Summary of The Darkling Thrush
The precise date on which The Darkling Thrush was first published is of immense significance. It appeared in The Times on 1st January 1900. It is an occasional poem; what is more, the occasion for which it has been written is the first day of the new century about which readers of The Times – prescient about neither The Great War nor the Holocaust – are very likely to be optimistic. As a result, Hardy for once sets out to write something innocent, something which will not give offence. Or does he?
The setting for this poem is a Dorset landscape in the bleak mid-winter. The purpose of the first two octaves is to describe this Hibernian landscape from which the sheer cold has driven all mankind‘ but the poet himself; in order to describe this desolate‘ scenery, Hardy selects a number of sharp features‘ which characterise the dark season. Foremost among these features are the cadaverous trees of the coppice: namely, the leafless trees whose skeletal outlines (bleak twigs) show black against the sky. Given the occasion for the poem, such scenic details keep suggesting to Hardy that the century which has just ended has physically died and is ‘outleant’ in its ‘crypt’; extending this metaphor, Hardy imagines that the mournful sound of the wind is singing a dirge (a ‘death-lament’) for the ‘corpse’ of the nineteenth century. Given this morbid background, it is no wonder that all other living souls have ‘sought their household fires‘ and that the poet himself is ‘fervourless‘: that is, without energy/bereft of enthusiasm for life itself. According to this reading, the torpid landscape (in which ‘the ancient pulse of germ and birth/Was shrunken hard and dry‘) may truly be said to reflect the torpor of the poet; fallacy or not, the poet‘s immediate surroundings do seem here to be in sympathy with his emotions.
Into this ‘bleak‘ environment, Hardy (by means of a dramatic synecdoche) introduces ‘a voice‘; it turns out to be that of an ‘aged thrush‘ which – in spite of its frailty in the wintry ‘blast’– is heroically singing its heart out (‘a full-hearted evensong‘, no less). In this grim context, the song of the ‘gaunt‘ thrush, a song of joy illimited‘ [ of unconfined joy] strikes an incongruous and ironic note; its dynamic intervention upon the gloomy scene (‘fling’) seems entirely out of place, even embarrassingly intrusive. In Hardy‘s poetry, a tenebrous atmosphere (‘the growing gloom’) is never merely literal and meteorological; it is also emotional and spiritual, reflecting a mood. Given these dismal circumstances, Hardy needs to understand why the bird is singing its head off: why is this thrush singing a ‘happy goodnight air’ against such a dark backdrop?
The sentimental is that the thrush is greeting the fledgeling century with an un-ironic exuberance: in other words, it is in intuitive touch with ‘some blessed Hope’ for the future of mankind in the twentieth century of which he – a mere poet – is sadly ‘unaware’. After all, Hardy‘s very title – ‘The Darkling Thrush’ [ ‘the thrush in the dark’] – is an oxymoron which describes a contradictory phenomenon and suggests that the thrush may know better than to be silenced. ‘Afar or nigh’ around them is ‘so little cause for carollings’, are so few reasons for ‘ecstatic sound’, that Hardy ‘could’ start to wonder whether this ‘small’ bird knows something [to support its wild optimism, to make it ‘ecstatic’] which he does not …. But no: in the end, it is the conditional verb ‘could think’, that vague use of ‘some’ and that feeble capital for ‘Hope‘ which signal that Hardy is not questioning his own judgement and is not placing any such faith in the telepathic powers of a bird; in the last analysis, this one voice singing in the darkness does not possess superior wisdom but is an oddity. Ultimately, ‘the darkling thrush’ is thrush in both the literal and the metaphorical dark: that is, it does not possess any heightened sensitivity or supernatural foresight. Finally, it is the ‘cloudy canopy‘ and not the ornithological ‘evensong‘ that successfully conveys the mood of the poet. Paraphrased, the poem reads Stupid bird!
ANALYSIS OF THE POEM / EXPLANATIONS
Thomas Hardy invariably wrote about gloomy and fatalistic perspective of life. Hence, when he uses a bleak winter landscape, in his poem, to symbolize the transitory nineteenth century, it does not surprise anyone. In the poem, The Darkling Thrush, he calls nineteenth century a ‘corpse’ which is lying in a ‘crypt’. When Hardy composed The Darkling Thrush he was living on the threshold of the twentieth century. In addition, it was not just the age, but he himself was also making a transition in his creative approach, from writing novels he was focusing on writing poems. The desire for this transition was the negative public reception of his two novels, Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895). Hardy had been too frank in his depiction of morally disagreeable subject matter. This had outraged the readers of his time. Hardy’s contemporary novelist, George Gissing (1857–1903), had famously called the novel Jude the Obscene. This was of course, one personal reason for which Hardy was gloomy in temperament. Ironically, both Tess and Jude the Obscure are widely read and appreciated today along with his poetry which is considered to be of high quality.
