ISC English literature –The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy

The Darkling Thrush
by Thomas Hardy

About the author … Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was born in a not so well-to-do family. His father worked as a stone mason. His mother, however, was a gifted woman who took charge of Hardy’s education from the beginning. Hardy’s parents lacked the means to send him to university, so he was made to work as an apprentice with an architect. Hardy flourished in this field and, in due course, earned a name as an architect of repute. His heart, however, lay in literature. In later years, he devoted his time wholly to writing. He wrote poems, short stories and novels.

Reading Hardy must include his novels like ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’, ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’, and ‘The Return of the Native’. Among his poems, one might choose ‘Poems of Past and Present’, and ‘Moments of Vision’. In short story writing too, he excelled winning the admiration of countless readers. ‘A Tragedy of Two Ambitions’, ‘A Mere Interlude’ and ‘Alicia’s Diary’ are just a few of the long list of Hardy’s short stories.

The poem ..  

Hardy wrote this poem in 1900. It was the end of twentieth century. By then he was 60, and the old age was beginning to bite him. Life expectancy in England was around 40 then. Was it his old age, or the depressing social conditions of England that bothered him? Perhaps, both. Hardy was ill at ease with the class-ridden, tradition-trapped Victorian age. He was born in a humble family, and his modest upbringing made him rail against the power and privileges of the elite class. The deeply-entrenched moral values stifled free thinking, and filled the average person’s life with needless misery. Hardy loathed such an archaic set up, but he could do nothing to reverse it, other than venting his desperation through his writings. The Darkling Thrush, perhaps, bears the marks of Hardy’s anguish and pessimism.

Stanza 1 …  

 

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. 

 

Meaning … The insufferable winter is drawing near. There is snow everywhere. Life on earth is grinding to a halt. The landscape looks so lifeless, so ghoulish. The speaker leans over a gate that stood amidst shrubs and plants. His eyes fall on the tree that stands bereft of its foliage. The winter’s chill has stripped the tree of its leaves. Only the twigs and stems are left to peer skywards. They look like a derelict musical string instrument, whose strings are cut. Folks have retreated to their homes to escape the biting cold outside. Daily activities have been cut to the minimum in such a forbiding environment.

Stanza 2 …

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. 

Meaning .. The whole place looks so devoid of any activity. There is no hustle bustle, no exuberance, and nothing to cheer for. The town’s mortuary stands silent and alone. A dark cloud hovers over it to further accentuate the gloom and doom feeling. The wind blows with a deadly howl. There is no birth, no regeneration and no revival. Life seems to be trapped in an ice age. The speaker’s mood, like that of every other  denizen, appears so insipid and lackluster.

Stanza 3 …

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. 

Meaning ….Amidst this deafening silence and graveyard-like doom and despondency, the speaker hears a strange loud sound emanating from the background of the dry lifeless twigs and stems of the nearby tree. It catches the speaker by surprise. The strange sound seems to announce that hope and health is returning. The speaker discovers that an old, enfeebled thrush with frayed plumes is crying out.  But, the intent of the thrush in making the cry, when all life forms are on the verge of eternal silence, baffles the speaker. ‘What could be the bird’s motivation?, wonders the speaker.

Stanza 4 …

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. 

Meaning … The thrush’s energetic cry obviously was not announcing the advent of cataclysm and death. ‘Then, what was it?,’ ponders the speaker. He concludes that the thrush perhaps knew that everything in this world was not doomed yet, and there was still hope. May be, good times would soon return, but the speaker was unaware of any such good tidings.

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The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy –A critical Analysis

Hardy wrote this poem at the beginning of twentieth century. The poem reflects the poet’s gloomy mood, and general pessimism with the society that he saw as deeply flawed and unjust. In some ways it was like nineteenth century Bengal where poverty, and disease were rife, and the masses reeled under an oppressive feudalistic structure. During the time Hardy wrote The Darkling Thrush, England was backward and mired in a senseless pursuit of wealth in which the privileged lass saw any success.

The Darkling Thrush is an expression of the poet’s discomfiture at the society had become sick. Winter in England is harsh. It makes people suffer, forcing them to hibernate inside their homes. The two lines

“And all mankind that haunted nigh 

Had sought their household fires.”

amply  demonstrates that the community has slipped into a stupor. By alluding to such a state, Hardy shows how he perceived England to be then – insipid and emaciated. It has to be borne in mind that Hardy had reached 60 when he wrote this poem. Life expectancy in England was just 40 then.

