‘The Jaguar’ was published in The Hawk in the Rain in 1957. Throughout the poem, Hughes uses figurative language and imagery to depict the differences between the jaguar and the other creatures, even cats, that live in the zoo. The jaguar attracts all manner of attention from the crowds at the zoo, far more than any of the other animals. This is all due to the power and freedom of spirit that the cat has maintained. The human visitors can sense this and are drawn to it.
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Summary of The Jaguar
In the first two stanzas of ‘The Jaguar,’ Hughes speaker describes a few of the many depressed animals that make up a zoo. They include parrots shrieking for food, apes, and lethargic lions and tigers. He also makes sure, within these lines, to emphasize how “un-wild” these animals are, suggesting that something more, besides their freedom, has been taken from them.
In the middle of the poem, he brings in a young child visiting the zoo and uses him to draw the poem towards the jaguar, the centerpiece of the zoo. The cat appears to be, by the speaker’s account, the only animal that has a depressed representative of its species. Its power is on full display as the speaker alludes to the wildness that still resides within the cat’s eyes and heart.
You can read the full poem here.
Themes in The Jaguar
In ‘The Jaguar,’ Hughes explores several interesting themes: freedom, resistance, and captivity. All three of these are linked together in the form of the jaguar and his strength in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. The poet draws the reader’s attention to the jaguar, allowing them to marvel over the animal just as the spectators in the zoo do. But, what the poet adds to the experience is something of the jaguar’s own emotions. He is able to convey the creature’s feelings as it stalks across the cage, as well as its potential. He continues to push back, at least emotionally, against its captivity. The jaguar has not had his spirit broken.
Structure and Form
‘The Jaguar‘ by Ted Hughes is a six-stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains do not follow a specific rhyme scheme but there are several full rhymes and half-rhymes. For example, the ends of lines two and three of the first stanza, with “strut” and “nut” are full, or perfect, rhymes. While “straw” and “wall” in lines three and four of the second stanza are half-rhymes with the long “a” vowel sound. There is another interesting half-rhyme with “arrives” and “mesmerized” in lines one and two of the fourth stanza.
In ‘The Jaguar,’ Ted Hughes makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to anaphora, alliteration, and caesura. The first of these, anaphora, appears when the poet uses and reuses the same words at the beginning of multiple lines of verse. For example, “The,” which starts the first two lines of the poem.
There are also examples of caesurae. This technique is seen when the poet uses punctuation, or meter, to create a pause in the middle of a line. For example, line one of the second stanza. It reads: “Lie still as the sun. The boa-constriktor’s coil”. Or, there is another excellent example in the third line of that same stanza. It reads: “Is a fossil. Cage after cage seems empty, or”.
There are also a few examples of a prevalent technique known as alliteration. It is concerned with the use and reuse of consonant sounds at the beginning of words. For example, “strut” and “stroller” in lines two and three of the first stanza and “darkness” and “dreams” in line four of the fourth stanza.
Analysis of The Jaguar
The apes yawn and adore their fleas in the sun.
Fatigued with indolence, tiger and lion
In the first stanza of ‘The Jaguar,’ the speaker outlines a few animals in a zoo. It’s not until the third line that it is made clear that this is the case, but it’s quite apparent at that point. The speaker takes note of the parrots and how they shriek, seeking out the “stroller with the nut”. Visitors to the zoo are bringing the creatures bits and pieces to eat, and they know well when they’re going to eat.
This is one of the first examples of the changed behavior of animals in this environment. In the wild, the parrots would not have any desire to attack a human’s attention. There is also an interesting simile in these lines when the poet compares the shrieking parrots to “cheap tarts,” or prostitutes, who are trying to attract customers.
As one would expect, Hughes also emphasizes the lack of exercise or even simple activity that very active creatures, tigers and lions, are experiencing in the zoo. They are so inactive, so lazy, that they’re fatigued by it. This is something of a hyperbole, but it also speaks to how captivity changes the creatures it is imposed upon.
Lie still as the sun. The boa-constriktor’s coil
It might be painted on a nursery wall.
The last line of the first stanza is enjambed. This means that the second half of the phrase appears in the first line of the second stanza. The speaker adds that these large cats spend their days lying “still as the sun,” and likely in the sun as well. The world of animals in the zoo is so un-animal-like that it seems more like a painting “on a nursery wall” than it does a real collection of living creatures. The other lines in this stanza drive that point home as the boa-constriktor’s coil is compared to a fossil, and the cages “seem” empty even if they’re not. Plus, in the third line, Hughes describes them as sucking of “sleepers”. Its the smell of these animals, more than their appearance or their actions that strikes visitors.
Stanzas Four and Five
But who runs like the rest past these arrives
At a cage where the crowd stands, stares, mesmerized,
As a child at a dream, at a dream, at a jaguar hurrying enraged
He spins from the bars, but there’s no cage to him
The speaker changes the poem in the next lines, focusing on a young visitor to the zoo. This child runs, as everyone does, to a very specific cage. He already knows what he’s going to see there, a jaguar. This large cat is different from the other animals in the zoo. The fire in his heart has not been put out. The cat still has its wild instincts and desires. This might be to do with the period the creatures have been there or perhaps to do with something deeper in this particular animal.
The last line of this stanza conveys the spirit of the animal in a clear and powerful way. There is “no cage to him,” Hughes says, before breaking the line.
More than to the visionary his cell:
Over the cage floor the horizons come.
In the final four lines of ‘The Jaguar,’ the speaker concludes by alluding vaguely to the jaguar’s boundless energy, life, and potential. He describes the creature powerfully, with a “stride” that still contains the “wilderness” he belongs to. In the last line, the phrase “the horizons come” suggests that these animals have yet to give up on the future. It has determination and power in a way that the other animals no longer do or never did. Depending on how one reads this poem, it is easy to envision this same dynamic playing out among a group of people or various groups symbolized by the jaguar.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Jaguar’ should also consider reading some of Hughes’s other poems. For example, ‘Crow’s Fall,’ ‘Wind,’ and ‘The Thought-Fox’. The first of these is about the legend of the crow and how it became black. The latter, ‘The Thought-Fox,’ is a poem about writing poetry. It uses the fox as a symbol for a generalized idea that’s always fleeting. Some other related poems are ‘The Bear’ by Susan Mitchell, ‘Crow Song’, and ‘The animals in that country’, both by Margaret Atwood.