Thomas Hardy's "The Darkling Thrush"

Updated on May 2, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Thomas Hardy

Source

Introduction and Text of "The Darkling Thrush"

Thomas Hardy's "The Darkling Thrush" consists of four rimed stanzas. Each stanza follows the same rime-scheme, ABABCDCD. The theme of this poem is somewhat reminiscent of Frost's "Dust of Snow" but without the true improvement of mood experienced by Frost's speaker. Hardy's speaker seems to need to make negative comparisons between the human and animals worlds, with the animal actually better equipped to appreciate the gloomier side of the natural world.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

The Darkling Thrush

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 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.

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.

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.

Reading of "The Darkling Thrush"

Commentary

The theme dramatized in Thomas Hardy's "The Darkling Thrush" is the contrast between the joyous notes of a bird and the despair of the human listener.

First Stanza: Setting a Dreary Stage

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 speaker sets a dreary stage by remarking, "I leant upon a coppice gate / When Frost was spectre-gray." He continues to paint a gloomy scene of his surroundings; winter has made "dregs" of the bushes and grasses and furthermore made them "desolate." The sun is setting, and he refers to the sunset as "the weakening eye of day." As he looks up into the sky, he sees a tangle of a climbing vine that reminds him of the strings of a "broken lyre."

The music has gone out of the world along with the light and beauty. The season of winter becomes his symbol of inner desolation that he feels for himself and his fellows. He claims that all the other people who might be around have "sought their household fires." The speaker refers to these people as ghosts who might have "haunted nigh." Every detail that this speaker puts forth adds to the gloomy, dreary melancholy that he is experiencing.

Second Stanza: Landscape of the Dying Century

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.

The speaker then broadens his scope and remarks that the landscape seems to represent "[t]he Century's corpse." The poem was written around 1900, so the speaker seems to be collating his thoughts about the end of a century and the beginning of a new one. The "corpse" of the last century is not looking and sounding good with the winter atmosphere of "cloudy canopy" and "the wind" functioning as a "death lament."

The speaker is so deep in melancholy that he cannot imagine one speck of brightness in the earth as he laments, "The ancient pulse of germ and birth / Was shrunken hard and dry." And then the speaker grieves that "every spirit upon earth / Seemed as fervourless as I." Because he has no zeal, he imagines that there is no one who is any better suited then he is.

Third Stanza: Hearing a Bird Sing

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.

Suddenly, the speaker hears a bird singing "among / The bleak twigs overheard." The bird's song is "a full-hearted evensong / Of joy illimited." His description of the bird's melody contrasts mightily with all the "gloom" he has heretofore painted. The bird itself was "An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small, / In blast-beruffled plume." But his song filled the sad darkness; the speaker says that the bird "had chosen . . . to fling his soul / Upon the growing gloom."

The birdsong is so impressive that the speaker avers that the song comes from the bird's very soul. The speaker is so electrified with the joy of the song that the reader then wonders if the birdsong affected this speaker as the crow did the speaker of Robert Frost's "Dust of Snow."

Fourth Stanza: Pessimism in the Birdsong

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.

But then the speaker announces that there seemed little in the environment to herald "carolings / Of such ecstatic sound." Everything around him still looked quite gloomy; a winter night was still coming on.

In contrast to the speaker in Frost's versanelle, this speaker will likely continue on in his melancholic, gloomy mood, even though the birdsong has given him the fantastic notion that the bird knew something the speaker did not—that the bird seems to sense, "Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew / And I was unaware." Choosing to remain unaware is quite the human thing as pessimism and disgruntled naïveté grip the mind and heart, preventing the little glimmers of soul from reaching the consciousness.

Questions & Answers

  • What idea does Thomas Hardy want to present in the poem "The Darkling Thrush"?

    The theme of this poem is somewhat reminiscent of Frost's "Dust of Snow" but without the true improvement of mood experienced by Frost's speaker.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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