The Darkling Thrush was composed at the far end of the nineteenth century. The poem was first printed as By the Century’s Deathbed sometime during December 1900. The poem appears in the form of an ode. It is a conventional lyric poem. It appears in the form of an address identifying a particular subject. It is written in a lofty and elevated fashion. The poem has a formal tone although we also know that odes can be written in the form of a personal note as well. On the very special occasion of the adieu hours of the old century, the poet puts down his reflections in the first person, ‘I’. It appears as if he is leaning on a gate by the little wood. Such a pose is traditionally considered to be a ‘thinking pose’.
Apart from the thinking pose, the gate symbolizes the arrival of the New Year as well as the century. Hardy portrays a frosty evening landscape in the poem. It is that time when everyone else has gone indoors. He has depicted realistic pictures of the winter landscape.
It appears to him as if the season is a corpse, that resembles, the corpse of the almost dead nineteenth century. Along with the natural surroundings, the cloudy sky is considered as the crypt (burial place) for the corpse. Adding to it is the sound of the winter wind; for the poet it is a lament that is usually associated with a dead person (the nineteenth century). Each and every living organism appears to be as devoid of passion as Hardy.
Both of them appear to be almost as dead as the century. At this moment of absolute despair a thrush’s beautiful song suddenly is heard somewhere nearby. It breaks upon the grim cold scene or as the poet prefers to call, the ‘growing gloom’. This makes Hardy wonder whether the bird is aware of any such cause/subject which might indicate hope. Perhaps Hardy is ignorant of such subject. The title of the poem, The Darkling Thrush is indicative that Hardy was intentionally incorporating words that have a long poetic history. ‘Darkling’ implies darkness, or emergence of darkness. Emergence because Hardy can still view the landscape, as well as figure out that the sun is ‘weakening’ but it is not completely set. It is believed that the title probably is a shorthand for ‘the thrush that sang as night was approaching.’
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that finally it is the middle of winter. One can also call it a very cold and dreary autumn. There is no fun of springtime here. Everywhere, it is cold and ice, darkness and grey. The speaker is leaning against a gate. Even the exact identity of ‘I,’ is vague.However, ‘I’ could refer to a depressed soul. What is important to mention here is that the word frost is mentioned in capital ‘F’. It is almost as if frost has attained human-like characteristics. This is very typical to human beings whose names are capitalized while writing them. Certain elements of nature, like snow, ice and frost are definitely not proper names but the capitals suggest their human-like attributes.
As we move on, we come across further human-like qualities, the ‘almost human’ part of the description. The speaker probably thinks that frost is ‘spectre- grey.’ Here, the word ‘spectre’ means ‘ghost’. That is why if frost is human-like then it is also ghost-like, thus, being human and non-human. The speaker continues to suggest that this winter day is dreary. The word ‘dregs’ iis related to coffee. It refers to those grainy, bitter things that cling to the bottom of the coffee cup. Dregs invariably imply anything which is not good to taste. Hence, when the speaker of the poem suggests that we are in the dregs of winter, he wishes to convey that this is not the beautiful snowfall that one comes across during Christmas time. In fact, it refers to those grey and gloomy elements which make the reader depressed.
The speaker goes on to mention that the day has got an eye. This seems to imply that ‘Winter’ is a person. In continuation with the dreary image, the whole world appears to be mostly dead. In fact, as our speaker observes, the day already appeared inferior and in a weak state long before winter’s dregs made things all the more worse. Despite the fact that Hardy is writing this poem at the end of the nineteenth century, it is surprising to note that he is not celebrating the arrival of the new century. Also, he is not looking ahead to see good times. He is rather carrying forward the gloom and despair of the previous century with him.
Further, the speaker is describing things which he sees while gazing the patch of tangled brushes. However, amidst those bushes all he can see is death and destruction. The vines in front of the speaker appear to resemble the broken bits of a lyre. Lyre is a harp-like instrument used in the classical times.
Hardy has incorporated classical allusions which makes the poem all the more beautiful. The lyre also appears in infinite poems of the antiquity. Hardy probably intends to suggest that with the new era setting in; the stock and trade of traditional poetry are also moving out of their way. The first stanza reconfirms that the speaker is a loner. The speaker is outside observing the surroundings when other people are not out and around. It is definitely some late hour. Even the speaker mentions that everyone else he is acquainted with is curled up by the fire or may be enjoying dinner or probably relaxing over a nice cup of tea. The speaker is sure there is life out there somewhere but just that it does not happen to be anywhere in his proximity.
