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.