The Darkling Thrush is one of Thomas Hardy’s characteristic poems of bleak despair over the world, natural and emotional. It is the last poem of the 19th century, or at least the last one to be discussed in this book, written on the last day of the century, December 31, 1900. Because it is December, the gloomy weather of the day, which is described in the poem, can stand for the century itself—both the one coming to an end and the one about to start.
The day is characteristically gray. The question the poem implicitly poses—and the question landscape and ambience always poses in Hardy, in both his poetry and his novels—is the extent to which the mind is brought low by the exterior grimness of weather and therefore of the surrounding world, of life, versus the extent to which we see in the surrounding world a reflection of our own moods and emotions.
“The Darkling Thrush” not only raises this question but perhaps despite itself answers it. For most of the poem, the landscape and the mood it is correlated with are indeterminate as to cause and effect. The features of the landscape seem to represent the corpse of the 19th century, gruesomely leaning out of its coffin, perhaps through rigor mortis. But it may be that the grimness of the century is the grimness of the passing of all time and the hopelessness of trying to impose human meaning on an unforgiving and indifferent natural process.
We can get some hint that not everyone may feel as grim as Hardy does through the fact that he is alone at the coppice gate: All other people have “sought their household fires,” and while the landscape is inimical to them, it may be that the interior lives of their homes have compensatory pleasures. On the other hand, the fact that everyone sees nature as inimical might mean that Hardy is seeing the truth of the world, not imposing his own depression onto it. Indeed, he goes on to say “every spirit upon earth / Seemed fervourless as I.”
The poem is partly about the use or point of writing poetry in so bleak and inhuman a universe. The land itself seems to be an allegory about the pointlessness of poetry: “The tangled bine-stems scored the sky / Like strings of broken lyres.”
The broken lyres mean the breaking of the instrument of lyric poetry, the Aeolian harp that Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth saw as the emblem for the poetic mind’s relation to nature, and that Hardy’s favorite poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, tried to imagine as a metaphor for the forest of autumn and then himself in the climax of “Ode to the West Wind.”
And yet the thrush—like the 60-year-old Hardy, “aged . . . frail, gaunt, and small”—pours its soul abroad in “such ecstatic sound,” recalling John Keats’s description of the nightingale singing in “such an ecstasy” in “Ode to a Nightingale.” To that song Keats has listened “darkling,” while “half in love with easeful death.” Darkling is Keats’s word as much as it is also John Milton’s, from whom he derives it; in Paradise Lost Milton describes how he listens as the nightingale “sings darkling.” The word means “in the dark,” but Hardy wants it to mean “headed toward darkness.” The “darkling thrush” of the title refers both to him, listening darkling, and the bird, singing darkling.
But we can see that the grimness of the poem is Hardy’s and not the world’s. The logic of the poem is to some extent self-refuting. It goes like this: Why should I not be bleak when the world around me is so demonstrably unvaried in its grimness? How can the thrush sing in such circumstances?
But the thrush is one of the circumstances, and therefore it contradicts the argument that the world is one of unvarying grimness. The hopelessness that the poem and perhaps the poet recognize is one within the human spirit, not the natural world. The thrush is singing a “happy good-night air” to the day, and not certainly to the century. There is hope in and for the natural world, but no hope that the poet can see for himself.
The first stanza posits a bleak and depressing landscape as the speaker leans on the “coppice gate” and surveys the dismal scene. Indeed, the scene is devoid of all forms of life, both natural and human. All that remains is a cold and colorless world, “spectregray,” rendered nondescript and featureless by “the weakening eye of day.” Even worse, the very memory of its former inhabitants has now been obliterated. “And all mankind that haunted nigh / Had sought their household fires.” But, most importantly, the joy and harmony of Nature have also departed, where only “tangled bine-stems” of a previously vibrant plant remain, “like strings of broken lyres,” mute symbols of a time as far back as the ancient world when poetry and music were one, now become feeble reminders of their former exalted status.
“It is not surprising that poets should wish to keep hold of an association with song which goes back to the very origins of their art, and which carries with it such powerful connotations of divine authority, potency, and vision. My argument is that the wish became an anxiety during a period which begins, very roughly, with Milton, and ends with a group of poets who straddle the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth…. Why this loss of empire happened is a fascinating and complex story, far to complex to analyze here … Nevertheless, I think it is no coincidence that poets insisted on identifying themselves— self-consciously, rhetorically—as singers at a historical moment of divergence between poetry and song…. (Danny Karlin, “The Figure of the Singer in the Poetry of Thomas Hardy”)
Amidst this barren background, in the second stanza the poet laments the death of the nineteenth century by endowing it with human attributes, “the Century’s corpse outleant,” and conceiving a funeral service attended only by the all but defunct forces of nature. Here, the wind no longer produces the sweet music of the lyre but, rather, provides the funeral dirge. “His crypt the cloudy canopy, / The wind his death-lament.” Instead, the promise of renewed inspiration, “the ancient pulse if germ and birth,” is buried in a wasteland that reflects the poet’s dejected state of mind. “And every spirit upon earth / Seemed fervourless as I.” It is important to note that the last two lines of this stanza indicate an important reversal in terms of cause and effect with respect to nature and the poet’s state of mind. Up to this point, the poet has presented himself as depressed by his surroundings, whereas now he suggests that the landscape is a mirror for his feelings, merely reflecting back to him his own sense of lost creativity. Thus, a poem which at first appears to describe a rustic (NW) landscape is transformed into one that uses the guise of Nature to express the poet’s emotional struggle.
Having buried the past century and his poetic precursors, the third stanza suggests that there is yet some hope that the poet may find a way out of his dilemma when he overhears the song of “an aged thrush.” It appears at first that there is indeed a way of resolving his crisis as he listens to its “full-hearted evensong / Of joy illimited,” where happiness without boundaries signals the successful transcendence of his previous fears and anxiety. The poet imagines the thrush coming to his rescue, having “chosen to fling his soul / Upon the growing gloom.” But for all this, the poet’s desire for a renewed sense of well-being is not assured for he is imagining an aged bird with “blast-beruffled plume.”
More importantly, the poet cannot participate in the thrush’s celebratory mood for he cannot imagine any reason for its happiness. This is the theme of the fourth and final stanza. Here, the poet simply cannot find any reason for hope or any way out of his crisis. When he states that he cannot imagine any “cause for carolings / Of such ecstatic sound,” we are made to understand that he can no longer be inspired by the sound of the thrush’s singing, unable to identify with or be transported by its music. His imaginative efforts to the contrary, the poet simply cannot find a way out of his feelings of futility and hopelessness. “Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew / And I was unaware.”
Bloom, Harold, ed. Thomas Hardy. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
Clements, Patricia, and Juliet Grindle, eds. Poetry of Thomas Hardy. London: Vision Press, 1980.
Hardy, Thomas. Thomas Hardy’s Personal Writings: Prefaces, Literary Opinions, Reminiscences. Edited by Harold Orel. London: Macmillan, 1990.
Kramer, Dale, ed. Cambridge Companion to Thomas Hardy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.