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Thomas Hardy’s poem, The Darkling Thrush used to be many a school-child’s introduction to Hardy. He reappears on college and university syllabi only in his novels or a random handful of poems.
Nevertheless, Hardy’s poem The Darkling Thrush has its place assured in the archives of literature, where it still arouses interest for its evocation of winter and its accompanying images of bleak desolation. No other poem represents the season quite as accurately as this poem. Winter in Hardy country has become evident now in starkly leafless trees, and grey lifeless streets.
Any other poet could also recreate those images. But Hardy goes one step further and captures the song of the thrush, that lone birdsong soaring up above a dying earth, like an awkward carol, so incongruous because its setting is so joyless:
“I leant upon a coppice-gate
When Frost was spectre-gray
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.”
Winter and Death
The first stanza of the poem is gray and lifeless; it is an all-too familiar landscape, and its music is discordant notes as symbolised by the ‘tangled bine-stems.’ Winter is indeed the “dregs” of the year, and the scene of leafless trees before snowfall is the saddest picture of the season. It is followed by more pictures of depletion in:
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.
In the second stanza, he uses words like corpse, crypt and death-lament to describe the dying century. An earlier title of the poem was “The century’s end, 1900.” Trepidation about the changes a new century would likely bring, the death of a century and the pre-birth of a new one, all these are tremulously felt here. This is one poem that also strongly links winter to death.
However, the next two stanzas suddenly lift the reader’s spirits upward. From the first line of the third stanza, Hardy uses the word arose, and goes on to add others such as, full-hearted evensong, joy, and fling his soul.
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 this to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
There is a defiant note here which cannot be violent because the thrush is such a small bird.
In the closing stanza, the song has grown into an ecstatic sound and a blessed hope that lifts up the whole poem and redeems the world from the gloom that was trying to suffocate it.
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 goodnight air
Some blessed hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
The hard fact of death
The poem begins with death, death of the year and of the century. Hardy is after all, the writer of dark tragedies. His lovers rarely end up together and death is a hard fact of life in all his writing. Yet in this poem, there is a blessed hope, even if it is hope that only the bird knows of. At this point the poem takes on a sublime quality and the bird appears to almost be a citizen of another zone, carrying within him a message of joy and hope that the winter-bound world has no knowledge of. It is not difficult to think of the suggestion of winter as a symbol of spiritual darkness covering the earth, and the birdsong as the hope of deliverance.
Thomas Hardy is the ever-melancholic soul. He is the poet of Winter. The thrush of his poem is very different from Shelley’s skylark or Hopkins’ windhover. It is an aged thrush, frail, and gaunt with blast-beruffled plume. Make no mistake, this is no beautiful morning bird. But even while being true to himself, Hardy has managed to prescribe piercing the spirit of despondency with a vigorous carol of the soul. A message that still holds in today’s wintry world.