Hardy’s poem, written in 1900, is a lament to the end of the seventeenth century. The central metaphor is most clearly identified in the second stanza:
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.
The narrator compares the jagged and rough outlines of the landscape to the protruding bones of a corpse – the corpse of the dead century. Hardy’s images here are cold and brutal as he charts the death of the landscape and society that existed before the whirlwind of development and progress heralded by the Industrial Revolution. The narrator identifies the messenger of the new century:
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
But this image hearkens more to the decline of the seventeenth century rather that the rise of the eighteenth. The herald is ‘aged’ – weak, defenceless and insignificant. He is a voice more suited to the past than the future, and is therefore more of a mourner than a herald.
There is a particular irony in this second line in that Hardy employs a neologism – outleant – to retain the rhythm of the poem. Hardy referred to the use of ‘nonce words’ as a way of precise expression: a progression within literature which did not seem to go against his lament of social progress elsewhere.
In the fourth line, the dead century is mourned by a wind: likely to be the wind of change which envelops the landscape and the nation as a whole.
Hardy sees the new century will inhibit and destroy the natural growth and progress which has been the ritual for nature, the landscape and its people. By utilizing pathetic fallacy through the season of winter, there seems only stagnation and infertility, rather than a promise of healthy new growth and development.
Hardy was particularly bewildered and dismayed at the effect of the social and technological advancements of the Victorian period. Through his novels and poems, he identified the traditions, trades and customs which were dying as a result of industrialization. His poem is a lament for the world which will be abandoned and left for dead in the face of fervent progress.