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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Thomas Hardys The Darkling Thrush summary and analysis and themes

Thomas Hardys The Darkling Thrush



Type of Work and Publication Years
......."The Darkling Thrush" is a lyric poem with four eight-line stanzas. The Graphic, a weekly newspaper, first published the poem on December 29, 1900, under the title "By Century's Deathbed," according to The Evil Image: Two Centuries of Gothic Short Fiction and Poetry, edited by Patricia L. Skarda and Nora Crow Jaffe (New York: New American Library, 1981). An article posted on the web site of the Guardian, a London newspaper, under its Books Blog maintains that the poem was written in 1899 and originally entitled "The Century's End, 1900." The London Times republished the poem on January 1, 1901. In London later that year, Macmillan published the poem in the second volume of Poems of the Past and Present: "Miscellaneous Poems."
Background and Title Information 
.......Thomas Hardy wrote "The Darkling Thrush" to express his feelings about the world when it was about to enter the twentieth century. The title refers to a thrush, such as a robin, in darkness (darkling). To view images of thrushes, click here.
Summary
.......When the frost was ghostly gray and the depressing winter landscape made the setting sun seem lonely and abandoned, the speaker leaned on a gate before a thicket of small trees. Twining plants, rising high, were silhouetted against the sky like the strings of broken lyres. All the people who lived nearby were inside their homes, gathered around their household fires. The countryside looked like a corpse. The cloudy sky was the roof of the corpse's crypt, the speaker says, and the wind its song of death. The cycle of birth and rebirth seemed to have shrunken and dried up, like the spirit of the speaker. 
.......But then he heard the joyful song of a bird—a frail old thrush—coming from scrawny branches overhead. The song was a jubilant outpouring against the evening gloom. The dreary landscape gave the thrush no reason to sing with such overflowing happiness. The speaker wondered whether the bird was a harbinger of some hope of which he was unaware. 
Interpretation
.......Thomas Hardy expressed gloomy and fatalistic views of events in most of his writing. It is not surprising, then, that he uses a bleak winter landscape to symbolize the passing of the nineteenth century, which the poem calls a "corpse" (line 10) in a "crypt" (line 11).
.......When Hardy wrote "The Darkling Thrush" on the threshold of the twentieth century, he himself was making a transition—from writing novels to writing poetry exclusively. The motivation for the change was the negative public reception of two of his novels, Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895). Their frank depictions of morally taboo subjects outraged readers. A friend of Hardy—novelist George Gissing (1857-1903)—called the 1895 novel Jude the Obscene (Whitney). So Hardy had reason to be gloomy. But would the public accept his poetry? And would the new century improve on the old? 
.......Hardy offers a glimmer of hope, expressed in the joyous song of the bird. 
.......Incidentally, Tess and Jude the Obscure are widely read and admired today. And his poetry generally has received high praise.
Work Cited
Whitney, Anna. "Letters reveal Hardy switched to poetry over harsh 'Jude the Obscure' reviews." The [London] Independent 9 Oct. 2001. 11 July 2011
.......<http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/letters-reveal-hardy-switched-to-poetry-over-harsh-jude-the-obscure-reviews-630731.html>.
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Text
I leant upon a coppice1 gate 
    When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
    The weakening eye of day.2
The tangled bine-stems3 scored the sky
    Like strings of broken lyres,4
And all mankind that haunted nigh
    Had sought their household fires. 
The land's sharp features seemed to be
    The Century's corpse outleant,5
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
    The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ6 and birth
    Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
    Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
    The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
    Of joy illimited;7
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
    In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
    Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
    Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things8
    Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
    His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
    And I was unaware.
Notes
1.....coppice: Thicket of small trees. 
2.....eye of day: Sun.
3.....bine-stems: Twining or climbing stems of a plant.
4.....lyres: Musical instruments with strings. A lyre's strings are attached to a bar between two arms. Click here to see pictures of lyres.
5.....outleant: Lying down.
6.....germ: Seed; egg; bud.
7.....illimited: Unlimited.
8.....Was . . . things: The bleak countryside revealed no cause for the joyous singing.

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Theme
.......Hope amid desolation is the theme of "The Darkling Thrush." The frail old bird is a harbinger of spring and his song an expression of joy at a new beginning. 
End Rhyme
.......The end rhyme in each stanza is abab cdcd. The first stanza demonstrates this rhyme scheme.
I leant upon a coppice gate
    When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
    The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
    Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
    Had sought their household fires
.......All of the end rhymes are masculine rather than feminine. In masculine rhyme, the last syllable of a line rhymes with the last syllable of another line. In feminine rhyme, the last two syllables of a line rhyme with the last two syllables of another line. Examples of feminine rhyme are ringing and singing and gender and sender.
Meter
.......The longer lines in the poem are in iambic tetrameter and the shorter ones in iambic trimeter. Following are examples.
Iambic Tetrameter
.....1..............2..............3................4
I LEANT..|..upON..|..theCOP..|..piceGATE
 
