How does Hardy use language and poetic form to convey meaning and ideas in ‘Wagtail and Baby’?
The poem ‘Wagtail and baby’ is a commentary of the observations from the perspective of an infant by the side of a ford. The focus of the baby is the wagtail and it watches as various animals approach it. What causes the baby confusion is the animals cause the bird no stress, but when a man approaches the bird flys swiftly away in ‘Terror’ before he even gets close. Thomas Hardy has done this to show how the bird is at peace with nature and other animals and human involvement disturbs the ordinary harmony of nature.
This refers to Hardy’s views on industrialisation at the time and how the greed of men was affecting and destroying the natural world. This creates an air of irony; as humans try improving their lives they deprive wildlife of theirs. The poem is arranged in quatrains with alternating rhyming couplets (ABAB). This creates a childlike quality to the poem like a nursery rhyme which compliments how it is written through the eyes of an infant. This reflects how everything is new to the baby and it watches and learns from everything around it.
The four quatrains each describe a new animal that comes near the wagtail. The way each is different and they come one after another shows how it is happening in that moment. The language he uses helps to portray his ideas in the poem. Again Hardy adds to the childlike theme by referring to the wagtail as a ‘birdie’ in the second stanza, this is the sort of thing a child would say on seeing a bird. His style is detailed and the use of poetic devices such as alliteration creates vivid imagery.
Alliteration such as ‘blaring bull’, ‘a stallion splashed’ and as he describes the mongrel as ‘slowly slinking’ portray a certain movement which the reader then picture in their minds. The movement of the bird is also described in detail the use of verbs ‘twitch and toss’, ‘clip and sip’ showing sharp, quick movements as if the bird is slightly on edge until realising it is only a fellow animal nearby. These little controlled movements of the bird contrast the larger clumsy movement of the
animals, this highlights the fact the bird isn’t fazed by their size even though he is much smaller. The manner in which the wagtail is so unaffected by other animals is strange. The ‘Blaring bull’ is a great powerful animal and is associated with aggression and yet the tiny wagtail does not see the bull as a threat. When the ‘stallion splashing’ causes the bird ‘nearly sinking’ in the water it manages to ‘hold its own unblinking’ doesn’t even bat an eyelid though something so big is near despite the obvious disruption and the fact it could easily hurt the fragile bird.
Even the mongrel ‘slowly slinking’ has no effect on the bird, though ‘slinking’ can be associated with hunting and a stalking prey which should alarm the bird as it is vulnerable. People would be scared of a bull so the baby sits and wonders why the bird isn’t, and how it doesn’t feel threatened by the large creatures around it. These all show how the wildlife are at peace with each other. That is what makes the last stanza so profound that the ‘perfect gentleman’ is the one to make the bird ‘disappear’.
When forming the image of a ‘perfect gentleman’ in your mind, someone high up in society, respected and conducts themselves within the rules of society is what we expect. It seems odd that the bird would be afraid of a man when he causes no disruption to it and isn’t even close. It’s as though the man is not part of their world so the bird is unfamiliar with his presence or has seen other men before hurting nature. Even though the man is the best in human society he still scares the bird like a predator would, Hardy has done this to show even the best of us are seen as evil by nature.
Something else that adds to the shock of this is that the baby has been sat watching and the bird was not afraid. Hardy has done this to show the baby is innocent and naive and has not yet turned into the greedy monster that is man. The baby causes no threat and because of its innocence is accepted by nature. The poem ends with ‘The baby fell a-thinking’ this is showing that the baby is confused because even though it doesn’t yet understand the world it can’t see why the bird would be scared of a human but not a big animal.
The baby has only known the man caring for it so has not seen the side of man that the wagtail has. Thomas Hardy uses poetic devices to convey his ideas within this poem. He uses irony to show how humans try to improve their lives with industry and in turn destroy the habitats of wildlife. Hardy uses detailed descriptions to create vivid imagery and contrast the difference between man and animal again showing irony as the one that made the least disruption frightened the bird away. He uses alliteration for emphasis and his structure to reflect the state of mind of the baby viewing the scene.