The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy

The Darkling Thrush book cover
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Comment on the symbolic significance of the bird in Thomas Hardy's "The Darkling Thrush."

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Name VonRueden eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The dominant theme of Thomas Hardy's work, both prose and verse, is pessimism. Hardy sees not so much a hostile outside world but one of randomness and unpredictability which nevertheless foil man's best laid plans.

In "The Darkling Thrush" the bird represents that part of life that resists this reality, as Hardy views it, and still sees hope and joy in the world. The setting described by Hardy could not be bleaker:

I leant upon a coppice gate

When frost was spectre grey,

And winter's dregs made desolate

The weakening eye of day.

Though the bird resists acknowledging the darkness of the outside world, it is not as if it personally has anything to be happy about. The thrush itself is old, frail and gaunt, with "blast-beruffled plume." In fact, the title of the poem indicates that the thrush, despite its apparent happiness—that it sings its song as if all is well—is itself a victim of the bleak outer world, the vacant winter landscape described by Hardy, in being the darkling thrush. The bird nevertheless stands for the capacity that all of life on earth possesses to continue, to go on fighting against the odds no matter how dark the situation.

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Kristen Lentz eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Thomas Hardy uses the thrush in his poem "The Darkling Thrush" to signify the appearance of hope in an otherwise gloomy and harsh environment.  "The Darkling Thrush" is all about Hardy's contemplations of the end of things:  the end of the year, the end of the century; his language is dark, pessimistic, and gloomy.  However, in stanza three, both tone and mood suddenly shift as the speaker hears:

"At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;" (17-20)

The thrush's sudden appearance changes the speaker's outlook.  This bird may look beat-up and a little decrepit, but the bird pours his heart out in song, uncaring of the surrounding gloom.  Even the hardened and glum speaker recognizes that the birds' cheerful song belies his hostile environment, making the speaker wonder if the bird knows something he does not, some reason to be that cheery. 

The thrush symbolizes unlooked-for optimism and a reason to carry on even through dark, uncertain times. 

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