‘The Fox In The National Museum of Wales’ is a poem by Robert Minhinnick which explores the idea of past and present, through which a reader is taken to today’s globalised world using the symbolism of a fox to represent time and the future. Minhinnick is a Welsh poet, often described as one of the best among his generation, and is well known for his environmentalism; he founded the Welsh branch of Friends of the Earth. There are various environmental influences on this poem, with references to animals using imagery of pollution.
This poem is no longer part of the set of prescribed poems that could be included in the Edexcel English Literature exam, however it is still useful for practice as an unseen poem. Click here to see a full list of revision notes for the examined poems.
Interpreture gives ‘The Fox In The National Museum of Wales’ a difficulty rating of 4, meaning that it is deemed to be a relatively difficult poem. Some students may struggle to understand the meaning of this poem because it is slightly more obscure than others in the ‘Poems of the Decade’ anthology. In addition, the inconsistent structure and variety of complex language techniques make both of these aspects relatively difficult.
‘The Fox In The National Museum of Wales’
The title of the poem may seem oddly specific in comparison to many other poems in the anthology, however on further consideration it is clear that while the reader is given a subject matter and location, this is not excessively helpful in terms of determining the message of the poem. It also would raise many different questions, such as what the significance of these two things are, and why an animal is inside a museum. Foxes have various connotations, and are also very dependent on an individual, so the choice of this animal could be quite striking for a reader due to the association they form with them. It becomes clear that the fox is a representation of time and the future, so these connotations would seem fitting.
Simply looking at the shape of a poem on a page can often be useful at finding points of interest, and one notable feature of this poem is that the lines become notably shorter as the poem progresses; with as many as twelve words on a line in the first stanza, to only three words on the final line. This gives a visual gradient to the poem, symbolising progression from the past to the present, and then to the future, and makes the poem feel as if it is speeding up to match the development that is being described.
Minhinnick also uses repetition of ‘the fox’ persistently, with the third stanza almost entirely taken up with this repetition. This is very notable, aided by the assonance of ‘fox’ and other words such as ‘fossils’ and ‘flock’, aiding the transition to a chant-like rhythm. The repetition throughout the poem also encourages a reader to consider the choice in animal; a fox symbolically represents something instinctive, unpredictable, with cunning and untrustworthy, and this poem uses it as a representation of the future. As such, a reader would likely see the future in line with these ideas, as potentially dangerous but also positive in a surprising and unpredictable way.
Enjambment is also used to make lines appear shorter, most notably used at the end to draw the poem to a close. It can also be interpreted as being a representation of the “closing” iron doors that are described in the stanza, with the enjambment across these lines giving an ever-closing sense to the structure, particularly when read aloud.
There is frequent use of alliteration in ‘The Fox In The National Museum of Wales’ such as “shimmies surreptitiously” in the sixth stanza. The sibilance from the use of the ‘s’ sound may make a reader more apprehensive and on edge due to the negative connotations and hissing sound, seeing the fox as more untrustworthy in this section than elsewhere in the poem. Other examples include “blood on the bristles” in the fifth stanza or “fox I foster” in the second to last stanza. The way in which alliteration is used in the poem could be seen as the different trends and patterns throughout history being reflected in the sound of words, making a reader consider both the past, and what patterns there may be in the future.
Stemming from his environmentalism, Minhinnick uses similes to liken animals to man made materials, for example “the turtle black as an oildrum” and “whalebone silver as bubblewrap” – both of these associate commodities with the animals, which increases the value and desirability of them. However, the point is also made that the natural value of these animals is not being considered, overlooked in pursuit of raw materials and products in pursuit of wealth.
The description of different exhibits in the museum is important to consider as it is key to the message of ‘The Fox In The National Museum of Wales’. By having the fox travel through such a wide variety of items and time periods, Minhinnick is representing how the future (represented by the fox) is rooted in all of the past, but at the same time is constantly moving and changing with interactions with new times and movements. It also highlights the way in which museums focus on what is long gone in history by their vary nature, in contrast to the ever changing and moving fox. Some readers could interpret this as a criticism of the nature of museums, which is an opinion more likely to be held by readers that recognise that despite being the museum of “Wales” there appears to be very little directly related to the country, with preference for artefacts which are found in other museums all over the world.
“the fox is in the flock”
The persistent repetition of this line in the third stanza would be very noticeable to a reader, with the alliteration helping to drive forward the poem at greater speed, representing the constant movement towards the future. In addition, there is a panic to this repetition, which sees the fox and therefore the future as something to be apprehensive of, or even feared.
“he is the future”
This line makes it extremely clear as to what the fox represents if a reader has not understood up to this point, and unlocks the true meaning of the poem. Describing the fox as “he” gives a greater connection to the reader, making the fox seem more like a person, which would encourage the reader to see the fox not just as humanity’s future, but also their individual future.
“But they are closing // the iron doors”
The specific use of “iron” is significant because it shows that it is a completely man made object, lacking the natural elements that a wood door would have. They also indicate a substantial weight, which can be interpreted as metaphorically representing the weight of elements of humanity on progress and advancement. By the doors closing, it acts as a warning to not attempt to hold back change and capture the future.
‘The Fox In The National Museum of Wales’ Key Themes
- Past and Present: There are clear links to the past with the fox travelling through key moments in history that have shaped much of human history. Unlike other poems in the anthology, ‘The Fox In The National Museum of Wales’ also considers the way in which the future interacts with and is rooted in the past.
- Society and Culture: There are many connotations to all of the exhibits which the fox has travelled through, representing different stages in a variety of cultures around the world. The fox acts as a unifying element throughout all of the differences, showing how the future impacts everyone equally and is unavoidable.
- Identity: Different identities are shown through the exhibits, and the title of the poem itself includes a national identity. However, the museum of “Wales” lacks many Welsh specific items, showing that identity is becoming increasingly shared across cultures.
Quick Focus Questions
- What could be the reasoning behind picking an animal, in particular a fox, to represent the future?
- In which ways could the museum exhibits be significant? Select one and evaluate its effectiveness.
- How does repetition help communicate meaning in the poem?
Many of the techniques in ‘The Fox In The National Museum of Wales’ result in the poem being relatively daunting even for an English student upon a first read, but this demonstrates the effectiveness of the chosen techniques. Further consideration and analysis also enable a reader to appreciate the points Minhinnick is raising in relation to society and the environment, and as such may have a greater impact on a reader by encouraging them to think about these issues and questions. This could help form links between this poem and others which have messages or raise questions, such as ‘The Deliverer’ and ‘The Gun’, or alternatively the consideration of culture in ‘Look We Have Coming to Dover!’, ‘You, Shiva and My Mum’ or ‘Ode on a Grayson Perry Urn’.