Iambic Trimeter
..........1....................2.................3.
When FROST..|..wasSPEC..|..treGRAY
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Figures of Speech
.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.
Alliteration
tangled bine-stems scored the sky (line 5)
Had sought their household fires (line 8) 
His crypt the cloudy canopy (line 11)
Metaphor
weakening eye of day (line 4)
Comparison of the sun to an eye
Century's corpse (line 10)
Comparison of century to a dead body
His crypt the cloudy canopy (line 11)
Comparison of the cloud cover to a crypt
Had chosen thus to fling his soul (line 23)
Comparison of the bird's song to a soul
Simile
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres (lines 5-6)
Comparison of plants stems to the broken strings of a musical instrument




The Darkling Thrush Summary

It's the very end of the day. In fact, it's the very end of the year. The countryside is frozen into an icy, unwelcoming landscape. It's not quite Hoth, but it's close. As our speaker stares out into the gloom, he's reminded that everything around him is on the fast track to death and decay. We're not saying that our speaker is a downer. He's just not exactly a "glass half full" sort of guy.
Then again, maybe the world is full of zombie-like humans and gray, gray weather. After all, our speaker does hail from England. And the UK isn't exactly a tropical paradise. You'd think that our speaker would want to buy a one-way ticket to Aruba, right? Instead, he seems to obsess over the barren British countryside.
Things go from dull and depressing to outright dismal. No life seems to stir. Anywhere.
...Until, that is, our speaker hears the most unexpected sound: a bird singing. The little thing isn't in the best of shape. It's been beaten badly by the weather, and it seems as old and death-bound as the year itself. That doesn't stop it from belting its heart out, though. It's bound and determined to share every last ounce of joy in its soul.
Why be joyful when the world is so crummy? Well, that's a good question. In fact, that's exactly the question that our speaker asks himself. He can't figure out why in the world anything – let alone a bird – would waste its last breath in a song that no one will hear. Unfortunately, our feathered friend doesn't give him any answers. (What do you think this is, Disney? Birds don't talk, folks. Which makes it a bit tricky for out speaker to get any answers.)
Strangely enough, our speaker doesn't even try to figure it out. He's content to know that something out there sees a reason to exist and to be joyful – even if he can't comprehend the reasons himself.
But, don't worry, folks – one birdsong isn't going to turn this guy into an optimist. He's a hard skinned realist. No doubts about it. Nonetheless, he's able to appreciate happiness when he sees it. And that's something….right?
Lines 1-2
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray
  • So it's winter. Or at least a very cold and dreary autumn. We're not talking springtime and puppies and balloons here. We're talking cold and ice and gray, gray, gray. You excited? We sure are.
  • Our speaker's leaning up against a gate leading to a big patch of brush and brambles. In other words, this is no walk in Central Park. (Since we're dealing with the other side of the pond, we should probably be talking about London's Hyde Park. But you get the idea.)
  • What's he doing? Well….nothing. Not that we can tell, at any rate. In fact, this poem is about a whole lot of Nothing. You'll see what we mean in just a minute.
  • Just who is this "I," anyway? Well, we'll get to that in our "Speaker" discussion. The quick and dirty version, however, is that he's probably your friendly neighborhood downer. That's right: he's the guy that's sucking on lemons when everyone else is drinking lemonade. Don't believe us? Read on, friends, read on.
  • One quick note: see how Frost gets a capital "F"? It's almost as if Frost attains human-like characteristics. After all, humans have proper names that get capitalized. Elements of nature, like snow and ice and frost, tend not to have proper names. Unless, of course, you're in a Hardy poem. Then, all bets are off.
  • Before we move on, though, we'd like to emphasize the "almost human" part of Frost's description. Here's what we mean: our speaker thinks that Frost is "spectre-gray." "Spectre" is a fancy nineteenth-century word for "ghost." So if Frost is human-like (with a capital letter), it's also ghost-like, which is not exactly human. Hmm. Non-human humans? Are you confused yet? We sure are.
Lines 2-4
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day
  • Now that we've established how dreary this winter day is, our speaker takes the opportunity to hammer home the point one more time.
  • If you're a coffee drinker, you know that the dregs are those nasty, grainy, bitter things that cling to the bottom of your cup and make your last sip of caffeinated goodness taste like sludge. If you're not a coffee drinker, you can take our word for it: dregs are nowhere near delicious.
  • So when our speaker says that we're in the dregs of winter, he wants to make it clear that this is not the pretty falling snow that you see in Christmas specials. This stuff's gray and grimy. Think Fargo, not White Christmas.
  • Oh, and have we mentioned that our speaker's up to his animist tricks again? (Check out what we have to say in Hardy's "Calling Card" about this. The man's a big, big fan of animism.) Day's got an eye. Winter seems to be a person. They may be one foot in the grave already – but they're more alive than any of the other things that we've encountered in the poem thus far.
  • Speaking of dying, we should mention that this whole world seems mostly dead. After all, as our speaker sees it, day was already weakening before Winter's dregs started making things even worse.
