Illustration of a dark blue songbird in a tree on barren-looking land, but the bird appears to be thinking about blue sky and green tundra

The Darkling Thrush

by Thomas Hardy

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The Darkling Thrush Summary

The Darkling Thrush” is a 1901 poem by Thomas Hardy.

  • The poem’s speaker is at a coppice gate, leaning against it and looking out at the frosty, dreary landscape. It is the last day of the year and the last day of the century.
  • The speaker hears an old thrush sing, even though it should be asleep at this time of day. The bird’s song is full of joy, but the speaker can’t understand what could possibly make the bird so happy.
  • The speaker realizes that he doesn’t know everything and that there might be a reason for the bird’s happiness that he is not yet aware of.

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Stanza 1
The opening lines of “The Darkling Thrush” establish the tone and the setting of the poem. Hardy underscores the speaker’s meditative mood by describing him leaning upon a “coppice gate,” meaning a gate that opens onto the woods. The presence of frost tells readers it is winter, and the adjective “spectre-grey,” a word Hardy coined, suggests a haunted landscape. The word “dregs” means the last of something, but here the dregs act upon the “weakening eye of day,” making the twilight “desolate.”

In the fifth and sixth lines, the speaker uses a simile to compare “tangled bine-stems” to “strings of broken lyres.” Bine-stems are the stems of shrubs, and a lyre is a stringed musical instrument similar to a harp. Although “score” is a musical term, Hardy uses it to create an ominous visual image. While the speaker is outside contemplating a bleak landscape, the rest of the world is comfortably inside, warmed by “their household fires.”

Stanza 2
In this stanza, the speaker uses metaphor to describe the barren landscape as the corpse of the nineteenth century. The now personified century is entombed in the sky (“the cloudy canopy”), and the wind is its “death lament.” Lines 13–14 refer to the seeds of spring, which are now “shrunken hard and dry.” The description literally depicts what happens to seeds during winter, but figuratively the speaker implies that the very processes of nature are at a standstill and that the next spring might not come. In the last two lines, the speaker compares himself with “every spirit upon earth,” projecting his despondency onto the world.

Stanza 3
This stanza marks a break in the tone and action of the poem, as the speaker hears an old thrush break out in song. Thrushes are fairly common songbirds and usually have a brownish upper plumage and a spotted breast. “Evensong” means a song sung in the evening, significant here both for an “aged” bird and because it is the last day of a century. The image of the bird “choosing” to “fling his soul / Upon the growing gloom” suggests both hope and desperation and resonates with the speaker’s own emotions. The image also evokes the phoenix, a mythological bird with a beautiful song that self-reincarnates from its own ashes.

Stanza 4
In this stanza, the speaker expresses incredulity at the bird’s singing (“carolings”), literally wondering what on Earth (“terrestrial things”) could make it so happy. The incongruity of a joyful bird amidst such a stark landscape is striking, and it puzzles the speaker who, though he can recognize joy, cannot experience it himself. However, the word “blessed,” the capitalization of “Hope,” and the limiting phrase “terrestrial things” open the possibility that there might be religious or spiritual reasons for the thrush’s behavior. The speaker’s acknowledgement that he is “unaware” of the cause of the bird’s singing also suggests the possibility that there may indeed be a cause for it and that the speaker might in time come to know that cause.

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