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.
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.