There is nothing in the environment to cheer the poet up. Pessimism was pervasive, but Hardy had still not broken up. He had a feeling that England could still rise again. When he looks around, in the midst of the howling cold wind and the snowfall drowning the earth, he sees a weak Thrush soaring into the sky. He writes

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small, 

      In blast-beruffled plume, 

Had chosen thus to fling his soul 

      Upon the growing gloom.

Was Hardy an incorrigible optimist? Perhaps, yes. The Thrush he sees rustling into the sky is old, like him. The hardy bird has not given up. It roars into the sky defying the odds. Does, Hardy feel his old, degraded society will resurrect itself one day? The answer is ‘yes’. Hardy loved his country too much to wish its demise.

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Theme of the poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’ ….

Thomas Hardy wrote this poem when England was in the cusp of the Second Industrial Revolution. The advent of revolutionary methods of steel making, power generation, use of steam engines for transportation, mass manufacturing etc. were changing the face of British society dramatically. The changes brought huge increase in wealth and inspired the entrepreneurs to look overseas for their burgeoning production. The availability of electric lighting made it possible to run factories at night. Men and women left homes at night to work in factories.

Thomas Hardy saw, first hand, how the traditional British ways of community living was being upended, irreversibly. He felt, the changes were doing great harm to social harmony, and was aggravating exploitation of the poor. The pursuit of wealth at any cost was robbing his country of the tranquility and peace of British society.Undoubtedly, he was deeply disturbed. Contrary to the economists and politicians, he saw no good in such radical changes in England’s economic life that had been historically rooted to agriculture.

The gloom and chill of snowfall that he describes in the poem are manifestation of his gloomy future he saw for his country. The withdrawal of people into their homes to escape the ghoulish cold is a metaphor for the way many citizens felt great unease in the fast-changing social scene. By hibernating inside their homes,they are trying to wait out the spell of devastating and painful changes in their living styles. 

Thomas Hardy was heart-broken, but not finished. He felt England could never perish, and the beautiful core values of the English society would survive the onslaught of the machines and the factories. The Darkling Thrush appearing from nowhere and flying away defiantly in that morbid environment symbolizes the poet’s optimism about the future. The thoughtful and sensitive Hardy affirms his belief that England’s social life will not be crushed under the weight of industrialization.

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4 thoughts on “ISC English literature –The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy”

  1. Pingback: ISC English poem --The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy – Write to Score

  2. “The Darling Thrush” is a poem of despair and hopelessness. Do you agree? Give reasons
    Word limit 350-400 words

    1. “The Darling Thrush” is a poem of despair and hopelessness. Do you agree?
      ——————————————–.
      Undeniably, Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Darkling Thrush’ suffuses with despair and anguish. This is understandable because Hardy wrote the poem when he was 60. Life expectancy in the late twentieth century England was rather low. People used die of TB, Typhoid, Malaria and many such diseases that had no cure then. So, people generally assumed that they had stepped into the twilight years of their lives upon reaching 60. This must have been in the back of Thomas Hardy’ mind when he sat down to write this poem.
      Apart from his advancing age, England in the late twentieth century suffered from a plethora of socio-economic stresses that made intellectuals wary and pensive. Thomas Hardy was a very sensitive man, and must have been affected by the all round hopelessness among ordinary Englishmen.
      The setting of the poem is particularly depressing. It’s a very snowy day, when people have retreated to their homes to escape the bitter cold. Vegetation is non-existent. Dry, lifeless branches of trees stand erect, battering the chill. The landscape is still, completely devoid of life. It seems every life form has gone into hibernation. The dreary environment casts a spell on the poet’s mind. He feels he is doomed, and too powerless to stand up to the torment of Nature.
      Thomas Hardy appears resigned to the clawing desolation that would soon doom his life. When he scans the terrain around him, he sees little to bring him hope or any cheer. In all fairness to Thomas Hardy, any other human being would have been affected the same way to see the deafening silence, and the chill. Piles of white snow and no sight of life are bound to send the spirit of the most diehard optimist to a tail spin. Thomas Hardy was just a mortal, like any other human being. So, he felt the vice-like grip of desolation and despair.
      Some readers say the sighting of the Dakling Thrush is a sign that the poet saw as a positive message, but it’s difficult to accept this interpretation. Hardy sounds almost broken and bent in the midst of the snow, so we can conclude that the poem is one of despair, hopelessness and desperation.
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