  • As we pointed out in our "In a Nutshell" section, Hardy writes this poem at the end of the nineteenth century. But we're not celebrating the new century and looking ahead to good times. No, sir. We're very, very, very unhappy. It's like that kid at elementary school graduation who starts sobbing about how much he's going to miss school lunch. Sheesh.
  • Then again, maybe that's just out twenty-first century biases kicking in. After all, the nineteenth century was a pretty scary place to be. Who's to say that the twentieth century wasn't even worse? Maybe our speaker is right to be so concerned.
Lines 5-6
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres
  • Our speaker's still in descriptive mode. As he gazes into the patch of tangled brushes, he can only see…death and destruction.
  • In this case, the vines in front of him look a lot like the broken bits of a lyre, a classical harp-like instrument. In other words, if you were hoping for songs and music, folks, look somewhere else. There is no music or happiness here. We repeat, no music. No happiness. Sorrow. Pain. SUFFERING!
  • OK, now we're as caught up in melodrama as our speaker. We've got to admit, it's sort of fun. You should try it sometime.
  • On a serious note, we should point out that Hardy's working hard to incorporate classical allusions (read: references to ancient times, specifically, Greece and Rome in the olden days) into this poem. Talking about weather like it's a person is something that just about every ancient religion spent a good deal of time doing.
  • The lyre is a classical instrument, as we said. It also makes a cameo in scores upon scores of old poems. Hardy's twist on things is to point out that even these classical elements, the stock and trade of traditional poetry, are on their way out.
  • We've got some thoughts about this. Check out what we have to say in "Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay."
Lines 7-8
And all mankind that haunted night
Had sought their household fires
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  • If we had any doubts about our speaker being a loner, they're laid to rest here. (Hey, who wouldn't want to spend some time with this guy? That's what we want to know.)
  • It turns out that it's past the time when normal folk are out and about. It's probably getting late, in fact, judging from the way that the speaker suggests that everyone else he knows is curled up by the fire, enjoying dinner and maybe even a nice cuppa tea. There is life out there somewhere, it just doesn't happen to be anywhere nearby.
  • Or wait…is there life out there? After all, our speaker makes it clear that the people who were out and about earlier were "haunting" the landscape. We're back to the whole sorta-human-but-not-really thing that was going on a few lines earlier.
  • We've got a theory about why Hardy's so bound and determined to make this poem into a prequel for Night of the Living Dead. Here goes:
  • Hardy's writing at the end of the Industrial Revolution, which turned the nineteenth century onto its head. Britain transformed almost overnight: what was once a mainly agrarian nation (that's farmers, by the way) became industrial. People migrated to cities, which soon became packed with smog and soot and all sorts of other nasty things.
  • More to Hardy's point, though, the Industrial Revolution changed how work was done. Men and women used to be in charge of their own lives. Sure, they were poor. Maybe they even worked as peasants for rich landowners. But they were in touch with the land and they got to control their own schedules. (You could play the theme song to The Sound of Music just about now. You know, the one that goes on about how the hills are alive?)
  • Once people started working in factories, however, all that changed. They had to work 12 or 14-hour a day jobs doing the same mind-numbing tasks over and over and over. They never saw the sun. In fact, they turned pale as…ghosts. (You can see where we're going with this one, huh?)
  • If you want some devastating descriptions of factories and industry messing people up, check out Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell.
  • So if folks are walking around like ghosts, it might just be because industry has turned them into automatons. It's sort of like those scary sci-fi movies from the '70s that feature robots taking over peoples' lives.
  • Then again, Hardy could just be turning the end of the century into the End of Days. As in, the world is about to come crashing down around our ears at any moment. You're all almost dead already. See?
  • Either way, it's pretty clear to see that our speaker, much like Hardy himself, is no big fan of the modern age.

Lines 9-10

The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant

  • Ah, now we're getting to the good stuff. The land becomes a map of everything that's happened over the course of the century. In fact, it starts to embody the Century. Or at least, the dead century.
  • Why is the Century "outleant"? Heck, is "outleant" even a word? You've got us there, folks. According to the good people at the Oxford English Dictionary, "outleant" is not and never has been a word.
  • Before we start calling shenanigans, though, we should point out that this is one of several non-words in Hardy's poem. "Darkling," anyone? Hardy's probably not just making up words because it's fun. (OK, making up words is pretty fun. If you don't believe us, check with Disney. They got all sorts of mileage out of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. But that's not our point.)
  • What was our point? Oh, yeah: non-words. We're guessing that Hardy's speaker sees himself at the end of an era. It's a Huge Moment. It's so huge, in fact, that the English language just doesn't have enough words for him to describe what he's seeing. That's where all of these new words come in.
  • We've got to admit, this isn't exactly a travel brochure, is it? (As in, come to England…where everything looks like rotting corpses." Hmm.)

