Eating Pigs, and How You Should Feel About It
Yet another university presentation. This one is an essay I wrote about Ted Hughes’ poem “View of a Pig” (found at the bottom). We had to read our essays out in class.
“View of a Pig” by Ted Hughes is a carnivorous dissertation with a vegetarian subtext. It caught my eye as I scanned the table of contents because I have been conditioned to pay very little attention to pigs, and I was not sure why one would want to view one long enough to write a poem about it. The word “view” certainly seemed to belong, however. Actually, I recently had an opportunity to view a pig. I did not do it for very long, and view it was about all I did. It was a large pig. The pig was in a pen and would soon be eaten. I did not cry over the pig, and neither did Ted Hughes, or whoever the speaker of the poem is supposed to be. The things we view might make us cry, or feel some sort of emotion, maybe. But the act of viewing itself bears no emotional significance. It is raw sense perception. It is clinical. And so is the speaker of the poem as he or she views the pig.
Ostensibly, the speaker describes the pig the way he or she thumps it in the third stanza: “without remorse”. He or she tells us in the first stanza that it “lay on a barrow dead”, “weighed…as much as three men” and that “[i]ts trotters stuck straight out”. In the second stanza he or she calls it “less than lifeless…like a sack of wheat”, in the fifth he or she names it “[t]oo dead…to pity” and in the sixth, “[t]oo deadly factual”. Later, as he or she states in the final stanza, they would “[s]cald it and scour it like a doorstep” and after that, unlike a doorstep, they would presumably eat it. People have been doing this for millennia. Not all of them were poets, though it is safe, I think, to say that they were all hungry. Pigs have the misfortune of being tasty.
Ted Hughes is a poet, and so, despite my lack of a thesis statement, none of us are fooled into thinking that is all there is to it. The speaker claims to treat the pig “without remorse”, but his or her language suggests otherwise—in a very subtle and poetic way, of course. The speaker is a thoughtful individual participating in a dominant discourse that considers human dominion over the Earth and its inhabitants to be assumed. Maybe the speaker is too thoughtful for his or her own good. In the third stanza he or she speaks of guilt—but why mention guilt in relation to a pig? Two lines later he or she says the pig does not “seem able to accuse”—but what is there of which to be accused? In the following stanza he or she mentions its “last dignity had entirely gone”, which implies the pig had dignity to begin with, and says it is “not a figure of fun”, which means he or she is not having fun looking at the pig. Why not, though? He or she knows the pig will be tasty. Tasty food is fun—that is all that should concern the speaker, according to his or her societal conditioning. To speak of pitying the pig for having lost its “life, din, stronghold” in the next stanza is also inconsistent with convention. So is feeling oppressed in stanza six, and describing the “gash in its throat” as “shocking”. In stanza seven the speaker truly tips his or her hand by praising the speed and nimbleness of pigs, and in the next stanza by remarking “[p]igs must have hot blood, they feel like ovens”. Wait a second—humans have hot blood too! Is the speaker trying to suggest…? Gosh. I hope he or she does not show this poem to any of his or her friends. At this point the speaker seems to realize how remiss he or she is being in his or her depiction of the dead pig, since he or she quickly brings up a live pig’s ability to “chop a half-moon clean out” of flesh. Also, their diet of cinders and dead cats. Humans do not eat that stuff. The poem finishes with the doorstep analogy, which reads a bit differently, maybe, given the parts of the poem I have just emphasized.
Hughes could have described any animal in his poem “View of a Pig”. That he chose a pig is instructive. The biology of pigs is similar in many respects to the biology of humans. Did you know that several people have had successful heart valve transplants from pigs? If you did not already know that, it is now something that you know. Also, pigs are fairly intelligent creatures—just like us!—and apparently make great pets, or, you know, companions. A quick Google search tells me vegetarians have not yet discovered Ted Hughes’ poem, but I think they should read it and add it to their rhetorical repertoire. The speaker in the poem “View of a Pig” appears at first to be a cold, hardened pig-eater but a deeper reading reveals he or she is actually a big softie and probably a raw vegan in the making.
View of a Pig
by Ted Hughes
The pig lay on a barrow dead.
It weighed, they said, as much as three men.
Its eyes closed, pink white eyelashes.
Its trotters stuck straight out.
Such weight and thick pink bulk
Set in death seemed not just dead.
It was less than lifeless, further off.
It was like a sack of wheat.
I thumped it without feeling remorse.
One feels guilty insulting the dead,
Walking on graves. But this pig
Did not seem able to accuse.
It was too dead. Just so much
A poundage of lard and pork.
Its last dignity had entirely gone.
It was not a figure of fun.
Too dead now to pity.
To remember its life, din, stronghold
Of earthly pleasure, as it had been,
Seemed a false effort, and off the point.
Too deadly factual. Its weight
Oppressed me – how could it be moved?
And the trouble of cutting it up!
The gash in its throat was shocking, but not pathetic.
Once I ran at a fair in the noise
To catch a greased piglet
That was faster and nimbler than a cat,
Its squeal was the rending of metal.
Pigs must have hot blood, they feel like ovens.T
heir bite is worse than a horse’s –
They chop a half-moon clean out.
They eat cinders, dead cats.
Distinctions and admirations such
As this one was long finished with.
I stared at it a long time. They were going to scald it,
Scald it and scour it like a doorstep.