Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
The primary theme of “The Darkling Thrush” is the despair of the modern temperament. Hardy describes in lyrical, descriptive detail the dying of the old world, but he cannot positively replace the dying with the new. Something is over, all is changed, civilization has decayed, and he does not know what will replace it. In “The Darkling Thrush,” Hardy poses one of the central questions of the modern age and reveals himself as a significant voice of the early twentieth century.
Hardy the modern poet is an isolated man. He has lost his connection with those nineteenth century people who are inside by their household fires. They are connected with one another, and with the natural cycle of death and rebirth, but Hardy, the twentieth century persona, is alone in the cold, surrounded by images of death. He may yearn for that simpler, truer world, and he may seek to recapture something that is lost by using the form of folk themes, but that old century is dead, and the outlook for the new century is bleak indeed.
Hardy saw traditional agricultural society decaying, the earth destroyed by industrialization, and in “The Darkling Thrush” he clearly reveals that he cannot believe in a note of hope. He finds “so little cause for carolings” that he cannot picture the new century or describe it for the reader. Hardy is “unaware” of any hope for the future.
With his tale of the “darkling thrush,” a thrush of evening rather...
(The entire section is 339 words.)
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Search for Meaning
The speaker’s despair echoes Hardy’s own world-weariness and loss of hope for humanity’s future. Isolated from those who have “sought their household fires,” the speaker sees a death-haunted landscape and a “growing gloom.” Hardy himself mourned the passing of agricultural society and saw little cause to celebrate England’s rapid industrialization, which helped destroy the customs and traditions of rural life. The speaker’s connection to the past has been severed, and he cannot find meaning in the present, and the dawning century, symbolized by the thrush’s song, offers little in the way of meaning. The bird is “frail, gaunt, and small,” and his “carolings,” though joyful and “fullhearted,” are an evensong and about to end. Any meaning that a new beginning might bring with it is nowhere to be found, not in the landscape and not in the speaker’s heart.
In Hardy’s poem, nature is not a pretty place where flowers bloom and fuzzy animals frolic in the sun waiting to be petted. It is governed by the cycle of life and death and is largely indifferent to human needs or desires. “The Darkling Thrush” deromanticizes nature by taking even the capacity for renewal away: “The ancient pulse of germ and birth, / Was shrunken hard and dry.” Romantics such as William Wordsworth often depicted nature as awe-inspiring, simultaneously inscrutable and full of...
(The entire section is 409 words.)