Lines 11-12

His crypt the cloudy canopy
The wind his death-lament

  • Since we're on the subject of death….
  • The century is dead. Dead as a doornail.
  • But have you noticed that, by this point, we're spending far more time discussing the once-life of abstract concepts like "Winter" or "the Century" than we have spent discussing people. It's a nifty sleight-of-hand, actually: Hardy's speaker makes us focus on the death of inanimate (or conceptual) things that we forget that they're not alive. Or, well, dying.
  • All of nature seems to conspire to mourn the passing of the century. The sense that the outer world will mimic or manifest your own emotions a very Romantic notion (as in, Wordsworthian. Not bodice-ripping Harlequins novels. Take our word for it, they're very different things).
  • A Romantic poet might believe that if you're smiling, the sun would come out. Hardy's at least a century away from the Romantics, but he seems to be stealing a few tricks from their bag in this particular phrase.

Lines 13-14

The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry

  • We've said it before, we'll say it again. Death and decay, folks. Got it?
  • Notice, though, that even as our speaker gets off on the ending of all things, the poem's rhythm remains utterly constant and conventional. Here's what we mean:
  • Try reading lines 13-14 aloud. They should sound something like this: The AN-cient-PULSE-of-GERM-and-BIRTH / Was-SHRUNK-en-HARD-and-DRY.
  • Notice how there's a totally regular pattern of accented and unaccented syllables? All in all, it's a conventional rhythm. Which, when you're talking about death and decay and everything changing, is pretty surprising. You'd expect that the poem's rhythm would be all over the place.
  • It just goes to prove that old, old saying: the beat goes on. It's almost like there's tension between the regularity of the rhythm and the huge void that the speaker seems to see in the actual world.
  • We should point out here that these two lines are heavy hitters when it comes to Hardy's own personal symbolism. He's totally into metaphors of germination (or, in other words, the process of a seed developing into a plant). Or, in this case, failed germination. Check out what we have to say about it in "Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay."

Lines 15-16

And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I
.
  • OK, back up just a second here. Wasn't the whole place emptied out by now?
  • Yes, it was. In fact, the speaker says so, right about at line 8. So where do all these spirits come from?
  • We're guessing that, by this time, the speaker is so wrapped up in his gloom-and-dooming that he's starting to get a little free-and-easy with his descriptions. It's sort of like when you've just had a no good, very bad day: suddenly everything seems absolutely horrible. There's just no standing in the way of melodrama.
  • So the place seemed cleared out earlier? Well, that's just too bad. Our speaker has more depressing descriptions to share. And he happens to need some people around in order to do it.
  • Speaking of melodrama, did you notice how hard Hardy's working to point out that there are no real people in this poem? He takes just about every chance that he can get to push the point home: why, for example, does he choose to use the word "spirit" instead of "person"?
  • Hardy's being a clever, clever man here. He allows his speaker to refer to humans-as-ghosts (or ghosts-as-humans) by using one little bitty word.

Stanza 3 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 17-20

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;

  • So the first thing that you've probably noticed is that we're taking on a whole four lines in this section. We're moving up, folks.
  • Don't worry, we're not trying to get out of explaining the poem line-by-line. It's just that the third stanza marks a significant shift in the poem. See, up until now, the poem seemed to break itself up into four-line chunks. How do we know this? Well, for one thing, there's a period every four lines or so.
  • Now, though, things are changing. At the end of line 20, we don't have a period. We have a semi-colon! Sure, it's half a period. But it's also half a comma. The sentence goes on for another – wait for it – four whole lines! It's like the poem is breathing a sigh of relief and opening up. Heck, who wouldn't want to talk about joy for a little bit longer?
  • Why? Well, that's because things are looking up. All of a sudden, out of all that silence and death and never-ending grayness, our speaker hears something. And not just any sound – this is an all-out love song. It's full and beautiful and chock-full of happiness.
  • But who's singing this happy song? We'll see….

Lines 21-22

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small,
In blast-beruffled plume
,
  • Now we're talking. After all, we were told in the title that this poem was about a thrush, right? It's taken us three and a half stanzas to get to the bird, though, and we bet plenty of you were beginning to wonder if the title was a weird attempt to fool us. But, three-quarters of the way through the poem, the thrush makes its star appearance.
  • But wait. What kind of star is this? Old, weak, and tiny? This sounds like more of the gloominess that dogged us all the way through the first parts of the poem. If any of you were thinking that this poem might be at all like that other famous poem about a bird, you're probably re-thinking that just about now. After all, Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" is full of pretty things and, well, a pretty bird.
  • Whatever this bird is, though, it sure ain't pretty. Keats's poem is about the undying voice of the nightingale. The bird's immortal, for crying out loud. Hardy's bird, in comparison, is stuck in the middle of a nasty storm. The best thing that the speaker can say about the bird is that it somehow manages to exist in all of that feather-ruffling wind.

