In "The Contender" (a poem in Ted Hughes' Crow collection), there's a group of lines with peculiar syntax. Here are the lines:

He abandoned his grin to them his grimace
In his face upwards body he lay face downwards
As a dead man adamant

Trying to make a sense out of this syntax, let's try to change the structure and punctuate it:

He abandoned his grin to them, his grimace in his face.
Upwards body he lay, face downwards
As a dead man adamant.

But except for the fact that humans can't lay with their body (i.e, torso) turned upwards while their face turned downwards, this punctuation is not how Hughes reads it.

This is how it's read by Hughes (I would've uploaded the audio, but it's copyrighted):

He abandoned his grin to them, his grimace,
In his face upwards, body, he lay, face downwards,
As a dead man adamant.

So now it seems unintelligible: The word "body" seems to have no function, and in addition, it seems that the man in the poem lay with his face turned both upwards and downwards.

Can you suggest an interpretation of these lines?

1 Answer 1


Here’s how I understand these lines. I’ve added punctuation and put some plausible elisions in brackets to clarify the sense and syntax. I’ve resolved the paradox in the second line by taking “face upwards” to be literal and “face downwards” to be metaphorical.

He abandoned his grin to them, his grimace [too].
In his face-upwards body, he lay [as if] face downwards,
As a dead man, adamant.

So I read these lines as a description of a man whose outward appearance reveals nothing of himself. He has “abandoned his grin”, leaving his expression like an empty shell, with nothing behind it. The odd expression “in his face upwards body” conveys his inward separation from his outward appearance: normally one would not distinguish “him” from “his body” in this way. He lies face-up but might as well be face-down for all one can read from his face, which reveals no more than a corpse or a stone.

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