The Darkling Thrush

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.

First stanza:
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.

Second stanza:
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.

Third stanza:
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.

Fourth stanza:
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

34 thoughts on “The Darkling Thrush

  1. Pingback: Great Students Inspire: Thomas Hardy Exam Resource | Great Writers Inspire

  2. Thomas Hardy’s The Darkling Thrush, is a poem full of much sorrow. It is dark and bleak, just as its title is. Although it is so unhappy, it is also very deep. The poem embodies the writer’s despair and pessimism. This poem is one of the many examples of Hardy’s talent.
    Hardy begins his poem talking about his setting. It was winter, cold and dark. It seemed lonely, and all the people who lived nearby were inside their homes, gathered around their household fires. The countryside looked like a corpse. It looked ugly out there, and even the sky and the frost was unattractive. It was a very depressing place.
    He continues talking about the setting, but also begins to write his thoughts. He feels that everything around him was dead, and the wind sounded like a moan. The world seemed like it used to be alive, but now it’s just small and old. He thought that everyone around him felt the same way.
    All of a sudden, he heard a voice coming from above. At that instant, all that was ugly appeared beautiful. All whom he thought felt the world was dead, are now seeing it for a second time. All was good, and everyone was happy. Still, Hardy felt the same. Instead of thinking things were beautiful; he thought things had gotten worse.
    He felt there was no use in being happy. The things that seemed ugly didn’t really matter much to him. He felt even more scared and alone than before. The air seemed happy, and all were blessed with hope. Hardy still saw no hope.
    This poem means different things to people, but maybe all can agree that it is unhappy. Almost all of Hardy’s poems were the same way, and maybe this is the reason that makes these poems masterpieces. In his short time as a poetry writer, he wrote many dark poems that seemed hopeless and miserable. Although his poems got mixed reviews, yet they are the foundation of his writing talent.

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  4. Thank you so much for this line-by-line analysis, my pre-boards are going to start in a week and this really helped a lot. Thank you so much!

  5. “The Darkling Thrush”- the title consists the word “Darkling” suggesting enduring and apathetic pessimism. Accompanied by this dreary word, even the beautiful creature of nature, the “Thrush”, a bird, is warning about something sinister. The structure of this poem with four octaves, each comprising two quatrains in hymn measure helps Hardy to portray his lost and disenchanted feelings. Written in the end of the year 1899, the start of the new century, Hardy could be expected to write about the new beginning, hope but instead he provides the readers with despair and gloom, disappointing them. The poem is set on a winter night, adding on to the disconsolate effect as winter usually depicts death and night is full of dusk, isolation. Through the combination of allegorical imageries, fatalistic metaphors, depressing similes and several other literary devices he is successful in leaving an imprint of his loneliness.
    The opening of the poem is with a plethora of obscurity; even the winter ‘frost’, now has turned “spectre-gray”, indicating a more dreary and dismal condition than that of pure, white frost. The image of approaching winter and the sun sinking gives a hint of desolation. Warning of upcoming evilness is enhanced as he writes “broken lyre”. Hardy’s mystified state is expressed by the word “tangled” used for “bine-stems” maybe used for himself to describe his current situation. The swishing sound made by the blowing wind is harsh, playing its sombre tune, the “death-lament” for the “century [‘s]” is dying. Lamenting breeze adds on to the melancholy, creating a theatrical scene and as the century is fading away, Hardy sees no ray of hope confined in the room of darkness as a new year raises its head. Thomas Hardy’s use of imagery in the finale of the second verse makes it more interesting as. He has particular reasons for using the words “ancient pulse of germ and birth.” When reading the words “pulse” and “birth”, the image of a beating heart comes to mind, symbolizing the rhythms and beats of life. Yet, “pulse” as well as “germ” also has an agricultural reference. In terms of agriculture, these terms refer to resurgence, renewal or new life. Though, in the very next line, this tinge of hope evaporates-“Was shrunken hard and dry,” stating that this renewal of life has shrunken hard and dry. He does not talk about mankind; instead he uses the term “spirits” which is quite ghostly, indicating towards the end of the ‘cycle of resurgence’. With the use of word “fervourless”, he snatches away the most important ingredient from human, successfully creating an image of a deceased body, expressionless and lacking passion. Use of diction consumes the readers with cheerlessness; setting the tone, slowly and steadily. However, in the opening of very next verse, he alters the mood, when he mentions about “a voice” coming somewhere from a bunch of “bleak twigs”, acting as a drop of water for thirsty mouth. The words he has chosen to describe that sound are exultant, which is quite ironic as Hardy’s jar of diction is usually filled with despondency. Though the term “aged” again signifies the forthcoming death of the century. Nevertheless, he still manages to balance it as that midget, old, fragile “Thrush” showcases its courage to sing optimistically in spite of the tomblike desolation during the funeral of the eighteenth century. Even after getting a sign from the bird, Hardy declines to come out of his “gloom” upon the demise of the eighteenth century and engulfs himself in his imagination own imagination, confused that is the dreary condition of his surrounding is real-“I was unaware.”
    Similes and metaphors are one of the most important components of Hardy’s poetries. Here also, he makes use of these elements to construct the effigy. In the first verse, he shapes the scenery of a sun setting –“The weakening eye of day”. The expression not only symbolises the sun but also starts a new pattern of ‘weakening’, ‘tangling’ and then the final stage of ‘breaking’ serving Hardy as a means to enlighten the readers about his misery. His puzzled state is referred to as “tangled bine-stems” which are then compared to the “strings of broken lyres” depicting lack of harmony and absence of equanimity, warning about oncoming ominousness. The land’s sharp features”- his technique of describing the nature according to his sulk is intriguing. The use of simile to show how unenthusiastic and filled with unconcern everyone around him is or as he imagines them to be, he merely equates them to himself.
    Literary devices and the sounds also play a major role in setting remorse tone. In the very beginning of the poem, the harsh sounds made by ‘c’ and ‘g’ in “coppice gate” make the effect bluer. The repetition of the ‘k[s]’ in “spectre”, “weakening”, “scored”, “sky”, “broken”, “mankind”, etc. increases the pace of the poem, perhaps showing that how quickly the new epoch is moving towards him, but with the same old wretchedness, nothing that makes him eager. In the first canto, “day” rhymes with “gray” which is quite ironic, as day usually embodies an environment of joy and gray on the other hand is a weary colour. Also the ‘d[s]’ in- “dregs” “made” “desolate” “day” “tangled” “mankind” accentuate the elongated solitude. The stridence of the ‘s[s]’ in personification of land in the phrase “land’s sharp features seemed” adds on to the drama and stretch the sombre nature. The winter wind’s harshness and the mournful it is playing hits the reader with a cruel ‘t’ and ‘d’. It also indirectly influences the reader when Hardy writes about Thrush’s “plume” describing them as “blast-beruffled” as her disordered feathers could be her state and yet it is singing its “happy song”. Alliteration in the phrase “growing gloom” leaves its influence of the deepening twilight on the readers. The poem ends with a tinge of confusion which is evident in-“That I could think there trembled through” and even highlighted by the means of alliteration.
    Thus, with the consolidation of all the above factors, Hardy makes it a heart touching and a sad reality of life and puts forward his feelings in the form of this poem.

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