The Darkling Thrush

'The Darkling Thrush' is a poem written by Thomas Hardy in 1899. With poetic references going back to Milton and Coleridge, the poem is an informal ode to the turn of a century and a scruffy bird in a winter landscape. 

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Table of contents

    'The Darkling Thrush': summary

    Before getting into any context and analysis, here is a topline view of the poem, 'The Darkling Thrush.'

    The Darkling Thrush
    Written in1899-1900
    Written byThomas Hardy
    Published inThe Graphic (1900)
    Originally titled'By the Century's Deathbed'
    StructureFour octaves
    Meter Iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter
    ThemesThe last century, time, change, perspective
    Key Literary Devices Personification and metaphor
    Imagery Corpse, winter, bird

    'The Darkling Thrush': Thomas Hardy

    Thomas Hardy, a novelist and poet, was born in 1840 in a rural village in Higher Brockhampton, Dorset. His childhood and adult life in the county of Dorset was the inspiration for much of his literature. Hardy’s lived experience of country life influenced his views on clichéd, idyllic representations, as well as class structures.

    Unusually for the time, Hardy married twice. Both marriages were largely unhappy, despite or maybe because of his progressive views about women, the need for children and the regulation of the institution of marriage. He died in 1928, a few miles from where he was born.

    Often considered to be a Victorian Realist, Hardy was influenced by a variety of sources from Milton to the Romantics and even Jon Stuart Mill. Continuous themes that feature in his work are the role of religion in defining social norms, marriage, education and his era’s gender and class inequalities.

    A Victorian Realist was an author who wrote novels about everyday life during the Victorian era (usually 1837–1900). Realist authors were characterised by their attention to detail, characterisation and a focus on current realities.

    The Romantic movement was considered to have started in about 1800 and flourished until the 1850s. The Romantics placed an emphasis on emotion, imagination and nature as a reaction against the more ordered and reason-focused Enlightenment. Romantic movement poet Wordsworth was influenced by the earlier Milton, who wrote the classic 'Paradise Lost' (1667).

    John Stuart Mill was an influential philosopher during the 19th century. He was a utilitarian who combined the thinking of the Enlightenment and the new Romantic movement.

    'The Darkling Thrush': poem

    Hardy wrote the poem as a new century was about to begin. The ode, written in a less formal and more personal style than is traditional for an ode, is written in the first person, 'I'. The poem relays Hardy’s thoughts and feelings as he considers the turn of the century.

    As the speaker leans against a gate in a little wood or forest, he looks around him at the bleak winter landscape. Everyone else has gone indoors. He compares the frosty landscape to a 'corpse', the sky to a 'crypt' and the sound of the wind to a 'funeral lament'.

    The speaker is pessimistic and gloomy, viewing the death of the old century without any sense of fond reminiscence. The landscape he describes is equally bleak until a common thrush starts to sing.

    He wonders if the bedraggled bird knows something that he doesn’t.

    A crypt is a subterranean room, usually underneath a church. It is often used as a place to bury the dead.

    Lament is to grieve or expresses sadness at the loss of a person. Often done at funerals as a way to express sorrow.

    Evensong is a religious form of song, sung in the evening. The term is usually related to Christian religions, most often the Anglican church. Related to this is the ode which is a lyrical address to a specific subject or person.

    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.'

    'The Darkling Thrush': analysis

    There are of course many possible readings of 'The Darkling Thrush', but a straightforward one is a good place to start.

    The historical poetic references that Hardy deliberately uses throughout the poem begin with the title, 'The Darkling Thrush'. The word ‘darkling’ has been used by poets since the mid-15th century. It means, 'to become dark'. In 'Paradise Lost, Book III, Milton describes a nightingale:

    the wakeful Bird

    Sings darkling, and in shadiest Covert hid

    Tunes her nocturnal Note. (lines 39–40)

    There are many are other poetic references to ‘darkling’ throughout history, including Keat's famous 'Ode to a Nightingale' (1819).

    Darkling I listen; and, for many a timeI have been half in love with easeful Death, (lines 51–52)

    Other than the word, ‘darkling’, birds have an equally long and illustrious poetic history, from the nightingale of the already mentioned Keats and Milton poems to the albatross of Coleridge’s 'The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner' (1798) and Wordsworth’s 'To a Cuckoo' (1815).

    The other element of Hardy’s poem that has a long poetic lineage is the Aeolian musical instrument. Traditionally, these were stringed instruments, usually either a harp or a lyre. Again, showing his influences, Hardy references a lyre in his poem. This can be linked to Coleridge's poem with similar themes and stringed instrument elements, 'Ode to the Departing Year' (1796).