However, then the question arises: Is there really life out there somewhere. After all, as the speaker makes it clear that the people who we assume are enjoying life were earlier ‘haunting’ the landscape. So are these people human at all? It is believed that the writing of The Darkling Thrush by Hardy is a prequel to Night of the Living Dead. Some reasons for such thought could be that Hardy is writing this poem towards the end of the Industrial Revolution. With the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, Britain, an agrarian nation, became an industrial one. People migrated to cities in search of better livelihood. Nevertheless, the industries turned cities into centres of smog and dust which in turn brought in many deadly diseases.
Hardy is trying to point out that the Industrial Revolution changed the way work was perceived and executed. Prior to the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, both men and women worked as peasants for rich landowners yet they were in touch with nature. However, as soon as people started working in factories, everything changed suddenly. The workers had to work for 12 or 14-hours a day. It was all about getting a job and working arduously. No worker got to see the sun due to long working hours. Most of them turned pale as a ghost. Several English novels like Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell highlight this plight of workers during the Industrial Revolution.
We can assume that the folks, who are walking around like ghosts as the speaker perceives them, could be the industry workers and they have been turned into automatic by the life being led by them. It is a scary and dreary scenario. Hardy is probably drawing a parallel between the end of the century and Doomsday because some almost dead exist here. Nevertheless, it is more than evident that the speaker, just like Hardy himself, is not very appreciative of the modern age.
The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
In the second stanza, the speaker uses metaphor to describe the desolate landscape as the carcass of the nineteenth century. The speaker wonders why is the century ‘outleant’? Though technically, outleant is not a word per se, but Hardy’s speaker probably considers himself out of this world and hence, has chosen to use the word. The word is so special that even the entire vocabulary of the English language could not match up to find one word to describe the speaker’s experience. This is precisely where the word has been incorporated for literary effect. Till now, we realize Hardy has been discussing inanimate concepts like ‘Winter’ or ‘the century’. Yet, he has hardly made any reference to living beings. Hardy’s speaker insists on focusing on the death of inanimate (or at times abstract) things, so much so that at times, we wonder if we are still alive or are we heading towards our grave. Nature appears to conspire to lament over the transition of the century. In a way, the whole idea is very romantic (like Wordsworth or Coleridge would have expressed it). A Romantic poet might have understood something similar.
It is interesting to note here that even the speaker moves on with the idea of ending all things; the rhythm of the poem remains absolutely constant and conventional. One can definitely see an uncanny relationship being built between the rhyme scheme and the huge void that the speaker experiences around himself. ‘The ancient pulse of germ and birth/Was shrunken hard and dry’ is filled with symbolism. Hardy incorporates metaphors of germination. Here in the poem, he refers to the unsuccessful and futile germination.
In the last two lines of this stanza, the speaker says that there is some kind of spirit that is present at the moment. It could also imply a lack of reason or perhaps the speaker is too engrossed in the gloom and sorrow around that he happens to see a spirit.
It appears as if Hardy is trying to prove that there is no real living being in this poem. Hardy insists on calling people as spirits only to highlight the physical rejection of any real living being. He insists on calling humans-as-ghosts or even at times, ghosts as humans making it difficult for us to discern the differences.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
You must have noticed by now that these lines indicate a significant shift in the poem. It seems that in the midst of the silence and death, the speaker suddenly hears something. This time what he hears is something beautiful. It is a love song. It is embalmed with happiness.
Finally, as the title suggests, the thrush makes an appearance. However, if one hears more closely, one realizes that this sound resembles the gloominess which permeated the initial parts of the poem. One might compare Keats Ode to a Nightingale with this poem. Keats nightingale was more happy and melodious than the one suggested by Hardy in this poem.
Keats nightingale was immortal while Hardy’s thrush is combating a nasty storm in the middle of nowhere land. Nonetheless, the only positive thing about this bird is that it manages to survive despite the rough weather. The tiny and adversity ridden bird has successfully managed to survive the despair and dejected atmosphere which even the speaker is unable to do. The bird has forgotten about the adversities and is simply singing merrily. The song does not make the ‘growing gloom’ disappear but at least it lessens the impact of the gloomy atmosphere. The song alone drew the attention of the speaker towards the bird as a welcomed distraction.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
Once again the first four lines of the stanza get merged into each other. This also builds up the momentum as the speaker continues to give special attention to the song of the thrush. The bird is singing a happy song whereas the speaker is discussing that the world is full of lifeless people. Perhaps the bird is happy from within. Hence, nature with elements of art (the bird song) becomes the epitome of real art for the poet.
