‘Telegraph Wires’ was published in Hughes 1989 collection, Wolfwatching. It is part of his middle-late period, published before what is generally considered his comeback collection, Birthday Letters. ‘Telegraph Wires’ is far from Hughes’ most famous poem, but it evokes similar emotions to some of his better-known animal poems. Throughout the piece, he creates a solemn, foreboding atmosphere, one that a reader can’t help but interpret as foreshadowing something dark occurring.
Explore Telegraph Wires
Throughout the twelve lines of this piece, Hughes describes the telegraph wires as something ever-present, allowing the public to whisper messages to one another from two to town. Although they stretch out over long distances, they aren’t unbreakable. They’re still at risk from “storms.” The use of this word creates a double meaning. They’re at risk physically from storms but also from a storm of terrible news, something that could shake the world or “empty human bones” as the last line states.
You can read the full poem here.
In ‘Telegraph Wires,’ Hughes engages with several themes of which loss is the most prominent. Although it is not stated outright, it’s clear that Hughes is thinking about the telegraph wires and the new ease with which one might receive terrible news. This might be the loss of a spouse, a friend, or a family member. Alternatively, it might be news of war, another’s grief or any other negative event. He depicts the telegraph wires forebodingly, especially at the end of the poem when he mentions human bones. Their whispering, storms, and tones put them in another realm, one that lies between the inanimate and animate.
Structure and Form
‘Telegraph Wires’ by Ted Hughes is a twelve-line poem that is separated into sets of two lines, known as couplets. These couplets follow a simple rhyme scheme of AA BB CC, and so on, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. Some of these end rhymes, depending on how the lines are pronounced, become half-rhymes. For example, “moor” and “ear” at the ends of the first two lines only rhyme in regards to the fine “r” consonant sound. Similarly, there are “airs” and “withers” in the fourth set of couplets which depends on the “rs” ending. The meter is much less evenly structured than the rhyme scheme. The lines range in length from fourteen syllables to five syllables.
Hughes makes use of several literary devices in ‘Telegraph Wires.’ These include but are not limited to enjambment, caesura, and alliteration. The latter is a kind of repetition that depends on the use and reuse of the same consonant sound at the beginning of words, usually in the same line or even in succession. For example, “picked” and “played” in line six and “telegraph” and “tones” in line eleven. This technique is quite effective in improving the overall feeling of rhyme or rhythm in a piece.
Caesura is another technique, one that is concerned with the formatting of the lines. A caesural pause is one that the poet creates within a line. This might be done with punctuation or meter. For example, line two which reads: “And fit them together. The thing comes alive in your ear.” Another good example is line ten which reads: “Bowed over the moor, a bright face.”
Enjambment is a common formal device, one that occurs when the poet cuts off a line before the conclusion of a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines five and six as well as that between lines nine and ten.
Take telegraph wires, a lonely moor,
But the wires cannot hide from the bad weather.
In the first two-line stanza of ‘Telegraph Wires,’ the speaker begins by asking the reader to imagine wires and “a lonely moor.” Together, they create the image of whispering, words transferred over distances, “over the heather.” These “dainty” (a word used in line five) lines are unfortunately, he adds, also affected by bad weather. They “cannot hide from” it. This is an example of personification. The speaker is suggesting that the wires have wants and needs and if they could, they’d move and hide from any oncoming storms, metaphorical or physical.
There is another example of this same technique in the third line when the speaker describes town whispering to towns. There’s a vagueness to this description as if the messages are broader and impersonal. This allows the reader to project what they think the message would be onto the poem.
So oddly, so daintily made
The ear hears, and withers!
In the fifth line of ‘Telegraph Wires,’ the speaker starts to allude to something darker going on. In amongst the dainty wires, there are “unearthly airs.” These sounds are picked up by the ear and it “withers” upon reception of them. This poignant image suggests that some piece of negative information is being transmitted on the wires. Hughes also describes the wires as though they are instruments, playing music that’s picked up by the human ear. The sound is suggestive of the light humming noise these wires create.
In the revolving ballroom of space
That empty human bones.
In the final four lines of ‘Telegraph Wires,’ the speaker creates a metaphor that compares the moors to a “revolving ballroom of space.” In this space, Hughes creates a metaphorical “bright face” that uses the telegraph wires like an instrument. It plays them, like fate plays the actions of human beings, and draws out “tones / That empty human bones.” This powerful ending suggests that the news delivered over the telegraph wires was bad indeed, so bad that it can shake a human being down to their bones and change them forever.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Telegraph Wires’ should also consider reading some of Hughes’ best-known poems. These include ‘The Casualty,’ ‘The Thought-Fox,’ and ‘Lovesong.’ The latter describes a relationship between a man and a woman who are deeply entrenched in the joys and pains of love. ‘The Thought-Fox’ is a poem about writing poetry. It uses the symbol of a fox to stand in for the “muse” that should inspire poets to their best writing. It’s fleeting and haunting. In ‘The Casualty,’ the poet describes an apathetic group of onlookers and their unwillingness or inability to com the aid of plane crash victims.