“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
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.