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Poem of the Week: Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Darkling Thrush’

Hardy’s opening stanza includes some of the bleakest lines of poetry I’ve come across, but I equally think that they are the most beautiful and honest. The narrator makes no effort to subdue the desolation and hostility of the scene, and it is in these opening lines that Hardy first depicts the wintry motionlessness of the nineteenth century.

Written on the cusp of a turning point in history, the ​fin-de-siècle,​ ‘The Darkling Thrush’ is a pensive insight into Hardy’s worries about the foreboding years; the ghostly and unpleasant ‘spectre-grey’ scene and the eerily capitalised ‘Frost’ are chilly allusions to the corpse of a previous era. Throughout the poem Hardy, not quite yet ready to shake off the poetic customs of the nineteenth century, continually wavers between a Romantically thematic use of nature and a modernist glimpse into the faltering spiritual strength of the early 1900s. By blending the two literary forms, he evokes the unshakeable feelings of uncertainty, hopelessness and loss as the narrator peers out into the gloomy world from this woodland gate, fearing what he sees and not daring to walk beyond it.

It is interesting how, reading this now, everything which the narrator is experiencing seems impeccably relatable to our current experience in the world. Notably, the feeling of purposelessness to which Hardy tethers his writing in this stanza is a typical human feeling, yet somehow feels strikingly relevant to our global situation. A lack of fervour during lockdown was something which many found difficulty to deal with, and finding meaning during the day proved to be a much more complicated task than usual. As modern readers, however, we have the benefit of hindsight, and it is helpful to read such solemn poetry and know for certain that life following its publication wasn’t all that bad.

‘The Darkling Thrush’ is not only a poem about hopelessness, but it too gives a beautiful depiction of hope, which has a tendency to arise from the most desolate circumstances:

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small, In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

What I love here is the meticulousness of Hardy’s words, and his care in making sure that the thrush ​chooses​ to fling itself into the foreboding gloom. He insists on the thrush having its own will of mind and deciding to be a symbol of hope among the bleakness. There is however a hint of irony in the fact that there is absolutely no reason for the thrush to be hopeful, and with its excessively flamboyant appearance – ‘in blast-beruffled plume’ – Hardy may well be mocking the almost ridiculous insistence of the thrush to be joyful. Unlike the thrush, Hardy’s narrator is despondent and not unconditionally positive, and is completely ‘unaware’ of the source of the little bird’s hope.

During this pandemic, many of our days evoke the same feelings of desolation and bleakness that Hardy’s narrator feels from his coppice gate. However, I’d argue that we should take what we can get when it comes to hope, and try to find a similar ‘happy good-night air’, whether it be as simple as a thrush flying by.

I leant upon a coppice gate
      When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
      The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
      Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
      Had sought their household fires.

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.

At once a voice arose among
      The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
      Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
      In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
      Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
      Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
      Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
      His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
      And I was unaware.

Illustration: Becky Spiers