The Darkling Thrush and Corpse Metaphors

One of my favorite poems is Thomas Hardy’s The Darkling Thrush. Why: because with Hardy’s language we can think about how poets think about language in a specific historical space. Hardy has inside him an ear for language specifically bent on what he would term poetry. It’s a different poetic language than Wordsworth’s or Keats’s. Consider the famous corpse metaphor:

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

One issue that draws me here is the size of the image. It’s the “century’s corpse.” This is pretty big. 100 years. A whole of a specific time, part of which Hardy has no experiential knowledge, and his knowledge of yesterday would, of course, be as questionable as mine is. He was born in 1840. Still, he has a sense of the size of a century, as do I but not really. This a secret sense, a feeling of width, grandeur, and abstraction in the form of time span. But let’s consider the word “outleant,” which describes the shape of the century. This is a bothersome word, the kind of word poets love but dictionary writers and linguists hate. It goes with the first line of the stanza. If Hardy can say “The land’s sharp features seemed to be” and then follow this with “outleant” then he’s certainly drawing a massive image that forces our eye to edges, lines, surfaces that just don’t stop; they blend into all, which is the landscape, everything, including the speaker. Thus “outleant” is full of motion and energy: it’s going out, it’s leaning, outleaning, leaning out, spreading and stretching. This is a “compounding” term, packed with a poetic sense of compression.

And it’s a corpse. But it’s also a century. But it’s also not a century at all. It’s an impression of a moment in time. Five minutes later the speaker might be having a nice warm tea and thinking about butter or cake and or, best to him, pea soup with ham.