It is wonderful to figure out that the bird is happy. It seems that the speaker is also comforted by the ideas which make the bird happy and cheerful. Yet, the speaker insists that he is not happy. He now insists that he is not sure whether the bird is singing a song of ecstasy. The speaker just imagines that the bird is probably singing for a cause and the speaker might in time just get to know about the cause.
Finally, the arrival of the twentieth century becomes apparent in this stanza. In the final couplet, he manages to capture the perspective of the major writers of the successive decades. Hardy brings in a sense of negotiation by bringing in hope (through the speaker) though in a subtle manner.
THE DARKLING THRUSH AND THOMAS HARDY
Although he is best known as a novelist ‘ the English writer Thomas Hardy (1840 –1928) was also an accomplished poet. His somewhat grim and fairly pessimistic view of human nature makes him more a “modern” than Victorian writer even though most of his life was lived in the Victorian period.
Thomas Hardy wrote this poem at the very end of the nineteenth century, looking towards the new twentieth century. It was first printed as ‘By the Century’s Death-Bed’ in The Graphic on 29 December 1900. This work is indebted to other famous “bird” poems, particularly “Ode to a Nightingale” by the Romantic-era poet John Keats.
Hardy writes it in the form of an ode, conventionally a lyric poem in the form of an address to a particular subject, often written in a lofty, elevated style giving it a formal tone. However, odes can be written in a more private, personal vein, as in the reflective way that Hardy writes this one.
On this momentous occasion, the last hours of the old century, Hardy writes his reflections in the first person, ‘I’. He is leaning on a gate in a little wood – it’s traditionally a thinking pose, and the poem conveys his thoughts and feelings. The gate also suggests a doorway into a new place, the new century. It is the end of the century, and of the year; Hardy paints in words a frosty evening landscape when everyone else has gone indoors. The sharp outlines of the winter landscape seem to him like the sharp features of a corpse, specifically, the corpse of the dying nineteenth century. The cloudy sky is like the crypt (burial place) for the corpse and the sound of the winter wind a lament for the dead person – that is, the century. Every living creature seems as devoid of passion as Hardy is, almost as dead as the century. Suddenly a thrush’s beautiful song breaks upon this grim cold scene, the ‘growing gloom’. Hardy wonders whether the bird knows of some reason for hope of which he himself is ignorant. I am going to take a straightforward reading of the poem, but it’s obvious, even from the eventual title, ‘The Darkling Thrush’, that Hardy was consciously using words with a long poetic history.
‘Darkling’ means in darkness, or becoming dark, for Hardy can still see the landscape, and the sun is ‘weakening’ but not completely set. The title must be shorthand for ‘the thrush that sang as nightwas approaching.’ The word ‘darkling’ has a tremendous history in poetry. The word itself goes back to the mid fifteenth century. Milton, in Paradise Lost Book III describes the nightingale: ‘the wakeful Bird / Sings darkling,and in shadiest Covert hid / Tunes her nocturnal Note …’ Keats famously uses the word in his ‘Ode to a Nightingale’: ‘Darkling, I listen …’. Matthew Arnold, in ‘Dover Beach’ writes about the ‘darkling plain’. Not only this, but there is a long and famous tradition of poems about birds, the Keats already mentioned, and those by Cowper and Wordsworth.
The next phrase with a considerable literary tradition is ‘strings of broken lyres’. This harks back to the Romantic notion of an Aeolian lyre or wind harp. Coleridge, in the ‘Ode to the Departing Year’ addresses the ‘Spirit who sweepest the wild harp of Time’ referring to an Aeolian harp or lyre, a stringed instrument that is ‘played’ when the wind passes over its strings. Then, with ‘Its crypt the cloudy canopy, / The wind its death-lament’ Hardy alludes to Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’. Shelley writes ‘thou dirge / of the dying year’, ‘dirge’ meaning ‘death lament’. Several other rather consciously poetic words such as ‘full-hearted’, ‘ecstatic’, hark back to Tennyson, Wordsworth and Keats. In other words, this poem has a resonance of past poets and their thoughts and feelings on a similar subject; it makes specific allusions to these poets and poems; their echoes are part of its tradition. (In outlining the poem’s place in the poetic tradition, I am indebted to Tim Armstrong’s notes in his edition of Hardy’s Selected Poems.) It’s a bleak and depressing mid-winter landscape. Hardy insists on that. The only colour is a ghostly gray.
