How does the significant use of denotation, connotation and figures of speech function to create theme in "The Darkling Thrush"?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In his poem, "The Darkling Thrush," Thomas Hardy employs a rather strict form of traditional meter and rhyme and structural parallels to contain the disorder of the landscape that the speaker describes.  For instance, the "coppice gate" upon which the speaker leans is of a similar structure as "The Century's corpse outleant," an idea which contrasts greatly with the order suggested by the fenced in woodland.

Amid the contemplative tone suggested by the speaker's leaning upon the "coppice gate," there is the harsh "Winter's dregs made desolate."  The word dregs denotes the last of something that has little value.  However, here the word suggests, not the last of something, but the effect of "The weakening eye of day," that makes twilight "desolate."  The metaphor created here by Hardy is that the nineteenth century is at its unpropitious end.

In lines 5 and 6, the speaker uses a simile that compares "the tangled bine-stems" to the strings of broken lyres."  And, although the word score denotes an organized musical arrangement, here Hardy employs the word to connote an ominous image of chaos ("tangled" and "broken") outside while the rest of mankind seeks the warmth of their "household fires."

As he contemplates Nature, the speaker does not find it in harmony with man.  Metaphorically, the speaker describes "Winter's dregs," the end of the nineteenth century, as entombed under "the cloudy canopy"  with the wind as a "death-lament."  Certainly, the speaker's depression of spirit about the forthcoming century is evidenced in the moribund description of the earth as a "crypt" and the Spring seeds as being "shrunken hard and dry."

In the midst of this gloomy atmosphere and an indifferent Nature, the speaker hears the song of the "aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small" who chooses to sing and "fling his soul," two images that suggest both hope and desperation on the eve of the new century.  "The growing gloom" on which the thrush "flings" his soul, may be the figurative ashes of the century that ends out of which the brave little bird hopes to rise like the mythological phoenix: here Hardy suggests hope for the new twentieth century.

But, the incongruity of the brave brown little thrush's singing contrasts with the bleakness of the speaker's environment, as well as the "spectre-grey" quality of the end of the nineteenth century.  While the effete landscape reflects the soul of the speaker, the thrush's song suggests that there may be some order restored to the universe by supernatural forces outside the speaker:

That I could think there trembled through

His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

And I was unaware. (ll. 29-32)

Hardy's poem, "The Darkling Thrush" reflects his bemoaning of the end of agricultural farming by individual families which existed until the end of the nineteenth century.  With the advent of thrashing machines and other technological advancements, Hardy sensed a loss of the life he knew.  He perceived little to praise in the forthcoming society in which industrialization would reap the death of rural life as he had known it.


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