Monday, September 12, 2011

Full Moon and Little Frieda - Ted Hughes

A line by line analysis

A cool small evening shrunk to a dog bark and the
   clank of a bucket –

... evenings are the cooler part of any day, so by saying it is cool may infer that it is not so ususal (later knowing the context, perhaps the England summer of 1962)

... if the evening is small perhaps it is insignificant … nothing much going on … then the day is shrunk (shrunk ... connected to water in later lines) … you can imagine the earth shrinking light or the light shrinking earth … there is nothing visual … the evening is reduced to sound … two noises … both strong sounds that might give attention

And you listening.

… Frieda is added to the unseen bucket and dog … TH is in the background observing his daughter listening … listening to what? … we don’t know what she has heard … but assume the dog and the bucket has been heard

... little Frieda … small evening and little Frieda go together – for a child evening is small … (we know that TH and Frieda are father and daughter and that Frieda is about a 2 years old)

A spider’s web tense for the dew’s touch.

... a spider’s web is tense and the evening dew will touch … perhaps Frieda is tense after hearing the dog and the bucket … perhaps she is now on guard for something to happen just as the spider web waits tense … perhaps TH intuitively knows something is in the offing

A pail lifted, still and brimming – mirror

... perhaps TH made the bucket clank under a tap and has now lifted the full pail with Frieda standing listening to what’s going on in the dusk? … a bucket has been lifted and it is full and no water has been spilt so care has been taken in the lift … Frieda may have noticed this … it is a mirror … but not a mirror in the dark

To tempt a first star to a tremor.

... it will become a mirror (reciprocity) with the light from the first star … the water tempting the star to see itself … are stars vain! … the star can be clever too … light can ripple on the water with no overflow

Cows are going home in the lane there, looping the
  hedges with their warm wreaths of breath –

... the exhaling cows are sending their warm breath into the hedges … we get a measure of the height of the hedge … a wreath is round and made of foliage so this is an apt description of the combination of breath and hedge.

A dark river of blood, many boulders

.. the cows are coming down the lane …  probably blocking any cars ... the lane a river … it has life and movement (blood) the cows have blood colour dark patching ... like great boulders against the pales of their skins

Balancing un-spilled milk.

...the pail is balancing water and full … the moon is full and now we have the udders full and ready for milking … swaying udders not spilling milk … just as the water in the bucket is un-spilled ... the evening also full of expectation ... and then ...

‘Moon!’ you cry suddenly, ‘Moon! Moon!’

... perhaps TH has been viewing the cows and is now surprised by Frieda’s exclamation … but Frieda has discovered something (perhaps previously hidden by cloud)… and something that she knows and can name

The moon has stepped back like an artist gazing
  amazed at a work

... the moon is distant and if it has suddenly appeared from cloud (stepped back) it will have given subtle paint to the countryside … it might be quite amazed at the effect of the shadowing an pooling of light (as a great artist might look at a painting) … it might also be amazed at discovering in its light the little fascinated Frieda

That points at him amazed.

... Frieda is amazed too and has to share with her father by pointing ... reciprocity between humanity and nature
Ted Hughes (from Wodwo 1967)


This poem is a poignant description based on an instant in the life of TH. It invokes a typical English country-lane scene with cows moving at dusk. It shows father-daughter intimacy and how nature and humanity are deeply integrated ...and with an element of mystery.

Comments from Andrew Motion - in the book The Epic Poise:A Celebration of Ted Hughes (edited by Nick Gammage) Andrew Motion selects this poem as a favourite and below are some AM comments …

‘The dog-bark and the bucket-clank have become the evening, swallowing its open vowels in the snapping jaws of their consonants.’ AM

Only another poet could make such clever detailed letter consideration.

And when we get to the end of the poem … to little Frieda and the moon …

This is the great, triumphant reciprocity, in which the child understands the identity of something in nature, and nature recognises, astonished, something in humanity.
            Recognises, that is, by stepping back ‘like an artist’. Suddenly the poem goes beyond its geography without betraying or undermining anything it has already given us. In a phrase, a glance, a rush, it makes us think about the relationship between art and artist, artist and audience – and about how mirrors are held up against nature. It’s a ‘Full’ poem which knows the value of things that are ‘Little’. It’s a moment withdrawn from history – and unearthly – yet tremulous with the enormous pressure of history, and absolutely involved with the truth.  AM

Another comment in the context of the personal life of Ted Hughes …

This poem is likely to be taken from when TH was living at Court Green in Devon when he was together with Sylvia Plath in 1962 and when Frieda was only two years old. It could of course have been written after the death of Sylvia when TH went back to live in Devon - we don’t know. It was published in ‘Wodwo’ in 1967 – four years after the SP suicide. This was the first time it was published and it is an important TH poem in that TH did not normally involve his family in his poetry ... it was not until near his death in 1998 that he published his acclaimed collection Birthday Letters on the SP memories.

Much has been said about the moon symbol in this poem in connection with blood and feminity . I do not think any deep significance is warranted.

But the moon was a strong ‘mother symbol’ significant in Sylvia Plath poems. (Refer Bitter Fame - Anne Stevenson pages 23-24 for a first hand account of SP and the moon).

It is sad, knowing the circumstances, that the motherless Frieda is communicating with this ‘mother symbol’ and visa-versa. And when TH included this in Wodwo in 1967 one can't help think that TH may be lamenting the fact that SP cannot see her daughter now ... she might be equally amazed ... in kin with the moon.

Footnote ...

Frieda did go on to write poetry in her own right and below is the poem Ghost from her collection ‘Wooroloo’


                        Lost he came to watch me,
                        Wanting something.
                        Fearful of discovery
                        As if a dead man
                        Had anything to hide.

                        He touched me, like a blind man
                        Learning woman for the first time,
                        Fingerprint by fingerprint
                        Until he held my echo
                        In his hands.

                        He took his breath between his lips
                        To fill his hollow lungs,
                        And watched me live
                        As if he could unbury
                        How he died.

                        Piece by piece he stole me
                        Until I had all gone.                             

Frieda Hughes (from Wooroloo)


  1. I have since had a look at the personal letters of Ted Hughes and from the following extract it is quite clear that ‘Full Moon and Little Frieda’ was written in Devon in the spring/summer of 1962.

    Letters of Ted Hughes: Selected and Edited by Christopher Reid ... Page 720 ...

    To Keith Sagar: 28 July 1998

    Selected text from this letter …

    … I’d written almost all the 'Wodwo' poems before S. P. died. After I left her she kept typescripts of 'Out, Green Wolf, New Moon in January, Heptonstall, Full Moon & Frieda' … they were there when she died. I think she got certain things from them. …

  2. What is theme of fullbmoon and little frieda

  3. ... well, what do you get from the poem ... what does it say to you?