What is the theme of "The Darkling Thrush" by Thomas Hardy?

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It is December 31, 1899.  The dawn of a new century is just on the other side of this night.  Thomas Hardy sets the scene by examining an aspect of nature which can be unwelcoming but also hopeful.  “The Darkling Thrush,” set in England, and the poet look forward with trepidation at the future.

The setting is a wintry landscape. It is desolate and dismally cold. The sun is setting in the west. The narration is first person point of view with the poet as the narrator. The mood of the poem begins with a depressing outlook. During the poem, a voice speaks and interjects a ray of hope.

The poem begins with a description of the scene.  The speaker is leaning on a gate created by bushes and shrubbery.  The sky is gray and dismal.  The sun is going down. The poet looks up and sees the barren branches intertwined. 

Men are inside their houses seeking the warmth of their home fires. The old century lies barren like the landscape: stark, harsh, and corpse-like. Its tomb is the cloudy sky, with the wind calling out its lamentation. Deep under the frozen ground are the seeds of the spring growth.  Everything seems to have no spirit or passion.

Suddenly, a voice emerges from the branches overhead. It is an evening song of illimitable happiness. The poet searches for the source of the song and discovers an elderly thrush, weak, emaciated, and tiny with its feathers ruffled by the wind. This fragile bird thrusts his soul out in the night gloom in song. There is no explanation for the bird’s song.

The poet turns away from his gloom and sees in the song a flicker of hope for the future. The bird could see something about which to sing that the poet could not see.

At once a voice arose among

The bleak twigs overhead

In a full-hearted evensong

Of joy illimited…

In this stark but hopeful poem, the poet presents a theme of hope for man in the form of an old bird that willingly gives up his song despite the desolate night. Until the song, the man did not see much good in the leaving of the old century and stepping into the new. If the bird could sing, the man should be able to find something to hope for as well.

Another motif presented in the poem is loneliness.  The man stands alone in the stark, wintry landscape.  All other men are in front of their fire places. For some unknown reason, the man finds himself in the tomb with the corpse of the old century. 

The bird is alone. The difference between the two speaks to the difference between man and nature. The man laments and is depressed. It is the bird that will not give into this terrible night. The little thrush sings from his heart and sends a ray of possibilities to the man.

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