    In addition, Hardy’s references to the wind and the ‘death lament’ link 'The Darkling Thrush' to Shelley’s 'Ode to the West Wind' (1820). 'Lament' is a synonym for 'dirge'.

    thou dirge

    of the dying year (lines 23–24)

    With his choice of words and themes, Hardy embeds his poem with past poetic tradition.

    Why do you think Hardy references these poems and poets in particular? Does it change the way you read the poem now that you know the texts that he referenced?

    The Darkling Thrush, thrush on a tree branch, StudySmarterThe average thrush is a common bird and pretty plain.

    'The Darkling Thrush': structure

    The poem is four stanzas long with the first two octaves describing the bleak winter and the desolate landscape. Hardy makes use of iambic tetrameter for his long lines and iambic trimester for the short lines.

    When Frost was spectre-grey,

    And Winter's dregs made desolate

    The weakening eye of day' (lines 2–4)

    The second two stanzas feature the thrush and his song. Hardy is surprised by the contrast between the scruffy old bird’s beautiful song, its appearance and its grim surroundings. He wonders if the hope he imagines that the bird feels is due to some knowledge that he is unaware of.

    An octave is a stanza with eight lines.

    'The Darkling Thrush': themes

    On the surface, the poem is about change, time, and perspective. These themes are represented by the dawn of a new century, with Hardy looking back at the past. He is quite pessimistic but considers the possibility of hope when he hears a bird singing despite the gloomy environment.

    What did you think when the 2010s became the 2020s? Did you reflect on the past decade? Can you imagine being an adult at the turn of a century?

    Personification in the 'Darkling Thrush'

    Hardy makes extensive use of literary devices throughout the poem but there are a few more central ones worth looking at in a little more detail. A key device for analysing the poem is personification.

    Personification is the attribution of human emotions or characteristics to animals or non-human objects or subjects.

    In the second stanza, Hardy uses personification when he compares the wintry and unpopulated landscape to the century’s corpse. Generally, neither time nor a landscape has a body, so cannot become a corpse. By using a metaphor to compare the bleak landscape with a corpse, which is a word usually used for dead human bodies, Hardy personifies both the landscape and the passing century.

    The land's sharp features seemed to be

    The Century's corpse outleant (lines 9–10)

    Hardy also personifies the thrush, by calling its song ‘ecstatic’ which is a human emotion. All of Hardy's adjectives for the bird are related to human emotions or states from ‘full-hearted evensong’ to the final lines which speak of the thrush potentially having both the knowledge and hope that eluded the poet.

    Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

    And I was unaware. (lines 31–32)

    In the Victorian era, animals were not typically considered to be capable of complex human emotions, self-awareness or to have knowledge that humans may not have. In giving the thrush these attributes, Hardy personifies it, creating a stronger connection between himself, as the human poet, and the scruffy bird.

    The Darkling Thrush - Key takeaways

    • The poem, 'A Darkling Thrush' was written by novelist and poet, Thomas Hardy in 1899–1900.
    • It is a four-octave ode to a passing century and an old, bedraggled bird.
    • Hardy uses iambic tetrameter for longer lines and iambic trimester for the shorter ones.
    • Themes include the passing of an era, time, change, and perspective.
    • Key literary devices include metaphor and the personification of the last century and the thrush.
    Frequently Asked Questions about The Darkling Thrush

    What type of poem is 'The Darkling Thrush'?

    It is an ode.

    What is the main idea of 'The Darkling Thrush'?

    The poem has a few themes but can be read as being about time, change and perspective.

    How is nature represented in 'The Darkling Thrush'?

    Nature is personified in 'The Darkling Thrush.' Hardy describes the landscape as having features and compares it to a corpse. The bird, he imagines, might have hope or knowledge that he does not.

    It is also literally represented as bleak, wintery in the case of the landscape, and scruffy and old in the case of the bird.

    What is the meaning of 'The Darkling Thrush'?

    There are many possible meanings but one could be that it is possible for humankind to learn from nature.

    What is the irony in 'The Darkling Thrush'?

    One potential example of irony is that the bird has no possible reason to be singing. It is scruffy and old and the weather is bleak.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    How does Hardy reference poets and poetic traditions of the past?

    How many stanzas does 'The Darkling Thrush' have?

    What are some literary devices used in 'The Darkling Thrush'?


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    • 9 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
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