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.
Commentary: This is a lyric in which Hardy describes how the song of a bedraggled thrush suggests a note of faint hope in the midst of the desolation of winter all around him. The poem was reputedly written on New Year’s Eve 1899 and published in 1900. (It was originally titled ‘By the Century’s Deathbed, 1900’). Many of us will remember the great sense of foreboding and prophesies of doom which accompanied the impending Millennium in 1999 so we can empathise with Hardy’s mood of uncertainty and near despair as the year and the century come to an end.
The death of the nineteenth century seems to be mirrored in the winter bleakness of the wood, and the general decay and hopelessness find an echo in the poet’s heart. ‘The Darkling Thrush’, laments the passing of a golden age, in this case, the great era of Romantic poetry. Hardy seems to suggest that as the twentieth-century dawns, with its science and machines, the great age of art and literature is sliding into oblivion. Poetry, he suspects, will have little place in the new technological age. The tone is, therefore, for the most part, despondent and gloomy and, of course, this is very much in keeping with Hardy’s perpetual pessimism, nihilism, and atheism. Indeed, it has to be noted that Hardy’s most common theme is humanity’s struggle against fate. Hardy is pessimistic in the way he portrays humanity’s futile struggle against cosmic forces. His work has a tragic vision; a sense that human life has to be endured. Hardy’s vision is often described as stoical.
Hardy is typically morose here and he builds up the scenes of death and desolation with several stark images: ‘Frost was spectre grey’ and ‘Winter’s dregs’. The personification of the sun, ‘The weakening eye of day’, contributes to this atmosphere of decline and death. Hardy was conscious of awesome cosmic forces, the dread power of nature, the ominous signs of nature’s disasters and the amazing beauty of nature. The confusion of trailing plants, ‘the tangled bine-stems’, resemble the broken strings of lyres, this simile adding to the general atmosphere of hopelessness.
The gauntness of the landscape is described in ‘the land’s sharp features’ and again personification is repeated in ‘The Century’s corpse’. Hardy is keenly aware that civilisations and political arrangements last a limited time, pass and are replaced. Equally, he knows that childhood and youth make way for a different future. Hardy frequently glorifies the past in order to emphasise its passing or to contrast it with the present. Sometimes Hardy ironically suggests people don’t learn from the past.
The contrast in stanza three is striking, but it is only the thrush’s song that contrasts with ‘broken lyre’s’ and ‘death-lament’. Just like the landscape, the thrush is gaunt, bedraggled, old. However, his song is ‘full-hearted’, of ‘joy illimited’ despite his appearance and this also contrasts sharply with the poet feeling ‘fervourless’ in stanza two.
Modern readers familiar with our Victorian Christmas imagery must find this poem deeply troubling and pessimistic. Our Christmas Cards may have replaced Hardy’s thrush with a robin redbreast but there are few signs of Christmas cheer here. The bird’s ‘carolings’ seem to be at odds with the gloomy human and political landscape both near and further afield – indeed, with the benefit of hindsight they are eerily prophetic. The poet’s emotion is made evident to us in the subtle onomatopoeia of ‘That I could think there trembled through’, and this suggests to us that it is a spiritual rebirth and renewal that the poet longs for.
Hardy shows an awareness of mutability in politics and human affairs. The present differs from the past, often regrettably. Hardy often displays nostalgia for childhood or for a more innocent time. Yet, one thing that doesn’t change in his view is the stupidity of war and human vanity. Sometimes nature illustrates change through its cycles: ‘The ancient pulse of germ and birth was shrunken hard and dry’. At other times, forces of nature represent permanence, in contrast to human feelings and prosperity.
In ‘The Darkling Thrush’ Hardy comes across as a conventional scientific atheist. He seems to lament the fact that scientific discoveries have made it harder and harder for a rational person to believe in God. The bleakness and coldness in this poem, it has been suggested, spring from its somewhat grim atheistic world-view. It presents us with a universe that has no God and no afterlife, nothing beyond our tiny human lives.