Work and Play

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Work and Play

  • This is an excellent poem to use in the exam because there is so much to say about it. It is packed full of vivid images, and a strong contrast runs through the poem.

In Work and Play, Hughes contrasts the world of nature (as represented by the swallow) with that of humans.

Each of the four stanzas contain lines describing the bird and its activities at 'work', and the people at 'play'.

Hughes praises the bird's industry and beauty. The lines on the swallow are celebratory; the tone is of excitement and wonder.

These lines are also full of exuberant images, mainly metaphors. The swallow has clearly fired the poet's imagination.

In other words, Hughes' display of poetic technique is the equivalent of the bird's display in flight.

The long, elegant, fluid lines Hughes uses to capture the swallow contrast with the short stumpy ones he uses to describe the people. It is also clear that, through the imagery he uses, Hughes is criticising human behaviour.

The swallow is fast and energetic, a 'whiplash swimmer' enjoying the freedom of the air.

The traffic jam, however, is described as a 'serpent', that 'crawls' through 'dust'. Ever since Adam and Eve serpents have been associated with evil, 'crawls' sounds slow and tired, whilst the word 'dust' contains ideas of exhaustion and death.

By making the swallow sound attractive and the human behaviour unappealing, Hughes criticises our idea of 'work', as being hard and tiring, and of 'play' being relaxing and fun.

If you've read any of the Harry Potter books the people in this poem are rather like the stupid, lumbering Muggles, whilst the swallow belongs to the world of adventure and magic.

A long tradition in poetry associates the poet, as a kind of singer, with birds. Perhaps here the solitary creative swallow also represents the solitary, creative poet?


The following boxes show words that apply to the swallow or to the people.

Attributes Of The Swallow...

Qualities: Evidence:
Hard Working Toils all summer
Joyful A boomerang of rejoicing shadow
Energetic Cartwheelnig through crimson
Athletic A whiplash swimmer
Beautiful Dips her glow in the pond and is perfect
Creative She scissors the blue into shapes and she sews it

Attributes Of The People...

Qualities: Evidence
Miserable Faces of torment
Exhausted Laid out like wounded
Unnatural Their heads are transitors
Irritating, irritable Headache it homewards
Polluting Inhaling petroleum
Argumentative A car full of squabbles
Suffering Roasting and basting

Whatever you say about a poem in your exam, it needs to be backed-up by evidence.

Pick a quote from the poem to support what you have said about the bird in the box above.

So, if you've said that the swallow is creative, which line from the poem would you choose to support this claim'

The swallow

Work and Play

Hughes makes the Swallow sound attractive through his use of:

1. The length and rhythm of the lines.

Look at the first 3 lines of each stanza. They are long and fluent; the rhythm is upbeat. The alliteration helps to underscore the rhythm; the silky's' sounds creating a unity and a smooth speed to the lines:

''The swallow of summer, the seamstress of summer.'

2. Specific vocabulary (the verbs, nouns, and adjectives he chooses).

Verbs: Nouns: Adjectives:
'oils', 'flings', 'dips', 'scissors', 'sews', 'draws', 'knots', is 'cartwheeling', and 'touches' It is a 'knot', a 'swimmer', a 'rainbow', a 'seamstress', a 'boomerang' and a 'shadow' 'Blue-dark', 'barbed', 'perfect','rejoicing'

What impressions of the swallow do words like 'cartwheeling' or 'boomerang' create?

3. Figurative language (metaphors and similes).

Click the items under the "Effect" column below to reveal how the swallow is described within the poem:

Copyright S-cool

And finally through the running comparison with the people.

The swallow is almost the opposite of the people.

The People

Work and Play

As with the swallow, Hughes conveys his attitude to the people through his use of:

1. Figurative language.

Pick out five images that best convey to you Hughes' negative, critical description of the people, their actions and their cars.

For example, 'Like wounded Flat as in ovens roasting and basting', makes the idea of sun bathing sound horribly painful, like they are the victims of a war, and that therefore their behaviour is foolish and dangerous.

2. Line length and punctuation.

In comparison with the line describing the swallow, which is long and flowing,the ones on the people seem short, cut-off, cramped and stumpy.

The lack of punctuation perhaps gives the impression of the people tumbling out and in the third stanza of an endless sprawling list of suffering, pain and discomfort.

The length of lines is one aspect of form

Form is basically the structure and layout of the poem.

A couple of questions on form:

  • Why do you think the number of lines describing the people increase in each stanza?
  • Why does Hughes reverse the pattern of the stanzas in the final one?

3. Vocabulary.

Some of the key verbs, nouns and adjectives are listed below:

What impression of the people do words like 'collapsed', 'screech' or'raw' create?

And of course, all this is in marked, direct contrast with the wonderful 'cartwheeling' swallow.

Remember: in the exam you will get marks for what you say about quotes, for your analysis of them.

A good model for using quotes is the PEA model:

P = Point

E = Evidence

A = Analysis

In all poetry questions you will be asked to write about the following:

  • The subject(s) of the poem
  • The attitude of the poet
  • The poetic devices the poet uses

In other words you will be asked about what the poet is writing about,what the poet feels about the subject(s) and how the poem is written.

Verbs: Nouns: Adjectives:
'crawls', 'searching', 'slake', 'be idle', 'play', 'collapsed', 'disgorges', 'cringe', 'screech', 'laid out', 'roasting', 'grit', 'squalling', 'headache' 'serpent', 'tomatoes', 'wounded', 'transistors', 'crannies' 'lost' 'raw' 'flat'
Work and Play contrasts the world of the swallow with that of people.
It is also about our ideas of what 'work' and 'play' mean, and our values.

Hughes' attitude is expressed by the tone of the poem.
Hughes praises and celebrates the swallow, whilst criticising the people. He dislikes the ugliness and stupidity of the people, who seem alien and a pollutant in the natural world. Hughes sees the swallow as the perfect expression of the beauty and harmony of nature.

An exam might ask 'What attitude does Hughes have towards the people and the swallow, and how does he express this?'

Hughes main device is contrast. Contrasts run through the poem, in each stanza the swallow ad people are compared.
Hughes uses a lot of metaphors, and sensual imagery. We see 'nude as tomatoes', hear 'screech', taste 'grit', smell 'Inhaling petroleum', and touch 'jab' the action of the poem.
The varying rhythm and line length help to create the contrast.