Thomas Hardy's poem "The Darkling Thrush" employs the diction and imagery of a desolate but faintly wistful world in order to create an atmosphere and meaning of hope among despair.
The first two stanzas of the poem describe a world of desolation, dying in the winter. Diction such as "frost," "spectre-gray," "desolate," "scored," "shrunken," "corpse," and "feverless" create this atmosphere. "Frost" implies a frozen and inhospitable landscape, unfriendly to any who might desire to traverse its cold fields. "Spectre-gray" calls to mind the ghost-like lack of color associated with a dying world. When something is "desolate," it is barren, devoid of life. "Scored"--wounding--is another word with harsh connotations. "Shrunken" and "corpse" are words synonymous with the decay of death. Finally, "feverless" is telling of the ennui of this world; as it approaches death, it and all its inhabitants enter a deadly state of torpor.
Likewise, the imagery of these first two stanzas creates a world of the dying. The personified season, Winter, whose "dregs made desolate" the sun, called in metaphor the "weakening eye of day," (again a reference to aging) is a destructive force. Its frost moves like a ghost over the land, sending "all mankind" away from nature and into their sheltering homes. The Century acquires a "corpse outleant" as it, too, becomes a dead thing. Even the "ancient pulse of germ and birth," the timeless cycle of life and death, is approaching an end, "shrunken hard and dry."
The second two stanzas of the poem are slightly less despairing. Here, diction such as "full-hearted," "plume," "fling," "ecstatic," "blessed," and "Hope" becomes important. "Full-hearted" reveals a creature putting everything he has into as task; "plume" is indicative of pride; the verb "fling" is opposite to "feverless" in that it implies an action almost desperate in its momentum. "Ecstatic" describes the ultimate rapture while "blessed" intimates the divine. Finally, "Hope" is the most important word in the work. It is the opposite of despair; it is a desire for the better, the last remnant of Pandora's box. It can defeat all the evils of the world, even death, if only it perseveres.
The image of the thrush--symbolic of the hope for new life--is the most important of the poem. Although it is "aged," "frail, gaunt, and small," it is still capable of hope, even in the bleak winter. Described as having "chosen thus to fling his soul/Upon the growing gloom," he becomes a metonymy for all nature that struggles and survives the dark despair of winter.
Hardy's poem is a work about the hope for resurrection. Even as the world moves towards death, something as ethereal as a bird's song can contain hope for spring within it. In his world, the human can be educated by nature's constant wishing for rebirth.