What am I? Nosing here, turning leaves over
following a faint stain on the air to the river's edge
I enter water.
Ted Hughes' poem 'Wodwo' marks the beginning of a new style in his poetry: more interested in mythology, less formal in structure and metre. It appears in the 1967 collection Wodwo1. The book is hard to find, but the poem appears in his Collected Poems 1957-1994 and also in many anthologies including the excellent Faber Book of Beasts (edited by Paul Muldoon).
Brief Biography of the Poet
Ted Hughes was born in Yorkshire in 1930. His rural upbringing on the moors immensely influenced his poetry.
He met his future wife, the American poet Sylvia Plath, while at Cambridge University. He initially studied English, but later dropped this in favour of archaeology and anthropology. His first collection, The Hawk in the Rain, was published in 1957. He and Plath had two children, but he left her in 1962 following her discovery of his affair. She committed suicide in 1963.
During the '60s, his reputation grew with a series of books for both children and adults, perhaps most notably The Iron Man2. However, he was vilified by Plath's supporters for what they saw as his role in her death, and Hughes wrote some of his bitterest and most savage poetry in the 1970s.
In 1984, he was made Poet Laureate following John Betjeman's death, a post he held until his own death in 1998. Shortly before this, he had published his two most popular3 books, Tales from Ovid and Birthday Letters, a series of poems addressed to Plath.
'Wodwo' is the title poem of Hughes' first collection of 'adult' poetry since Plath's death, though it also contains stories and the transcript of a radio play written in the early '60s.
The title comes from the 14th Century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Written in Middle English, the poem was Hughes' source of the word 'wodwos', the plural form. It occurs as well in Old English as 'wuduwosa'. The first element, 'wod' is our modern word 'wood'; the wuduwosa is a creature of the forest. The second element is more obscure, but may derive from the verb 'wesan' - 'to strive or contend'. And so, the wuduwosa would be an enemy in the forest. It is sometimes translated as 'faun' or 'satyr' because it was used by Old English scribes to gloss those words in Latin texts. The word was commonly used until the 16th Century to describe wild men of the forest, the figure that came to be called the 'Green Man' in the early 20th Century. In this passage (used by Hughes as an epitaph to 'Wodwo') it is translated as 'wild troll'.
He [Gawain] had death-struggles with dragons, did battle with wolves,
Warred with wild trolls that dwelt among the crags,
Battled with bulls and bears and boars at other times,
And ogres that panted after him on the high fells.
- 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight'4
Hughes himself called a wodwo 'some sort of goblin creature'5.
This ambiguity surrounding the word is the basis of the poem. It begins 'What am I?' and the whole poem seems to be a riddle, an enigma. Much like those in the old Exeter Book of Riddles or in Chapter Five of The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien (who translated Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and was an expert in Old and Middle English literature.)
Structure and Language
The poem is essentially a soliloquy in which the creature tries to ascertain what it is as it wanders through a forest.
It is written in 28 free-verse lines with a minimum of punctuation. Apart from one solitary comma in the first line and a full stop in line three, the only punctuation used is the question mark (and this sparingly). Phrases flow into phrases and several readings may be required to sort out the natural rhythm of the poem. The language is simple and conveys the basic questions that the wodwo is asking itself. For example:
But what shall I be called am I the first
have I an owner what shape am I what
shape am I am I huge if I go
to the end on this way past these trees and past these trees
It has the feeling of stream-of-consciousness, a technique used by novelists such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf to convey the workings of the human mind - an internal monologue. The language successfully conveys the internal fight that the creature is having with itself. The jumble of words giving an indication of the rapidity with which it is thinking.It ends with the words '...but I'll go on looking'. There is no full stop.
Wodwo is a puzzling poem and this is its point. The owner of this name is trying to understand what it is to the world. 'What am I?' it asks. 'Am I this, am I that?' This continual questioning of its place in the world is one of humanity's basic states. Is this what went through the mind of the first human to gain consciousness? The reader cannot help, because what it is has been lost to history. We can never know what the first human thought and we may never know exactly what the word 'wodwo' means.
One of the features of any successful poem is that it can make the reader question themselves. One of the strengths of 'Wodwo' is that these questions are already there for you and you can struggle with the wodwo as it struggles with its own mind. And the poem succeeds in conveying the uncertainties of life in the modern world in this way: the wodwo's questions and troubled mind are our own. The last line says that the wodwo will 'go on looking'. It does not give up, and this belief has brought humanity to its current position.