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Hardy capitalises several nouns throughout the poem: ‘Frost’(2) and ‘Winter’(3) in the first stanza, ‘Century’s’(10) in the second, and ‘Hope’(31) in the final stanza. He does this to emphasise certain features of the scene that he presents. In the first three cases, this is in the main a descriptive touch, a personification of certain aspects of this gloomy picture. It is most effective, perhaps, in the case of the word ‘Century’s’, where the entire landscape is fancifully rendered as the corpse of the past hundred years (the poem was written at the very close of the nineteenth century). The poet’s surroundings thus become a funeral scene for some giant personage:
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament. (11-12)
This helps to underline the overall sense of death and decay.
A new note is introduced in the third stanza, with the appearance of the blithely-singing little thrush, although the poet can see no reason for such cheerfulness. He goes on to admit, however, that thrush might well have access to some source of joy, of ‘Hope’ (31) of which he himself remains ‘unaware’ (32). The capitalization of ‘Hope’ here draws attention to its importance, that it can yet exist even when there might seem to be no cause for it; it hints at the possibility of better things in spite of the poet’s bleak surroundings and his own despairing outlook.
Hardy was well-known for his sense of pessimism, springing chiefly from his loss of traditional belief in God, like not a few of his contemporaries in the late Victorian period following a century of rapid social, scientific and technological change. Perhaps most important in this context was the rise of evolutionary theory, spearheaded by Charles Darwin, which challenged traditional religious beliefs about a benevolent Creator in order of the universe, and seemed to hint instead at a world ruled purely by chance, essentially indifferent and uncaring – a vision expressed by Hardy in his bitter short poem ‘Hap’.
However, in the final stanza of ‘The Darkling Thrush’, Hardy does admit the possibility – however faint - that there is some kind of wise higher power after all, capable of imparting joy and optimism to the hearts of the lowliest creatures, like the bedraggled little thrush.
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