Last Updated August 22, 2023.
"Thrushes" is a poem in three stanzas written by Ted Hughes, a twentieth-century English poet and the UK Poet Laureate from 1984 until his death in 1998. Much of Hughes' poetry discusses animals, the natural world, and their connections with human emotions. In short: he is interested in the similarities and differences between humans and animals—a key element of "Thrushes."
The poem does not rhyme, but each stanza is of equal length and consists of eight lines. Six of these eight are essentially pentameter (meaning that each line includes five stressed syllables). Of the remaining two lines, one line is longer and the concluding line is shorter. In the absence of rhyme, Hughes relies on alliteration and repetition to create a sense of unity.
In the first stanza, the speaker considers the "terrifying" group of thrushes waiting on his lawn and describes them in unusual terms. Where thrushes often appear as gentle songbirds, the speaker ascribes a weapon-like quality to them, calling them "coiled steel...triggered" to violent activity at the sight of potential prey. He then contrasts their "delicate" legs and "deadly" gaze to indicate just how purposeful and “attent” their actions are. With “a bounce, a stab,” the thrushes catch and consume their prey, performing their single-minded task in one "ravening second."
Having detailed the violent behavior of the thrushes, the speaker uses the second stanza to consider why they are so attuned to killing. He describes the thrushes as a “bullet” with an “automatic” purpose and wonders if the thrushes are so single-minded because of their physical nature and "single-mind-sized skulls." Perhaps, though, it is because they have been trained physically and mentally to pursue this instinctual directive. The speaker then offers another possibility: the thrushes are driven by their children, their "nestful of brats."
Moving on from the thrushes motivation, the speaker then muses that this driven nature existed in "Mozart's brain," and in the “shark’s mouth.” There is an instinct, he explains, that they all share, an inner urge toward some singular pursuit that, like the shark, can be detrimental and “devouring of itself.” This drive is far too “streamlined,” the speaker argues, to allow for doubt, to be distracted from its purpose.
In the third stanza, the speaker states that humans behave quite differently. Generally, he argues, humans are not driven as thrushes are. “Heroisms” are extraordinary and stem from long years of consideration and work, metaphorically similar to the act of "carving at a tiny ivory ornament / for years." The thrushes may commit violent and noteworthy acts instinctively, humans bear the burden of consciousness.
Unlike the thrushes, they are distracted by the "devils" of "orgy and hosannah" or, in other words, tormented by attacks of conscience from beneath "black silent waters." As such, humans imbue their actions with consideration, a trait that limits “heroisms.” In this way, humans are more complex than the thrush; the thrush, meanwhile, is more free than the human. Thought and speech expand but they also limit; though the human mind is infinitely more complex than that of thrush, it is equally constrained by that which makes it superior. In this respect, the speaker implies that those—the thrush, the shark, and men such as Mozart—are better than the average man because their instinct overrides their mind and allows for a more free and fluid expression.