I leant upon a coppice gate,
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
There are plenty of heavy, gloomy ‘g’ sounds: ‘gate’, ‘gray’, ‘dregs’, and equally heavy ‘d’ sounds: ‘dregs’, ‘desolate’ and ‘day’. Even day, which might be cheering, is described as ‘desolate’ and having a ‘weakening eye’ – that’s to say, the sun is going down and giving out only a weak light.
And a person with a weakening eye sounds old, with little power. The ‘e’ sound in ‘leant’ is repeated in ‘spectre’, ‘dregs’ and ‘desolate’ and these repeated sounds link the thoughtful poet who is leaning, with the ghostly gray colour (spectre-gray) of the landscape and the general desolation (‘desolate’). There is a tiny whisper of sound in the repeated slight ‘s’ sounds of coppice, spectre, dregs and desolate. ‘Gray’ rhymes with ‘day’; the only colour left in the ‘darkling’ daylight is gray. Frost and Winter have capital letters, as if their presence is the most important. The rhythm is regular iambic tetrameter alternated with iambic trimeter (8 syllables in a line, with the second line in each case having just 6 syllables); it’s a ballad stanza rhythm. This regular rhythm, seems to have a slow, joyless effect. The pace is slow. These lines in the opening verse establish a lifeless wasteland.
Suddenly the poet’s eye alights on a detail: the mess of tangled, dried-up stems of a summer flower, carving a line against the grey sky and reminding him of the broken strings of a musical instrument.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres, broken
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The dead flower stems form a reminder of summer, making the winter seem harsher through contrast. The broken lyre underlines the absence of harmony and therefore perhaps of joy in his vision of life. Harsh sounds add to this impression: sounds such as ‘scored’ and ‘sky’, ‘broken’ and ‘mankind’. Even the people who have gone home to the warmth of their fires seem to have assumed a ghostly quality, ‘all mankind that haunted nigh’. The world is a bleak, colourless, cold place with a few reminders of the melody and warmth that have vanished.
The second verse intensifies the poet’s perception of the gloomy wintry landscape in a series of metaphors associated with death. The landscape seems like the corpse of the century and the century is personified which intensifies one’s feeling that it is a real presence. The cloudy sky seems like the century’s tomb; the winter wind like the century’s death song. Any ‘pulse’ (throbbing heartbeat) of germination and birth is dead, hard and dry. As in the first stanza, the first six lines are concerned with the winter landscape and the end of the century. And as in the first stanza, the last two lines of the second stanza are concerned with men; every spirit on the planet seems to have become as ‘fervourless’ (lacking in passion and intensity) as the poet, as hard and dry as the shrunken pulses of germ and birth.
The alliteration in this stanza intensifies the atmosphere of gloom and deathliness. Repeated cs link ‘century’s corpse’, ‘crypt’ and ‘cloudy canopy’. The rhymes of ‘birth’ and ‘earth’ are negated by ‘dry’ and ‘I’. Everything is seen in terms of death: ‘sharp features’ (of a dead body), ‘century’s corpse’, ‘crypt’, ‘death-lament’, ‘shrunken hard and dry’, ‘fervourless’. It seems that it is not just the death of the old century that Hardy is describing, but the death of the pulse of life that vitalises and energises him and other people, the death of hope.
At this nadir, ‘At once a voice arose’ and it’s the voice of an old, frail, thin, scruffy-looking thrush. Not the nightingale of Miltonic and Romantic tradition, whose arrival in Spring brings rapture to the poet, but the ordinary indigenous song-thrush, or possibly a mistle thrush, and a bedraggled one at that. It is ‘blast-beruffled’; it has survived the winter winds (the word blast has a long history going back at least one thousand years, indigenous, like the thrush). And from the depths of the winter winds with their ‘death lament’ it brings its beautiful song; three run-on lines take us at full tilt to its message: ‘joy illimited’ (unlimited). The very words with which Hardy introduces the song are lyrical, rhythmic, repetitive, like the thrush’s song: ‘At once a voice arose among/The bleak twigs overhead.’ In perfect iambics, each prefaced by the vowel ‘a’, Hardy echoes the sound of the thrush’s song: ‘at once a voice arose among…’ Listen to the YouTube link and you will hear that this exactly mimics the thrush’s song. The poet juxtaposes the opposites: the gloomy last evening of the century, ‘the growing gloom,’ and ‘the bleak twigs overhead’ are contrasted with ‘full-hearted evensong’, ‘joy illimited’, ‘fling his soul’. The poet, together with everything else on earth, ‘seemed fervourless’; now we get ‘full-hearted’ song. ‘Evensong’ is the evening service of worship of God. The idea of religious faith is continued in the last verse, with the thrush’s ‘carolings’, reminiscent of Christmas carols, and the ‘blessed Hope’ – hope being one of the three great Christian virtues, faith, hope and charity (love). The broken lyre strings of the tangled bine-stems, the confusion and lack of harmony in the early part of the poem, are contrasted with the ecstatic sound of the thrush’s song or ‘carolings’ and ‘air’ (tune), and the perception of Hope. The thrush itself is ‘aged’ and ‘frail’, perhaps facing its own imminent end, and yet it flings it soul ecstatically upon the darkening evening.
