Monthly Archives: December 2010

The Darkling Thrush; an old/new year’s reflection

A song thrush, not quite so blast-beruffled

On December 31st, 1900, ThomasHardy wrote this remarkable poem, I have added below a close reading of the poem from my book Faith Hope and Poetry. I hope you enjoy it. You can also hear me reading the poem by clicking on the title which will take you to my audioboo page

 

 

 

The Darkling Thrush

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 outlent,

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.[1]

This famous poem reflects the mood of the dying year, the dying century, dying humanity. Hardy fully witnesses the bleakness but sets against it the counter-witness of the thrush’s song, holding them together with the tentative syntax of his conditional possibility of some blessed hope. This poem was written on the 31st of December 1900, and the dying of that winter’s day, Hardy also took to be the century’s death; the end of the 19th century, with all its hopes of unimpeded progress and universal peace, cheated and defeated.  The outward and visible desolation of the day becomes, as it were, the first voice of the poem, and Hardy’s choice of language for that voice paints a word-picture of decline and dissolution from which one might think there was no recovery:

‘Spectre-grey…dregs…desolate…weakening…tangled…broken…haunted…corpse…crypt… shrunken…fervourless…bleak…frail…gaunt…gloom’ But then Hardy introduces a second voice:

At once a voice arose among

The bleak twigs overhead

In a full-hearted evensong

Of  joy  illimited;

The language chosen for this second voice is drawn not from the realm of death and decay, which was the register of the first voice, but rather from the language of the sacred; it is full of echoes from the Church upon which Hardy thought he had turned his back:  full-hearted evensong…joy…soul…carolings…blessed Hope.  The fact that we hear both these voices in this poem, that words from two such distinct linguistic registers are woven together in his verse, is a testament to Hardy’s integrity and honesty as an artist.  It would have been as easy and as tempting to him to have ignored the witness of the thrush, to have gone home and written an unremittingly grim poem, as it is tempting to the authors of religious doggerel to write ‘up-beat hymns’ which recycle the clichés of hope without ever making contact with the tragedies of life as it is actually lived. Hardy’s witness in this honest poem is that he can neither ignore nor believe the thrush.  What he sees as he leans on a gate on that winter day, gives him no hope at all, but he is not prepared to limit reality to ‘the things that are seen’; and perhaps the most honest word in the poem is the word, ‘seemed’, which concludes the second stanza.  Had he written ‘and every spirit upon earth was ‘fervourless as I’, he might never have heard the thrush at all; or hearing it, his mind might have twisted its song into yet another symbol of decay.  But as Heaney would be later, here Hardy is prepared to be ‘exposed to every wind that blows’[2], and even if he expects the finality of a bleak north wind, he does not ignore this faint air from Paradise.

The first two stanzas are concerned with the outward and visible world, with what we can see; Hope comes in the third stanza, when we stop looking at the familiar and listen, suddenly, to the unfamiliar, as when Heaney said, ‘what happens next is a music that you never would have known to listen for.[3]

Perhaps in order to hear, Hardy has to stop looking for a moment, and this is where the poem’s haunting title comes in, ‘The Darkling Thrush’.  One might take the word ‘darkling’ here, simply to refer to the fact that the thrush begins its song just as the day ends and it begins to get dark.  But for Hardy, and for any reader of English poetry, the word ‘darkling’ carries us immediately to Milton and Keats, the two other poets, both in darkness of one kind or another, both listening to birds, who used that word.  As we saw in Chapter Five, Milton used it to mark a turning point from despair to hope.  After a long passage lamenting his blindness and complaining of the loss of outward sight, he comes to realise that instead he has been gifted with an inward sight to be shared with others through his poetry, and compares himself to the wakeful bird’ that, ‘Sings darkling, and in shadiest covert hid/ Tunes her nocturnal note’[4].  Keats deliberately echoed Milton when he came to write the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’; but this time he applied the adverb ‘darkling’ not to the quality of the birds’ singing, as Milton had done, but to the quality of his listening:  ‘darkling I listen’[5].  And what Keats hears is not simply the outward sound but the expression of a soul and the intonation of ecstasy: ‘Thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad/ In such an ecstasy’[6].

