Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” is one of the most well-known poems written on the borderline of the 19th and the 20th centuries. The poet employs a variety of rhetoric devices in the piece, but the most prominent of them is alliteration. Hardy’s use of this rhetorical device helps to advance the poem’s larger themes. These topics are the fear of parting with something old, the bitterness of the world’s and poet’s own disbelief, and the excitement at the realization that there is still hope for better.
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The use of alliteration in poetry, as well as in prose, allows setting the tone and mood of the written piece. In “The Darkling Thrush,” there are many instances of a consonant sound being repeated at the beginning of two consecutive words or the ones standing close to each other: “bine-stems scored the sky / Like strings” (Hardy 5-6); “Like strings of broken lyres” (6); “seemed to be / The Century’s” (9-10); “His crypt the cloudy canopy” (11); “spirit upon earth / Seemed” (15-16); “blast-beruffled” (22); “growing gloom” (24); “think there trembled through” (29). In the first stanza, there is an alliterated sound in the words of proximity in line 3 and at the end of line 4, which sets the tone not to a single phrase but to the whole part of a stanza: “dregs made desolate / The weakening eye of day” (Hardy 3-4). There are also instances of partial assimilation, when the repeated sound is not in the initial position in all words: “Some blessed Hope” (Hardy 31); “whereof he knew / And I was unaware” (32). In the first line of the third stanza, not identical but very close sounds, [v] and [w], are used in two adjacent words: “At once a voice” (Hardy 17). Finally, at the beginning of the last stanza, there are two alliterations intertwined: “So little cause for carolings / Of such ecstatic sound” (Hardy 25-26).
The poem is divided into two parts when considering the point of view. The first two stanzas focus on the narrator, whereas the last two concentrate on the bird he is watching. In both of these parts, Hardy’s use of alliteration helps to make the tone of the speaker more vivid and the ideas he expresses more dramatic. The feelings of despair and loneliness, reflected with the help of alliteration, can be traced in the very first lines. The “spectre-grey” (Hardy 2) frost that the narrator notices when he leans upon a “coppice gate” (1) signifies gloomy weather and probably even gloomier disposition of the speaker. He does not know what awaits him in the new century where the new day had been made “desolate” by winter’s “dregs” (Hardy 3). Alliteration helps to emphasize the emotions of fearful apprehension and desolation prevailing in the narrator’s mind at the moment.
Another significant theme risen in “The Darkling Thrush” is that of losing hope and faith. The use of alliterated sounds underlines this focal point to a great extent. When the narrator speaks of the end of the century, he does not merely describe it in a chronological way. Instead, he depicts the era as dead by comparing its boundary to “The Century’s corpse” (Hardy 10) that “seemed to be” (9) lying in front of him. The use of the word ‘corpse’ encourages the reader to associate the chronological event with negative emotions. Furthermore, Hardy highlights the fact that he has no belief in a better future or maybe even in God: “every spirit upon earth / Seemed fervourless as I” (15-16). The lack of confidence and hope is intensified through the use of alliteration since the repetition of the sound [s], which reminds of the snake’s hissing, creates a sinister atmosphere. The same sound sequence is present in line 5: “The tangled bine-stems scored the sky” (Hardy). Once again, a frequent mentioning of the sound [s] makes the reader experience apprehension and uncertainty of what is about to happen in the future.
The initial stanza contains another case of alliteration, “Like strings of broken lyres” (Hardy 6), which is not as ominous in sound as the previous cases but has an equally desperate meaning. Comparing trees’ stems to lyres’ broken strings draws a picture of broken dreams, unattained plans, and failed hopes. Whereas a lyre is an instrument producing gentle melodies, the abrupt tearing off of its strings signifies an act of unexplained calamity and affliction. Hence, the repetition of the sound [l], which in other circumstances would make a prominence on musicality and gentleness, creates the mood of despair and broken hopes in this case.
In the second half of the poem, alliteration helps to convey a more optimistic mood by emphasizing the positive aspects of the bird’s voice. The first mentioning of the bird is introduced by partial alliteration: “At once a voice arose among” (Hardy 17). Using these consonant sounds in turn with vowels in the iambic tetrameter line creates the atmosphere of joyous victory of hope and promise over pessimism and discouragement. Even though his feathers are “blast-beruffled” (Hardy 22), the thrush starts his song of unlimited joy, flinging “his soul / Upon the growing gloom” (Hardy 24). And despite there being “So little cause for carolings” (Hardy 25), the bird produces “such ecstatic sound” (Hardy 25) that the narrator changes his initial opinion on the end of the century.
With the help of the thrush’s joyful greeting, the author realizes that the future may hold something positive. “Some blessed Hope” (Hardy 31) in the bird’s voice has redirected the narrator to an optimistic disposition. Although it seems from the context that the man is quite experienced, he admits that there is enough faith in the thrush’s attitude to change the fatalistic expectations of many people. There is hope in that bird’s disposition “whereof he knew” (Hardy 31), and the narrator “was unaware (Hardy 32). Thus, the final lines of the poem, as well as the initial ones, contain instances of alliteration, but the tone conveyed with their help is quite different.
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The use of the rhetorical device at the phonetic level in Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” has led to the intensification of the poem’s main themes and their perception by the narrator and the reader. Alliteration promotes the larger themes’ depiction, including those of disbelief, despair, and hopefulness. With the help of the selected technique, Hardy was able to set the poem’s mood and tone and explicate his feelings in different parts of the piece. By resorting to alliteration, the author made his poetic verse more crystallized, allowing the audience to visualize every idea.
Hardy, Thomas. “The Darkling Thrush.” Poetry Foundation, n.d., Web.