Modernist Attitudes in Hardy's Poem
Critics have long called Hardy a transitional figure between the Victorian era and the modern world. Though it is easy to see the Victorian influences in his poetry, especially in his traditional verse forms and his nostalgia for older, simpler ways of living, it is often more difficult to see what makes him a modernist. In “The Darkling Thrush,” written at the beginning of a new century, Hardy evokes some of the ideas and sentiments that would influence numerous subsequent poets such as Wilfred Owen, Philip Larkin, and W. H. Auden and that would help to shape modernist attitudes towards history and humanity. These include the representation of nature as a hostile (or, at best, an indifferent) force, a tolerance for contradiction, and a deep pessimism about the potential for humanity to change its behavior.
The Victorian era, lasting from 1837 until Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, was marked by intense and rapid change (political, technological, socioeconomic, and psychological), and writing during the period often addresses the idea of loss. One stereotype of Victorian writing, especially poetry, depicts it as overly polite, grave, and with a thread of uncertainty and doubt running through it. Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” (1867), for example, laments human misery and the loss of faith. The Victorians were fearful of what the future would bring. They were riding the crest of an unprecedented buildup of their empire, but if the British were proud of their status as “world civilizers,” they were also insecure as they waited for resistance or retaliation. Like Americans today, the Victorians had to bear the obligations and scorn that come with being a world power. In addition to the geopolitical responsibility that came with international might, the Victorians had to contend with changes in how they perceived themselves in the universal scheme of things. Writers such as Marx and Darwin forced Victorians to reassess their relationship to one another and to nature. Darwin’s theory of evolution caused many to rethink the purpose of their lives.
Literary modernism began to take hold in the 1890s. In the United States, writers such as Stephen Crane wrote stories about individuals driven by forces of which they were only dimly aware battling an indifferent nature. Hardy had been chronicling his own bleak view of the human condition in his novels in the last quarter of the century, and that bleakness continued unabated in his poems.
The speaker of “The Darkling Thrush” is a typical Hardy character: a watcher, a thinker, one who projects onto the physical world his own emotional turmoil. Paradoxically, the world revolves around him, yet also seems to ignore him. This intense inwardness is also evident in how the speaker characterizes other people. It is not just some people or some families that have gone inside but “all mankind” that has retreated from nature’s threatening landscape and “sought their household fires.”
The speaker is left alone outside with death all around him. The century that has passed is now a “corpse outleant.” The sense of loss is everywhere, in the “weakening eye of day,” in the “Winter’s dregs,” even in the procreative powers of nature itself, “the ancient pulse of germ and birth,” which is now “shrunken hard and dry.” In some ways, the poem is an elegy for the troubled nineteenth century. Elegies are meditative poems that lament the loss of something. However, there is no lamentation for a particular idea or object in Hardy’s poem—just the recognition of a passing and a sense of gloom and doom that the speaker generalizes to everything and everyone around him. The only lamenting done is by the figure of the century, which mourns itself. One can imagine that Hardy did not need the occasion of the century’s turn to write this poem. For Hardy’s speaker, the world is going from bad to worse, and the century’s passing is merely a way to keep time of...
(The entire section is 8,634 words.)