In the first three verses there is a definite pause at the end of the fourth line (two full stops, one semi colon) but in this last verse, filled with the sense of life and hope brought by the thrush’s song, there is only one comma in the verse; the rest of the lines are run-on lines, bringing us to ‘some blessed Hope.’ The ‘pulse’ that in the second verse ‘was shrunken hard and dry’ is contrasted with the ‘trembled through’ of the melody of hope. The whole poem is built upon this contrast: the first two verses cold and gloomy, the second two verses containing unlooked-for melody, joy and hope.
Hardy’s mood is reflected through the landscape and the season; but he (like Wordsworth in ‘The Prelude’ of 1805) is ready to learn from nature; a scruffy thrush can teach him about hope.
Reference to Context of Important Lines
The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy can be said to be a very suggestive critique of the rush of scientific discoveries and developments which dominated the Victorian Era.
The poem can be said to be a reflection of Hardy’s gloomy thoughts given the heavy use of the imagery reflecting the end of the year, day, even perhaps the century. This is indicated through the use of words like ‘desolate’, ‘frost’, ‘spectre-grey’, ‘tangled, ‘broken lyre’ etc. It is then no wonder, that this poem was earlier known as ‘The Century’s End, 1990’. The poem involves the speaker in the action who is leaning ‘upon a coppicegate’. He is observing the events of the nineteenth century (‘Century’s corpse outleant’).
The century is a ‘corpse’ now not just because it is ending but also because something in the events has led to the death of the century. Due to the surge of scientific discoveries, there was observed a decline in religious faith which is also partly out of Hardy’s personal beliefs too. The ‘aged thrush’ then comes forth as a contrast not only to the author but also to the narrator of the poem and the ‘growing gloom’ in the poem. This difference in the joy which is far beyond the limits of sadness felt by the thrush and of which the narrator is ‘unaware’ is the focus of the poem. But this realization too is an ambiguous end to the poem, where questions arise as to what is actually the narrator feeling: whether he is optimistic or still as gloomy as before.
After the gloomy and in a sense dying description of the surroundings in which the narrator is leaning on a gate; he moves to specifically describing what he is doing there.
He describes that the land in front of him has ‘sharp features’ as if like a map of the
century’s activities and events. It has the ‘century’s corpse outleant’ which is a reference to the century that has gone by. The poet uses the word ‘outleant’ although it does not actually mean anything, which is possibly to suggest that his experience cannot be expressed through the limited words already in our vocabulary. Note the fact that the poet has only referred to things up till now, and has personified the inanimate with different adjectives of death. He is using nature and elements of nature to describe his thoughts. He refers to the unsuccessful process of germination which is another way of denoting death and ends the stanza on the very note of gloominess (‘fervourless’).
He is unable to figure out in these lines as to why (‘little cause’) the thrush’s ‘carolings’. This is a contrast to the dreary surroundings which had been earlier described. The poet calls the ‘carolings’ an ‘ecstatic sound’. This sound of happiness or jubilation is compared to the ‘terrestrial things’, which is again reflective of the animate and the inanimate objects. He is trying to find the source of such happiness because he cannot understand it given the environment and later concludes that it is perhaps a ‘blessed hope’ he know and he was unaware of. These lines could also be said to be a reference to the coming of a new era, a positive incoming of a new century with new poets as opposed to poets like Hardy who belonging to the old era were oblivious of this fact.
darkling – in darkness or darkening
coppice – a thicket of tress or shrubs
spectre-gray – frost made the landscape as gray as a ghost
dregs – remains
eye of day – sun
bine-stems – dried-out stems of bindweed
scored – carved
broken lyres – Romantic Aeolian lyre or wind harp
outleant – stretched out, one of Hardy’s own compounds
pulse – life force;
germ – state from which things can grow
evensong – evening service worshipping God
fervourless – void of emotion
illimited – unlimited
caroling – singing
crypt – burial place
canopy – an ornamental cloth, here the cloudy sky hanging over the scene
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Q. How do the dominant colors of the poem (black, white, and red) connote death and ghostliness and further indicate the desolation of the speaker and the scene?
