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.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Hardy sets 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.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

“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 birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed 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 soul
Upon 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.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"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.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial