I'm reading Ted Hughes' "The Smile" (text version), and I'm trying to understand its plotline.

More specifically: what's the nature of the scenes wherein the poem's protagonist, the smile, goes through? and how does each scene connects to its subsequent?

Here's how I see it, and my explanation for each scene:

1. Verse I + II: Nature

Began under the groan of the oldest forest
It ran though the clouds, a third light
And it ran through the skin of the earth

It came circling the earth
Like the lifted bow
Of a wave's submarine running
Tossing the willows, and swelling the elm-tops
Looking for its occasion

This is pretty clear:

  • The smile begins in a forest,
  • goes through the clouds,
  • and circles the earth as a wave.

These are all images of nature.

2. verse III: Battlefield?

But people were prepared
They met it
With visor smiles, mirrors of ricochet
With smiles that stole a bone
And smiles that went off with a mouthful of blood
And smiles that left poison in a numb place
Or doubled up
Covering a getaway

There are clues that indicate a battlefield:

I'm not sure, though: the "bone" being stolen and the "poison in a numb place" doesn't seem to fit this presumed-context.
These could be explained if we interpret this scene as the creation of Eve (a prominent subject in Crow's Collection) from the ribs of Adam, but then the other images become hard to explain.


  1. "visor smiles" probably simply means "disguised smiles" (see this old dictionary), so this is not the moveable helmet part.
  2. "Smiles that stole a bone" probably alludes to Hyenas, mentioned in various places along Crow poems. This seems to fit: Hyenas "smile", they eat bones, and may actually "steal" a bone to enjoy it quietly (this article is a nice read, and this is lovely video).

3. verse IV: ?

But the smile was too vast, it outflanked all
It was too tiny it slipped between the atoms
So that the steel screeched open
Like a gutted rabbit, the skin was nothing
Then the pavement and the air and the light
Confined all the jumping blood
No better than a paper bag
People were running with bandages [...]

I'm not sure what's going on here:

  • Does the smile suddenly attack humanity ("people were running with bandages")? unlikely, given its positive nature (which becomes evident at the poem's end, when it's "mending everything").
  • Also, what's that "pavement" does here? and how does it, together with "the air and light", "confined all the jumping blood"?

4. verse V-VIII: Jesus crucifixion?

And there was the unlucky person's eye
Pinned under its brow
Widening for the darkness behind it [...]

And at that very moment the smile arrived

And the crowd, shoving to get a glimpse of a man's soul
Stripped to its last shame,
Met this smile
That rose through his torn roots
Touching his lips, altering his eyes

There are clues that indicate the crucifixion:

  • The single "person's eye" (see Methew 6:22) which is "pinned".
  • Shoving crowd
  • The fact that this man is "stripped to its last shame" (see Hebrews 12:2).
  • Also, the fact that this presumably-Jesus eventually smiles can be seen as Hughes' consistent mocking of Christian ideas.

I'm not sure, though: this presumed-context is completely unrelated to the previous verses.

Can you help me find a unifying narrative for this poem?

  • I too struggle with this - indeed many of the poems in Crow! Thanks for pointing out the connections across the collection - I agree it is likely there a references to hyenas and Jesus. This poem made me think of a nuclear blast - ‘a third light’ that ‘slipped between the atoms’. This would make sense of the imagery of light and reflection, of poison and blood, the darkness left behind. In this context, the smile would be rictus, a typically sinister inversion of something meant to be cheerful, as Hughes does throughout Crow.
    – James
    Commented Feb 13, 2021 at 21:55
  • 1
    I don't see any reason to assume that Hughes is using an archaic meaning of visor when the current meaning seems to fit just as well.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 13:58

3 Answers 3


My feeling is that this poem is about love. For the purposes of this response, I am going to call that genuine compassion. That is the 'SMILE'. It rises up out of nature; it searches human history for its moment to arrive. When it does, it meets, initially 'PEOPLE' - with their faker smiles ( I am reminded here of his line from 'Tales from Ovid' - 'Violence is the extrapolation of the cutting edge into the orbit of the smile.') - the intricacies of each image are opaque, however, it arguable that they stack up behind this idea. However, compassion is too all encompassing - as big as the universe, and smaller than its atoms - to be defeated, fooled or contained by such myopia. And this could be the real message of the Bible, the Bbagavad Gita, the Kuran, the Dhamas - all religion: that God (the clunky metaphor) is found in everything - literally - so to try and hide or fake your way from its benevolence is impossible. Compassion prizes open steel (which can be read as a metaphor for man's structures) - and when it does, nothing can contain the real change it brings with it - certainly not notions of nation, place or any other human construction. The last verses resonate with Christian imagery. However, not in a mocking way, I don't think. In fact that last image of 'this smile that rose through its torn roots' seems to me to be triumphant.


This answer isn't going to cover every aspect of this poem, and does not contradict the other answers. However, let me point out an aspect of this poem that the other answers have not mentioned: Ted Hughes is riffing on the adage:

Smile and the whole world smiles with you.

The smile is trying to force everybody else to smile.

In the first two verses, the smile is born out of Nature.

In the third verse, some people try to resist it with their "weaponized" smiles. (Note that when people respond with "weaponized" smiles, their behavior still conforms with the adage.)

The fourth verse shows that the smile is too powerful to be resisted in this way.

And in the last verses, the smile confronts a man in the uttermost depths of despair, and manages to lift his spirits and make everything okay, at least for a moment or two.


I find that a good way for me to understand a poem is not by asking what it means, but to try to find out how it means. The what grows out of the how.

If we apply this rule to the smile, we find a couple of ways that it means in the large view: the crow is a re-imagining of a creation story; the particular creation story in the crow's mind is the bible.

Taking a couple of relevant sections from the bible [Isaiah 24 - https://biblehub.com/niv/isaiah/24.htm, Matthew 6:22-23, https://biblehub.com/niv/matthew/6.htm ] will get us closer to the poem's meaning (imho).

Quick-interpretation of The Smile:

We are introduced to a force that has existed since ancient times and has now awakened into being. It has the qualities of an earthquake, volcano, tsunami, lightning - a destructive force of nature - that is also another form of light (a third form). The light-like force surges across the land.

When people encounter it, they defend against it [not all metaphors discussed]:

visors & mirrors / helmets and shields, or hats and shades

smiles that stole a bone / someone thinks they've gotten away with something, or adam and eve

smiles ... blood / those who have acted like a predator

smiles ... poison / animals that poison & sting, or saying something wounding

or doubled up ... getaway / a double-line of reinforcements barricading a doorway, or as two rows of people arranged like as a metaphorical teeth in a smile

Each of these smiles has the power of a fear-grin in the face of the onslaught, a bandage to patch a ruptured earth. It permeates all existence, from the smallest to the largest.

None of these defenses work. Instead, the smile erupts through the earth like lava tearing the crust apart. Nothing can stop it. The earth is being torn asunder. Un-containable carnage is everywhere.

I believe this is a metaphor of the apocalypse.

The next section talks about a crowd who glimpses a man's soul, stripped of its last shame.

The "unlucky person" is a chist figure, who is made to watch, but also looks inward and sees only a spreading darkness, "As if the soul were not working".

I believe this to be a christ-figure, who undergoes resurrection after the smile arrives (the third light: father, son, resurrected son), "And for a moment / Mending everything."

But, despite this, the smile continues its destructive path.

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