If you want Thomas Hardy's philosophy of life, this might just be the poem for you. But why in the world would you want to know anything about Hardy's philosophy of life? Well, that's a good question.
You could think of Thomas Hardy as the granddaddy of the twentieth century – at least, as far as literature is concerned. That's not to say that he isn't a pretty big deal in his own right. He is! Heck, the scandal resulting from his novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles would have made a three-part Entertainment Tonight special if he were alive today.
But there are some good reasons to consider Hardy a forerunner of all that Modernism would bring to the world. He's not nearly as angry as Ezra Pound or as academic as T.S. Eliot or as all-out crazy as James Joyce – but he's one of the first authors to tackle the problems of the "modern" world: isolation, despair, and hopelessness. Wow. Now that we write that, we're pretty glad that we've moved out of the twentieth century. It wasn't exactly a party, was it?
In some ways, Hardy's like an older brother to the Modernists. He's a bit strict and traditional (just put "The Darkling Thrush" up against Eliot's "The Waste Land" and you'll see exactly what we mean), but that's not always a bad thing. He lays the groundwork for future writers so that they can tackle similar subjects with all sorts of weird and innovative formal shifts – the kinds of technical play that becomes Modernism's calling card.
To be honest, we sort of like the way that Hardy plays it on the straight and narrow. We can get a little slice of Modernist philosophy without all of the headaches. See, Hardy's not painfully aware that he's doing something NEW and MODERN – he's just got something to say that hasn't been said before. In other words, he keeps it real.
And that's not all. As all sorts of critics have been saying for, oh, over a hundred years now, Hardy just might write the meanest millennial verse (read: a poem written at a pivotal moment in time, like the turn of the century or, of course, of the millennium) of any poet, dead or alive. "The Darkling Thrush," written at the very, very end of the nineteenth century, is a combination of back-looking and forward-looking all wrapped into tight stanzas. Come to think of it, that's quite an achievement in and of itself.
Let's face it: change is a scary, scary thing. Going from second to third grade was a big deal. And let's not even talk about starting high school. Whenever you're moving on to bigger and better things (or even just different things), it's not a bad idea to take stock of what it is that you're moving into.
That's what "The Darkling Thrush" is about. The only thing is that, for Thomas Hardy, the stakes are even higher than the regular life changes we all have to endure. See, this poem isn't written about any old changing of the seasons. It was written in 1899. Right at the turn of the century. And those sorts of changes only happen every 100 years or so. (Believe us, we've counted.) Back in 2000, all sorts of people were convinced that the world was going to end. Believe us, it wasn't any "Party Like It's 1999." It was Armageddon. Or maybe even The Day After Tomorrow. And don't get us started on 2012, the doomsday prophecy or the recent movie. The point is, during these pivotal moments, the future often looks uncertain or even downright scary.
But hey – it's not all gloom out there. As Hardy reminds us, there just might be little speckles of light in all of that darkness. And who couldn't use a reminder of the good things in life every now and then?