An analysis of Thomas Hardy's poem "The Darkling Thrush"

Seminar Paper, 2006

14 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Analysis and Interpretation
2.1 Thomas Hardy – Man and Writer
2.2 The Poem in the Context of Time
2.3 Speech Situation and Content
2.4 Formal Aspects
2.5 Rhetorical Figures
2.5.1 Phonological Figures
2.5.2 Morphological Figures and Lexical Choice
2.5.3 Semantic Figures and Imagery

3 Synopsis

4 Bibliography

1 Introduction

For many people, the turn of a year is a suitable occasion for looking back to the events of the past year, but also for speculating what the coming year will bring. At the turn of a century, however, people seem to be even more excited and thoughtful. A poem which was written at the turn of the 20th century is Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush”, which I would like to analyse on the following pages. Firstly, I am going to say some words about the author. Then, I would like to deal with the speech situation, the content and with formal aspects. Lastly, I will analyse the rhetorical figures used by Hardy.

2 Analysis and Interpretation

2.1 Thomas Hardy – Man and Writer

Thomas Hardy, the author of “The Darkling Thrush”, was born in 1840 in a village near Dorchester as the son of a prosperous stonemason. Three years before his birth, Queen Victoria had come to power. His father, a talented craftsman and a passionate musician, and his mother, a very intelligent and vibrant person who read a lot, enabled him to grow up happily. At the age of eight, he was sent to the local school, where he did extremely well. Some years later, he moved to a school in Dorchester, where he was promoted by a competent teacher. Hardy, who can be described as a very alert and sensitive pupil, enjoyed learning languages – he was knowledgeable about Latin, Greek, and French – and was fond of literature. Moreover, he was an esteemed fiddler who used to play at local dances, even though he was said to be rather introverted, solitary and even a little bit inhibited. In spite of his intelligence, Hardy never went to university, because his father could not afford to support him financially. Instead of an academic career, he was an apprentice to a local architect who was rather lax and left Hardy much space to read and cogitate about philosophical and religious issues. After his training, he worked in London, Britain’s cultural centre, but returned to his home as a result of his poor health. There, he fell in love with Tryphena Sparks, but the young woman left him after some years and caused a major crisis in his life. In 1870, when he was working in Cornwall, he got to know Lavinia Gifford who became his first wife and with whom he travelled through Europe and England. But although Hardy was very productive and was more and more appreciated among the critics in the following 30 years, he had to suffer a lot, because his wife was afflicted with mental illness. Two years after the death of his wife (1912), he married Florence Emily Dugdale. With her, his life at home became calmer again. This new harmony in Hardy’s life was disturbed by the First World War, whose devastating consequences were very depressing for him. After his death in 1828, his body was buried at Westminster Abbey, but his heart was removed and interred near Dorchester[1].

This fact is a symbol of Hardy’s deep affinity with the countryside. In fact, he had “deep roots in Dorset” and this is probably the reason why “Hardy’s major work is all written about that region”[2]. Most of his novels, for example, are set in this area in the south- west of England, which Hardy calls “Wessex” (according to the former kingdom of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy). When residing in London, he always had the feeling that his freedom was restricted. That’s the reason why he chose to live at Max Gate, his marvellous house near Dorchester, when he was growing older. Such strong feelings for the countryside, its people, culture and traditions are not very characteristic for educated people in the late 19th century, when more and more people moved to big towns. Although Hardy spent most of his life in the Victorian Era and although a lot of his thoughts and opinions were influenced by it, he is now often regarded as a rather critical and modern character[3] .

Like almost everyone in Victorian England, Hardy’s parents were practising Christians and went to Church with their son every Sunday. Already as an adolescent, however, Thomas Hardy had a lot of doubts about his parents’ convictions and about the Christian faith itself[4]. In 1859, Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species was published and had a great influence on Hardy’s philosophy of life. The book claimed that “men and monkeys were collateral descendants of one ancestor” and that “there was no need for God” if “life evolved under its own laws”. Because of Darwin’s thoughts, but also because of the influence of other influential thinkers such as T. H. Huxley or John Stuart Mill and the development of science and rationalism, Hardy was gradually losing his belief in God. Another reason why he rejected the idea of a merciful and almighty God was the big number of contemporaries who had to suffer. According to Merryn Williams, he developed into an “agnostic” (a person who believes that we cannot know whether God exists or not). Moreover, he believed that “all life [was] pervaded by the struggle for existence, and it [could] only be made bearable by solidarity between human beings”. So Hardy was one among many agnostics at the end of the 19th century who were in favour of separating religion from morality[5]. In contrast to Williams, other critics state that Hardy was an atheist rather than an agnostic and that he denied the existence of God completely. As stated by Butler, for example, Hardy’s poems such as the sonnet “Hap”, “The Dynasts” or “The Impercipient”, but also his famous novels Jude the Obscure and Tess of the D’Urbervilles draw a clear picture and prove Hardy’s “negative metaphysics”, his “sense of cosmic emptiness” and his opinion “that there is no god, vengeful or otherwise, to lend meaning to suffering”[6]. To sum up, Hardy had inherited the Christian faith from his parents and was losing it in the course of time.

