Thistles by Ted Hughes

Against the rubber tongues of cows and the hoeing¹ hands of men
Thistles spike the summer air
And crackle open under a blue-black pressure.

Every one a revengeful burst
Of resurrection, a grasped fistful
Of splintered weapons and Icelandic frost thrust up

From the underground stain of a decayed Viking.
They are like pale hair and the gutturals² of dialects.
Every one manages a plume³ of blood.

Then they grow grey like men.
Mown down, it is a feud. Their sons appear
Stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground.

Vocabulary:

  1. hoeing (verb) –  Use a hoe (a long-handled gardening tool with a thin metal blade, used mainly for weeding) to dig (earth) or thin out or dig up (plants).
  2. guttural (noun) – A guttural consonant (e.g. k, g) or other speech sound.
  3. plume (noun) – i. A long cloud of smoke or vapour resembling a feather as it spreads from its point of origin.
    ii. A mass of material, typically a pollutant, spreading from a source. (Given the context, I feel that either of the two meanings here are applicable. Interpret as you wish).

Themes:

War and Violence, Circle of Life

Sub-themes:

Death, Suffering, Seasons and Time

Lexicon: agressive, cruel, primal, grim, hopeless

George Macbeth said of ‘Thistles’ – “[Thistles] is a short paean in praise of the unkillable virtue of heroism”. Express your opinion on this view of Hughes’ poem in 600-900 words. Justify with evidence from the text. 

Note: This essay describes my views on the quote. Please reflect on the poem and quote and come up with your own views. Also, I haven’t actually hit the right word count, so it is not advisable to submit this essay to your English teacher. 

For most people, discovering a higher purpose to our existence remains a huge challenge, though all of us seem to be convinced that there is a definite purpose. Through the ages, the greatest conquerors had one thing in common – their purpose was to fight and capture wealth, land, and even peoples’ resolve. The Vikings of the ninth and tenth centuries derived their character from an ancient Pagan faith. If they were to die in battle, beautiful Valkyries (warrior maidens) would lead them to Valhalla (paradise,) where they would live for eternity.

From a modern, rationalised perspective, this seems barbaric and therefore completely unnecessary. Then again, the modern world is built on a foundation of bloodshed and war, without which major developments may not have been possible. The poem ‘Thistles’ is a rare find, that recognises the value of cruelty. It is not a “paean in praise of the unkillable virtue of heroism,” but one in praise of the unrecognised virtue of barbarism.

Though the ruthless conquerors are ‘mown down’ like the thistles, their legacy remains influential to the present day. Viking longships no longer rule the seas, but these long-haired, rough-mannered sailors have made some important changes to our world. Without their insistence that the letter ‘s’ be used at the ends of words in the English language, the plural of ‘book’ would still be ‘beek’ today. Norsemen in Iceland also established a ruling party called the ‘Althing,’ which continues to be Iceland’s governing body today, and is the oldest one in the West.* The line ‘Their sons appear/ Stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground’ (lines 11-12,) refers to all of modern humankind as the sons of the Vikings. Hence we hold their weapons, quite unconsciously, and complete the cycle by the very fact that their blood flows in our own.

The poem certainly does not have to be viewed in a negative light, as the lexicon may be primal, grim, and aggressive, but who decides which side in the opposing balance of life is the superior one? Power has always been required for structure and order in a community of any species. It is essential for thistles to ‘spike,’ ‘burst,’ be ‘thrust up’ and still be ‘fighting back,’ just like it is necessary for wars to take place when imperfect power balances like dictatorship arise. I am not referring to the kinds of wars we fight today, with deadly snipers, nuclear weaponry, or even trade embargos. The wars of old were natural, almost sacred, because they did not strip the Earth of her treasures, but fertilised her with the ‘plumes of blood’ they guaranteed.

By juxtaposing ideas throughout ‘Thistles,’ Hughes instils the significance of peace and disharmony in maintaining the balance of nature. The first stanza portrays the stark distinction, as well as the connection between agrarian, civilised societies and barbarity, by describing the thistles (weeds) that invariably appear in the midst of farms, not matter how much one strives to keep the land free of it.

The phrase ‘splintered weapons’ symbolises defeat, but in the context of resurrection (line 5). It depicts the paradox of losing, but returning to the world, thus victorious. Humans are similarly of collection of contradictions, making us neither good nor bad, but simply human.  The Vikings, with their ‘pale hair and the gutturals of dialects,’ (line 8,) or the thistles, with their painful but vibrant ‘heads,’ are cruelty and beauty rolled into one. We can condemn their savagery but it exists nonetheless, and our modern society would be nothing without it. Unfortunately or not, victory and barbarity seem to go hand in hand.

It is only in the monotheistic, Abrahamic religions that under the guise of rationality and civility, the value of barbarism is denounced. Many other faiths revere war, victory, and even death: Odin (God of war and death,) in Norse mythology, Ares (God of war,) in Greek mythology, and Yama (God of death,) in Hindu mythology, who remains a deity today. ‘Thistles’ is a significant piece of poetry because it makes it possible for Ted Hughes’ Western culture to comprehend that war is not always evil, but often required for the end of one era and the beginning of the next.

*From ‘The Birth of Europe.’ p. 129

 

 

 

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