'The Darkling Thrush' is like much Victorian poetry in terms of style, content, and purpose, and taps into some specifically late Victorian themes.
Like much Victorian poetry,' The Darkling Thrush' is an example of a lyric – that is to say, a short, smoothly flowing poem intended to appeal to the emotions. Also, in keeping with Victorian trends it is strongly meditative, inviting the reader to consider some moral, idea or topic; it is not concerned simply with being descriptive.
The poem muses on death and decay, which are familiar poetic themes in any time or place, but it also indicates a loss of traditional religious belief, which was a particular concern of later Victorian poets. Many people at this time wrestled with the problems posed by the growth of evolutionary theory and other new social and scientific ideas that challenged traditional religious beliefs in an all-wise and all-benevolent Creator of the universe. Hardy was one of the writers who seemed to feel this more keenly, but many other poets were concerned with this issue, most notably Tennyson, who probably remains the single most famous poet of the whole Victorian age. His long poem In Memoriam is devoted entirely to this theme. Other notable Victorian poets to address the religious and spiritual uncertainties of the age include Matthew Arnold and Arthur H.Clough.
'The Darkling Thrush', then, treats of a serious subject in a melancholy manner, like many Victorian poets who were much given to musing and pondering. Hardy is somewhat more succinct than the likes of Tennyson, however.
This poem also reflects the ongoing Victorian trend for nature and landscape poetry – an inheritance from the great Romantic poets like Wordsworth and Keats. However, Victorian nature poetry was generally less celebratory than that of the Romantics, and tended to evoke a more brooding response. This was true particularly of the later nineteenth century, which, significantly, saw a pronounced agricultural depression in Britain.
'The Darkling Thrush', taking its cue both from the dreary winter scene and the pessimism of the speaker, is one of the most sombre of all Victorian poems. Indeed, the landscape is imaged as a literal dead body, the end not only of the year but also of a whole era, as seen in the quote below.
The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament. (9-12)
In fact, we might even say that, while partaking of common Victorian poetic styles and themes, the poem is really an elegy for the Victorian age itself.