Lines 23-24

Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom
.
  • Jealous, are we? As frail and puny as this bird is, it's managed to do what our speaker has been too scared to do: to forget about the odds and just sing. Sure, the chances are that the bird won't be able to do anything to make the "growing gloom" one ounce lighter. But it's willing to try.
  • Then again, it's managed to draw the attention of our speaker. And that's no small thing.
Lines 25-26
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
  • Once again, the first four lines of the stanza start to bleed into each other. It's almost as if the speaker is gathering momentum as he continues to hear the thrush singing.
  • But, as the speaker himself points out, there's no good reason for the bird to be singing. We read about it ourselves: the world is a dead, dead, dead place. So why all this song?
  • Well, you've got us. Frankly, you've got our speaker, too. He can't seem to figure out why the bird wouldn't match his pitch to his surroundings. After all, that's what our speaker has done. The world seems crummy and depressing? Fine. I'll write a crummy and depressing poem. Satisfied?
  • But now our speaker's questioning his own choices. Sure, he's not doing it outright. After all, would you back down and change your mind in the middle of a poem you've been working really hard to finish? But we can see that the speaker's starting to understand that there might be other ways to imagine his art than just as a reflection his surroundings. After all, didn't you hear from every elementary school art teacher ever that art should be an expression of your soul? Maybe "ecstasy" doesn't come from without. Maybe it comes from within.
  • Of course, true Hardy-style, it's not another human being that brings our speaker this revelation. It's nature. And "art" isn't really "art," exactly. It's a birdsong. But in Hardy's mind, the more natural an art form is, the better.
Lines 29-30
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
  • OK, the bird is happy. Maybe our speaker's even a little comforted by the thought of the bird's company.
  • But he's not going to let on that he's happy. Oh, no. That would be way too cheerful. Instead, he plays it cool. He's not sure that the bird is singing a happy song. He just thinks that he could think the bird is happy. (Whew. How's that for complicated feelings?)
  • Notice Hardy's emphasis on the conditional here: instead of remarking that the speaker does think something, he notes that the speaker could think it.
  • Could, should, and would are all what our grandparents used to call "weasel words" – they suggest that something's possible, but they don't commit to anything.
  • It's sort of like that friend of yours who always says that he could be interested in going out on Friday night. Translated, that means "If there's nothing else for me to do, I might think about coming. But don't bank on it."
Lines 31-32
Some blessed Hope, of which he knew
And I was unaware.
  • Welcome to the twentieth century, folks. Hardy's poem ushers in the century with the last two lines: in them, he captures the worldview of most of the major writers of the next thirty years.
  • See, Modernists do want to believe that there's something lovely and wonderful and fulfilling out there in the world. They just can't figure out how to get from their present state of unhappiness, decay, and corruption to that happiness and peace.
  • Hardy negotiates the two extremes perfectly here: our speaker can sense Hope, but it's unintelligible to him – and not just because he doesn't happen to speak bird.

The Darkling Thrush Symbolism, Imagery & Wordplay

There’s more to a poem than meets the eye.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.

The Death of the Classics

When we talk about something being "classical," we mean in the sense that it relates to ancient Greece or Rome. In "The Darkling Thrush" Hardy's bringing out all of the old favorites: the seasons, the gods, and even the elements all make cameo appearances. Here's the thing, though: like everything else in "The Darkling Thrush," all of the classical allusions in this poem are coupled with images of death and decay. Does this mean that this is the death of the gods? Well, yes. We think it does. Check these out:
  • Lines 2-3: capitalizing "Frost" and "Winter" makes them seem less like natural elements and more like, well, "Susie" or "Juan." In other words, they're being personified. And what's more, they seem to be traditional (read: classical) personifications, which allows the poem to allude (read: refer to) to an entire symbolic register by inserting just a few choice images. Call something "Frost" with a capital "F" and we're immediately thinking about pagan gods of winter or even Greek god who controlled the weather. Nifty, huh?
  • Line 6: Referencing a "lyre" is pretty much code for "classical allusion." A lyre is a classical harp-like instrument.
  • Line 21: Hardy's choice of birds is anything but accidental: another poet from the not-so-distant past (for Hardy, at least), made the nightingale very famous. It turns out that the thrush is actually a close relative of the nightingale. You could think of this as a not-so-subtle allusion to Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale." John Keats, watch out – Thomas Hardy is gunning for your position in the Poetry Hall of Fame. (Check out more on other comparisons between the two poems in our "What's Up With the Title?" section.)
  • Line 31: Again with the capital letters! Again with the personification! This time, "Hope" steals the show as an almost-sentient being.

