Please explain the following lines from "The Darkling Thrush" by Thomas Hardy: "The ancient pulse of germ and birth / Was shrunken hard and dry."

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accessteacher's profile pic

accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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This is perhaps one of Hardy's most well-known poems. It describes the speaker of the poem looking out across a barren, wooden landscape on one cold evening in winter. The sudden hopeful song of an aged thrush, however, causes him to question his pessimistic mood and the hope that he is not aware of.

The lines you have selected are part of the second stanza which paints a series of funereal images describing the landscape that the poet contemplates:

The land's sharp features seemed to be

The Century's corpse outleant,

His crypt the 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.

Note how this stanza supports the bleak landscape that the poet contemplates in stanza 1: the words used and images created help us think that the landscape itself is dead and barren, just as the poet's perspective is barren and joyless. Consider the choice of diction of words such as "corpse", "crypt" and "death-lament". The lines you have selected establish and build upon this repression by referring to Nature as "the ancient pulse of germ and birth" - the force that gives and sustains life, but which is now "shrunken hard and dry", thus supporting and sustaining the pessimistic, joyless mood of the poet.

What is key to understanding this presentation of nature is that Hardy shows in this poem that Nature is an arena of bleak struggle and conflict without plan or purpose, but also that paradoxical it is also a site of astonishing creativity.

pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In order to understand what Hardy is talking about in these lines you mention, you should look at the stanza as a whole.  In this stanza, the poet is talking about how everything seems to be dead.  He talks about the Century's "corpse" and how it is in a "crypt."

Then he writes the lines you mention.  Here, he is saying that life as a whole seems to be ending.  In normal times, there is a "pulse of germ and birth."  In other words, things are conceived (this is the "germ" part) and born.  This happens rhythmically, like a pulse.

But now, Hardy says, it seems that everything is lifeless.  Things are not being conceived and born any more.  This is part of the overall gloomy tone in this part of the poem.

lit24's profile pic

lit24 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Valedictorian

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Thomas Hardy's poem "The Darkling Thrush" reveals to its readers the truth that even the most hopeless situation might offer a ray of hope. The moral of the poem seems to be that no situation is completely hopeless.

The poem was written by Hardy at the close of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Historically the period marked the decline of the Victorian age and personally for him it marked the  end of his career as a novelist for the critics had savagely attacked his "Jude the Obscure." But Hardy was able to turn his attention to poetry and revive his literary career.

The lines from the second stanza describe the wintry landscape of the English countryside. The cold winter has completely shrunk and withered all forms of life. It seems as though there is no chance of a revival of life:

The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.


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