The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy: Summary and Analysis
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.
Starting With the Poem
Written in 1899, The Darkling Thrush is very much a reflection of Hardy’s troubled conscience, torn between the insecurity posed by revolutionary religious assertions and a faint belief in the resurrection of mankind.
The poem marks the termination of two significant events – the decline of the Victorian age with its religious beliefs, agrarian society and the end of Hardy’s career as a novelist. The critical reception of two of his novels, “The Tess of the d’Urbervilles” (1891) and “Jude the Obscure” (1895), led Hardy turn towards poetry as means of self-expression. Moreover, the decay of agricultural society brought about by relentless Industrialization, along with the abatement of religious beliefs by Darwin’s revolutionary assertion on evolution, made him sceptical like his contemporaries, Mathew Arnold, and Tennyson. This explains the reason behind the other title, “By Century’s Deathbed,” the poem had, when it was published on December 29, by a weekly newspaper called “The Graphic.”
Leaning “upon” a gate that opens into the woods (coppice gate), Hardy makes a short estimation of his surrounding; “Frost” appears “ghost-like,” the already waning day is rendered lonely (desolate) by the last bite of winter (winter’s dregs). Along with this, the rising stems of shrubs resemble the “strings” of a “broken” harp (lyre). He further observes that on such a frighteningly “haunted” night, all mankind seems to huddle beside their “household” fires. The barren landscape evokes a deathlike feeling and in tune with the rapidly closing century, appears as its corpse that lies (outleant), within a tomb (crypt) of overhanging clouds. With the wind singing a mournful elegy (death lament), there is hardly any note of rejuvenation, and even the seeds of spring, promising life, are shrunken hard. Consequently, the poet feels lifeless (fervourless). Suddenly the pervading gloom is interrupted by the vibrant (full-hearted) song of an aged and frail thrush. Since the bleak landscape could hardly be a source of inspiration for the bird’s “carolings,” the poet wonders what “blessed Hope” that he is unaware of, has inspired it.
Desolation and Gloom
Right from the very onset, the inescapable feeling is one of depression and loneliness. The landscape seems in anticipation of an impending doom, with “Frost” assuming the semblance of an unearthly spirit. It is a “haunted nigh,” and everyone is “fervourless.”
Hope amidst Despair
The thrush and its carefree song, embodying eternal hope, voice the poet’s belief in some betterment of the dreary situation.
Four stanzas of eight lines
The rhyme scheme is ABABCDCD
Mood and Tone
Till stanza 2, the poem bears a pessimistic tone, and the mood is meditative. With the emergence of the thrush in stanza 3, both the tone and mood become inspiring and hopeful.
Hardy is well-known for coining new words in his poems and several such “nonce words” that he create in this poem for maintaining its rhyme scheme, and meter are, “outleant,” “blast-beruffled,” and “spectre-gray.” Simultaneously, he also uses words of other poets such as “darkling,” (a term employed by Mathew Arnold In “Dover Beach” and John Keats in an “Ode to a Nightingale.” Besides these, the major portion of the poem is dominated by gloomy sounding words such as, “gray,” “dregs,” “desolate,” “broken,” and “haunted.” It is from stanza 3 that the words become a bit lively. For instance, in lines 5‑6 of Stanza 3, the domination of “b” sound in the words, “blast-beruffled,” intensifies the presence of the bird amidst the bleak surrounding.
- The “aged thrush” symbolizes hope for the depressed mankind
- The “tangled bine-stems” heighten the bleakness of the surrounding
Image and Imagery
In the first half of the poem, most of the images are gray and grim. For instance, the lines, 3‑4, “And Winter’s dregs made desolate/The weakening eye of day,” create a picture of looming solitariness or the lines, 9‑12, “The land’s sharp features seemed to be/The Century’s corpse outleant,/His crypt the cloudy canopy,/The wind his death-lament.” establish an image of sorrow and futility. From stanza 3, the images tend to be bright as the poet remarks that the bird sings a “full-hearted evensong / of joy illimited.”
Figures of Speech Used
- In line 2, “Frost” is personified as someone having ghost-like features to develop the barren setting of the poem
- In line 3, “Winter” is personified as someone responsible for increasing the isolation when the poet says,” And Winter’s dregs made desolate/The weakening eye of day.”
- In line 10, the “Century” is personified as someone who’s dead, and his “corpse” is the arid land.
- In line 31, “Hope” is personified to emphasize the ushering of something good despite morose circumstances.
- In line 5,” The tangled bine-stems” are compared to “strings of broken lyres”
- In line 15, “every spirit upon earth” is said to be as listless as the poet
In line 9 10, the “land” is said to resemble the “corpse” of the fast fading “Century.”
In lines 11‑12, the cloudy sky is said to be the tomb (crypt) of the “Century” and the winter wind is compared with the “death lament” sung for the departed “Century.”
- Lines 1-2 – ‘At once, a voice arose among the bleak twigs overhead.’
- Repetition of “k” sounds in the lines, Lines 1-7: “I leant upon a coppice gate … And all mankind that haunted nigh.”
The Darkling Thrush, apart from echoing the Victorian traits of being a lyric or having a moral objective, is also a fitting forerunner of Modernism, for, in dealing with loss, despair, and loneliness, it reflects a trend that was going to be explored more intensely by Eliot and Pound.