A brief summary and analysis of a classic Thomas Hardy poem, written by Dr Oliver Tearle
Thomas Hardy’s novels often overshadow his poetry, although a handful of poems from his vast poetic output remain popular in verse anthologies. One such case is ‘The Darkling Thrush’, a great winter poem which was first published on 29 December 1900. Poised on the cusp of a new year (and even, depending on your view of the matter, a new century), Hardy reflects in this poem on the events of the nineteenth century, his own feelings about the future, and his attitude to nature. Here is ‘The Darkling Thrush’, followed by a close analysis of its features.
The Darkling Thrush
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.
The land’s sharp features seemed to me
The Century’s corpse outleant,
Its crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind its death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ 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.
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small,
With 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 things
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.
‘The Darkling Thrush’ opens with endings: the end of the year, the end of the day (the ‘weakening eye of day’ sets the poem at dusk), even the end of the century (the original title of the poem was ‘The Century’s End, 1900’: for many, including Hardy, the twentieth century only really began in 1901, not 1900). But every ending is also a beginning of some sort, a limit marking the end of one thing and the start of another. What will the new year and, given the poem’s ominous date of December 1900, the new century hold? Hardy seems to subject the Victorian age to sharp scrutiny, analysing its developments and discoveries in an indirect but suggestive way. The ‘darkling thrush’ will intrude upon Hardy’s gloomy reflections.
In summary, then: the poem’s speaker leans upon a woodland gate and views the land around him as a symbol of the events of the nineteenth century, the ‘Century’s corpse outleant’; the speaker is made a part of the scene, not just a detached observer, as ‘outleant’ echoes the speaker’s own action at the start of the poem (‘I leant upon a coppice gate’). The century is dying (‘crypt’, ‘death-lament’) because it is at its end, but also because something has died as a result of the events of that century: religious faith. Thomas Hardy lost his own faith in Christianity early in life, partly as a result of his reading of Auguste Comte and Charles Darwin (whose On the Origin of Species Hardy had read as a young man), though he retained a fondness for the trappings of Christianity, such as church architecture and the language of the King James Bible. Because of such scientific and philosophical developments and discoveries in the nineteenth century, religious faith had declined among the overall population. (Interestingly, church numbers continued to increase, but this was because the overall population skyrocketed between 1800 and 1900; fewer people were going to church by 1900, proportionally speaking.) A writer like Hardy could no longer take solace from Christianity, or have unequivocal confidence in the future of the world. Too much had been learnt, too much lost.
This religious dimension to the poem is borne out by Hardy’s personal beliefs but also by his other poems, such as ‘The Oxen’ (which sees him unable to share a belief in the truth of Christianity, though he wishes he could believe). In ‘The Darkling Thrush’ itself we are given clues that religion is on the speaker’s mind. In the third stanza, when the thrush of the title appears (‘darkling’ is an old poetic word for ‘in darkness’ – it also, incidentally, echoes Matthew Arnold‘s use of the word in his famous poem about declining faith, ‘Dover Beach’, published in 1867), its song is described as ‘evensong’, suggesting the church service, while the use of the word ‘soul’ also suggests the spiritual. (Such a religiously inflected analysis of Hardy’s poem is reinforced by ‘carolings’ in the next stanza.) The fact that the thrush, despite being ‘aged’ and ‘small’, can still sing a song filled with ‘joy illimited’ is contrasted with the speaker’s lack of hope and joy (if we take the speaker of the poem to be Hardy himself, he, too, is aged: Hardy was sixty in 1900). The word ‘illimited’ is typical Hardy: not ‘unlimited’ (suggesting excess) but ‘illimited’, describing a joy that is unaffected by knowledge of such things as the end of the year or the end of the century, the very limits or endings which prey upon the speaker’s mind.
The poem ends on an ambiguous note: is the speaker inspired by the ‘blessed Hope’ of the thrush’s song, or does he continue to lack optimism for the future? He is ‘unaware’ of the thrush’s reasons for being cheerful, but he seems to believe that such a cause for hope exists somewhere, and he simply hasn’t discovered (or rediscovered) it yet. This ambivalence is partly what helps to make ‘The Darkling Thrush’ not only a great Thomas Hardy poem to read, but also a great piece of poetry to analyse. Unlike the thrush’s carolings, Hardy’s poem does not sound an unconditionally positive note.
The best affordable edition of Thomas Hardy’s complete poems is The Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy (Wordsworth Poetry Library). It contains all of Hardy’s poetry for a very reasonable price. We also have more classic poems about birds, and we’ve compiled some of Hardy’s best poems here. We’ve also picked the best Thomas Hardy novels here.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.