Read the full analysis of the poem Relic by Ted Hughes below. This is a poem that talks about the metaphorical relics of the sea, which he considers the circle of life.
- Breakers – waves that break with foam on the shore
- Camaraderie – friendship. companionship
- Slacken – slowed down, decreased in speed, loosened up
- Gnawn – been chewed at or bitten
- Vertebrae – one of the small bones that compose the spine
- Carapaces – hard, protective shells like in lobsters or crabs
- Spars – wooden poles like those from a shipwreck – in this case, the word symbolises the remains of the sea creatures and their bones
- Cenotaph – a monument to a dead person who is buried somewhere else
I once found a jawbone on the seashore. In this place, the waves batter all sorts of sea creatures, some already dead, some dying, but all on their way to turning into crusted, decomposing matter that will serve as a base for new life. The deeps of the ocean are harsh and cold. In that darkness, friendships cannot hold.
No creatures touch each other softly but they grab at and eat each other. And these jaws are never satisfied before the end, as they are soon consumed themselves, chewed to the bone by another predator. Jaws eat and then are eaten, and lastly, the waves bring a jawbone to the beach; This is what the sea does; it strips the bodies from flesh down to the bone.
The cycle of life and death never ends in the sea, throwing to the shores the remains of a struggle to survive, the bones that cannot be dissolved. None of those creatures lives a happy and comfortable life in the water. This jawbone I have found never relaxed, never laughed, it only bit and bit, and now it is nothing but an empty to all the others.
The find of a jawbone on the seashore throws the first-person speaker into a contemplative state, as he starts imagining what’s below the surface of the sea and behind all the bones and carcasses it brings on the beach. His description is lucid and unsentimental, the voice of a naturalist explaining a biological process going from the beginning of times and excepted to continue until the end of it. This visceral report on reality is common in Hughes’ poetry, where he often describes intense encounters with the natural world that lead to reflection on the cruelty of the unstoppable life-death cycle and the food chain.
Irony – ‘Before they are satisfied or their stretched purpose/ Slacken, go down jaws; go gnawn bare. Jaws/ Eat and are finished and the jawbone comes to the beach:’ – the jawbone the speaker finds stands as proof of how ruthless the cycle of life is. There is a dark irony in the fact that the predator is always just a few steps away from becoming the prey and only rarely manages to escape this fate.
Metaphor – ‘and is now a cenotaph.’ – metaphor is used extensively throughout Relic, used to portray the remains of the sea creatures that couldn’t escape their fate. The predators who spent every moment of their lives searching for prey, grabbing it, chewing it, are now merely relics, jaws, cenotaphs, an empty embodiment of what they used to be.
Personification – ‘Time in the sea eats its tail, thrives, casts these/ Indigestibles, the spars of purposes/ That failed far from the surface.’ – the cycle of life never gets interrupted under the rule of time, which is here shown as a creature eating its own tail – a classic image in religious artwork throughout history, known as Ouroboros. The personification is in the “spars of purposes”. Spars are the framework for a ship’s sail, so by comparing the sea creatures before death to a human construction like a ship they are personified with more agency. Yet also, still part of an inanimate whole.
TASK: Research the ‘Ouroboros’further. Where does it come from, and what does it symbolise? Why do you think Hughes used it in the poem?
Asyndeton – ‘with shells,/ Vertebrae, claws, carapaces, skulls.’ – The omission of the conjunction ‘and’ between the nouns ‘carapaces’ and ‘skulls’ adds dynamism to the poem and speeds up the rhythm. This rhetorical device may also be used by the speaker to emphasise the briefness of life and the suddenness of death in a cycle in which there is no room for individualisation.
Repetition – ‘go down jaws; go gnawn bare’, ‘gripped, gripped’ – the speaker reiterates a series of words to show the cycles within which life and death that take place in the sea. One moment a fish is devouring another fish, and the next one, its jaws, which previously gripped and chewed others, are the ones being bitten and eaten. It is an endless cycle that always repeats.
