Poem

The swallow of summer, she toils all the summer,
A blue-dark knot of glittering voltage,
A whiplash swimmer, a fish of the air.
But the serpent of cars that crawls through the dust
In shimmering exhaust
Searching to slake
Its fever in ocean
Will play and be idle or else it will bust. 

The swallow of summer, the barbed harpoon,
She flings from the furnace, a rainbow of purples,
Dips her glow in the pond and is perfect.
But the serpent of cars that collapsed on the beach
Disgorges its organs
A scamper of colours
Which roll like tomatoes
Nude as tomatoes
With sand in their creases
To cringe in the sparkle of rollers and screech. 

The swallow of summer, the seamstress of summer,
She scissors the blue into shapes and she sews it,
She draws a long thread and she knots it at the corners.
But the holiday people
Are laid out like wounded
Flat as in ovens
Roasting and basting
With faces of torment as space burns them blue
Their heads are transistors
Their teeth grit on sand grains
Their lost kids are squalling
While man-eating flies
Jab electric shock needles but what can they do? 

They can climb in their cars with raw bodies, raw faces
And start up the serpent
And headache it homeward
A car full of squabbles
And sobbing and stickiness
With sand in their crannies
Inhaling petroleum
That pours from the foxgloves
While the evening swallow
The swallow of summer, cartwheeling through crimson,
Touches the honey-slow river and turning
Returns to the hand stretched from under the eaves -
A boomerang of rejoicing shadow.

 

Analysis

Summary

This poem is all about comparison. The poet, Ted Hughes, strives to compare nature and man in this poem. He paints man out to be lazy creatures who are pollutant and destructive, but he paints out nature to be hard working, dedicated and beautiful creatures. We can see this comparison in this sense through the diction and the imagery of the poem. The poem is set in summer. The whole of this poem is based on the fact that the people are going there to try and have a good day, but in fact, it is really unpleasant.

Stanza 1

The swallow of summer, she toils all the summer,
A blue-dark knot of glittering voltage,
A whiplash swimmer, a fish of the air.
But the serpent of cars that crawls through the dust
In shimmering exhaust
Searching to slake
Its fever in ocean
Will play and be idle or else it will bust. 

 

Here, in the first stanza, we can see an introduction to our first character - the swallow of summer. This swallow is used as a refrain almost at the beginning of every stanza. Every stanza is broken up into two parts - nature and man. These two parts differ drastically in diction, sentence structure as well as imagery. 

In the first part of stanza one, we can see the speaker describe the swallow as this glorious and elegant creature who works all the time. We can also see the speaker talk about mankind going to the beach to be lazy. He uses the word "serpent" here which has evil connotations.

Stanza 2

The swallow of summer, the barbed harpoon,
She flings from the furnace, a rainbow of purples,
Dips her glow in the pond and is perfect.
But the serpent of cars that collapsed on the beach
Disgorges its organs
A scamper of colours
Which roll like tomatoes
Nude as tomatoes
With sand in their creases
To cringe in the sparkle of rollers and screech. 

In the second stanza, we can again see the contrast between the swallow and man. The swallow is described to be this accurate and efficient through the use of a  " barbed harpoon" (barbed harpoons are very efficient at doing their jobs). The swallow is described to be perfect.

Mankind, however, is again described to be lazy, frustrated and unhappy. This is done through the use of the word "disgorges" which has violent imagery attached to it as well as the use of tomatoes. The tomatoes here represent the sunburn and discomfort of the people. The word "cringe" also helps to describe this very unpleasant atmosphere.

Stanza 3

The swallow of summer, the seamstress of summer,
She scissors the blue into shapes and she sews it,
She draws a long thread and she knots it at the corners.
But the holiday people
Are laid out like wounded
Flat as in ovens
Roasting and basting
With faces of torment as space burns them blue
Their heads are transistors
Their teeth grit on sand grains
Their lost kids are squalling
While man-eating flies
Jab electric shock needles but what can they do? 

 

The swallow, in stanza 3, is said to be the seamstress of summer. The use of alliteration in this line helps to mimic the gracefulness of the swallow's movement, which the speaker is trying to portray in this line. The swallow's wings as compared to scissors as she cuts the "blue". 

Once again, man is said to be people that are hurting, uncomfortable and frustrated through the use of the words "wounded" (in a simile), "roasting and basting" as well as the comparison of people to "transistors" (metaphor). The word "transistors" is particularly relevant as a transistor resists the natural flow of electricity and, in this process, lets off heat - this is very similar to the portrayal of the people in the poem.

Stanza 4

They can climb in their cars with raw bodies, raw faces
And start up the serpent
And headache it homeward
A car full of squabbles
And sobbing and stickiness
With sand in their crannies
Inhaling petroleum
That pours from the foxgloves
While the evening swallow
The swallow of summer, cartwheeling through crimson,
Touches the honey-slow river and turning
Returns to the hand stretched from under the eaves -
A boomerang of rejoicing shadow.

In the last stanza, a change of structure is seen in the poem. The speaker starts off with the people this time and ends off with the swallow. This is because the speaker is using a question-and-reply format here. Stanza 3 finished off on a question of "What can they do?". The first part of stanza 4 is the reply and answer to this. The speaker tells the holidaymakers to go home and end their misery. 

The swallow is ending her day very pleasantly in a much more natural and relaxed scene.

This final stanza as well as the other stanzas, challenges the reader's perception as to what "work" and "play" are. Work here is depicted as being enjoyable by the use of a swallow whilst play is depicted as being unpleasant, with the use of man. 

 

 

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