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What Does Nature Have to Say in Thomas Hardy’s Poetry?
Humans have been in existence for two hundred thousand years, a tremendous amount of time; the earth, on the other hand, has existed for billions of years. The earth has been around twenty-three thousand times longer than humans and has endured many trials over its long life span. Humans, however, are not as resilient as the earth is. Many natural disasters have wreaked havoc on civilization, destroying millions of human lives in the midst of the chaos that the disasters bring. Mankind struggles to overcome these obstacles, but nature is able to recover after each one of these catastrophic events. This idea that nature has the power to persevere when man cannot is a central theme in many of Thomas Hardy’s poems. By comparing man’s failures with nature’s triumphs, Hardy emphasizes how fragile humans are in opposition to the rest of creation. In one of his most famous poems, “The Darkling Thrush,” Hardy contrasts a hopeless man with a joyous song bird as they both stand in a desolate forest in the middle of winter. In another one of his works “The Convergence of the Twain,” Hardy portrays the result of a catastrophic collision between a ship crafted by man and an iceberg created by nature; he contrasts the failure of the ship to withstand the iceberg. Through his contrasting depictions of man’s fragility with nature’s durability, Hardy shows nature’s ability to thrive under any circumstances, proving that nature, because of its resilience, inevitably overpowers humanity.
In “The Darkling Thrush,” Hardy contrasts the pessimism of a speaker who has little hope for a new century with the joyous music of a songbird, revealing that nature can persist when man cannot. The speaker begins the poem with a description of his broken and lifeless surroundings; he describes the vines as “strings of broken lyres” and the land around him as being “the Century’s corpse outleant” (Hardy “Darkling Thrush” 6-10). The speaker does not use the typical description of nature as peaceful and full of life. He instead describes the world around him as a “frosty, deathly winter scene, surrounded by images of the land’s and the century’s death” (Butterworth 919). By beginning the poem with a description of the landscape as harsh and barren, the speaker reveals his own lack of hope for his life in the coming century. He has no faith that the new century will prove to be of higher quality than the last century he has just lived through; he predicts that it will be just as bleak and lifeless as the last (Butterworth 920). At this point in the poem, the speaker’s pessimism is evident; however, a disheveled songbird does not share this of sense hopelessness that the speaker feels. The feeble, decrepit bird sings “a full-hearted evensong/Of joy illimited” (Hardy “Darkling Thrush” 19-20). The bird is not fazed by the same troubles that the speaker feels. Contrary to the speaker’s forlorn state of mind, the “weak bedraggled, drab bird has somehow managed to overcome the cold, gloom, and death of winter and sing with its whole heart” (Butterworth 919). The bird itself is dying, yet it still belts out a song with great pleasure. The bird’s ability to sing amidst the dreary landscape and disheartening world around him proves that nature can overcome trials that man--in this case, the speaker--sees as too troubling. Hardy creates irony by showing that the songbird is able to sing a joyous song when everything around it is dying with the coming of winter (May). The speaker also observes this irony as he sees “so little cause for carolings” and cannot discern the source of “some blessed Hope, whereof [the bird] knew” (Hardy “Darkling Thrush” 25-31). The speaker can never discern how the bird manages to sing in a world that he views as devoid of hope. The speaker admits his own failure to see solace in the coming century while the bird goes on singing (May). Hardy once again takes an unorthodox view when his speaker views the turn of the century as gloomy instead of uplifting. Hardy wrote this poem to convey the death of one century; however, he does not replace the old, dying century with a new, promising one. The new century is normally portrayed as a rebirth, but the speaker does not see this event as renewing or regenerating (Butterworth 921). Butterworth points out that the “The Darkling Thrush” does not follow the typical storyline that is found in common folklore. Typically, the song of the bird would inspire in the speaker a hope for the coming century. On the contrary, the speaker can see no reason that the bird sings so merrily (Butterworth 920-921). This dissent from the usual use of nature as a source of hope accentuates the speaker’s weakness and despair as the century ends. By contrasting the feelings of a hopeless speaker with an optimistic songbird at the beginning of a new century, Hardy shows that nature can persevere through trials that man cannot.
