“The Darkling Thrush” is a thirty-two-line lyric poem in four stanzas of eight lines each. The first two stanzas provide the setting of the poem. Hardy’s poetic persona is standing at the edge of a “coppice,” a thicket of bushes or small trees. He surveys a desolate scene at the end of a winter day. He is alone in that “haunted night”; all the rest of humankind “had sought their household fires.” The second stanza continues the description and provides two important pieces of information. One concerns the time when the poem was written, December of 1900, which is always included in the printing of the poem. The words “the Century’s corpse” and “the ancient pulse of germ and birth” refer to the turn of the century. The other important information is about the poet’s state of mind. He is deeply depressed, stating that the dismal scene is “fervorless as I.”
These first two stanzas comprise line after line of lyrical description. Details pertaining to death (the bine-stems “like strings from broken lyres,” the “crypt,” the “death-lament,” the “ancient pulse” that is “shrunken hard and dry”) add up to a depressing total. The scene of icy, clear death images and the harsh, austere feeling are firmly set in the reader’s mind.
Now that the reader’s mood has been captured by the frosty, deathly winter scene, surrounded by images of the land’s and the century’s death, the third stanza opens with a sudden, sharp contrast. A song bursts forth, a “full-hearted evensong/ Of joy illimited.” Then another contrast unfolds as the source of the song is revealed: “an aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small.” A weak, bedraggled, drab bird somehow has managed to overcome the cold, gloom, and death of winter and sing with its whole heart.
Does the bird sing because it knows some greater joy of which the poet is unaware? In the fourth stanza the poet reveals his agnostic lack of faith. There is “So little cause for carolings,” he asserts. The bird’s “ecstatic sound” is not founded in reason or faith. For a moment perhaps there is a note of hope, but the poet reveals his feelings in his verb tense. He “could think” there was some hope for the frosty world, but he cannot sustain his belief. In the end, the persona of the poet has no hope; he only observes with a touch of irony that the thrush seems to have hope.
The entire poem sustains an image of desolation. Even the song of “joy illimited” does not relieve the poet’s depression. There is no transformation from the mood of death into human optimism, so the contrast of the thrush’s song serves to heighten the poet’s despair. The corpse of the old century never gives way to the birth of the new.
Forms and Devices
Thomas Hardy is a transitional poet, a bridge between the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, and between Romantic Victorian and modern thought. “The Darkling Thrush” is particularly apt as a transitional poem, since it was written on and for the turn of the century. There is a strong contrast between form and meaning in the poem, just as there is a contrast between the bleak despair of the scene and the unreasonable joy of the thrush’s song.
The form of the poem is traditional, of the nineteenth century, though the meaning is modern, of the twentieth. Hardy was sixty years old in 1900 and was technically competent in the meter and rhyme schemes that were already rooted in the past. The meter never varies from the da-dum da-dum of the basic English iambic tetrameter; the rhyme scheme is a perfect ababcdcd. While Hardy is sometimes criticized for lack of originality in this form, the effect of this controlled meter and rhyme scheme is remarkable in a poem about modern despair. The poet cannot control the chaos and decay around him, but he can control the form of the poem. The formal strictness of the verse is a bulwark against disorder.
At times the poet’s language seems to be dictated by the unvarying ballad-like form of...
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