Illustration of a dark blue songbird in a tree on barren-looking land, but the bird appears to be thinking about blue sky and green tundra

The Darkling Thrush

by Thomas Hardy

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How does Thomas Hardy create feelings of sadness in "The Darkling Thrush"?

Hardy creates feelings of sadness in "The Darkling Thrush" by describing the landscape as bleak and desolate, emphasizing the silence with an image of broken lyres, and personifying the century that has passed as a corpse, for whom nature is lamenting.

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In the poem "The Darkling Thrush" by Thomas Hardy, the poet creates feelings of sadness in several ways, including the season, the time of day, the weather, the setting, the imagery, specific word choices, and the implication of the last lines of the poem.

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his poem in winter, which is a time of cold and darkness. It is near sunset, as Hardy implies by referring to the sun as "the weakening eye of day." There is frost on the ground, and a "cloudy canopy" covers the sky. The poet leans on a gate with tangled tree stems overhead. All of these details evoke a dismal, colorless, oppressive, and sad background to the poet's musings.

The poet further creates an atmosphere of sadness with the imagery he uses. The stems of the trees are "like strings of broken lyres." Lyres with broken strings can no longer make music, which is an occasion for sadness. People nearby do not just live there but rather "haunt" the landscape, suggesting gloom and melancholy. Hardy wrote this poem at the end of the nineteenth century. He likens the closing century to a "corpse"; the cloud cover overhead represents the century's "crypt," and the wind is the century's "death-lament." The poet emphasizes that "every spirit upon earth seemed fervorless." In other words, they were completely without emotion or expression. All of this imagery and these word choices bring on a feeling of intense sadness.

Hardy breaks up this overwhelming sadness by having "an aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small" burst forth in song. However, the sadness returns when the poet confesses that he is "unaware" of the hope that the bird imparts. If anything should have been able to snap the poet out of his melancholy, it should have been the song of the thrush, but it is intensely sad that the poet is unable to benefit from this unexpected moment of joy.

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“The Darkling Thrush” is Hardy’s elegy for the nineteenth century on the cusp of the twentieth century. Through images of aging, he generates feelings of sadness and loss. The poet presents images and diction of decay that suggest an earlier state of youth and vitality being extinguished.

Within the desolate scene of the first stanza are hints of decline. The faint sun is not yet extinguished, but it resembles a “weakening eye of day.” Instead of vibrant plants, the speaker sees tangled climbing branches that resemble “strings of broken lyres.” In both images are hints of earlier strength lost; the formerly keen eye is now “weakening,” and the “lyres” which played lovely music now have “broken” strings.

Hardy creates more feelings of sadness in the second stanza. The setting is a funereal scene—a physical landscape that resembles “Century’s corpse” or dead body encased in a crypt of

cloudy canopy,The wind his death-lament.The ancient pulse of germ and birthWas shrunken hard and dry,And every spirit upon earthSeemed fervourless as I.

The corpse no longer has a pulse that indicated vigor from its conception and birth a long time ago. Instead, the strong heartbeat and soft body are diminished and desiccated. Even the speaker feels sadness and enervation; he compares the corpse to himself as “fervourless” or empty of energy and passion.

Hardy injects a bit of hope in the third stanza with a bird delivering a joyful, “full-hearted evensong.” Nonetheless, even the enthusiastic late-day warbling is undercut by a description of the bird:

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,In blast-beruffled plume,Had chosen thus to fling his soulUpon the growing gloom.

Even though its voice is powerful, the weak and emaciated bird appears like a vulnerable old man dressed in disheveled clothing. The bird’s formerly ornamental feathers are blown into disorder by the wind (which wailed about death earlier). The bird’s intentional “fling” seems like a final desperate attempt to forestall “growing gloom” or impending doom.

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"The Darkling Thrush" is supposed to have been written on the last day of the nineteenth century, and it expresses faint, equivocal hope for the twentieth. It does this by creating such a mood of despondency in the first three stanzas that even the uncertain variety of hope expressed in the fourth comes as a surprise.

