The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“The Darkling Thrush” is a thirty-two-line lyric poem in four stanzas of eight lines each. The first two stanzas provide the setting of the poem. Hardy’s poetic persona is standing at the edge of a “coppice,” a thicket of bushes or small trees. He surveys a desolate scene at the end of a winter day. He is alone in that “haunted night”; all the rest of humankind “had sought their household fires.” The second stanza continues the description and provides two important pieces of information. One concerns the time when the poem was written, December of 1900, which is always included in the printing of the poem. The words “the Century’s corpse” and “the ancient pulse of germ and birth” refer to the turn of the century. The other important information is about the poet’s state of mind. He is deeply depressed, stating that the dismal scene is “fervorless as I.”
These first two stanzas comprise line after line of lyrical description. Details pertaining to death (the bine-stems “like strings from broken lyres,” the “crypt,” the “death-lament,” the “ancient pulse” that is “shrunken hard and dry”) add up to a depressing total. The scene of icy, clear death images and the harsh, austere feeling are firmly set in the reader’s mind.
Now that the reader’s mood has been captured by the frosty, deathly winter scene, surrounded by images of the land’s and the century’s death, the third stanza opens...
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Thomas Hardy is a transitional poet, a bridge between the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, and between Romantic Victorian and modern thought. “The Darkling Thrush” is particularly apt as a transitional poem, since it was written on and for the turn of the century. There is a strong contrast between form and meaning in the poem, just as there is a contrast between the bleak despair of the scene and the unreasonable joy of the thrush’s song.
The form of the poem is traditional, of the nineteenth century, though the meaning is modern, of the twentieth. Hardy was sixty years old in 1900 and was technically competent in the meter and rhyme schemes that were already rooted in the past. The meter never varies from the da-dum da-dum of the basic English iambic tetrameter; the rhyme scheme is a perfect ababcdcd. While Hardy is sometimes criticized for lack of originality in this form, the effect of this controlled meter and rhyme scheme is remarkable in a poem about modern despair. The poet cannot control the chaos and decay around him, but he can control the form of the poem. The formal strictness of the verse is a bulwark against disorder.
At times the poet’s language seems to be dictated by the unvarying ballad-like form of the poem even more than by his search for meaning. Hardy coins “nonce words,” words invented for a single occasion, to fit the meter. “Blast-beruffled” is an example of a nonce word that is...
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1900 and the British Empire
When Hardy wrote "The Darkling Thrush" in 1900, the British Empire had expanded to include almost 4 million square miles. England controlled a sizeable portion of the world's land, including India large swaths of Africa and China Australia, and Canada. Some were outright colonies; others held "dominion" status. Poems of the Past and the Present (1901), which includes "The Darkling Thrush," also contains many poems expressing Hardy's dismay with British imperialism. Poems in the section "War Poems," for example, deal primarily with the Boer War. In 1899, the British High Commissioner of Cape Colony in South Africa, Alfred Milner, schemed to gain power of the gold mines in the Dutch Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, precipitating a war with the Boers. More than a half million British soldiers fought in the war and tens of thousands were killed before the war ended in 1902 with the Treaty of Vereeniging. Hardy's disillusionment with humanity was also a disillusionment with his country's policies. Britain viewed its imperialistic expansion as a moral responsibility, using Darwin's theories of evolution as a rationale for exerting greater control over their colonies. British writer Rudyard Kipling referred to this responsibility as "the white man's burden," meaning that it was the...
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Composed in four octet, or eight-line, stanzas, with an ABABCDCD rhyme scheme, “The Darkling Thrush” is written in iambic tetrameter, with lines one, three, five, and seven carrying four stressed syllables, and lines two, four, six, and eight carrying three stressed syllables. In poetry, a foot refers to a group of syllables, one of which is accented. An iambic foot, the most popular in English verse, consists of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable. The restrictions of these conventional features are at odds with the tone of despair and portrayal of meaninglessness in the poem, creating a tension that gives the poem energy and emotional depth.
