A lamb could not get born. Ice wind
Out of a downpour dishclout sunrise. The mother
Lay on the mudded slope. Harried, she got up
And the blackish lump bobbed at her back-end
Under her tail. After some hard galloping,
Some manoeuvring, much flapping of the backward
Lump head of the lamb looking out,
I caught her with a rope. Laid her, head uphill
And examined the lamb. A blood-ball swollen
Tight in its black felt, its mouth gap
Squashed crooked, tongue stuck out, black-purple,
Strangled by its mother. I felt inside,
Past the noose of mother-flesh, into the slippery
Muscled tunnel, fingering for a hoof,
Right back to the port-hole of the pelvis.
But there was no hoof. He had stuck his head out too early
And his feet could not follow. He should have
Felt his way, tip-toe, his toes
Tucked up under his nose
For a safe landing. So I kneeled wrestling
With her groans. No hand could squeeze past
The lamb’s neck into her interior
To hook a knee. I roped that baby head
And hauled till she cried out and tried
To get up and I saw it was useless. I went
Two miles for the injection and a razor.
Sliced the lamb’s throat-strings, levered with a knife
Between the vertebrae and brought the head off
To stare at its mother, its pipes sitting in the mud
With all earth for a body. Then pushed
The neck-stump right back in, and as I pushed
She pushed. She pushed crying and I pushed gasping,
And the strength
Of the birth push and the push of my thumb
Against that wobbly vertebra were deadlock,
A to-fro futility. Till I forced
A hand past and got a knee. Then like
Pulling myself to the ceiling with one finger
Hooked in a loop, timing my effort
To her birth push groans, I pulled against
The corpse that would not come. Till it came.
And after it the long, sudden, yolk-yellow
Parcel of life
In a smoking slather of oils and soups and syrups—
And the body lay born, beside a hacked-off head.

I’ve cared for this poem since I first read it in 2009. In terms of European nature poetries, Hughes’ most probing moments strike me as having an aggressive, preemptory, bold linguistic content—as, in this poem, ‘downpour dishclout sunrise,’ ‘mudded,’ ‘to hook a knee,’ ‘flapping of the backward / Lump head of the lamb looking out’—that easily bests Heaney, if they fall short of Thomas and Hopkins.

Yet my affection for “February 17th” is recently qualified by how I understand the speaker’s treatment of the simultaneously animal/female ‘antagonist’—is she not antagonist to the speaker’s role as a kind of shepherd-narrator?—specifically, her situation as ultimately culpable in the death of her own lamb. Sidereal to these qualifications are fears that gender politicking or matters of animal rights might, in my own understanding, be usurping the primacy of “February 17th” as art-object.

Let me try to parse this conflict, for my own good. There is, first, my (largely New Critical) belief that a poem contains all resources for its analysis within the boundaries created by its first and last lines. I am staunchly opposed to the entry of any authorial biography, historicism, or life-stuff into the discussion of a poem, simply because any such correspondences (e.g., wife-abuser in life cannot translate Feminine in poetry) necessarily minimize the rich facets of the psyche and the unconscious is the moment of artistic making. Yet I absolutely believe a poem extends—forwards and backwards, outwards and inwards, pressurized depth to atomic bubbling surface—past the boundaries of its content to make meaning. Obviously. In terms of “February 17th,” therefore, the question is how to analyze some of Hughes’ more troubling tonal decisions with an ear to highest heights, not to common (read: unexamined) political sentiment. Might Hughes have better appraised his speaker’s ‘natural,’ linear movement from act of delivering the lamb to act of making the poem? Does the poet, as a trucker in or distiller of intangible maelstrom forces, owe more to her eye than apt translation?

Let’s have a ‘naming of parts,’ Mr. Reed.

In terms of what I’ve called Hughes’ ‘troubling tonal decisions,’ there is ‘strangled by its mother’ in line 12, and then ‘noose of mother-flesh’ one line later; then the indicting ‘stare’ of the lamb’s severed head in line 29. The ewe’s culpability seems, to me, unnecessarily heightened by the speaker in the gruesome build-up to line 12, with ‘blood-ball’ and ‘[s]quashed crooked, tongue stuck out,’ so that the ‘noose’ bit hits like shot with a shiv. ‘[N]oose of mother-flesh’ reads patently pointed, consequently—the most artificial of moves in the poem, the most difficult to excuse. (To the speaker’s credit, a list of indications that the lamb himself ought to have known better how to ‘get born’ mollifies this accusation somewhat.) That the dead lamb is a ‘he,’ and that Hughes’ speaker maintains a cold, doctorly, official poise throughout much of the piece (‘He should have / Felt his way,’ ‘I saw it was useless,’ ‘I went / Two miles for the injection and a razor,’ even the equation of the force of the ‘birth push’ to the ‘push of [his] thumb’) disquiets me further.

Background to these gender concerns—dubiously background—is one’s acceptance of husbandry as routine occupation, as if the animal subject is but a purveyor of practical, practicable biological routines, ‘groans’ one ‘wrestles with.’ The ewe’s position as antagonist is strangely devoid of agency; she comes to life only as a third-person pronoun and, in the name of help, is reduced to a subject whereby the speaker’s husbandry skills are worked through. The specific abuses of the ewe’s handling—being ‘caught with a rope,’ twice penetrated, her pelvis but a ‘port-hole’—only disappear as abuses when dealing with subjects denied real Otherness. Thus one readily notes the masculine bias, but misses the speciesist one.

Hughes, I think, needs to have done better—defenses of “February 17th” on the basis of realism are not adequate, because the artist is charged with more than simple reflection of the world, first, and also because there’s quite a bit of strong imaginative content present in the poem, though it is saved for struggles exclusive of the lamb and the ewe.

These struggles are what save the speaker and the poem from being failures, at least in my estimation. There’s special vulnerability and measure in ‘like / Pulling myself to the ceiling with one finger / Hooked in a loop,’ and also in the speaker’s earlier ‘gasping’: I have little question that Hughes’ speaker considers this encounter with the ewe one of dire seriousness, enough by which to define, memorialize an entire day. True, he may not be able to manage that encounter—an encounter with both the female and the animal—with sublimest poetic apprehension, but he has written a poem about that, not about a television show crush or a bag of chips.

I’m most convinced about the honesty of Hughes’ intent by the fact that the poem doesn’t simply end with the expansive, moving ‘all earth for a body’ on line 31. This would’ve achieved a medicinal triumph; the expert husband would have succeeded in remarrying animal Adam to his primordial soil. Note the sentence-opening connectives Hughes must resort to to move the narrative after that point: ‘[T]hen,’ ‘[T]ill,’ ‘[T]hen,’ ‘[T]ill.’ If we find our second example of strong artifice here, it is the artifice of a mind in conflict with a subject that may exceed its equipage. And that is the noblest of conflicts, success or no.