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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What are the subject and themes of Thomas Hardy's "The Darkling Thrush"?

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Remember Y2K in the year 2000.  Everyone was afraid of what would happen when the old century changed to another.  No would fly on an airplane and people gathered supplies in case everything shut down.  Nothing happened! This same situation occurs in the poem “The Darkling Thrush” by Thomas Hardy.  It is December 31, 1899.  What will happen in the next century?

Themes

Isolation

Loneliness and Isolation abound in the poem.  The poet’s word choice creates an atmosphere of separation from the rest of the world: desolate, weakening, haunted, and dregs. 

What is the narrator doing? The first person narrator walks in the countryside on a very cold evening.  He leans upon a gate that is made by bushes.  It is the end of the day, the year, and the century.  The sun is setting.  No one else is about and the narrator feels this aloneness.

As he walks in nature, he stops and looks up at the sky and sees the bare branches of the trees intertwined.  The narrator compares these branches to the strings on a musical instrument.  [Foreshadowing of the bird to come]. He is alone because everyone else is at home before his fire.

The narrator looks out at the wintry landscape which appears to him to be the corpse of the century’s end.   The land’s sharp features seemed to be leaning out toward the new century.  The clouds provide a cover for the corpse with the wind crying out its requiem. The winter land is barren, shrunken, and dry.  Everything on earth appears without energy or passion just as the speaker feels. The narrator finds a place with no connection to anyone or anything.

Hope

The third stanza offers a new theme not only for the narrator but for the reader as well.  Life is nothing without the expectation that the future will provide more opportunities.

In the middle of the narrator’s emptiness, the speaker hears a sound.  He looks up through the barren branches and sees a singular bird, appearing thin and small with the wind ruffling his feathers, singing joyfully as though he is baring his soul to the wintry night and the gloomy end of an era.

That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

This seemingly lonely bird has chosen not to give into the chill and miserable night. His efforts bring a change to the narrator and the atmosphere. There appears to be little about which to sing, yet this thrush’s song breaks the mood of unhappiness.   

Despite the pessimistic attitude of the narrator, he is satisfied and appreciative to know that something in the natural world can still find joy in life.  To the narrator, it is a miracle that he could share this moment of unheralded pleasure. 

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"The Darkling Thrush" is a nature poem by Thomas Hardy, and its subject is the titular bird which raises the narrator's spirits through its singing. The narrator speaks of a frost-bitten landscape, gray and lifeless, and how it makes him feel miserable and depressed.

The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

The narrator, despite knowing that seasons pass and that this cold weather is only temporary, is depressed about the dead foliage ("ancient pulse of germ and birth") and the lack of movement and life. Animals and people alike are hiding in their burrows and homes, the first hibernating and the second using its control over nature to keep from freezing to death. The narrator, being outside, is overcome with the extreme stillness of the world and the lack of reasons to strive and move ("fervourless spirits").

The theme changes from this depression as a single bird sings to greet the dusk:

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

The thrush is the only thing moving and making noise in the world, and the narrator is overjoyed to see it, his spirits lifted by a seeming reason to hope and to strive. The narrator is taken by this bird and what he sees as an instinctual drive to enjoy life while it lasts; he correlates the bird's singing not with a deliberate push against the cold and dark, but with an inner joy that it feels compelled to spread regardless of circumstance:

That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
(Hardy, "The Darkling Thrush," en.wikipedia.org)

The themes therefore change from acceptance of the harder aspects and times in life to embrace of what joys exist; the narrator does not see the reason for that joy but is inspired to continue searching for it. Seeing the thrush and its ability to find and create beauty in a joyless landscape allows the narrator to embrace what hope he can find in his own heart, and through example spread it to others both in action and through the poem itself.

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

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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Why did Thomas Hardy write "The Darkling Thrush" and what is its theme?

I agree with what lit24 and want to add a few more items addressing the second part of your question, on the themes in Hardy's poem "The Darkling Thrush." I write "themes," not "theme," because there's probably more than one. The enotes study guide identifies at least three:

1. Search for Meaning

2. Nature

3. Chaos and order

The first one is already hinted at in lit24's final paragraph. The speaker in the poem hears the birdsong coming from across the wintery wasteland. In the final stanza, the speaker says that he sees "So little cause for carolings" (i.e. few good reasons to burst out into song, or celebrate) and concludes that the bird maybe knows something that he doesn't:

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
     And I was unaware.

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