The Living Dead

If killing off all of nature wasn't enough for you, it turns out that all people seem close to tipping into the grave, as well. Hey, who doesn't like to read about people who live halfway between here and the netherworld? Come to think of it, the folks who inhabit this poem do seem like they're in purgatory. We hear that it's very gray and unpleasant.
  • Lines 7-8: The way that people are "haunting" the area conjures up all sorts of evocative imagery. Can you imagine these people with bodies? We sure can't!
  • Lines 9-10: Heck, even non-alive things are dead – like the Century.
  • Lines 15-16: We've said it before, and we'll say it again: referring to people as "spirits" is both a nifty synecdoche (because people are thought to have spirits inside of them) and symbolism (because people have become nothing more than spirits).
  • Line 21: OK, we know that the thrush is alive. But our first introduction to him is meant to situate him in the same ghoulish symbolic register as the other figures in this poem. After all, he's "frail, gaunt, and small." That's not exactly Olympic contender material, is it?

The END (and maybe even the Beginning)

Winter is a metaphor for death (the end of life), which is lucky, because this poem is chock-full of subtle (and not-so-subtle) references to the grim reaper. And then, of course, this poem is written (and published) right at the end of the nineteenth century. Latent in these metaphors, however, is the sense that re-growth just might be possible. Winter turns into spring. The nineteenth century turns into the twentieth. Things move on, you know?
  • Lines 1-7: There's an insistent repetition of hard k sounds in the first stanza, mimicking sounds of breaking and cracking and all other sorts of destruction. The fancy term for that repetition is alliteration. Since it's winter, we could even imagine that the k sounds in words like "coppice," "spectre," or "weakening" play off the sounds of ice cracking.
  • Lines 3-4: The imagery conjured up in these lines brings day to life (through personification, if you must know) only to kill it off by injecting it with a good healthy dose of "Winter's dregs."
  • Lines 10-13: Hardy's up to his old personification tricks again: the "Century" becomes a "corpse outleant." The poem plays upon an implicit allusion to that oh-so-popular figure, Father Time, to depict the nineteenth century as a dying (or, well, dead) human-like figure.
  • Lines 13-14: Even symbolic references to the living, breathing natural world are drying up. The "ancient pulse of germ and birth" (seeds germinating and becoming plants) might not be the most recognizable set of symbols today, but it was a powerful one for Hardy himself.

Nature

"The Darkling Thrush" isn't exactly Animal Planet. Nonetheless, this poem is a whole lot more interested in the out-of-doors than it is in what's going on beside people's house fires. We're guessing that outside isn't nearly as comfortable as in by the fire (after all, it is winter), but that doesn't seem to bug our speaker.
  • Line 1: A "coppice" is basically a big area of scrub brush. Suggesting that the coppice is gated and contained starts us off by thinking that maybe humans have been screwing up nature for a while now.
  • Lines 2-3: "Frost" and "Winter" take the place of people as key figures in the first stanza.
  • Lines 5-6: Ah, simile. The vines become "like" a broken stringed instrument.
  • Line 9: The land takes center stage at the beginning of Stanza 2. We're developing a symbolic register for nature that, as it turns out, doesn't include people at all. Note the metaphor that connects the land to the dying Century – it becomes the "body" of the Century's corpse.
  • Line 21-22: And there's the thrush. Other than our speaker, he's the only living and breathing creature in this poem. He's not personified, interestingly enough. He's a bird. Only a bird. And that's precisely the point.

The Darkling Thrush: Rhyme, Form & Meter

We’ll show you the poem’s blueprints, and we’ll listen for the music behind the words.