The landscape in the poem is not one of sparkling snow, but frost, which Hardy says is "spectre-grey," as gray as a ghost. All around are "Winter's dregs," and the sharp bine-stems resemble "strings of broken lyres." This emphasizes the silence as well as the desolation. The lyre is the traditional accompaniment to lyric poetry, so there is an irony in Hardy using his lyric poem to describe a broken one.

The tone, indeed, is more elegiac than lyric in the second stanza, as Hardy personifies the century that has passed as a dead man. The crypt and the death-lament are instances of the pathetic fallacy, in which the natural world seems to share the poet's sorrow, an effect which is intensified when he says that "every spirit upon earth" seems to share his dismal sentiments.

Even as the thrush's voice breaks into the third stanza, it seems likely to be muffled by "the growing gloom." Its environment is bleak, and the thrush itself is old, "frail, gaunt, and small." This oppressive background, which Hardy has built up over the course of three stanzas, intensifies the beauty and hope in the thrush's song.

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Imagery throughout the first three stanzas of the poem creates feelings of sadness. In stanza one, words like "spectre," "grey," "desolate," "weakening," and "broken lyre" create sadness by reminding us of miserable weather and brokenness. These images continue even more strongly in stanza two, in words such as  "corpse," "crypt," and "death-lament," followed by words that remind the reader of extreme old age: "ancient," "shrunken," and "fervourless." In the next stanza, Hardy uses "bleak," "frail," "gaunt" and "gloom." This pile-up of adjectives creates a cumulative effect of unrelenting sadness and gloom.

This use of such sad words for three consecutive stanzas works to highlight the hope in the last stanza. The poet wonders how the thrush can sing such a beautiful song of "ecstatic sound" in such a bleak world of ageing and death. In fact, the contrast is so great that the poet questions whether the thrush has some knowledge of "blessed Hope" of which the poet is "unaware."

Though the song of the thrush brings a "happy" note of hope to the bleak scene, the thrush's hope contrasts sharply with the hopelessness the poet feels.

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How does Thomas Hardy communicate his feelings in "The Darkling Thrush"?

There are different emotional experiences that Hardy goes through in "The Darkling Thrush."  One example of how he communicates his feelings occurs when he describes the scene of bleakness that is in front of him.  Throughout the poem, Hardy is able to establish that he feels a great deal of sadness about what he sees and the world in which he lives.  These feelings are established in the poem's opening stanza.  Terms like "spectre-gray" frost and "the weakening eye of day" communicate a feeling of decay.  Hardy experiences this internally and uses language to describe the world he sees as part of his feelings and emotional experience.  Hardy feels alone in what he is experiencing, separate from the human beings who are inside and "had sought their household fires."  In the first stanza, Hardy uses a description of the setting as means to communicate his emotional experience.

Hardy is able to use the natural world and his experiences within it as ways to communicate his feelings, as well.  For example, the use of "death-lament" to describe the wind is a way to communicate his feelings about what he sees in front of him.  He also is able to capture this feeling of isolation by describing the seed as "shrunken hard and dry" and comparing himself to this experience.  In being able to identify with the natural world around him, Hardy is able to again externalize the internal experience.  Doing so helps to communicate his emotions of loss, displacement, and his sense of pain at being in the world.

Finally, I think that Hardy is able to communicate his feelings about being in the world when he hears the song of the thrush.  He uses contrasting language such as "bleak twigs" and "joy illimited."  Hardy uses the physical description of the thrush as "aged, frail, gaunt, and small" to contrast with the "full hearted evensong."  These contrasts help to communicate Hardy's own feelings of joy and despair that exist simultaneously.  The result of such a contrast is that Hardy is "unaware" and puzzled at the condition of consciousness.  Hardy is able to describe these confusing feelings by bringing out the contrasts that exist in the world.  There is coldness and despair, but there can be hope and beauty amidst such ruins.  Such a contrast is utilized to illuminate the feelings that Hardy experiences. 

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