The Darkling Thrush
by Thomas Hardy
Analysis: Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay
There’s more to a poem than meets the eye.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
The Death of the Classics
When we talk about something being "classical," we mean in the sense that it relates to ancient Greece or Rome. In "The Darkling Thrush" Hardy's bringing out all of the old favorites: the seasons, the gods, and even the elements all make cameo appearances. Here's the thing, though: like everything else in "The Darkling Thrush," all of the classical allusions in this poem are coupled with images of death and decay. Does this mean that this is the death of the gods? Well, yes. We think it does. Check these out:
- Lines 2-3: capitalizing "Frost" and "Winter" makes them seem less like natural elements and more like, well, "Susie" or "Juan." In other words, they're being personified. And what's more, they seem to be traditional (read: classical) personifications, which allows the poem to allude (read: refer to) to an entire symbolic register by inserting just a few choice images. Call something "Frost" with a capital "F" and we're immediately thinking about pagan gods of winter or even Greek god who controlled the weather. Nifty, huh?
- Line 6: Referencing a "lyre" is pretty much code for "classical allusion." A lyre is a classical harp-like instrument.
- Line 21: Hardy's choice of birds is anything but accidental: another poet from the not-so-distant past (for Hardy, at least), made the nightingale very famous. It turns out that the thrush is actually a close relative of the nightingale. You could think of this as a not-so-subtle allusion to Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale." John Keats, watch out – Thomas Hardy is gunning for your position in the Poetry Hall of Fame. (Check out more on other comparisons between the two poems in our "What's Up With the Title?" section.)
- Line 31: Again with the capital letters! Again with the personification! This time, "Hope" steals the show as an almost-sentient being.
The Living Dead
If killing off all of nature wasn't enough for you, it turns out that all people seem close to tipping into the grave, as well. Hey, who doesn't like to read about people who live halfway between here and the netherworld? Come to think of it, the folks who inhabit this poem do seem like they're in purgatory. We hear that it's very gray and unpleasant.
- Lines 7-8: The way that people are "haunting" the area conjures up all sorts of evocative imagery. Can you imagine these people with bodies? We sure can't!
- Lines 9-10: Heck, even non-alive things are dead – like the Century.
- Lines 15-16: We've said it before, and we'll say it again: referring to people as "spirits" is both a nifty synecdoche (because people are thought to have spirits inside of them) and symbolism (because people have become nothing more than spirits).
- Line 21: OK, we know that the thrush is alive. But our first introduction to him is meant to situate him in the same ghoulish symbolic register as the other figures in this poem. After all, he's "frail, gaunt, and small." That's not exactly Olympic contender material, is it?
The END (and maybe even the Beginning)
Winter is a metaphor for death (the end of life), which is lucky, because this poem is chock-full of subtle (and not-so-subtle) references to the grim reaper. And then, of course, this poem is written (and published) right at the end of the nineteenth century. Latent in these metaphors, however, is the sense that re-growth just might be possible. Winter turns into spring. The nineteenth century turns into the twentieth. Things move on, you know?
- Lines 1-7: There's an insistent repetition of hard k sounds in the first stanza, mimicking sounds of breaking and cracking and all other sorts of destruction. The fancy term for that repetition is alliteration. Since it's winter, we could even imagine that the k sounds in words like "coppice," "spectre," or "weakening" play off the sounds of ice cracking.
- Lines 3-4: The imagery conjured up in these lines brings day to life (through personification, if you must know) only to kill it off by injecting it with a good healthy dose of "Winter's dregs."
- Lines 10-13: Hardy's up to his old personification tricks again: the "Century" becomes a "corpse outleant." The poem plays upon an implicit allusion to that oh-so-popular figure, Father Time, to depict the nineteenth century as a dying (or, well, dead) human-like figure.
- Lines 13-14: Even symbolic references to the living, breathing natural world are drying up. The "ancient pulse of germ and birth" (seeds germinating and becoming plants) might not be the most recognizable set of symbols today, but it was a powerful one for Hardy himself.
"The Darkling Thrush" isn't exactly Animal Planet. Nonetheless, this poem is a whole lot more interested in the out-of-doors than it is in what's going on beside people's house fires. We're guessing that outside isn't nearly as comfortable as in by the fire (after all, it is winter), but that doesn't seem to bug our speaker.
- Line 1: A "coppice" is basically a big area of scrub brush. Suggesting that the coppice is gated and contained starts us off by thinking that maybe humans have been screwing up nature for a while now.
- Lines 2-3: "Frost" and "Winter" take the place of people as key figures in the first stanza.
- Lines 5-6: Ah, simile. The vines become "like" a broken stringed instrument.
- Line 9: The land takes center stage at the beginning of Stanza 2. We're developing a symbolic register for nature that, as it turns out, doesn't include people at all. Note the metaphor that connects the land to the dying Century – it becomes the "body" of the Century's corpse.
- Line 21-22: And there's the thrush. Other than our speaker, he's the only living and breathing creature in this poem. He's not personified, interestingly enough. He's a bird. Only a bird. And that's precisely the point.