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The Darkling Thrush
By Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Background, Title Information
Summary
Interpretation
Text of the Poem
Notes
Theme
End Rhyme
Meter
Figures of Speech
Study Questions
Writing Topics
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2011
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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 birda frail old thrushcoming 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 transitionfrom 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 Hardynovelist 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
Study Questions and Writing Topics
  • Write a poem that imitates the rhyme scheme of "The Darkling Thrush." The topic is open.
  • What is the difference between a lyric poem and a ballad?
  • In your opinion, do the "broken strings" in line 6 refer to Hardy's possibly broken spirit after two of his novels received uncomplimentary reviews? (See the second paragraph under Interpretation.)
  • Make a list of the words that signify the speaker's gloomy mood. Examples are spectre-gray (line 2), Winter's dregs (line 3), and desolate (line 3).
  • Explain the religious connotation of evensong (line 19)?
  • What are other examples of alliteration besides those listed above?

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