In Ted Hughes' "The Contender" (which I already asked about once), there's a phrase which I can't figure. Here are the lines:

"All the women in the world could not move him
They came their mouths deformed against stone
They came and their tears salted his nail-holes […]"

I'm not a native English speaker so I maybe missing something simple here, but I can't figure out the phrase:

"mouths deformed against stone"

What could this mean?


2 Answers 2


After thinking of it for a while, I'd like to shed some poetic light on it.

1. Similiar usage

I got reminded of another similiar usage of the "de-" prefix in another Ted Hughes' Crow poem, called "Crow's Account of St. George":

[...] He refrigerates an emptiness,
Decreates all to outer space [...]

The word "Decreates" is Hughes' neologism, using the "de-" prefix in a unique, poetic sense. One can suggest many interpretations of this usage, but surely enough, since this is a neologism, those interpretations would concentrate on the two parts of the word: The prefix (de), and the verb (create).

So, I think we can refer to the phrase in question in a similiar way: We need to concentrate separately of the two parts of the word "deformed": The prefix (de), and the verb (form).

2. Suggestion: A Biblical Allusion

If we search for "formed against" in Google, the first result is the last verse of Isaiah 54 (all of the following citations are taken from King James version):

No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their righteousness is of me, saith the Lord.

So we can see that tongue and a formed-weapon coincide, and so we can understand the phrase in question as a poetic arrangement of this metaphor.

But what does Isaiah 54 has to do with "The Contender"?

3. The Servant Songs

Well, though it's not considered as one of the four Servant Songs, Isaiah 54 is the chapter that follows the last Servant Song - which is a part of Isaiah 53, arguably the most known Old Testament chapter that - according to Christian discourse - is a prophecy of Jesus. Isaiah 54 itself is also referred to in Christianity as speaking of Jesus.

The four Servant Songs, especially the last one, depicts lengthily the suffering of "the servant", and suffering is also the main subject of "The Contender".

Ok, so all is good and well, but what's "mouths deformed against stone"?

4. Wrapping It All Together

In the third Servant Song, the Servant's face is depicted as a flint:

For the Lord God will help me; therefore shall I not be confounded: therefore have I set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be ashamed.

[Relatedly, in Isaiah 54:11-12 we read:

O thou afflicted, tossed with tempest, and not comforted, behold, I will lay thy stones with fair colours, and lay thy foundations with sapphires.

And I will make thy windows of agates, and thy gates of carbuncles, and all thy borders of pleasant stones.


So, to expand on what @giorgi rcheulishvili have correctly simply put, we may suggest that the women in the poem approach the man with good intentions, maybe trying to convince him to leave the suffering behind it, but their words are hitting a stone-faced man who considers their words as weapons trying to deflect him of its passion (pun intended).

5. A Side Note

Isaiah 54:5 talks about "The Redeemer":

and thy Redeemer the Holy One of Israel

Considering that, it's pretty clear that the poem's title is quite ironic.

  • How do you get the idea that “deformed” is a neologism? According to Merriam-Webster the first known use of that word was in 15th century, that is, long before Ted Huges was born.
    – celtschk
    Aug 4, 2019 at 9:23
  • @celtschk, read carefully section 1 of my answer. I argue that decreated is a neologism, not deformed. Of course deformed is an existing word, but I argue that Hughes' usage here is not the simple one, but a more sophisticated usage that consideres separately the two parts of it.
    – HeyJude
    Aug 4, 2019 at 9:35
  • I did carefully read it. And yes, you didn't explicitly say that “deformed” is a neologism, but you said that “decreated” is to be interpreted by its constituents because it is a neologism, and then say that we need to treat “deformed” the same way. This very strongly implies that “deformed” is also a neologism (else, why the need to treat it that way?)
    – celtschk
    Aug 4, 2019 at 9:40
  • As I see it, if a word exists (deformed), it can't be neologism even if it's used in a new way. If it doesn't, and someone comes up with it for the first time, it's a neologism (decreated).
    – HeyJude
    Aug 4, 2019 at 9:46

They came their mouths deformed against stone

Is obviously metaphor(man is compared to a rock)

Rock essentially is a spiritless, non-alive thing which obviously can't think and generally can't do what human can do. So

mouth deformed against stone

Means that this man didn't gave any attention to them(womans) and stood like a rock and their effort to talk to him was ineffective.

  • 1
    You write "man is compared to a rock". "Man" without an article means man/humanity in general, not just one particular man. Is that really what you mean?
    – Tsundoku
    Jun 26, 2019 at 17:33
  • What? Christophe can you show me where is mentioned in this context man as humanity. You don't need much logic to understand that i mean just one particular man.
    – SgerS1
    Jun 26, 2019 at 17:39
  • "They came and their tears salted his nail-holes"
    – SgerS1
    Jun 26, 2019 at 17:41
  • They (womans) and their tears salted his(man) nail-holes
    – SgerS1
    Jun 26, 2019 at 17:42
  • If you write "man" without an article ("an" or "the"), the word means humanity in general. That's how English grammar works.
    – Tsundoku
    Jun 26, 2019 at 21:34

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