Another plant inspired poem for Sunday. Ted Hughes’s (1930-98) collection of poems about the natural world – Flowers & Insects – was published in 1986 and included this one: Sunstruck Foxglove. We follow it with a reading of the poem taken from The Ted Hughes Society website by a certain Nicholas Bland, a second year student at Trinity College, Dublin at time of writing. It’s a nice past-time poetry reading, then thinking about what it all means or means to you. Sometimes it can guide your future connection with the subject: in this case, the plant in question will never again be viewed without heed to the ‘under-speckle of her sunburned breasts’.
by Ted Hughes
As you bend to touch
The gypsy girl
Who waits for you in the hedge
Her loose dress falls open.
Flushed, freckled with earth-fever,
Swollen lips parted, her eyes closing,
A lolling armful, and so young! Hot
Among the insane spiders.
You glimpse the reptile under-speckle
Of her sunburned breasts
And your head swims. You close your eyes.
Can the foxes talk? Your head throbs.
Remember the bird’s tolling echo,
The dripping fern roots, and the butterfly touches
That woke you
Remember your mother’s
Long, dark dugs.
Her silky body a soft oven
For loaves of pollen.
Taken from Nicholas Bland’s review of Flowers & Insects:
‘Sunstruck Foxglove’ ..Hughes anthropomorphises the subject: here, a flower of ambiguous genus, and the foxglove of the title. The former is apostrophized by the speaker, and by implication, masculinized. Several pieces of evidence identify it as a flower: its mother’s, ‘silky body a soft oven / For loaves of pollen.’; its being woken by contact with a butterfly; and its opening motion of bending towards the feminized foxglove, which indicates possession of a stalk. Equally, it is distanced from the object of its affection, the foxglove, in important ways. It wonders if the foxgloves can talk (implying biological distinction from it); and its mother’s single oven distinguishes its genus from the many flowered-foxglove. What is clear is that the foxglove is located apart from the masculinized flower. She is a ‘gypsy girl’ (i.e. not part of cluster of foxgloves), situated in a hedge. The tone of the speaker is teasing. He ribs the young male flower for his affection towards the foxglove. The male flower’s infatuation is portrayed as adolescent. In contrast, the foxglove of the title is characterized as young, sexually mature; but vitally, infected with what allegorizes as sexually transmitted disease. The headiness of nubility has literally undone her – ‘Her loose dress falls open’, and her malady is recognized explicitly – ‘Midsummer ditch-sickness!’ . The infection is fatal: her eyes (flowers) are closing. Contrast her ‘lolling armful’ with the boy flower’s mother’s ‘soft oven / For loaves of pollen.’ The second image is an idealized image of fertility. Its insertion in the final stanza evokes the notion of the boy flower’s filial attachment to his mother, and its sexual thread. The relationship between speaker and boy flower is so close that the speaker inhabits the latter. In this sense, the poet undergoes a mental metamorphosis in order to render the flower’s thoughts.