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Monday, October 20, 2014

"The Darkling Thrush" by Thomas Hardy: Dying Joy and Hope


The Darkling Thrush

By Thomas Hardy 

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.


* coppice -- a thicket or grove of small trees or shrubs
* bine-stems -- twining stems or flexible shoots of plants
* lyre -- a musical instrument with strings that was used especially in ancient Greece
* nigh -- near in time, place, or relationship
* outleant -- lying down
* germ -- seed; egg; bud
* illimited -- unlimited

 Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was first known as a British novelist (Far from the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the d'Urbervilles) and then almost exclusively as a poet. As a novelist, Hardy was criticized for being too pessimistic and preoccupied with sex. However, now his prose has been compared to Honore de Balzac, Emile Zola, and Henry James in his ability to reveal a whole inner world of thought and desire through meticulous observation of his characters and their actions.


In the twentieth century Hardy only published poetry. He composed the lyric poem "The Darkling Thrush" on December 31, 1900, the last day of 19th century. Readers can appreciate this fact as they understand its historical impact as a view toward a new, uncertain future.


Hardy was basically a Victorian realist writer with deep connections to the Romantic poets like William Wordsworth and Charles Dickens, but he was, in fact, an interesting mix of Victorianism and Modernism. Hardy's poetry possesses a uniquely modern sensibility while retaining the formal traditions of rhyme and meter characteristic of most poetry prior to modernism.


Like Dickens, Hardy was highly critical of much in Victorian society, though Hardy focused more on a declining rural society while Dickens was a critic of social stratification of the rich and the poor. As a realist, Hardy examined the social constraints on the lives of those living in Victorian England, and criticized those beliefs, especially those relating to marriage, education and religion, that limited people's lives and caused unhappiness.


"Though he was a modern, even a revolutionary writer in his time, most of us read him now as a lyrical pastoralist, observed New York Times critic Anatole Broyard in 1982. Broyard continues ...


"It may be a sign of the times that some of us take his books to bed, 
as if even his pessimistic vision was one that enabled us to sleep soundly." 

Critics have said Hardy's poetry was infused with "evolutionary meliorism," the ironic stances achieved by powerful psychological insights, and the modernist spareness and roughness of his metrical experiments. Meliorism is "the belief that the world tends to improve and that humans can aid its betterment." 

 B. Ashton Nichols, Associate Professor Dickinson College, says, "His (Hardy's) is, quintessentially, a poetry of loss, harsh nostalgia, and the despairing limits of human hope and love."

(B. Ashton Nichols. "Thomas Hardy As a Poet."


"The Darkling Thrush" was written at the end of the Victorian age and the dawn of a new Edwardian Era, a time of great changes in political and social life.


The Poem


A darkling thrush (darkling meaning "in the dark" -- which also serves well in the verse considered the bird's smallness and exposed nature) is a songbird with a pleasant voice that is symbolically said to sing even when having no mate or rival watching it. Thus, in its unconcerned attitude toward its listener, its music shows how it's living freely and "speaking the truth."


At the end of the day in the very end of the year, the speaker, or narrator, is alone viewing a cold, grey, lonely winter landscape. The use of the word Frost with a capital "F" and the word Winter with a capital "W" may be allusions and personification fitting of the pagan gods and their command of the cold environment. The "dregs" are all that is left in sight. Bare vines and leafless trees add to this tone of haunted desolation.

The speaker says all the other people who lived nearby were inside their homes, gathered around their household fires while he, in the cold, is leaning on a gate outside as a solitary witness to "the Century's corpse" in the wooded thicket. The speaker proclaims that the cloudy sky was the roof of the corpse's crypt, and the whining wind was its song of death.

In that moment, to the narrator, it seems the pulse of natural life has stopped along with "every spirit upon earth." Indeed, the bleak end of the Century lies expired before him. He thinks all is depressing and foreboding of bad times. But, then, suddenly enters the thrush.

In the third stanza of the poem, the speaker hears the joyful song of the frail old thrush coming from the cold, naked branches overhead. The thrush and its song are a sharp contrast and a jubilant outpouring against the evening gloom. The bird, although seemingly as old and as death-bound as the year itself, sings with every last ounce of joy left in its soul. It is worth noting that nothing in the physical environment of the poem has changed. Not only is that pervasive gloom still present. It is even “growing” as the progressive winter. Yet, what a marvel is the thrush:

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

As he may, the speaker questions the reason for the natural elation of the thrush. Why would the creature boldly waste its last breath in a song that surely almost no one would hear?

Unfortunately, the bird doesn't provide him any answers. And, of course, the darkling thrush possesses no means to express the meaning for its optimistic death call. In the midst of the desolate, foreboding winter, the speaker is left to surmise there exists a hope that his human mind could not understand. This is a pensive reflection to life and human society.

Hardy allows the simple, sweet song of the divine thrush to defy death and to symbolize the spirit of hope for a new world of beauty, a world devoid of ugliness. In "The Darkling Thrush," this hope is offered for the beginning of a century and a new era. At the time he penned the poem, Hardy was a sixty-year-old himself.

From the very title of the poem it is clear that the thrush is present in the dark and in the encircling gloom just like the narrator himself. Yet, between hope and despair, when all is not right in the world and the future is dark, there, in the presence of the frail bird, lies the eternal pulse of "germ" and birth. It is hope of resurrection for both spirit and soul, a personal triumph and a societal dream.

In the concluding stanza of “The Darkling Thrush,” there is certainly nothing definite to pin any hope on, even if one allows that just conceivably the bird does indeed know something we ourselves don’t and can’t. 

Bruce Bennett, Professor and Chair of English and Director of Creative Writing at Wells College, says, "Many of Hardy's poems express a lack of resolution regarding the ultimate nature of reality, a provisional and even an improvisational quality, as if he is never quite willing to completely shut the door on some sort of hope, however faint or farfetched."

Authorities believe Hardy was not a "believing Christian"; however, Professor Bennett claims it  seems completely consistent with Hardy's willingness to entertain a Christian thought.

Bennett concludes ...

"So, is this an instance of one of Hardy’s 'explorations of reality'? Has he provisionally appropriated for the dramatic occasion of this poem a recognition that, whatever he himself might believe, for some the 'truths' of Christianity could be valid? 

"Are we dealing here, in other words, with a Christian thrush? To me, that seems completely consistent with his willingness to entertain the thought, in many of his poems, that there may be 'more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of' in our restless and unending metaphysical inquiries."

(Bruce Bennett. "Thomas Hardy's Artistry in "The Darkling Thrush." 
Contemporary Poet Review. November 15, 2012)

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