The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Thrushes” paints a picture of birds as efficient, instinctive killing machines. The poet is observing some thrushes on his lawn; the observations lead him to contrast them to human beings, such as himself, whose best acts seem produced by the suppression of such energies as the birds display, and at enormous cost.

The poet looks at the thrushes hunting for food, such as worms, slugs, and beetles, in his yard. Normally, thrushes are associated with domesticity or song, certainly with nature tamed. Instead, Hughes sees them, no less than the hawk in his poem “Hawk Roosting” (also in Lupercal), as ruthless killers. Each bird is doing its natural thing in its pride of life as it drags “out some writhing thing,” which it devours in “a ravening second.”

He wonders what motivates this single-minded ruthless purpose. Is it, he asks, the way they are programmed to some point of evolutionary perfection? Have they been taught by equally skillful elders, or is there some survival of the species instinct, driven by “a nestful of brats”? Perhaps it is genius: an almost indefinable term, but one which reminds him of the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who seemed to have superhuman ability to produce perfect music apparently without trying.

His questioning thoughts turn on the phrase “automatic/ Purpose” toward the shark. The shark’s automatic purpose is to attack the smell of blood, even if it is its own...

(The entire section is 524 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem consists of three eight-line unrhymed stanzas. In each stanza, six of the lines are roughly pentameter (five stresses per line), one line is lengthened by one or two extra feet, and the last line is shortened. In stanza 1, line 4 is lengthened to ensure a climax, with “with a start, a bounce, a stab,” “bounce and stab” being repeated in line 7 as the typical movement of thrushes. In stanza 2, the lengthened line is the fifth, climaxing on the self-destructive nature of instinct in the shark. In the last stanza, the fifth line is again lengthened. As with the previous stanza, it is not end-stopped but rushes on, climaxing on human inner dividedness and dichotomy, in a patterned contrast to the shark’s single-mindedness.

The final lines of the first two stanzas are dimeters and thus have a sound of finality. They are likewise contrasted to the final line of “Of black silent waters weep,” where the line is extended to four stresses and significant alliteration, giving a slow and quite unexpected final cadence as the focus closes on the human condition.

As with much modern verse, the effect of the speaking voice is maintained by the large number of unstopped lines, particularly noticeable in stanza 2. The effect is to put the stress on the first syllable of the next line, a slightly explosive effect, running counter to the more rising meter of the last stanza. However, the suppressed energy within humanity is reenacted...

(The entire section is 571 words.)