2.2 The Poem in the Context of Time

“The Darkling Thrush” is dated “31st December 1900” by Hardy, but it was already published on December 29th, 1900, in The Graphic magazine. Nevertheless, the poem was written in the very last days of the 19th century, short before the turn of the 20th century and only short before the end of the Victorian Era. In this pre-modern time (1880-1910), the prevailing optimism gave gradually way to doubts, mistrust and pessimism – especially among intellectuals and the people of the upper class. There were several reasons for this growing feeling of uncertainty. Firstly, the free economy did not cope with the increasing social problems: A huge number of people belonged to the working class, which had emerged as a consequence of Liberalism and the Industrial Revolution, and had to suffer from poor conditions. Britain had also problems concerning its foreign affairs. Around 1900 and up to the First World War, it was fighting to consolidate its empire and its position as a world power. From 1899 to 1902, for example, Britain fought in the Boer War. Moreover, a mounting number of people was losing faith due to the development of science and rationalism (see above). This alienation from religion often led to desperation and pessimism, too. Furthermore, Britain’s urbanization and the emancipation of women went on. A caesura in this period was also the invention of the telephone and of the railway, which resulted in a different perception of time and space. In general, life in Britain accelerated enormously during the last decades of the 19th century and a lot of people were suspicious of the major changes in society they had to face[7].

2.3 Speech Situation and Content

Already at the beginning of the first stanza, the reader can clearly percept the lyric persona of the poem (“I leant upon a coppice gate”), who refers to itself in the first person singular. The personal pronoun “I”, which can be regarded as a proof for “explicit subjectivity”, also appears in the second (l. 16) and fourth stanza (l. 29 and 32). Whereas the poem therefore has a fictive speaker, it lacks an explicit fictive addressee (“lyric thou”), i.e. the lyric I does not address itself explicitly to someone in the second person singular[8]. Instead of addressing a lyric thou, the lyric I rather describes a specific experience, its observations, impressions and feelings.

In the first stanza, the lyric I is presented in a dark and gloomy winter landscape. The depressing atmosphere that is created by the description of nature corresponds to the mood of the lyric I. Its sadness becomes also obvious in stanza two, when it associates the natural surroundings with quite negative images. The beginning of the third stanza can be called the “turning point of the poem”[9], since a thrush enters the dark scene and starts to sing joyfully. This cheerful song stands in contrast to the bird’s bleak surroundings and to the bad mood of the lyric I, too. For that reason, the lyric I is not able to understand the reason for “carolings of such ecstatic sound” (l.25-26), but cannot exclude the possibility that there exists something beyond its knowledge which justifies some kind of “blessed Hope” (l.31).

2.4 Formal Aspects

“The Darkling Thrush” consists of 32 lines which are divided into four octaves. Each octave is formed of two quatrains which are rhymed alternately (ababcdcd).

Apart from one exception (“lyres – fires”) in the lines 6 and 8, Hardy exclusively uses masculine rhymes, for example “dry” and “I” (l. 14 and 16). Moreover, most lines are rhymed with perfect, i.e. full or exact rhymes such as “birth” and “earth” (l. 13 and 15) or “through” and “knew” (l. 29 and 31). There are, however, three exceptions: In the first place, the two words “among” and “evensong” (l. 17 and 19) don’t rhyme perfectly and are characteristic for a so-called eye or sight rhyme. Furthermore, “overhead” and “illimited” (l. 18 and 20) and “small” and “soul” (l. 21 and 23) can also be called “imperfect” and only rhyme through a consonance at the end of the lines.


[1] Cf. Trevor Johnson, Thomas Hardy (London: Evans Brothers Limited, 1968) 9-22.

[2] Merryn Williams, introduction, A Preface to Hardy, by Williams (London and New York: Longman Group Limited, 1976) ix.

[3] Cf. Williams 44 and 59-61.

[4] Johnson 15.

[5] Cf. Williams 72-78.

[6] Lance St John Butler, Thomas Hardy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978) 175-176.

[7] Cf. Hans Ulrich Seeber, Englische Literaturgeschichte (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2004) 314-317.

[8] Cf. Vera and Ansgar Nünning, An Introduction to the Study of English and American Literature (Stuttgart: Klett, 2004) 53-55.

[9] R. A. Burns, “Imagery in Hardy’s Darkling Thrush”. Concerning Poetry 9.1 (1976) 88.

Excerpt out of 14 pages


An analysis of Thomas Hardy's poem "The Darkling Thrush"
University of Regensburg  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Proseminar "20th-Century British and Irish Poetry"
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
401 KB
Thomas, Thomas, Hardy, Hardy, Darkling, Darkling, Thrush, Thrush, Proseminar, Proseminar, British, British, Irish, Irish, Poetry, Poetry
Quote paper
Michael Brendel (Author), 2006, An analysis of Thomas Hardy's poem "The Darkling Thrush", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Look inside the ebook
Title: An analysis of Thomas Hardy's poem "The Darkling Thrush"

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free