"Hardy's 'The Darkling Thrush' A Skeptical Response to Keats' 'Ode to a Nightingale'"

Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” questions the function of the poet’s song in a world where God is absent. Hardy ironically employs the poetic form of the traditional, religious hymn to address such a topic. An additional ironic stylistic move of Hardy’s includes his perversion of the traditional bird (or in this case, thrush) trope. Reference to the bird’s song as a means of escapism and as representative of the poetic imagination had been exemplified in previous works, such as John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale.” Hardy’s ironic twist on this traditional poetic trope serves as a nuanced response to Keats’ ode.

Originally titled “By the Century’s Deathbed,” “The Darkling Thrush” is set during the period of transition between the 19th and 20th centuries. At 60 years of age, Hardy was about to enter the “Modern Age.” The tone which he sets for the burgeoning era, however, is far from enthusiastic. There is no cause for celebration in Hardy’s description. Rather, he approaches the new century with a mix of apprehension and gloom. It can even be argued that the poem’s title alludes to the uninspired state Hardy finds himself in at such a time. If the “thrush” is symbolic of the poet (and thus Hardy), does he see the poet (and/or himself) “in the dark,” so to speak? Or, is the actual thrush “in the dark” in the sense that it remains ignorant to the surrounding bleak conditions?

Such questions can only be answered through a more in-depth or detailed analysis of the work. As exemplified in the poem’s first stanza, the devastation and desolation of the winter environment sets a somber tone for the work. Hardy describes the environment as non-conducive to any form of singing or lyricism. He writes: “The tangled bine-stems scored the sky/Like strings of broken lyres” (“The Darkling Thrush,” ll. 5-6, NA, 1871). The comparison of shrub stems to the strings of a broken lyre harkens back to the Greco- Roman tradition, in which lyres were popular musical instruments. Hardy utilizes such an image to emphasize the non-celebratory nature of the atmosphere the narrator finds himself in. Said environment can be starkly contrasted with the setting of Keats’ poem. Keats’ narrator seems enchanted by his surroundings: “I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,/Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,/But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet/Wherewith the seasonable month endows/The grass, the thicket, and the fruittree wild” (“Ode to a Nightingale,” ll. 41-45, NA, 904).

In addition to myriad references to the natural world, Hardy also describes the poem’s setting in terms of people: “And all mankind that haunted nigh/Had sought their household fires” (ll. 7-8). Both isolated in their separate living quarters and lacking a locus of community, society lies fragmented. One can infer the disconnect Hardy’s narrator feels in terms of the social. In contrast, the narrator in “Ode to a Nightingale” seems so overwhelmed (in a positive way) by the natural world around him, that the social is of no immediate concern. Keats’ imagery emphasizes the vitality and renewal characteristic of spring (mid-May), whereas Hardy’s winter setting is “dead”: “The ancient pulse of germ and birth/Was shrunken hard and dry” (ll. 13-14). In “The Darkling Thrush,” the natural world’s lifelessness is paralleled by the torpidity of the human community. Hardy writes: “And every spirit upon earth/Seemed fervourless as I” (ll. 15-16). The narrator thus perceives others as impassive “spirits,” and finds himself in a comparable position.

Hardy’s narrator’s bleak tone is abruptly interrupted during the transition into the third stanza. The lone voice of a thrush arises out of the “dead zone” to sing a song of “joy illimited” (ll. 20). Hardy alludes to an Anglican Communion hymn in his description of the bird’s melody as an “evensong” (ll. 19). Such a joyous, religious song thus stands in marked contrast to the thrush’s (and narrator’s) oppressive surroundings. However, the thrush itself is comparable to the environment in terms of its mutability. Hardy describes the bird as “aged … frail, gaunt, and small” (ll. 21). In direct opposition, Keats’ nightingale seems to exude an aura of the supernatural. Said nightingale serves as an embodiment of past, present, and future: “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!/No hungry generations tread thee down;/The voice I hear this passing night was heard/In ancient days by emperor and clown” (ll. 61-64).

An additional contrast between the poems is exemplified by the environment in which each bird performs. The reader has no cause to question the source of the nightingale’s melodious song in Keats’ work. However, the reader of the “Darkling Thrush” is most likely perplexed by the thrush’s joyous tune. The thrush seems entirely out of touch with the bleak reality of its world. Hardy remarks: “So little cause for carolings/Of such ecstatic sound” (ll. 25-26). The reader thus queries the origin of this “ecstatic” song of “joy illimited.” There are two speculations: either the thrush’s hope springs from a genuine source, or, it is simply a reflection of the bird’s oblivious nature.

If one interprets the thrush’s hope as genuine, it can be thought of as an expression of a Wordsworthian-like spiritual sublime. Hardy description of the bird’s song in spiritual/religious terms (“evensong,” “carolings”), can be understood as a harkening back to the faith Hardy held as a young man. Prior to his acceptance of “the disappearance of God,” Hardy had “seriously considered becoming an Anglican priest" (NA 1852). However, a spiritual crisis had caused him to both give up his Christian faith and abandon all desire to serve in the church. Does the thrush thus represent the spiritual, hope-filled side that Hardy used to have? And if so, does the poem express his yearning to reconnect with that lost spirituality? Hardy leaves such questions unanswered.

If the thrush’s song is not based on genuine revelation, however, it can be alternatively interpreted as mere animal ignorance. Perhaps the thrush is described as “darkling,” because it is, metaphorically speaking, “in the dark.” If so, the thrush’s naiveté shines through, causing the bird’s “joy illimited” to seem unfounded/irrational in the context of its miserable surroundings. Hardy’s narrator concludes: “Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew/And I was unaware” (ll. 31-32). Whereas Keats’ narrator,mesmerized by the nightingale’s song, releases all inhibition while “drunk” on the invisible wings of poetic imagination, Hardy’s narrator seems confused. The origin of the thrush’s hope remains foreign to him.

Hardy thus leaves his reader a bit bewildered at the poem’s conclusion. Although the source of the thrush’s hope is left ambiguous, one thing is clear: the narrator feels completely out of touch with any form of hope. Hardy, a strong atheist and champion of the philosophy of determinism, would most likely interpret the thrush’s hope similarly to the narrator. Moreover, Hardy’s philosophy would lead him to interpret such hope as ultimately unfounded in a world controlled by fate and devoid of God. Another factor left to consider includes the traditional trope of the bird as symbolic of poetic inspiration and imagination. Hardy thus leaves his reader with a challenge: If God is “dead,” and both the world and human nature are determined by fate, where is the poet (or anyone) to find hope?

Clearly, the bleak imagery Hardy utilizes in “The Darkling Thrush” is far from conducive to any hope or optimism. Furthermore, as a result of modern societal fragmentation, Hardy’s narrator’s lacks valid human connections. Therefore, without God, an inspiring environment, or social support, the only person the poet has to turn to is himself. For the narrator of “The Darkling Thrush,” poetic inspiration or “hope” must be internally derived. Keats’ narrator, in contrast, can soar on “the viewless wings of Poesy,” by escaping into the nightingale’s song (ll. 33). Hardy’s poetic response to Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” thus questions the reliance on external sources for poetic inspiration. “The Darkling Thrush” challenges the poet of the 20th century to look inside his own head, for, as Romantic poet William Wordsworth writes: “thy mind shall be a mansion for all lovely forms” (“Tintern Abbey,” ll. 139-40, NA, 261).

Works Cited
Greenblatt, Stephan, M. H. Abrams, Carol T. Christ, Catherine Robson, Eds. The Norton
Anthology of English Literature, Volumes E-F.
New York: W.W. Norton & Company.