Rhyming Lines in Iambic Meter

For a guy who's all about apocalypse and ending the earth, Thomas Hardy sure plays it safe when in comes to form. After all, with all that chaos and nothingness out there, it just doesn't make much sense to pay attention to something as trivial as a regular rhyme scheme, does it? Why not go crazy with words that don't sound at all alike?
Well, Hardy doesn't seem to agree. His poem is about as regular as they come (formally speaking, of course). It's divided into four nice, neat stanzas, each of which has eight nice, neat lines. Heck, even the rhyme scheme is as traditional as they come: it's all ABABCDCD. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Here's what we mean by that. Check out the first stanza:
I leant upon a coppice gate (A)
When Frost was spectre-gray, (B)
And Winter's dregs made desolate (A)
The weakening eye of day. (B)
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky (C)
Like strings of broken lyres, (D)
And all mankind that haunted nigh (C)
Had sought their household fires. (D)
Notice how "gate" rhymes with "desolate" and "gray" rhymes with "day"? Every other line rhymes with each other. That's what we mean when we say it's an ABAB rhyme scheme. It sets up a traditional rocking sort of motion when you read the poem, pulling you through the stanzas by interlocking the rhyming lines.
Even the meter is as normal and humdrum as they come: every other syllable is accented. All through the poem. An unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable is called an "iamb." So the meter here is considered iambi. Check it out:
I leant u-pon a copp-ice gate
Just like the rhyme scheme, the meter's supposed to be lilting. We'd write out more lines, but frankly, it's making us just a bit seasick.
Why does this matter? Well, you wouldn't think that Hardy would be the sort of guy to serve up the same ol' stuff all the time, would you? We mean, it's like he's creating the ambiance of a really edgy restaurant…and then he just gives you eggs and toast. We're not saying that eggs and toast is bad. It's just not…exciting.
You could say that the rhyme scheme introduces a bit of tension by clashing with the mood of the poem itself. In fact, we think we will. See, the speaker is intent on showing us all of the ways that the world is ending. Right this very second. Now! But the poem itself is strictly regular. Which can do one of two things: it can convince us that maybe we shouldn't trust the speaker as much as he'd like us to. After all, he must not have gotten everything right. It could also suggest that Hardy himself might not be as down-and-out as his speaker seems to be. After all, if he's still interested enough in convention to adhere to a traditional rhyme scheme, things can't totally be going to hell in a handbasket.
Speaker Point of View
Who is the speaker, can she or he read minds, and, more importantly, can we trust her or him?
Our speaker has a very active imagination. He uses elaborate turns of phrase and whimsical references to things like the seasons and feelings as if they're honest-to-goodness people. Which is lucky, actually, because he doesn't seem to be making all that many human friends.
Come to think of it, we don't know all that much about the speaker. Is he old? Young? Married? A pirate? We can't really say. (We're seriously hoping for the pirate, though. We just wanted to toss that in there.)
Why the deliberate anonymity? Especially when the first word of the poem is, um, "I"? Well, in a weird way, the absence of any definite characteristics makes it easy for the speaker's voice to become the Voice of the Century. Think about it: try reading the first line aloud. Who does the "I" seem to be now? Some random person? Or….you? In a tricky sidestepping of all detail, Hardy manages to create a speaker who could be anybody…or everybody. Feel drafted into a strange role? You should.
Just how seriously should we take our speaker, though? Well, we've talked a little about his credibility in the "Form and Meter" section of this module. We won't re-hash old news here, but the short version is that a case could be made that the poem's form might make us take our speaker's melancholy with a grain of salt. Then again, his worry about the turn of the century is what many people felt at the time (1899). The nineteenth century was teeming with anxiety. Hey, why shouldn't the twentieth be even worse?
That said, our speaker can appreciate happiness when he sees it. It's not like he's the bitter person who goes around quoting stupid sayings like, "Always the bridesmaid, never the bride." He might not be the star of tonight's show, but he's willing to let the thrush sing its little heart out in peace. And that's something.

The Darkling Thrush Setting

Where It All Goes Down
If you've seen Fargo, you know just how quiet and desolate all of those quiet frozen Nowheres are in this world. You know, the kind that don't even make it onto the map. That's where Hardy's speaker does his best work. See, as far as he's concerned, the more desolate things are, the better. People only mess with the view.
Not that there's much of a view in "The Darkling Thrush." For one thing, it's almost dark. For another, anything that was ever green sure isn't green any longer. It's the deepest, deadest part of winter. The speaker wants us to experience the absolute chill of nature and time conspiring against us. The thing is, though, that there's no one around to experience it. We don't know why the landscape is so empty. We do have a few thoughts, though:
Hardy's pretty insistent on the ways that overwork and changed lifestyles that came along with the Industrial Revolution have turned human beings into…less than human beings. Maybe there aren't any "real" humans around anymore. We don't mean that in a Bladerunner androids sort of way. It's more of an I've-been-staring-at-the-TV-so-long-I'm-not-sure-I-can-hold-a-conversation kind of way. Those dull, blank stares you see around you 50 minutes into an algebra class? Hardy says "No more!"
Have you ever seen a landscape picture? Maybe those kinds by Thomas Kincade? They're the sorts of things that every grandma and great-aunt loves. Hey, maybe you like them, too. The point is, landscapes don't tend to have people in them. If they do, the people are the tiny little blobs skating on the pond. Imagine this poem as a picture: it's about the changing of time and the seasons and natural beauty. See? It's almost like Thomas Kincade. Except, well, way better (sorry, Grandma).

Sound Check

Read this poem aloud. What do you hear?
This poem sounds a little like that dude that sits in the corner of a bar at 10:30 on a Tuesday morning moaning to himself. Either that, or he's the odd guy on the street corner reminding you that the world's about to end. Tomorrow.
Those are precisely the people that no one listens to…. In fact, "The Darkling Thrush" almost sounds like an internal monologue that we're not supposed to hear. Sure, our speaker invests in some alliteration early on in the poem (think about those hard k sounds that we talked about in "Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay"). But really, our speaker's not trying to impress anyone with fancy metrics or a nifty rhythm. His encounter with the thrush is a private one. His hope, if he actually has any, comes from his ability to replay that vision in his mind, over and over. Maybe that's why the images in this poem are so precise: they're supposed to stick in his own head. Oh, yeah. And in ours.

