October Dawn by Ted Hughes
October is marigold, and yet
A glass half full of wine left out
To the dark heaven all night, by dawn
Has dreamed a premonition
Of ice across its eye as if
The ice-age had begun its heave.
The lawn overtrodden and strewn
From the night before, and the whistling green
Shrubbery are doomed. Ice
Has got its spearhead into place.
First a skin, delicately here
Restraining a ripple from the air;
Soon plate and river on pond and brook;
Then tons of chain and massive lock
To hold rivers. Then, sound by sight
Will Mammoth and Sabre-tooth celebrate
Reunion while a fist of cold
Squeezes the fire at the core of the world,
Squeezes the fire at the core of the heart,
And now it is about to start.
I couldn’t resist posting this poem while we are still in October, and also because gardens are becoming the most popular places in which to socialise at the moment – October 2020 – while we wrestle with the Covid19-related restrictions put in place by the UK and Scottish Governments. (Apparently sales of outdoor heaters, fire pits and other cooking-related apparatus are greatly increased at the moment, and people are planning to celebrate Christmas outdoors with their friends this year!)
Although I love this poem and have done ever since I first read it, many years ago, I’ve always thought of it as rather far-fetched, because here in Scotland it would previously have been thought of as madness to sit outside with a glass of wine on an October evening. Now, we have been made more brave – and more creative – by the restrictions facing us!
There are many wonderful things about this poem. It is about a transition phase – between summer and winter – and Hughes reinforces this sense of being half-way between things by using half rhyme in almost every verse. Half rhyme in this case rhymes the consonants at the end of words but not their vowel sounds, for example yet and out; strewn and green; ice and place.
The opening image gives us a sense of warmth and sunshine – “October is marigold” – but immediately afterwards he takes us to the point of the poem: winter is almost here: “and yet/ A glass half full of wine left out/ To the dark heaven all night, by dawn/ Has dreamed a premonition/ Of ice”.
As well as half rhyme, Hughes uses enjambement – lines which run into the next, without punctuation to make the reader pause – so that we have a sense of the sweeping inevitability of the coming of winter, as if, indeed, “The ice-age had begun its heave.”
As in many of Hughes’s poems, Nature is not soft and pretty but fierce and dangerous: “The lawn . . . and the . . . Shrubbery are doomed.” “Ice/Has got its spearhead into place.”
The subtlety with which winter approaches is beautiful – “First a skin, delicately here/Restraining a ripple from the air” – but “Soon” it becomes an immense and powerful thing like iron or other metal, holding even previously-flowing rivers in its inescapable grasp: “plate and rivet on pond and brook;/ Then ton of chain and massive lock/ To hold rivers.”
The prospect of the deep cold of winter inspires Hughes to imagine the now-extinct creatures of the ice age – “Mammoth and Sabre-tooth”.
The cold of winter is such that it seems to squeeze the very heart of the world in its fist; and humans are not immune to the threat of winter either. There is something about the psychological effect of winter that Hughes touches upon – “a fist of cold/ . . . Squeezes the fire at the core of the heart”. And we look to the threat of winter with a sense of foreboding: “And now it is about to start.”
Notice how Hughes finishes the poem with a complete rhyme – heart and start. Shakespeare often does this at the end of a scene in his plays, too. I think it’s like a double underlining when you’ve finished something off!
I like, too, the way in which our sense of foreboding at the end of the poem links us to the glass half full of wine which, at the beginning of the poem, had “dreamed a premonition/ Of ice”. We are inextricably linked with nature.