The poem ‘February 17th’ Essay

Published: 2021-09-10 06:30:07
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Category: Poem

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The poem ‘February 17th’ written by Ted Hughes describes a premature lamb being born dead. It is extremely graphic and its vivid imagery is extremely grotesque, gripping the reader completely. The tone is tense and the poem induces a reaction of disgust and fear from the reader. It also shows a shockingly real image of what birth can be like. The poet uses various literary devices throughout the poem to bring out the graphic images and construct a feeling of dread in the reader’s mind. The poet explores the theme of the harsh side of nature and birth, and how new beginnings can go wrong with fatal consequences.
The pain of the mother is described vividly. For instance, in the line ‘So I kneeled wrestling with her groans’ he shows us how painful her labour is with a very auditory sense. The last line ‘The body lay born, beside the hacked-off head’ is the end of her physical labour and pain, but the beginning of her mental pain. The fruit of her labour is a mutilated body of her child. Only two lines earlier he talks about the ‘Parcel of life’, and the juxtaposition of the two highlight the contrast between nature’s wonders and her cruelty. The short line lays emphasis on the phrase, increasing the impact of the last line.
The poet also explores the relationship between nature and man. Most of his poems focus on the insignificance of man compared to nature, however, in this one we see a slightly different approach to this. We see man more as being part of nature, helping with it’s natural processes, as the narrator helps the mother give birth to her stillborn, saving her life. For instance, in the lines ‘timing my effort // To her birth-push groans I pulled against // The corpse that would not come’, the poet’s coordination with the mother to help her end this ordeal. Both of them are united at this time in their lives, in trying to help the mother give birth.
The poem is set on a muddy slope, on a rainy, dreary morning. The morning seems to signify birth and new beginnings. However, this morning starts with a ‘downpour, dishclout sunrise’. The alliterative phrase brings out the sense of a wrong beginning; the morning isn’t right. It’s raining as well; a harsh ‘ice wind’ is blowing. The stillbirth takes place on the hills, nearly two miles from human inhabitation as we know from the line ‘I went// Two miles for an injection and a razor’. The remoteness of the place seems to emphasize that the poet is the only one who can help the mother.
The terrain seems to be a hilly, undulated area, as seen in the lines ‘ laid her, head uphill’ and ‘mudded slope’. This seems to reiterate the theme of nature’s cruelty and reminds the reader that there is no other help he can get. The poet uses graphic and vivid imagery to portray the mother’s situation and the pain she is experiencing. For example, poet describes the lamb’s head as a ‘blackish lump’ and a ‘blood-ball swollen tight it its black felt’. The alliterative phrase ‘blood-ball swollen’ brings out the horror of the image of the blood-clogged swollen head.
The image of the lump is repeated in the line ‘Lump head of the lamb looking out’. The alliteration highlights the fact that the lump is actually the head of the lamb. These images are disturbing and increase the disgust the reader feels. The poet also uses violent, aural verbs to make each image more raw and visceral. For instance, in the lines ‘Sliced the lamb’s throat-strings… brought the head off // To stare at it’s mother’, the verb ‘sliced’ makes the reader cringe because of the violence of the action. Other verbs used are ‘hacked’ and hauled’.
The image of the lamb’s head staring back at the mother, with the ‘throat-strings’ trailing behind it, is not just grotesque but also emotional as it moves the readers by presenting them with the mother’s emotional pain of seeing her child’s head in front of her. At the end when the lamb comes out, behind him trails ‘yolk-yellow, // Parcel of life // In a smoking slither of oils, soups and syrups. ‘ This metaphorically indicates a broken egg, something that could have been a new life and is now a mess of ‘oils, soups and syrups’. The alliteration of the last line tends to cause a sense of nausea in the reader.
The tone of this poem is harsh and brutal. It portrays brilliantly the emotional and physical pain of stillbirth. The poet only ever refers to the sheep as a ‘mother’, which makes our relationship with the sheep more intimate. The author describes the effort and pain of the mother in great detail and uses many auditory verbs. For instance, in the line, ‘She pushed crying and I pushed gasping’, we see the effort both the narrator and the mother are putting into this. The repetition of pushed and the sounds of both of them create sympathy and disgust in the reader.
The line ‘I roped that baby head and hauled till she cried out’ uses active, violent verbs like ‘hauled’ to emphasize the pain the mother is experiencing. Labour is painful even in normal circumstances but the birth of a ‘corpse that would not come’ is much worse. This is seen even in the tricolonic phrase ‘After some hard galloping, some manoeuvering, much flapping of the backward lump head of the lamb looking out, I caught her with a rope. ‘ The harshness of nature is also brought out in the line ‘tongue stuck out, black-purple, // Strangled by its mother. I felt inside, // Past the noose of mother-flesh…
‘ This phrase is shocking and brutal, and it conveys the ruthlessness of nature as it creates situations where a mother unintentionally kills her child. The narrator is closely connected and involved in the poem. He helps the mother give birth to her stillborn lamb. He is disgusted by the bloody job he has to do as is seen in the description of the lamb as ‘squashed’ and ‘crooked’. His descriptions are blunt and real, and he is not squeamish about assisting the mother. He is very concerned about her welfare as seen when he ‘went two miles for the injection and the razor.
‘ He seems to be trying not to be emotionally attached to the lamb, as he uses ‘it’ to refer to the lamb. However, in the lines ‘He should have // Felt his way, tip-toe, his toes // Tucked up under his nose // For a safe landing’ he shows his regret at the fact that the lamb was born in this harsh, violent way. The rhyming couplet adds a melodic quality to the two lines, which create the image of how a beautiful lamb would have been born if it had been a normal birth. The use of the pronoun ‘he’ also conveys the narrator’s sadness at the lamb’s death. He then however switches back to using ‘it’ as seen in the monosyllabic line ‘Till it came’.
The short sentence conveys the shock that the poet feels. It seems to have given way suddenly and now it is the end of his and the mother’s labour. The narrator’s close relationship with the mother is seen in the phrase ‘the birth push and the push of my thumb’. The juxtaposition and repetition of the different ‘pushes’ highlight the closeness of the two creatures. It also shows the narrator is doing all in his capacity to save the mother’s life. The poem is a visceral, sometimes disgusting, poem that successfully captures the readers’ interest and grips their imaginations.
Hughes is blunt and describes his experience just as he experienced it, without any beating about the bush. This is similar to the style he uses in ‘Pike’ and ‘Birth of a Rainbow’. The poem explores themes such as nature’s cruelty and human involvement in nature’s processes and presents the poet’s view on each one. The imagery is dense, graphic and detailed and the themes are clearly visible throughout the poem. Also the narrator’s personal involvement further captures the reader. It is a brilliant poem, which embodies Hughes’ writing style and manner of expression.

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