Diction refers to an author’s word choice. Hardy is known for his innovative use of the English language, and he frequently coined new words in his poetry. He called words created for a single occasion “nonce words,” and in “The Darkling Thrush” he uses a few, including “outleant,” “blastberuffled,” and “spectre-gray” to fit the meter and rhyme scheme of the poem. He was especially deft at creating compound words such as the latter two. A student of the English language, Hardy also echoed unusual words used by other poets. The unusual word “darkling,” for example, was used by John Keats in “Ode to a Nightengale” and by Matthew Arnold in “Dover...
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Topics for Further Study
Compare the attitude of the speaker in Hardy’s poem towards the new century with your own attitude towards the beginning of the twentyfirst century. What similarities and differences do you see? Discuss this as a class.
In groups, compose a poster based on Hardy’s poem. You will have to decide what to put in and what to leave out from what he describes. Feel free to use abstractions in your depiction. Hang the poster on the wall, and then discuss with your class the choices you made in composing it.
Write a short essay exploring the influence of romanticism on Hardy, who was a Victorian poet. How are his poems about nature different from John Keat’s, William Wordsworth’s, or Percy Bysshe Shelley’s?
Compose a short essay comparing and contrasting Hardy’s poem with Keats’s “Ode to a Nightengale” and Emily Dickinson’s “Hope Is the Thing with Feathers.” Why do all of these poets choose song birds as central images in their poems? How do the different styles of these poets qualify the role of the songbird in the poems?
Write a poem or a story about a time when you were depressed or feeling very sad, and include what happened to change your mood (assuming it has changed). Be sure to include at least two “nonce” words in your poem or story. Nonce words bear a resemblance to currently used words or phrases. Hardy often created nonce words, like “outleant” (lean out), for specific poems or...
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In 1915, Laurence Trimble directed Far from the Madding Crowd for the English cinema.
Far from the Madding Crowd was reproduced in 1967, this time directed by John Schlesinger.
Academy Award-winning director Roman Polanski adapted and directed Tess of the d’Ubervilles for the screen in 1979.
The Return of the Native was produced for English television in 1994, directed by Jack Gold and starring Academy Award-winning actress Catherine Zeta-Jones.
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What Do I Read Next?
Richard D. Altick’s Victorian People and Ideas (1973) describes the social structure of Victorian England, with chapters on technological change, social structure, art, and religion.
Hardy’s novel Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) is a love story set in rural England and marks his first real literary success.
The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Hardy, edited by Dale Kramer and released in 2001 by Cambridge University Press, collects critical essays on Hardy by prominent scholars.
Sally Mitchell’s Daily Life in Victorian England (1996) provides a thorough overview of what it was like to live in Victorian England. Mitchell covers topics such as education, health and medicine, technology, and the significance of the ever-expanding British Empire.
James Morris’s Pax Britannica: The Climax of an Empire (1968) describes how the empire grew and how the British people felt about it.
The Oxford Reader’s Companion to Hardy (2000), edited by Norman Page, contains a wealth of information on Hardy, including an index of Hardy’s poems and characters and a glossary of dialect words and expressions used in his writings.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Berger, Sheila, Thomas Hardy and Visual Structure: Framing, Disruption, Process, New York University Press, 1990, p. 100.
Buckler, William E., The Poetry of Thomas Hardy: A Study in Art and Ideas, New York University Press, 1983, pp. 255–59.
Carpenter, Richard, “Chapter Four: Poems, Verses, and The Dynasts,” in Thomas Hardy, Twayne’s English Author Series, No. 13, Twayne Publishers, 1964, p. 165.
Casagrande, Peter, “Pessimism,” in Oxford Reader’s Companion to Hardy, edited by Norman Page, Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 306–07.
Hardy, Thomas, “The Darkling Thrush,” in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 3d ed., edited by Alexander W. Allison, et al., W. W. Norton, 1983, p. 846.
Harvey, Geoffrey, “Thomas Hardy: Moments of Vision,” in Critical Essays on Thomas Hardy’s Poetry, edited by Harold Orel, G. K. Hall, 1995, pp. 35–47.
Perkins, David, “Hardy and the Poetry of Isolation,” in ELH, Vol. 26, 1959, pp. 253–70.
Taylor, Dennis, “Hardy as a Nineteenth-Century Poet,” in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Hardy, edited by Dale Kramer, Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 183– 204.
Armstrong, Tim, Haunted Hardy: Poetry, History, Memory,...
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