‘Wodwo’ was published in a collection of the same name, Ted Hughes’ fourth, in 1967. The entire collection is considered to be one of the poet’s most difficult. It is divided into three sections; the first part contains poems, the second contains short stories, and the third returns to poems again. The poem ‘Wodwo’ is the final piece in the book.
‘Wodwo’ by Ted Hughes depicts an unusual, human-like creature considering his surroundings and the purpose of life.
In the first part of the poem, the speaker begins by posing a rhetorical question regarding what he is. He wanders in a river, drinks, eats, and sits to consider the life of a frog. He even speculates about why he thinks the frog is interesting to begin with. The poem ends with a cascading series of questions indicating that the speaker is consumed by an unending quest to understand what he is, where he came from, and what the purpose of life is.
Although the poem’s narrator is primeval in nature and somewhat unusual, his unending, passionate search for meaning in his life is highly relatable.
You can read the full poem here.
The main theme of the poem is the purpose of life. It is paired with themes of individuality and freedom. The latter is discussed several times next through interesting rhetorical questions. The speaker notices that he, unlike the plants around him, is not tied down. He can go where he pleases. He also considers his individuality and how he differs from the natural elements around him.
Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath
Wodwo was the first collection that Ted Hughes published after his wife, Sylvia Plath, committed suicide in 1963. Of the many important poems included in this collection, only two, ‘Song of a Rat’ and ‘The Howling of Wolves’ are directly related to Plath’s death.
Structure and Form
‘Wodwo’ by Ted Hughes is a twenty-eight-line poem that is written in block form. This means the lines are contained within a single stanza. There are no stanza breaks. Hughes also wrote this poem in free verse. This means that the poet did not use a specific rhyme scheme or meter. But, there are several half-rhymes that readers can take note of. For example, “weeds” and “seems.”
Readers may notice fairly quickly that this poem uses little punctuation additionally, in most printed versions, lowercase letters open each line.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Rhetorical Question: a question the speaker asks for which they do not intend to receive an answer. There are numerous rhetorical questions, some of which are marked with question marks and others of which are not.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two as well as lines three and four.
- Imagery: the use of particularly effective descriptions that should inspire the reader’s senses. For example, “bits of bark off this rotten stump gives me.”
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “Following” and “faint” in line two as well as “glassy grain” in line four.
What am I? Nosing here, turning leaves over
Following a faint stain on the air to the river’s edge
I enter water. Who am I to split
The glassy grain of water looking upward I see the bed
Of the river above me upside down very clear
What am I doing here in mid-air? Why do I find
this frog so interesting as I inspect its most secret
interior and make it my own? Do these weeds
know me and name me to each other have they
seen me before do I fit in their world? I seem
In the first of the poem, the speaker, sometimes considered to be Ted Hughes himself, begins by questioning his identity. It becomes clear that the speaker is a fictional creature known as a “wodwo.” The creature noses around or sniffs the ground. He is following a “faint “smell in the air to the edge of the river. The smell inspires him to enter the river. The next lines, beginning with an example of a caesura, contain a long question. The speaker wonders what gives him the right to split the water surface.
He examines a frog’s life as well as considers his own existence. Why he asks, does he find “this frog so interesting” and feel inspired to “inspect its most secret” insides and consider them his own?
He wonders about the weeds and their consciousness, or lack thereof, around them and what, if they could think, would they think of him. He feels like an integral part of the natural world, but he also knows that he’s different from the things around him. This includes an internal monologue about freedom and consciousness.
separate from the ground and not rooted but dropped
me and doing that have coincided very queerly
When considering existence, the speaker says that he is separate from the rooted and surrounding him. He has no threats fastening him to anything, and he has been given the freedom to choose the places he goes to. He also wonders about his instinctual actions questioning why he does what he does. He picks the bark off of a tree, but it gives him no real pleasure, and it’s of no use, so he wonders why he does it.
But what shall I be called am I the first
again very queer but I’ll go on looking
The questions come one after another in the next lines as Ted Hughes’ unusual speaker asks if he has an owner, what shape he is, how large he’s going to grow, and what he should be called. The speakers become confusing and somewhat nonsensical in these final lines. He wonders how he came to be there and how he relates to the living things around him.
He considers the possibility that he is the “exact center” because when he sits, “everything / stops to watch me.” He sits and considers it and ends the poem with an optimistic note saying that he’ll “go on looking” for meaning and purpose.
This poem was written sometime around 1967. It was included in Ted Hughes’ fourth collection of the same name, and some believe it was inspired by his relationship with fellow poet Sylvia Plath who committed suicide four years before the poem was published.
The purpose is to remind readers of the unending quest for meaning. This speaker seeks answers to his questions about humanity’s purpose, his own individuality, why he cares about what he cares about, and much more.
The tone is questioning. Ted Hughes composed this poem almost entirely of rhetorical questions. This speaker does narrate his actions via a dramatic monologue, but the most important parts of the poem or posed as questions about life’s meeting.
The poem is about humanity’s quest for freedom, the meaning of life, and one’s investigation of their identity, origin, and purpose. The speaker is an unusual, human-like creature whose life is filled with questions on these themes.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Ted Hughes poems. These include:
- ‘Amulet’ – uses animal imagery (specifically wolf imagery), something that Hughes often experimented with.
- ‘The Thought-Fox’ – is a creative poem that uses the symbol of a fox, and its quick, fleeting movements, to represent a writer’s muse.
- ‘Wind’ – takes place over the course of one night: a family, cowering inside a house, listen as a fierce storm rampages outside.