In another one of his poems, “The Convergence of the Twain,” Hardy depicts a sharp contrast between the ostentatious Titanic and its resting place at the bottom of the ocean, showing that although man and his creation may fail, nature will live on. The poem begins with Hardy’s description of the Titanic as being “opulent,” made with “jewels in joy designed,” and “vainglorious” (Hardy “Convergence” 8-15). This description of the ship also serves as a description of the men who designed it. By describing the the ship with gaudy and overblown language, Hardy reveals the vanity and pride of the humans that created the ship (Wennö). The lofty description of the ship’s creation also “emphasizes the narrowness of human-knowledge;” the prideful men who designed the Titanic were convinced that their creation could withstand any condition of nature.(Whitsitt 819). These men had great plans for their creation, and they pridefully assumed that it would bring them glory and fame. Hardy, however, contrasts these glorious dreams with the harsh reality of the ship’s undesirable resting place; the “grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent” worms and “dim moon eyed fishes” at the bottom of the sea wonder, “What does this vaingloriousness down here?” (Hardy “Convergence” 9-15). The men’s pride and vanity mean nothing now that the ship has sunken. All of the luxuries that men spent so much money on are now submerged in the ocean; the ship’s only admirers are ugly and misshapen worms and fish who recognize these luxuries as vainglorious (Whitsitt 819). By contrasting the lavish plans for the ship with its current resting place at the bottom of the ocean, Hardy makes a point that “despite human plans and powers, the dumb iceberg will conquer the ‘smart’ ship” (Whitsitt 819). The humans were so absorbed in their own pride that they did not even consider the fact that nature could possibly overpower them. Hardy uses this poem to warn against this arrogant way of thinking. He chooses to emphasize nature’s power and importance by giving it proper names such as the “Shape of Ice” and the “Iceberg” (Hardy “Convergence” 21-24). Just as man labeled their ship as titanic and unsinkable, the iceberg too was made to seem forceful and magnificent. He chose to elevate the iceberg to emphasize the cause of the sinking: the inevitable fact that nature surpasses human accomplishments (Whitsitt 819). He knows the harsh reality of the superiority of nature and highlights this truth in “The Convergence of the Twain.” All of the efforts of the men in the poem to build an unsinkable ship mean nothing as the ship now rests below the surface of the sea, conquered by nature (Whitsitt 819). In this poem, Hardy portrays the idea that humans are at the mercy of the superior force of nature; man cannot create anything that nature cannot overpower (Wennö). In “The Convergence of the Twain,” nature physically overpowers man by sinking the Titanic, a creation of man. By contrasting the vanity of the men who built the Titanic with the undignified resting place of the defeated ship, Hardy shows that nature does not only persevere through trials that man cannot endure but that nature can also actively conquer man and his creation.
Hardy displays nature’s permanence by contrasting man’s failures with nature's resilience, showing that humanity is ultimately forced to bow to nature’s power. In “The Darkling Thrush,” Hardy’s speaker describes nature as gloomy and depressing, revealing his own hopelessness as a new century arrives. During this same turn of the century, the speaker hears a songbird singing a joyful song, but the speaker does not understand the cause for the bird’s joy. By contrasting the speaker’s depression with the bird’s optimistic song, Hardy shows that nature persists when man cannot. Similarly, in “The Convergence of the Twain,” man’s failure is contrasted with nature’s power in the aftermath of the tragic sinking of the Titanic. The opulent descriptions of the ship reveal the prideful nature of the men who created the ship. This pride is proved to be useless as the ship’s extravagant descriptions are contrasted with the grotesque creatures that now view the ship at the bottom of the sea. As the iceberg overpowers the man-made ship, Hardy’s contrasting descriptions are used to emphasize nature’s power over man. Hardy’s poems serve as a warning that nature holds the power to outlast man because it has existed much longer than man has. In “The Darkling Thrush,” the bird will continue singing whether the speaker is happy or sad. Likewise, in “The Convergence of the Twain,” man’s pride can always be surpassed by nature’s power. Humans try to take advantage of nature or change nature for their own benefit, but it cannot be suppressed. Hardy’s warning against trying to surpass nature remains relevant as man continues to make futile attempts to overpower the omnipotent forces of nature.
Butterworth, Susan. “The Darkling Thrush.” Masterplots II, Edited by Philip K. Jason, Vol. 2, Salem Press, 2002, pp. 919-921.
Hardy, Thomas. “The Convergence of the Twain by Thomas Hardy.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation. Accessed 4 Nov. 2017.
Hardy, Thomas. “The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation. Accessed 4 Nov. 2017.
Howe, Irving. Thomas Hardy. The Macmillan Company, 1967, pp. 20-25.
May, Charles E. "Hardy's 'Darkling Thrush': The 'Nightingale' Grown Old." Poetry for Students, edited by David A. Galens, vol. 18, Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center. Accessed 20 Oct. 2017. Originally published in Victorian Poetry, vol. 11, no. 1, Spring 1973, pp. 62-65.
Wennö, Elisabeth. "'The Convergence of the Twain': Hardy and Bainbridge on the Loss of the Titanic." Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Jeffrey W. Hunter, vol. 292, Gale, 2010. Literature Resource Center. Accessed 29 Oct. 2017. Originally published in Lines and Traces: Papers Presented to Lennart Björk on the Occasion of His 70th Birthday, edited by Gunilla Florby and Karin Aijmer, Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 2006, pp. 145-152.
Whitsitt, Julia. “The Convergence of the Twain.” Masterplots II, edited by Philip K. Jason, Vol. 2, Salem Press, 2002, pp. 818-820.