Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 407

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Insofar as the poem is about nature, it must be termed Romantic, but certainly not in the Wordsworthian sense of a creation that inspires through beauty or pathos and witnesses to some divine purpose. Rather, it is the “Nature red in tooth and claw” that the Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson noted—a post-Darwinian nature of the survival of the fittest. In some of Hughes’s poems in Lupercal, various humans are described as survivors through their animal-like energies or instincts. Here, however, Hughes seems more concerned to divide humanity from nature. As in a previous poem, “The Water-Lily,” humans live in two worlds: the suppressed instinctual world, which becomes for them “distracting devils,” and the disciplined, civilized world, symbolized by the “desk-diary at a broad desk.” In this Hughes echoes psychoanalyist Sigmund Freud’s dictum that the price of civilization is the suppression of sex drives, as well as Carl Jung’s awareness of the shadow side of humanity, which, if denied, becomes diabolical. More specifically, the man at the desk observing the thrushes becomes the poet himself, whose act of creating a poem is a disciplined act that “worships itself,” yet at a psychological cost for him.

The poem echoes not only Tennyson but also D. H. Lawrence, who was similarly fascinated by the instinctive life force in animals, as well as Gerard Manley Hopkins, who celebrated the “thisness,” the specificity, of each created thing. However, while Hopkins celebrated the wilderness in its wildness in poems such as “Rannoch by Glencoe,” for Hughes, the “wilderness” is within each human. It is “Of black silent waters” that “weep” because they have been denied. In the denial, wilderness becomes bewilderment. The poem thus explores dualism, dichotomy, and desire, rather than achieved, to-be-celebrated creation.

Like Lawrence and the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, Hughes looks back to the older Romantic tradition but manages to reapply it to the spiritual and emotional bankruptcy of modern Western civilization. The questioning of Freud’s dictum on the price of civilization is clearly implicit in many of the poems in Lupercal; in this poem, it is explicit. Later volumes of Hughes went on to explore what humanity’s latent vitality would look like reactively if released, even anarchically so. His final volumes returned to more traditional nature themes in some sort of achieved synthesis. The strength of “Thrushes” is that it already engages these major issues in a focused and powerful way.