Keats’ active imaginative apprehension of one of the ‘lovely shapes and sounds intelligible of that eternal language which God utters’[7], embodied beautifully by his art in the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, enters into and nurtures Hardy’s imagination.  Keats’ poetry enabled Hardy to make and express the same imaginative apprehension of what the birds’ song might mean, and his choice of language, with its echoes of the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, ‘had chosen thus to fling his soul’ and ‘carolings of such ecstatic sound’, acknowledge a debt he had already hinted in the choice of ‘darkling ‘for the title of his poem.

The two voices come together in the final stanza; hearing the ‘carolings of such ecstatic sound’, the bleak voice of Hardy the philosophical pessimist finds itself shifted from indicative verbs, which allow for one thing and one thing only to happen, to modal verb forms, which allow for more than one possibility.  In the first form, he says, ‘so little cause for carolings was written’; but after hearing these carolings, the verb form changes, something new is possible:  ‘I could think…some blessed Hope’.  The suggestion, even conditionally, of the possibility of something more than the merely visible, is beautifully expressed in the choice of the verb ‘trembled’ and the preposition ‘through’.  The ‘happy good-night air’ sung by the bird is one thing; but the poetry at last allows for the possibility that something else, from somewhere else, some ‘blessed Hope’ might ‘tremble through’ it.  We’ve been prepared for all of this by the choice of the word, ‘seemed’ before we heard the bird.  Once we know that the things we see might seem rather than be what we think they are, it becomes possible that, if only for a moment, something else might ‘tremble through’ them.  And this redeeming preposition ‘through’, is the same that opened the world’s windows onto heaven for Herbert when he wrote, ‘A man that looks on glass on it may stay his eye, or if he pleaseth through it pass and then the heavens espy.’[8]

But even as Hardy the poet allows the thrush to help him apprehend the possibility of some blessed hope, Hardy the philosopher tries to have the last word, and to close the poem with the claim to be ‘unaware’ of that hope.  ‘Unaware’ is an extraordinary word with which to close a poem which is supremely a poem of awareness; awareness both of all the signs of mortality, and of all the intimations of immortality.  In some ways, this beautiful poem is a testimony against itself.  Its tentative syntax is subverted by its ecstatic imagery.


[1] In The Collected Poems p. 137

[2] Line 36 in ‘North’ in North, (Faber 1975) p.68

[3] ‘The Rain Stick’ in The Spirit Level, (Faber 1996) p.1

[4] Paradise Lost Book III lines 37-39, in John Milton: Paradise Lost ed. Alastair Fowler, (Longman 1971) p.145

[5] ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ line 51 in The Poetical Works of John Keats ed. HW Garrod (Oxford 1939) p.259

[6] Ibid lines 57-58

[7] ‘Frost at Midnight’ lines 58-62 in Samuel Taylor Coleridge Poetical Works I edited by JCC Mays (Princeton 2001) pp453-456

[8] ‘The Elixir’ in George Herbert The Complete English Works ed. Ann Pasternak Slater (Everyman 1995) p. 180

 

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O Emmanuel; a final antiphon and a hidden message

So we come to the last of the Seven Great O Antiphons, which was sung on either side of the Magnificat on Christmas Eve, O Emmanuel, O God with us. This is the antiphon from which our lovely Advent hymn takes its name. It was also this final antiphon which revealed the secret message embedded subtly into the whole antiphon sequence. In each of these antiohons we have been calling on Him to come to us, to come as Light as Key, as King, as God-with-us. Now, standing on the brink of Christmas Eve, looking back at the illuminated capital letters for each of the seven titles of Christ we would see an answer to our pleas : ERO CRAS the latin words meaning ‘Tomorrow I will come!”

O Emmanuel

O Rex

O Oriens

O Clavis

O Radix

O Adonai

O Sapientia

I have also tried in my final sonnet to look back across the other titles of Christ, but also to look forward, beyond Christmas, to the new birth for humanity and for the whole cosmos, which is promised in the birth of God in our midst.

As always you can listen to the antiphon and sonnet if you wish by pressing the play button or clicking on the poem’s title

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster,
exspectatio Gentium, et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster 

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God

O come, O come, and be our God-with-us
O long-sought With-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven beating in the earth,
O tiny hope within our hopelessness
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.