Answer: The colors of the poem are all traditional symbols of death. Black suggests sorrow and mourning. Red suggests blood and pain. White suggests the absence of color and feeling.
Q. Which specific words connote both spiritual and physical cold and discomfort?
Answers may vary. Examples: “spectre-gray,” “crypt,” “dry,” “bleak,” “frail,” “gaunt,” and “gloom.”
Q. What essential paradox does the flight and the song of the thrush in the midst of a moribund landscape present?
Answer: The paradox present is the contrast of life and death, of hope and desolation.
Q. How does Hardy establish a sense of time, place, and mood in this poem?Answer: Hardy uses specific words to establish the poem’s time, place, and mood. He relies on the senses, employing touch (“leant”), sight (“weakening eye”), and hearing (“voice arose”).
Q. The image of “The weakening eye of day,” is a metaphor for what?
Answer: The eye of day is a metaphor for the sun.
Q. What surprises the speaker in the middle of this cold winter night?
Answer: In the second stanza, the speaker is surprised to hear a song of “joy illimited” from the thrush in the middle of such a harsh, cold evening. This further surprises the speaker because the thrush puts forth such a strong song, yet is such a “frail, gaunt, and small” bird.
Q. What does the speaker feel might be carried in the tune the thrush sings?
Answer: In the final stanza, the speaker says he thinks there may be “Some blessed Hope” within the thrush’s song. If the thrush can sing of happiness in the cold, dead winter, he believes perhaps he, too, could find some hope in such a dark time.
Q. Give the name of the weekly that first published Hardy’s The Darkling Thrush?
Ans. The Graphic, a weekly newspaper, first published the poem on December 29, 1900, under the title “By Century’s Deathbed”.
Q. Identify the season and mood spoken about in The Darkling Thrush?
Ans. When the speaker leaned on a gate before a thicket of small trees, the depressing winter landscape and the ghostly gray frost made the setting sun seem lonely and abandoned.
Q. What is the theme of The Darkling Thrush?
Ans. Hope amid desolation is the theme of “The Darkling Thrush.” The frail old bird is a harbinger of spring and his song an expression of joy at a new beginning.
Q. Make a list of the words that signify the speaker’s gloomy mood in “The Darkling Thrush.”
Ans. The words spectre-gray (line 2), Winter’s dregs (line 3), desolate (line 3) etc. all signify the gloomy mood of the poet in The Darkling Thrush.
MCQs Question Bank
“The Darkling Thrush” is a…….. poem with four eight-line stanzas. (lyric, prose, free – verse)
Darkling Thrush in the poem “The Darkling Thrush” refers to………
(robin in darkness, vulture in darkness, nightingale in darkness)
The Graphic, a weekly newspaper, first published ………. on December 29, 1900, under the title “By Century’s Deathbed,” according to The Evil
Image: Two Centuries of Gothic Short Fiction and Poetry, edited by Patricia L. Skarda and Nora Crow Jaffe. (“The Darkling Thrush”, “The Convergence of the Twain”, “Strange Meeting”)
Thomas Hardy wrote “The Darkling Thrush” to express his feelings about the world when it was about to enter the…….. (20th century, 19th century, 21st century)
Thomas Hardy uses a bleak winter landscape to symbolize the passing of the………century, which the poem calls a “corpse” (line 10) in a “crypt”(line 11). (19th century, 20th century, 21st century)
Hope amid desolation is the theme of “The Darkling Thrush.” The frail…….is a harbinger of spring and his song an expression of joy at a new beginning. (old
bird, young bird, middle-aged bird)
Long Answer Type Questions
Q. Where and when is the poem set? What mood and atmosphere does the setting create?
Ans. The poem “The Dark Thrush” is set at sunset on the last day of the nineteenth century. The speaker bends towards a wooden gate overlooking the darkening countryside. The atmosphere induces a tone that is gloomy, somber and depressing, leaving the speaker “fervourless.” The poet compares the setting sun to “a weakening eye” as night falls, and describes a “desolate” scene with frost taking over the land as a “corpse” and stems of trees standing “like strings of broken lyres (harps).” The poem’s time-setting imparts a sense of loss and grief as the day, year and century end at once and it seems to suggest the end of life and the world as well.The bleak winter landscape with no development of existence, only the frost that covers the ground and the wind making funeral music in the forest, is also creepy, spooky and ghostly. The time and place create a feeling of lifelessness and hopelessness.
Q. Comment on the form and structure of Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” and discuss how they help to convey the ideas of the poem.
