- Written in December, 1900, the speaker in “The Darkling Thrush” laments the passing of the century.
- The gloomy winter atmosphere brings hopelessness to the speaker.
- Suddenly, he hears the joyful song of a thrush nearby. It brings some cheer and hope.
- The thrush’s song suggests to find a reason to be happy in the middle of gloom.
The Darkling Thrush: Line by Line Explanation
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The poet paints a somber picture of the world. The mood feels lonely and meditative, the speaker watching as a silent bystander leaning upon the coppice gate — a gate that opens onto the woods. In his loneliness, the poet has personified Winter and Frost. Frost is described as ‘specter–grey’ or ghost-like grey. The Winter’s dregs — the fallen snow and heavy fog — are making the twilight/ dusk (the weakening eye of day) look desolate. So, as you can see, the Winter and the Frost are bleak company — they cannot arouse any sense of cheerfulness.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires
Climbing plants, dead for winter, have left behind only their climbing stems or bine stems. They add to the gloominess as the poem compares them to the simile of strings of broken lyres (a musical instrument) notching the sky. This comparison is also important in suggesting the lack of music or happiness for that matter.
Even people seem listless and haunting, instead of living their lives. Then people going home and seeking their household fires add to the image of the gloomy end of the day. There is no vibrancy in life or color.
The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
Winter in the Northern Hemisphere is also the end of the year. Here it becomes even more meaningful, as the end of the year in this case also marks the end of the century. This is why the century is personified as a corpse; the harsh winter landscape defining its wasted body. The ‘cloudy canopy’ or sky covers the century’s tomb and the sad wind becomes a song of death.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
In winter, Nature is generally at a standstill. Life’s vibrancy (ancient pulse of germ and birth) seems to have stopped (shrunken hard and dry). The dormant environment feeds the poet’s brooding frame of mind. The scale of his pessimism increases. Dull observations escalate to a despairing mindset and the poet only sees a world without promise or future.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
Suddenly, like the proverbial silver lining to dark clouds, a joyful song breaks into the poet’s despairing outlook from among the frosty twigs overhead. The poet calls the thrush’s melody a ‘full-hearted evensong’ — prayers sung at the end of the day, in the evening. The song was coming out of boundless joy. Look at the use of word ‘illimited’, suggesting something uncommon.
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
But who was it singing? It was an old thrush bird — feeble, lean and small, with its feathers disarranged by the wind (blast-beruffled). Though the thrush’s appearance does not arouse any hope, heedless of the oppressive environment and the growing darkness — the mark of struggling to survive in winter — the thrush sings. The bird puts his soul into his voice as he belts out a happy tune to no one but the Eternal Listener (Remember the word ‘evensong’, a prayer?).
Though the title of the poem suggested that it was all about a thrush, it took two and a half stanzas to get to the first mention of the bird. But still, the thrush and its song seem to overcome the initial melancholy that the atmosphere brought even to the readers.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
No one knows what inspires the darkling thrush singing (compared to singing Christmas carols). The ‘ecstatic sound’ of the thrush is in complete contrast to such a hopeless situation. The poet cannot think of any earthly event or cause, near or far away that could be responsible.
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
The thrush’s song is an enigma, and the poet marvels at the blessed Hope or knowledge the bird has. There are no straight answers. Does the thrush sing a song of farewell — a hymn of gratitude for the good things that have been? Or does he sing a song of hope — a reassurance of good things that are to come? Like the poet, we can only wonder, keep our hearts open and just be glad that there is a reason to be happy, after all.