structure and Form
‘September’ by Ted Hughes is a four stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABAC, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. There is no single metrical pattern that unites all of the lines, but generally, the first and third lines are longer than the second and fourth. But within these, the number of syllables varies between nine and eleven in the odd-numbered lines and four and six in the even-numbered lines.
Hughes makes use of several literary devices in ‘September’. These include but are not limited to enjambment, imagery, and alliteration. The first of these, enjambment, refers to the way that a poet uses or doesn’t use end-punctuation. For example, the transition between lines three and four of the first stanza and line four of the third stanza, and line one of the fourth stanza.
Alliteration is another formal technique that is concerned with the use and reuse of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “clock counts” in line two of the first stanza and “telling” and “time” in line four of that same stanza.
Imagery is one of the most important techniques at work in ‘September’. It can be seen throughout the stanzas when Hughes uses phrases like “dark slowly unfold” and “Under the silk of the wrist a sea”.
We sit late, watching the dark slowly unfold:
There is no telling where time is.
In the first stanza of ‘September,’ the speaker begins by using the first person plural pronoun “we” to refer to himself and another. This other person is sometimes interpreted as his wife, Sylvia Plath, but without evidence to confirm this is the case, it shouldn’t be assumed. Time is the primary theme in this stanza and those which follow. In fact, in each stanza, a close reader can find one or more words that directly reference “time”. In this case, Hughe actually uses the words “time” and “clock”. He describes how his speaker and their lover sit up late at night in one another’s arms. They watch the “dark slowly unfold,” around them. This is a wonderful example of imagery.
Hughes’s speaker emphasizes the fact that in moments like this there is no “time”. It has no meaning when he is with his lover and they’re existing very simply together. The word “arms” is one of the most important in this stanza, referencing their arms holding one another as well as the arms/hands of a clock. It might also relate back to the word “unfold” in the first line.
Readers might also find themselves interpreting the phrase “dark slowly unfolds” in different ways. It might refer to the night, to a change of seasons, or to a change of circumstances. Perhaps the upcoming end of a relationship.
It is midsummer: the leaves hang big and still:
Time is nowhere.
In the second stanza of ‘September,’ the speaker goes on to give more details about the scene. But, the specific time and place are less important than the experience them. It is “midsummer” the speaker says. The leaves are still in the trees and there is no fall breeze yet blowing through them. Time is paused in between spring, summer, and fall, progressing nowhere—only existing. The speaker emphasizes this by focusing on the imagery of the “eye,” “star,” and the “silk of the wrist”. These are tiny parts of their world that are capable of consuming them.
The “silk of the wrist” contains a sea, it is limitless in its expanse. The last line states very clearly: “Time is nowhere”. Hughes depicts it in this line as something physical that could, if possible, be located. But, at this moment, it’s “nowhere”. It isn’t bothering them.
We stand; leaves have not timed the summer.
Minutes uproaring with our heads
In the third stanza of the poem, just like in the second, Hughes begins with an example of caesurae. The line reads: “We stand; leaves have not timed the summer”. This line also brings in what should by now be familiar imagery, that of the leaves, time, and summer. He speaks again on how there is no clock, no time, nor is there a record of time in the world that they’re existing in. It is at this point in the poem that memory becomes quite important. He uses the line “Tell we have only what we remember”. This is followed by a reference to the mind/head and “minutes”.
Like an unfortunate King’s and his Queen’s
Into the pools.
In the final four lines of ‘September,’ the speaker uses enjambment to connect the first line to the fourth line of the third stanza. Here, he compares their experience to an “unfortunate King’s and Queen’s” who are looking back on their life before a “senseless mod rules”. They too can exist in a timeless space, one that’s outside the reality of time because it exists in their minds.
The final two lines are filled with imagery. He uses the word “crown” to represent the past, the summer, and the tree’s own leaves, which are being “cast” into the pools of memory. Things are changing and finally, memory is all that’s left of the midsummer. Its also important to connect the word “crown” back to the “King and Queen” in line one of this stanza.
Readers who enjoyed ‘September’ should also consider reading some of Ted Hughes’s other poems:
- ‘Amulet’–uses animal imagery (specifically wolf imagery), something that Hughes often experimented with.
- ‘The Thought-Fox’–one of Hughes’ better-known poems in which the poet writes about writing poetry.
- ‘Wind’–takes place over the course of a night and depicts a family cowering inside a house.
Another related poem is: