The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
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 be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his 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,
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 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.

Footnotes

  1. Much of the poem’s beauty arises from the underlying mystery of the thrush. Though Hardy continually hints at a divine touch with words like “blessed,” he allows for a great deal of interpretation as to the source of the bird’s joy. Another mystery lies in the amount of hope the bird bears. While the bird’s song is “full-hearted” and “ecstatic,” Hardy’s speaker is tentative. After all, the thrush is “frail, gaunt, and small” and there appears “such little cause for carolings.” Ultimately, Hardy leaves these questions open to our interpretation. As modern readers, we are in the position to look back on Hardy’s mixed feelings of pessimism and optimism at the turn of the last century, and determine for ourselves whether the thrush has reason to be hopeful.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. Hardy makes use of a clever double entendre here. “Air” refers to both the song itself—”air” being a word for a simple tune—as well as the air through which the song passes. This is an unusually potent double entendre in that the two definitions of the word directly interact with one another.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. Hardy’s use of “trembled” is clever, and works on several levels. On one level, it describes the nature of the bird’s song: warbling, oscillating. On another level, it reiterates the winter chill of the setting. On a third level, it underscores the precariousness of the bird’s position, its weakness in the face of the winter bleakness.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. The consonance in this line is beautiful. The alliterative repetition of b and its consonant pair p (a b is simply a voiced p) is striking, as is the repetition of liquid consonants: l andr. The source of the “blast” is unclear—perhaps wind—but the image is that of a frail, weathered bird who offers hope despite the harsh, wintry conditions.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. In the Anglican church, evensong is an evening service centered around choral hymns. This metaphor gives the bird’s singing a heavenly, exultant tone. Whether Hardy intended to imbue the thrush with a literal sense of the divine is unclear.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. In this couplet heralding the arrival of the thrush, Hardy alters the meter to send a jolt into the familiar rhythmic scheme. Rather than conforming to the expected iambic trimeter, “The bleak twigs overhead” centers around a pair of consecutive stressed syllables in “bleak twigs.” This metrical jolt represents the startling arrival of the thrush.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. The trio of “pulse,” “germ,” and “birth” share almost identical vowel sounds which descend into a liquid consonant, either l or r. The line’s clean tetrameter brings the pulse to life—we can feel it as we read. Referring to the cycle of germination and birth as a pulse heightens the sense of vivacity because of the association of “pulse” with the bloodstream. In this line, Hardy uses the “ancient pulse” to refer to the natural cycles that guided agrarian cultures for thousands of years. When he goes on to describe the pulse as “shrunken hard and dry,” he alludes to the death of agrarian culture due to the industrial revolution.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. Hardy creates a beautiful turn of phrase here. The image of a cloud bank burying the earth is elegant, as is Hardy’s use of alliteration. The alliterative use of “c” rings out. The use of liquid consonants—r and l—gives the phrase some connective tissue, as do the pair of p sounds.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. Here Hardy reveals the true object of death at the heart of the poem: the 19th century. Hardy penned the poem in 1899, and published it the following year. He illustrates the transition from the 19th century to the 20th, and from agrarian culture to modern society using a somber winter landscape. The pre-industrial way of life Hardy knows and loves is dead.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. “Bine-stems” are the stems of climbing plants. The simile of the broken lyre strings continues the overall theme of destruction and also casts an air of silence over the scene, which becomes important in the third stanza.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  11. Hardy’s metaphor for the setting sun—a circle collapsing like a closing eye—serves as another motif of death and finality. Considered in the context of the rise of modernity, the “weakening eye” suggests a decline in reason in modern civilization. Hardy lamented the death of agricultural society and the advent of industrialization.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. This is a metaphor for snow. The image of dregs—the residue left from liquid—offers connotations of emptiness, or an end to joy. It brings to mind a finished beverage.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  13. The first couplet establishes the poem’s meter: an alternation between four-beat tetrameter and three-beat trimeter. This jaunty, song-like metrical scheme exists in tension with the poem’s winter atmosphere. The description of the frost as “spectre-grey” has a connotation of death, one of the poem’s central motifs. Hardy’s poem addresses the turn of the 20th century, viewing the rising tide of modernity with a sense of hopelessness.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff