The Darkling Thrush
Hardy wrote ‘The Darkling Thrush’ in 1899 and it was published 29th December 1900. The poem starts off with Hardy leaning on a wooden gate looking at the sunset. It is dusk on the last day of the nineteenth century and the atmosphere is dead and motionless. A thrush suddenly appears and starts to sing. Hardy is confused because he cannot find a reason for the thrush to sing. The song begins to lighten his gloomy mood. Hardy assumes the song of the thrush represents hope for a better century.
Lines 1-2 – ‘I leant upon a coppice gate when Frost was spectre-gray’. The poem takes place sometime in winter and starts out with the poet leaning on a gate which leads to small forest. Hardy personifies ‘Frost’ by giving the ‘F’ a capital letter. This suggests that Frost consists of human-like characteristics. ‘Spectre’ means ghost-like, introducing a dead atmosphere.
Lines 3-4 – ‘And Winter’s dregs made desolate the weakening eye of day’. This time, Hardy personifies ‘Winter’. These two lines confirm that this poem is taking place in the depth of winter and so it is very grey. ‘The weakening eye of day’ indicates that the poet is watching the sunset and the use of the word ‘weakening’ suggests that the sun is fading and dying.
Lines 5-6 – ‘The tangled bine-stems scored the sky like strings of broken lyres’. The use of the word ‘scored’ suggests that all the poet sees is destruction when he looks at the ‘bine-stems’. The use of the simile which compares the ‘bine-stems’ like ‘strings of broken lyres’ indicates that there is no happiness or music. Everything is dead.
Lines 7-8 – ‘And all mankind that haunted nigh had sought their household fires’. This insinuates that it is late as any normal person at this time would be inside, by the fire in their home, keeping warm.
Lines 1-2 – ‘The land’s sharp features seemed to be the Century’s corpse outleant’. The poet states that the land is a map of everything that has happened over the course of the century. By personifying ‘Century’, the poet gives it human-like characteristics as if the century itself is dead and the corpse is left behind as the land that the poet is observing (this poem was written at the end of the 18th century).
Lines 3-4 – ‘His crypt the cloudy canopy, the wind his death-lament’. The alliteration of ‘c’ as well as ‘Century’s corpse’ intensifies the atmosphere of gloom and deathliness. ‘Death-lament’ gives the impression of a death rattle being sung by the wind. The use of the word ‘his’ makes the wind more familiar and human-like.
Lines 5-6 – ‘The ancient pulse of germ and birth was shrunken hard and dry’. The ‘pulse of germ and birth’ may mean that any throbbing heartbeat of germination is dead (‘was shrunken hard and dry’).
Lines 7-8 –‘And every spirit upon earth seemed favourless as I’. The last line of the first stanza and the second stanza are concerned with men. This line means that every spirit on the planet seems as lifeless as the poet, as hard and dry as the shrunken pulses of germ and birth.
Lines 1-2 – ‘At once a voice arose among the bleak twigs overhead’. A bird suddenly appears and sings a song, disrupting the silence of death. The alliteration of ‘a’ resembles the sound a thrush’s song. The song drowns out the sound of the ‘death-lament’. ‘Bleak twigs’ gives the impression that death has reached the vegetation in the area, making it bare and dry.
Lines 3-4- ‘In a full-hearted evensong of joy illimited;’. The bird is not just singing a song, it is singing a happy, joyful song which is strange as the environment is dead and motionless so what reason does the bird have to sing? There is enjambment in the first four lines of this stanza which draws the attention of the reader to the next line.
Lines 5-6 – ‘An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small, in blast-beruffled plume. This use of plosive ‘b’ sounds emphasises that it has survived the winter winds. ‘Frail, gaunt and small’ shows that such a small, delicate bird is able to lighten the dead and gloomy atmosphere.
Lines 7-8 – ‘Had chosen to fling his soul upon the growing gloom’. This gives the impression that the thrush is giving up its life to fight the gloomy environment. Even the words, ‘growing gloom’ sound depressing when read aloud.
Lines 1-2 – ‘So little cause for carolings of such ecstatic sound’. This confuses the poet as there is no good reason for the bird to be singing. Also, the sibilance (repetition of ‘s’ and ‘c’ sounds) creates a soft music, just like what the bird is singing.
Lines 3-4 – ‘Was written on terrestrial things afar or nigh around’. Just like the previous stanza, there is enjambment in the first four lines. The use of the word ‘terrestrial’ suggests that the poet believes this is bird is not from Earth as it is flinging its soul to the ghostly atmosphere.
Lines 5-6 – ‘That I could think there trembled through his happy good-night air’. This proves that the thrush is happy and the poet may be a little comforted by the thrush’s song. This may be shown by the alliteration of ‘th’ and ‘tr’ sounds.
Lines 7-8 – ‘Some blessed Hope whereof he knew and I was unaware’. Hardy brings up the idea of Christian hope, as if he has just had a religious experience. There are many reasons for this. Firstly, the bird sings ‘a full-hearted evensong’. An evensong is a service of evening prayers psalms and so this introduces religious themes into the play. Secondly, Hardy personifies ‘Hope’, as if it were a human-like figure giving hope (i.e. Jesus Christ who came in the form of a human) which can suggest Christian optimism. Hardy again gives the bird a gender, ‘he knew’, making it more familiar and more powerful.
As well as the actual content of the poem, the structure is also noteworthy. The rhyme scheme is regular and the lines are structured as tetrameter followed by trimester (an 8 syllable line followed by a 6 syllable line). This makes the poem flow with a certain beat, just like the beat of the song the bird is singing.
Altogether, Hardy begins the poem in a dark, lifeless atmosphere. Everything is dead and there doesn’t seem to be any hope for a better century. Suddenly, when the thrush is introduced in the third stanza, the bird brings the poem to life by singing. This drowns the sound of the wind’s death rattle and lightens the mood of the speaker. It’s strange for the speaker as there is no reason for the bird to be cheerful at such a time. The speaker then realises that there is some hope that the thrush is aware of but he is not, giving him hope for a better century.
By Kushal Basnyat