Synecdoche – ‘Jaws/ Eat and are finished’ – when the speaker mentions the noun ‘jaws’, it doesn’t refer to this part of the animal’s body only, but is used as a metaphor for the whole animal. The choice of the word ‘jaws’ highlights the main aspects of the creature’s life the poet wants to emphasise – that of eating and surviving.
Sound devices – ‘There, crabs, dogfish, broken by the breakers or tossed/ To flap for half an hour and turn to a crust’ – alliteration, consonance, and assonance are present throughout the poem, recomposing the sound of biting, chewing, breaking, and tossing, and this way, reflecting the brutality of feeding in the animal world.
STRUCTURE + FORM
Form – although, at first sight, this free-verse poem seems to have an irregular form, the stanzas may be purposefully designed to suggest the cycle of life, with its expansion and decay periods. The first and last stanzas, where the speaker observes the remains of the creature, are shorter, reflecting the end of life, whilst the middle stanza has an extra line, as it describes the life of the creature, and its struggles to survive.
Rhyme – ‘Relic’ is a blank-rhyme poem that, however, includes a series of rhymed couplets, designed to emphasise the most important attitudes in the speaker’s discourse. For example, lines 4 and 5 contain the rhyme couplet cold-hold. This highlights the idea that the ocean is not a cold place only through its low temperature but through its unwelcoming and harsh nature that doesn’t allow friendship to resist.
Meter – this poem doesn’t have a steady meter, but its lines have roughly the same length, which grants the speaker’s voice a regulated meditative tone.
Enjambment – ‘There, carbs, dogfish, broken by the breakers or tossed/ To flap for half an hour and turn to crust/ Continue the beginning.’ – the stream of consciousness doesn’t follow a pattern, it flows uncontrollably, thus many of the ideas stretch on several lines. This structural choice allows the reader to enter a contemplative state that makes it easy to meditate on the harshness of the animal world.
Caesura – ‘Relic’ is a prosaic poem in which the end of a line isn’t necessarily the end of a thought. If enjambment allows an idea to flow on the following line, caesura stops it right in the middle of it, making the discourse feel more natural.
Ted Hughes (1930-1998) was one of the most prominent British poets of the 20th century. His first poetry volume, The Hawk in the Rain, published in 1957, affirmed him a fresh voice on the literary scene, the poet impressing his readers with the rawness of his lyrics. ‘Relic’ was included in his second volume, Lupercal, published in 1960. It followed the same lucidity in expression whilst approaching themes like nature, the cycle of life, violence, and power, Hughes was married to poet Sylvia Plath and during their short and troubled marriage, they produced some very powerful pieces of poetry.
The whole world knew a period of economic flourishing after the end of WW2 in 1945. England wasn’t an exception, so by the time Hughes published his first volume, he would have already come in contact with the effects of rapid urbanisation and industrialisation. ‘Relic’, like many of his poems, is set outside time and space and focuses on the primordial ways of the world that remain the same no matter how much the world around us humans changes.
No one can escape death – all people have their prime time in life when they think of themselves as being indestructible, young and powerful, being the chasers, the hunters, the dreamers. But their faith is no too different from the brutal end of the sea creature in ‘Relic’, as death is inscribed in any being’s destiny from the moment they are born.
Without death, new life cannot thrive – the world needs to renew periodically in order to survive, so the rule is that the old need to make room for the new and their remains serve as fertile soil for the next generation. Plants and animals that die fertilise the ground, serving as food for the plants and, indirectly, animals that follow. In the poem, the fish that die turn into a crust that becomes food for younger fish. Humans are the only ones different, as they have learned to leave behind more than their flesh and bones. However, even if the new generations of humans can feed on the knowledge of their predecessors and preserve their spirits, physical death is still a barrier that cannot be crossed.
The cycle of life is unchangeable no matter the setting of the circumstances – time is described as eating its tail – an image evoking the ancient symbol of the ouroboros (a serpent eating its tail) – which depicts the eternity of this cycle of birth and destruction that contains every form of life on earth. No matter how much society changes, this primordial circle cannot be eliminated.
- The circle of life
- The Sea