The poet depicts a gloomy wintry scene in nature. Looking at the scene he himself feels gloomy. Nothing around him promises joy or peace. Suddenly the happy song of an old thrush startles the poet and he wonders what has made the bird happy. He feels that the bird might have some happy expectation.
About the Poet
Thomas Hardy, a famous English Poet and novelist, was born on 2 June 1849 in Dorset, England. As his family was poor he was unable to pursue university education. His formal education came to and at the age of sixteen. He trained as an architect in Dorchester before moving to London in 1862. He worked as an architect for some years but he did not feel at ease in London.
Hardy’s rural background, his love of music and his apprenticeship as an architect influenced his subject matter and from in his writings. His love for literature made him give up his career as an architect. His first prose work appeared in 1865. His first novel, Desperate Remedies, was published in 1870. Among his most famous novels are : Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895). His first volume of poems was Wessex Poems (1898). He published six more volumes of verse till 1928. It is important to note that Hardy’s vision of life was pessimistic. Three prominent notes are visible in his poetry : The helplessness of man, the unavoidability of destiny, the indifference of nature and of gods. There is a large variety of themes and forms in his poetry. He is best known for his expression of love, nature, imagery, sincerity of feelings, intricate structure, etc.
As a poet, Hardy was influenced by Romanticism, though his outlook and style were different from the Romantics’. He wrote poems in a variety of poetic forms such as lyrics, ballads, dramatic monologues, satires, etc. He experimented with stanza forms and metres. He makes an adroit use of irony in poems like ‘The Man He Killed’ and ‘Are You Digging on My Grave’.
About the Poem
Originally titled ‘By the Century’s Deathbed, 1900’, ‘The Darkling Thrush’ was published on 29 December 1900 and was later included in the collections entitled Poems of the Past and the Present (1903). It is clear that the poet was influenced by the melancholy, despair and uncertainty that marked the Victorian Age. Like many of his age, he was not certain what the new century would bring for mankind.
In the poem, the poet imagines that the 19th century has just died, and that its dead body will be buried in the canopy formed by the clouds above. The sounds of the winds seem to lament its death. The whole wintry scene, depicted by the poet, is desolate and dreary. The poet, looking at the scene, feels gloomy. Suddenly a thrush’s joyful song breaks the heaviness and desolation all around. Nothing around the poet shows any sign of joy or peace. The poet wonders what has made the thrush happy. He feels that the bird is perhaps aware of some blessing to come, of which he himself knows nothing. The poem seems to end on an ambiguous note . The contrast between opposite feelings of sadness and happiness is beautifully worked out through striking images.
The poem underlines the fact that nothing remains permanent. The most heart-breaking moments come to an end. Life rejuvenates itself after decay and death which are symbolised by winter. The entry of the songbird in the bleak winter landscape is symbolic of hope in the midst of extreme hopelessness. In fact, this songbird is a metaphor for the poet’s own conscience as the bleak winter landscape is a metaphor for the 19th century on the way out.
A Bleak Winter Scene : The poet recalls a scene of desolation in winter season. It was twilight. The light of the sun was fading fast. The poet was leaning against a wooden gate. Frost had begun to settle on everything. All around there was a scene of desolation. The increasing darkness and coldness had forced all human beings to take shelter in their homes:
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The climbing plants that lined the sky around the place seemed to the poet to be the broken strings of music instruments (lyres).
The End of the Century : As the poet views the bleakness of the winter landscape, it seems to remind him that the 19th century had come to a close. The sharp features of the land seemed to be the century’s dead boy laid out for burial. The poet saw clouds in the sky hanging as if they were forming a canopy. These clouds, he thought, would serve as the burial-ground for the dead body. The wind that was blowing hard seemed down as a result of the extreme cold of the winter. This extreme cold and frost that always accompany winter have robbed every living creature of zest and ethusiasm. The poet himself does not feel cheerful or enthusiastic in any way.
A Sudden Unexpected Voice : Suddenly there arose a voice from among the leafless branches of the tree around the poet. This was the voice of a weak, aged thrush which was not visible at all. Its feathers had been beaten and disoriented by wintry storms. Despite its weakness, it started pouring joyful notes in a bleak atmosphere. It seemed to be expressing its heartfelt delight.
The Note of Hope : The poet wondered what could cause the thrush to sing. There was no sign of any joy. The whole scene around was bleak . The poet could not make out the reason of the happy song of the bird. The bird might have some happy expectation. It might have some hope of good fortune about which the poet was unaware of.
The poem, thus, concludes on a note of ambiguity clearly. They seem to express some religious belief, while the poet had no belief in any religion or religious system.
Stanza by Stanza Explanation
‘I leant upon ….. household fires.’
I stood leaning against a wooden gate and watched the scene outside. Frost appeared like a ghost. The last part of the winter had turned the scene gloomy and desolate. The light of the sun was fading fast. The tangled stems of the climbing plants lined the sky. They looked like the useless, broken lyres. Due to coldness and darkness all human beings – except I – had retired to their homes to sit by the fireside to warm themselves.
‘The land’s sharp features ………… fervourless as I.’
The sharp features of the land seemed to be the Century’s (19th Century’s) dead body, laid out for burial. The clouds hanging in the sky would serve as the tomb for the dead body. The wind that blew seemed to sing the funeral song. Owing to extreme cold the rhythm of conception and birth had slowed down considerably. Everybody, including myself, seemed to be devoid of zest and enthusiasm.
‘At one a voice ………. growing gloom.’
