Hardy's poetry is often conventionally lyrical in form and poignant in content. His theme is almost always sadness of life, and he questions the justice of nature or the worth of humanity. He often accentuates his human plight in iambic of ballad meter. “The Darkling Thrush,” one of the most anthologized poems from Poems of the Past and Present (1902), is a crystallization of Hardy’s efforts to find consolation in nature. The poem was first printed under the title “By the Century's Deathbed.”
As Hardy's dating 31 December 1900 shows, the poem treats the last evening of the last day of the nineteenth century (Harvey 123). It is a lament for the dead century. For Hardy, it is a time when science and rationalistic philosophies undermined man's religion and sense of divine purpose, and left man hopeless in a bleak mechanistic world. But this lament is followed by the song of a thrush, seen in the growing darkness “darkling”, whose song thrills with instinctive life and hope. By ‘Darkling’ Hardy means the dark of early evening, not of night.
The word darkling is a poetic word with the general meaning of "shrouded in darkness." It had been used in three great poems known to Hardy, in two of them in connection with a bird's song, and in the third in connection with the intellectual confusions of the nineteenth century (Bailey 166).
The references here are of course to Milton’s Paradise Lost (Book III, 37-40), Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” when the poet says “Darkling I listen” and Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” when he pictures the “darkling plain” describing the intellectual struggles of his time. David Perkins further elaborates on the speaker’s romantic emotions on suddenly hearing the song of the bird regarding Shelley’s “To a Skylark” and Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,”
the bird becomes a symbol of the visionary imagination, or of the soul in secure possession of vision and so lifted into ecstasy, and the speaker then aspires to an...