Ans. The poem “The Dark Thrush” follows a traditional form and structure, with four eight-line stanzas each. The lines are even in length with a set rhyme scheme(i.e. every second line rhymes), the lines are in length. The regularity mimics the seasonal pattern of nature. While the poet develops the words into sentences that can go on and take up to four lines, with a full stop, each stanza is closed. The sense of closure is in keeping with the theme of death articulated in the poem, where the speaker laments the loss of life and the end of the day, year and century.
Q. Identify the sound effects and devices in Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” and discuss how they help to present the theme.
Ans. In the poem “The Dark Thrush,” regular rhythms and sound effects, such as assonance, alliteration and sibilance, are used to convey the themes of death and the rebirth of hope. The regular rhythm in every second line indicates a sense of stagnantness that fits the “fervorless” feeling of the speaker that everything is rushing towards death.
In Stanza 1 the assonance of long “e” sounds in various words like “spectre-grey,” “dregs” and “weakening eye” builds the surrounding eerie atmosphere. The use of alliteration of the rough “k” sound in words like “corpse,” “crypt” and “cloudy canopy” in Stanza 2 further evokes the treading of a funeral march, producing a sad tone that fits the speaker’s dull feelings. Conversely, in Stanza 3, the alliteration of plosive sounds (i.e. “b” and “p” sounds) (e.g. “blast-beruffled plume”) indicates the bird’s strength and energy against the strong wind. The sibilance used to characterize the joyful singing of the thrush in “cause for carolings of such ecstatic sounds” produces a soft music that varies from the harsh sounds used to represent the bleak wintry atmosphere. The move from using harsh sounds to gentle sounds fits the change in the emotions of the speaker from sadness to joy, bringing out the comparison of the loss and rebirth of hope.
Q. Comment on the poetic devices used in the first two stanzas of in Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” and discuss the effects they create. Comment on the poetic devices used in the first two stanzas of in Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” and discuss the effects they create.
Ans. In the poem “The Darkling Thrush”, imagery and comparison (i.e. similes and metaphors) are extensively used to build the desolate setting and depressing mood. In Stanza 1, the frost is compared to a grey ghost at dusk that shrouds the land, which creates a ghostly winter scene associated with death. The setting sun is described as a “weakening eye” and the metaphor of “dregs” is used to suggest the fading light of dusk. A simile is used when the poet likens the leafless stems and bare trunks to a broken lyre/harp, showing the barrenness and inability to produce life and music.
Imagery and analogy (i.e. similes and metaphors) are widely used in the poem to create the bleak environment and gloomy atmosphere. Throughout Stanza 1, the frost at dusk is compared to a dark ghost that envelops the ground, producing a ghostly winter scene associated with death. The setting sun is portrayed as a “weakening eye,” and the “dregs” metaphor is used to signify dusk’s fading light. A similar is used when the poet likes a broken lyre / harp with the leafless stems and bare trunks, showing the barrenness and incapacity to create life and music.
Throughout Stanza 2, metaphors are used to equate the landscape with a corpse and the darkening sky with a tomb that accentuates the spooky atmosphere further. The rich visual, auditory, and tactile imagery in the poem appeals to the sense of sight, hearing, and touch of the readers, creating a vivid picture of the eerie countryside in a darkening dusk that helps pose the theme of death and end.
Q. Comment on diction of Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” and discuss the effects the use of language creates. Comment on diction of Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” and discuss the effects the use of language creates.
Ans. In the poem “The Darkling Thrush” it is possible to identify archaic language (e.g. coppice[ group of trees], spectre [ ghost], dark [ in the dark], lyre [ harp], crypt [ tomb], unlimited [ limited], near [ near]) and some unusual combinations of words (e.g. death-lament and “outleant”). The use of archaism reflects the Keatsian lyrical style of the poet, and the literary romantic tradition to which he belongs. The author uses several single adjectives before nouns, in addition to the use of archaicism. In Stanzas 1 and 2 several negative adjectives (e.g., bleak, fading, twisted, fractured, haunted, gloomy, shrunken, rough, dry, and fervourless) are used to convey the speaker’s dark feelings and dejected mood. In contrast, in Stanzas 3 and 4, positive adjectives (e.g. full-hearted, unlimited, growing, ecstatic, happy, blessed) and sentiment words (e.g., joy, hope) are used to show the speaker’s uplifted spirit after listening to the joyful singing of the aged thrush.
It is also worth noting that the description of the bird also uses words with religious meanings (e.g. evensong, spirit, carolings, blesseds). The religious affiliation is accentuated towards the end of the poem by capitalizing the word “Hope.” The thrush seems to symbolize in nature a divine power and to be a harbinger of hope.