Suddenly a cheerful voice arose from among the dark twigs overhead. It was a full-throttled evening song of endless joy. A weak, old thrush whose plumes have been battered by the storm was clearly going to die soon, yet it chose to pour out its heart cheerfully in the midst of growing gloom.
‘So little cause …………… And I was unaware’.
There were no signs of hope or joy to give any cause to the bird to sing. There was nothing on the earth, near or afar, which could have made the thrush sing to delightfully. There might be in the bird’s heart some hope of good fortune about which I had no knowledge.
No End to Life : Hardy wrote this poem at the end of the nineteeth century. Through imagery and diction he builds up an atmosphere of gloom and desolation. In the winter landscape nothing seems to be of hope and promise. The coldness and darkness of winter (a metaphor for death) have forced all human beings – except the poetic persona – to retire to their homes and sit by the fireside. Suddenly the poet who is in a gloomy mood is startled by a happy voice :
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
in blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom
The voice of this weak, aged, dying thrush is naturally a pleasant surprise. It is a reminder of the fact that death is not the end. There is life beyond death. The new century is about to take birth. It may bring in something positive. The poet’s puzzling response only reflects the human anxiety about it. Like others, he is not sure that the way in which the new times would be better than the old ones.
Man vs Nature : Another theme of the poem may be man vs nature. The nature imagery with frost, winter, the land, the sun, the sky and the clouds is predominant. There is the song of a little bird. And there is no sign of humans – except for the speaker. Nature, in whatever mood, seems to be dominant. The only human being present is the speaker . He does not seem to fit in. He finds no charm in nature. Even the joyful song of the bird only puzzles him. There is no communication as such between man and nature. Both are indifferent to each other.
Preservation : ‘The Darkling Thrush’ is about a little bird who takes on the big world. There is no hope for it, or for anyone else outside it. It is cold and awful. Everything looks gloomy in the settling sun. The human beings – except the solitary speaker – are shut in their homes. The voice of a weak, aged thrush comes as a pleasant surprise. It may be ‘puzzling’ to the gloomy speaker, but it clearly reveals a small bird’s heroic attempt no to be browbeaten by the gloominess prevalent everywhere. It sings perhaps just to pass time. Or it may be its way to face the inevitable. It knows how to preserve against all odds. This may serve as a kind of lesson to those who, like the speaker, get easily overpowered by hopelessness and desolation.
Literary Devices Used in the Poem
Personification : It is a literary device which is used to accord human characteristics to non-living things:
- Frost has been treated as a ghost
- The day has an eye, like a human being
- The Century, like a human being , dies and has its dead body ready for the burial
- the thrush is not a mere bird, he has ‘his soul’ and he has his ‘happy good-nigh’ song
Metaphors : In a metaphor one thing is closely identified with another:
- Frost is likened to a ‘spectre-grey’ (a pale, dull ghost-like)
- The last remaining unpleasant parts of winter are likened to ‘Winter’s dregs’
- The sun has been likened to the ‘eye of day’
Similes : It is a comparison between two persons or objects brought about by ‘like’ or ‘as……as’; as :
- The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
- Like strings of broken lyres
Alliteration : It is the repetition of consonant sounds in the sequence of words, usually in a single line:
- tangled bine-stems scored the sky (‘s’ sound)
- Had sought their household fires (‘h’ sound)
- His crypt the cloudy canopy (‘c’ sound)
- The repetition of harsh ‘k’ sound in the first stanza :
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
Suggestive Title : ‘The Darkling Thrush’ is an apt and suggestive title for the poem. It is so because it is the singing bird that is used to thematize the poem. The happy voice of the bird startled the poet who finds himself engulfed by gloominess within and without. He fails at first to understand the rationale of the bird thus expressing its happiness when there is nothing of hope and promise around. Then he thinks that the bird might have found some possibility of hope.
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
Poem with a Message : Though ‘The Darkling Thrush’ gives no obvious message, it is certainly a poem of hope. It is, of course, a complex poem and can be read at many levels. The poem describes an evening scene on a very cold wintry day minutely. The descriptive imagery is at its best:
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
But as the poem advances, we gather that the main interest of the poem lies not in the desolation of the wintry scene but the desolation in the speaker’s own heart. There is correspondence between the mood of Nature and the mood of a human being. And yet, the song of the bird confirms that this is not so. Though the speaker seems to be totally hopeless and listless, this is not true of nature. The bird’s song is a reminder of the good old days to come. It indicates the birth of a new era which may bring some good to mankind. This note of mysticism is confounding. Hardy, being sceptic, refers to some religious quality in the concluding lines of this poem.
A Lyric in Form : The poem employs traditional structure. It is a beautiful, regular lyric, divided into four stanzas, each stanza with the rhyme scheme, ababcdcd. The poet uses mostly perfect rhymes, though threre is the use of near rhymes in stanza 3 (‘small’, ‘soul’) and in stanza 4 (‘through’, ‘knew’). Most of the rhyming words – ‘grey’, ‘desolate’, ‘sky’, ‘lyres’, ‘fires’, ‘canopy’, ‘evensong’, etc. – are linked to the theme of the poem, and help build up the required atmosphere.
The rhyme scheme is regular and the metre normal. This creates a tension in the poem. This regularity clashes with the mood of the poem itself. If evening is wrong and the world is ending, why should the poet use a regular structure? Does it mean that we should not trust the speaker?
Imagery : There are striking images in the poem, such as:
- the speaker’s leaning against ‘a coppice gate’ (visual)
- the tangled bine-stems scoring the sky (visual)
- the cloudy canopy (visual)
- a voice rising among the bleak twigs (auditory)
Most of the images come from the world of nature.