Here is the third stanza of "Thrushes" by Ted Hughes:

With a man it is otherwise. Heroisms on horseback,
Outstripping his desk-diary at a broad desk,
Carving at a tiny ivory ornament
For years: his act worships itself - while for him,
Though he bends to be blent in the prayer, how loud and
above what
Furious spaces of fire do the distracting devils
Orgy and hosannah, under what wilderness
Of black silent waters weep.

I'm having trouble with this, especially the part "his act worships itself" and the final three lines.

What I've gathered (I may be entirely wrong) is this: The three kinds of acts listed here - "heroisms on horseback," "outstripping his desk-diary" (clerical work), and "carving at a tiny ivory ornament" - all seem to have an aim less urgent than survival, which is what drives the thrushes and gives them their razor-sharp focus.

Heroism seeks glory. Desk work is often performed half-heartedly for a regular pay at the end of the month. A carving project can go on for years, and is perhaps not something you can fully concentrate on every day.

What I understand by "his act worships itself" is that humans perform these acts for the sake of the act; they aren't personally involved in it, aren't 'in the moment,' as much as they would like to be. They are thwarted by the "distracting devils" from hell that orgy and hosannah - it looks to me like these two words are used as verbs in the poem. I don't understand the rest.

Please let me know where I'm going wrong with my interpretation and what you make of the third stanza.

  • Have you been deliberate in choosing the tag [interpretation] over the tag [meaning]? The first one is if you want a general, open-ended interpretation which addresses all aspects of a short text. The second is if you want simply "What does this mean?" (with a bias towards the literal sense of "mean" instead of the deep-meaning/message sense)
    – bobble
    Commented Jun 2, 2021 at 14:17
  • I thought the meaning tag was not applicable here because it said "Questions regarding the meaning of certain terms or phrases used in a work of literature" underneath and I wanted more than the meaning of a word or phrase. I'll change it.
    – user392289
    Commented Jun 2, 2021 at 14:25
  • Neither tag is wrong, really. I was seeking to confirm your choice, since it seems that a lot of the time new-ish users who use the interpretation tag didn't read the description of it :) I'm not sure which tag fits better here myself.
    – bobble
    Commented Jun 2, 2021 at 14:29
  • 1
    I'd think orgy and hosannah would be nouns. Hosannah would be praise (for heroic deeds or for works of art); I'm not as sure about orgy.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Jun 2, 2021 at 15:00

1 Answer 1


Hughes is contrasting the thrushes, efficient like sharks, or Mozart, with ordinary procrastinating head-scratching sighing humans: "With a man it is otherwise".

He picks out different qualities that a person like a Mozart, a person as honed and deadly in their purpose as a shark or a thrush, do not have:

Hobbies. An even fuller schedule than the diary, ie busyness. A yearning for something spiritual - to have blended with the divine in prayer. To be a furious space of fire, or in one; in conflict, rage, consumed. That place of suffering, of sin, is engine of the spirituality that describes devils and angels, tempting us, saving us, distracting us.

I'd see wilderness as another naming of identity of inner experience and below it, the black silent waters as melancholy, sadness etc. An echo of the The Wasteland perhaps, the split of the land from water mirroring the separation from emotional fluidity, and spiritual sustenance.

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