The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 524

“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...

(The entire section contains 1095 words.)

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  • Themes
  • Analysis
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“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 blood pouring from its side. The shark then devours itself. It is “too streamlined for any doubt.” In other words, such efficiency is questionable. The same movement is seen in “Hawk Roosting,” where the hawk’s megalomania is reminiscent of human megalomaniacs such as Adolf Hitler and makes readers withdraw any admiration from the bird.

Here however, Hughes pushes the poem in a different direction, by explicitly contrasting animal with human (presumably, Mozart’s genius is somehow seen as inhuman). “With a man it is otherwise,” he starkly begins the third and final stanza. Humans are capable of “Heroisms on horseback,” in the traditional notion of bravery, where any notion of violence is suppressed. Yet such heroic acts are beyond humanity’s usual mode of being, which is bound by daily routine. Such heroisms are, like the carver’s patiently working “at a tiny ivory ornament/ For years,” in a sense outside of people. Such acts achieve worth or value almost impersonally. They are rare, unlike the animals’ daily acts of perfect killing.

In conclusion, the poet sees the typical nature of humankind as a continually frustrated search for personal integration within a civilized context, signaled by such widely divergent markers as art, heroism, and “desk-diary” routine. The search is never-ending as “the distracting devils” of “Orgy and hosannah”—unrestrained lust and unrestrained joy—assail humans from their unconscious as if from hell-fire and “black silent waters” from above, perhaps from the accusations of conscience. This is each person’s confusion and yet also his or her nature. Ultimately, the poet leads readers from an apparent admiration of the simplicities of the bird to a cry that is both anguished and celebratory of the complexity of being human.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 571

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 exactly in the sixth and seventh line of that stanza, as the run-on lines push the stress to the first syllables of the words “Furious” and “Orgy,” reversing the rising meter of the other lines. Hughes’s sureness of rhythmic effect is nowhere better illustrated.

The more the poem is analyzed, the more “poetic” it appears: Hughes consciously uses poetic devices in a highly developed way. The use of the violent alliteration in “start,” “stab,” “steel,” and “stirrings” of the thrushes is contrasted with the softer alliteration in the words describing humankind: “worships,” “what wilderness,” “waters weep.” In the first stanza, the repetition of “No” and “Nothing” already prefigures the contrast of animal to human with the human “indolent procrastinations” (with Latinate polysyllables) and “yawning stares”—perhaps the poet himself in the act of creating this poem.

The mode of the first stanza is statement; of the second, interrogation; of the third, exclamation. However, the modes are ambiguous: The interrogation of the second stanza resolves itself into statement, but, as has been noted, it is a statement that begins to undermine the certainties of the first stanza. In the third stanza, the exclamatory markers “how” and “what,” as in “how loud and above/ what,” could be read as a question: Does it have to be like this?

The imagery is striking, also, in the unromantic machine terms of the first two stanzas: “coiled steel,” “Triggered,” “bullet and automatic,” and “streamlined,” words that break traditional associations. It is, however, the sheer density of imagery and the unexpectedness of the final stanza that point to Hughes’s originality as a poet, an originality exploited in later volumes of verse, as Wodwo (1967) and Crow (1970, rev. 1972). The alliterative phrase “Heroisms on horseback” is dense with meaning, as is the equally alliterative metonymy “desk-diary at a broad desk,” the word “broad” being a note of brilliance, suggesting space, which is then contrasted abruptly with the “tiny ivory ornament” of the next line.

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