What’s Up With the Title?

Hold on a second. "Darkling" isn't a word, is it? No, no it's not. (OK, we're fudging here. A loooooong time ago, way before the poem was written, "darkling" was sometimes used to mean "a creature of darkness." Sort of like an evil spirit. Except not.)
So why the heck wouldn't Hardy keep things simple and call this poem "The Dark Thrush"? Or maybe "The Darkening Thrush"? Or what about the simple but ever-appropriate "So This One Time, I Heard a Bird Singing"? (A thrush, by the way, is a kind of bird.)
Well, we can't answer those questions for you. But we do have some theories about why Hardy would deliberately use an antiquated word in his title.
1. Hardy's a big fan of the Old Ways and of Tradition. Notice how his poem is set in the country and not in a city? That's because folks used to live in the country…but now they live in cities. See? For Hardy, old = better. And that could apply to the poem's title, as well. Want to indicate that the bird is bringing joy to a dark, dark land? What better way to do it than to use old words in new ways?
2. Hardy is an early Modernist. Hardy's often been described as one of the first Modernist writers in England. Why does this matter? Well, it helps group him with other folks who happened to be interested in similar uses of language, like T.S. Eliot, whose poem "The Waste Land" used so many obscure phrases that he eventually wrote his own footnotes in order to explain what they all meant. Hardy's not nearly as crazy as that. (Phew!) But he does share that Modernist interest in bringing old words back to life. Wait a second….bringing something back to life? Doesn't that sound sort of like what the England of Hardy's poem needs? Well, yes. Yes, it does.
3. Hardy is connecting his poem to Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale." The word "darkling" also appears at the beginning of the sixth stanza of John Keats's totally famous bird poem, "Ode to a Nightingale." Maybe that's where Hardy got the original idea? There are actually plenty of similarities between the poems – the whole bird thing, the speaker's despair at the state of the world, lots of emo going around – but Keats writes his "Ode" at the beginning of the nineteenth century (1819, to be exact), while Hardy writes his exactly eighty years later, at the century's end. We can't say how deliberate Hardy's references to Keats's poems might be – but it's quite a coincidence.
4. Maybe Hardy just likes looking down his nose at other people. As in, "you don't know that 'darkling' was once a word? Hmph. Shows how much you know."
The Darkling Thrush Theme of Perseverance
"The Darkling Thrush" is the story of a little bitty bird taking on the big, bad world. Sure, times are tough. It's cold and gray and awful out there – as our speaker makes abundantly clear every chance that he gets. But, hey, what does the bird have to lose? He's on his way out, anyway. Might as well sing a little song to pass the time, eh? We get a sense of just how miraculous the bird's perseverance is by comparing him to our less-than-hopeful speaker. The thrush is cheerful enough on his own, but next to our speaker, this little guy is the Miss Congeniality of the century!

The Darkling Thrush Theme of Isolation

"The Darkling Thrush" is practically the love child of "All By Myself" and solitary confinement. Whether our speaker is an outcast from society, forced to roam the earth during the dark hours when all other humankind is at home with family and friends, or whether he just chooses to spend his time in private thought, the poem rigorously denies him any sort of connection or communication. Then again, maybe that changes by the end of the poem. Do the speaker and the thrush have a moment of unspoken communion? Or are they both just as alone as they were before?
The Darkling Thrush Theme of Man and the Natural World
Actually, it's more like "The Natural World and Man." Sure, it's a small adjustment, but for "The Darkling Thrush," it's a key one. What with Frost and Winter and the land and birds stealing the show, there's not all that much space for, well, humans. It's not that humans don't exist. It's just that they're apparently not worth writing about. Life and death take on epic proportions in this poem, and only elements as ancient and enduring as Frost seem big enough to fill the poem. With all that bigness and grandeur, the tiny thrush seems completely and totally outmatched. Until, that is, he starts singing. Could Hardy be using this as a metaphor for people, as well? Hmm....
The Darkling Thrush Theme of Fear
What's there to be afraid of in the world of "The Darkling Thrush"? We're so glad you asked. It turns out that the answer is quite simple: everything. The world's going to hell in a handbasket, and our speaker is bound and determined to be a tour guide along the way. Sure, there aren't any actual ghosts and ghouls and creepy-crawlies around, but people who seem to be ghostly and ghoulish might just be scarier than the real thing. Reality, it turns out, is scarier than fiction, and this world is all-too-real. And all-encompassing. In other words, there's no way to get out. Comfortable yet?

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