Thomas Hardy: The Darkling Thrush

The nights are finally getting darker, and the air is beginning to get a little sharp, so, although it is not yet winter, I thought I would share a distinctly wintry poem – The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy. As well as capturing a strangely comforting melancholy that is particular to the colder months in his depiction of stark leafless trees stretching out against the backdrop of a weakly lit sky and hard terrain emptied as people have hunkered down by their fires away from the biting cold, Hardy also, in painting such an unforgiving (though, as I say, strangely reassuring) picture, lays the ground for a moving and hopeful denouement:

 

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.

 

As Hardy is not someone known for his optimism, or for easily attributing meaning to the world, it is all the more heartening to find such a chilly scene lit by the fires of hope – hope which, in this case, stems from the song of a solitary thrush. The thrush, Hardy’s only companion in the lonely, depopulated rural landscape, looks out upon the same cracked and seemingly unforgiving vista and trills out a song of such beauty and buoyancy that, whilst the poet cannot quite join in understanding from whence this hopeful tune comes and in what it is grounded, is moved to consider that the world he has been surveying is not quite as bleak and hopeless as he once thought.

That such a meditation comes from one as pessimistic as Thomas Hardy is a reminder to us all that no matter how dark things may sometimes seem or feel, there is always more to the world than our present predicament or state of mind. It is in fact one of the great marvels of existence that when weighed down by a thousand troubles, or having suffered many misfortunes, one single act of kindness, or one small moment of beauty, can restore hope and peace to our souls. It is almost as if we were built to hope, hard-wired to see that light is stronger than darkness, and that the meaning we intuit in the world is no illusion but an authentic perception of reality. Hardy no doubt would disagree, but as this poem shows, even he could not fend off Love at all times.

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2 thoughts on “Thomas Hardy: The Darkling Thrush

  1. This is a truly lovely article Michael, holding some inspiring thoughts, and evoking some vivid images.
    Yes, there is always hope; there is always a new day where we can begin again – no matter how terrible and desperate life can become sometimes.
    “Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning” (Lamentations 3:23).

    Slightly off topic – I hope you don’t mind – but Thomas Hardy’s poem describing the “ecstatic sound” of the thrush brought back sharply nostalgic childhood memories to me. There was a pet wild thrush we had as children and who we grew to love so much. Thrushy came to the kitchen window demanding food one cold snowy winter, and soon became so tame she was eating from our hands. Amazing that a wild thrush could be so trusting and tame. After her feeds she would often fly to the fence post and burst into beautiful song. (We thought she was singing for us, but of course birds sing to let others know that this is their territory!) For this reason we had thought it was a male thrush actually until, in the Spring, she would take the mealworms we fed her and disappear with them in her beak. One day she appeared with three fat speckled baby thrushes for feeding that had just left the nest; they were so adorable. Thrushy visited us nearly every day for about two years until she suddenly disappeared; we never found out what happened to her.

    • Thank you for your comments Kathleen, and no I certainly don’t mind re the story of ‘Thrushy’ – that is lovely to hear!

      I always feel privileged when animals come close, and to trust enough to take food from your hands is wonderful! Thanks for sharing that 🙂

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