Wagtail and Baby by Thomas Hardy

There is a fairly common lament present in the world today whereupon individuals suggest that the world was altogether better before the past pace of technology changed their lifestyles forever. But it was even easier to lament this change was during the lifetime of Thomas Hardy, when the Industrial Revolution was just reaching its “conclusion,” and changing, before the eyes of the average person, life as they’d known it. For people like Hardy, the nostalgia that drove this lament was one born of actual life experience, and remembering what life was like before. This kind of yearning can be easily discerned in Hardy’s poem, Wagtail and Baby, which examines the events of Hardy’s life in through powerful natural imagery that is often overlooked when taken out of the context Thomas Hardy uses.

 

Wagtail and Baby Analysis

A baby watched a ford, whereto

A wagtail came for drinking;

A blaring bull went wading through,

The wagtail showed no shrinking.


A stallion splashed his way across,

The birdie nearly sinking;

He gave his plumes a twitch and toss,

And held his own unblinking.

Hardy begins Wagtail and Baby by describing, through an omniscient narrator, a brief period in the lives of a wagtail bird and a baby who is watching it. The poem is told in simple structure, where lines rhyme with each other in alternating fashion (ABAB), in a poem consisting of four verses of four lines each. The alternating lines follow a pattern where the “A’s” are eight syllables long, while the alternating “B’s” are seven. In this way, the poem becomes easy to read and digest, and relatively simple to follow. It helps even further that every “B” line throughout the poem rhymes (making the full pattern ABAB CBCB DBDB EBEB).

The narrator describes a baby watching a ford, that is, a shallow part of a stream, where a wagtail has stopped to drink. Over the course of the two verses, the same ford is approached by a bull and a horse, and at both points, the wagtail remains entirely undisturbed by their presence. When it is described that the bird gives its plume “a twitch and toss,” we can almost imagine it shrugging off the perceived threat. This wording is also an example of the alliterative technique Hardy employs throughout Wagtail and Baby — the “splashing stallion” and “blaring bull” being the other examples. At these points, the author is also using words that intentionally suit the animals — in the case of the splashing stallion, for instance, the onomatopoeia of the splashing noise is used to bring the horse to the forefront of the poem for the reader. This suggests an importance placed upon the natural imagery of the piece.

Next saw the baby round the spot

A mongrel slowly slinking;

The wagtail gazed, but faltered not

In dip and sip and prinking.


A perfect gentleman then neared;

The wagtail, in a winking,

With terror rose and disappeared;

The baby fell a-thinking.

In the same manner as the previous two verses, Wagtail and Baby concludes with more of the baby’s observations — a wild dog also approaches the ford, but the wagtail has no issue ignoring it in favour of grooming its own appearance; from the description, it appears to be taking a bath (“dipping,” “sipping,” and “prinking”). In the final verse, a “perfect gentleman” “neared” the ford, causing the bird at last to panic and flee, an observation which confuses the watching baby. It’s interesting to note that the coming of each animal heralded danger in some form — the “blaring” bull, the “splashing” stallion, and the “slinking” mongrel, all suggest some kind of danger to the bird, in the form of either approach or noise. The human is the exception to this, who’s approach is not recorded in any remarkable way; he simply “neared” the ford. Despite this, his approach is enough to cause the bird to flee.

 

Meaning and Analysis

The one thing that remains consistent about the “character” of the wagtail is that it is not bothered by creatures of nature. Despite the fact that any of the three wild animals that approached the ford could have killed it easily (or even by accident), it understands them enough to know that in all likelihood, they’re simply thirsty. The “perfect gentleman” suggests a well-dressed, clean, “civilized” kind of person, which is entirely foreign to the bird. The perfect gentleman has removed himself so far from the natural world that the bird no longer recognizes him, and this strikes enough fear into it that it flies away, where the bull from earlier could not send it away. A clear meaning emerges — that humans have strayed too far from their natural origins, and have alienated themselves from that world.

Thomas Hardy lived between 1840 and 1928, and so would have been raised in an only recently industrialized world (the Industrial Revolution having taken place in Great Britain roughly between 1760 and 1820-40), and it is a strong candidate for a motivator in this poem. When Hardy writes about the human who enters the ford, he refers to him simple as “the perfect gentleman,” but this is all the description that is needed — at this time, gentleman held a similar definition as it does today, referring to a high moral standard and positive societal conduct. Neither morality nor society are naturally occurring phenomena (at least, not in the sense that they are used in day-to-day life), so the reader is told through those few words that the man holds himself to a standard created by his own society, which the bird cannot recognize.

This was a common theme in Hardy’s work — he wrote often about the social constraints and boundaries that limited individuals from reaching their full potential. In the Industrial Revolution, it is likely that Hardy saw more of the same with regards to the progression of society in what he considered to be negative directions. In this poem, a similar theme is illustrated, with the depth of the divide between human and nature illustrated through the analogy of this bird that won’t fly away from creatures it recognizes, but flees from the human because it has become terrified by it.

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  • Avatar Francesca Quint says:

    A delightful poem, beautifully observed…….. but the urban wagtail I often encounter in London SW20 is habituated to human beings, showing no fear when frequenting the forecourt of the local public house or the pavement next to it. It shrugs off both people and traffic and always keeps itself out of danger.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Love this! I feel I should describe the seaside town version!

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