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The Return of the King; a Sixth Advent Reflection

The sixth great ‘O’ antiphon, O Rex Gentium, calls on Christ as King, yet also calls him corner stone and pictures him getting his hands dirty and shaping us with clay, wonderfully incongruous combination!  But he is the king who walks alongside us disguised in rags, the true Strider! In this Sonnet I also reflect on on how God shapes us through all that happens to us in our living clay. He hasn’t finished with us yet!  You can hear the antiphon and poem by clicking on the play symbol or on the title of the poem. for an excellent series of reflections on Christ as our maker and shaper, why not check out Diana Glyer’s Clay in the Potters Hands? There is more about the antiphons to be found at Umilita


O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem,
quem de limo formasti.

O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one

Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay


O Rex Gentium

O King of our desire whom we despise,
King of the nations never on the throne,
Unfound foundation, cast-off cornerstone,
Rejected joiner, making many one,
You have no form or beauty for our eyes,
A King who comes to give away his crown,
A King within our rags of flesh and bone.
We pierce the flesh that pierces our disguise,
For we ourselves are found in you alone.
Come to us now and find in us your throne,
O King within the child within the clay,
O hidden King who shapes us in the play
Of all creation. Shape us for the day
Your coming Kingdom comes into its own.

 

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O Oriens A Fifth Advent reflection

light on the venetian lagoon

to touch and brush a sheen of light on water

The fifth ‘great ‘O’ antiphon calls on Christ as the ‘Oriens’, the Morning Star, the Dayspring, and it comes as an answer to the sense of darkness and captivity in the fourth antiphon, O Clavis I find the idea of Christ as rising light in the East very moving, for he is Alpha, the ‘Beginning’. The Translation which gives ‘Dayspring’ for Oriens I especially love, both because ‘Dayspring’ suggests at one and the same time, both light and water, two primal goods in life which I love in combination, especially light reflected on water, and also because ‘Dayspring’ was the name of a ship my great grandfather built for Scottish missionaries and also the name of the little gaff cutter, from whose deck I saw the dawn rise after a long period of darkness. Many of these senses of ‘Dayspring’ are at play in the sonnet I have given below. I should also mention that the line from Dante means “I saw light in the form of a river’ another touchstone moment for me in the Paradiso As before you can either click the play button to hear the antiphon and sonnet, otr click the hyperlink on the title to go to my audioboo page and hear all the sonnets in turn. You can read more about the antiphons on Julia Holloway’s lovely site Umilita

The rather blurry picture above is a photo of a watercolour I was painting at the time I wrote the sonnet.

O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae,
et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes
in tenebris, et umbra mortis

O Dayspring,
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

O Oriens

E vidi lume in forme de riviera Paradiso XXX; 61

First light and then first lines along the east
To touch and brush a sheen of light on water
As though behind the sky itself they traced

The shift and shimmer of another river
Flowing unbidden from its hidden source;
The Day-Spring, the eternal Prima Vera.

Blake saw it too. Dante and Beatrice
Are bathing in it now, away upstream…
So every trace of light begins a grace

In me, a beckoning. The smallest gleam
Is somehow a beginning and a calling;
“Sleeper awake, the darkness was a dream

For you will see the Dayspring at your waking,
Beyond your long last line the dawn is breaking”.

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In Drear-nighted December

In drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy tree,
Thy branches ne’er remember
Their green felicity…

“Drear-nighted December” Keats’s felicitous phrase sums up the way many of us feel in the dreary darkness of encroaching winter. But, much as I love his poetry, I think in this case Keats is wrong about the tree. Indeed, it is just because those bleak rain-lashed December branches do ‘remember their green felicity’, and still retain, hidden within themselves, the patterns and energy of all their former green-ness that they will unfold  into leaf again in spring and be able, as Larkin said, of trees in May, to “begin afresh, afresh, afresh”.

It can be the same with us, we manage to get through the winter, and also through the heart’s severer seasons, because we carry the memories of spring and we are sustained by a kind of parley between memory and hope. So George Herbert, trying to cope with severe experiences of depression and loss, writes in his poem “The Flower”:

Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart

Could have recover’d greennesse? It was gone

Quite under ground; as flowers depart

To see their mother-root, when they have blown;

Where they together

All the hard weather,

Dead to the world, keep house unknown.

But Herbert knew, even in the depth of winter that “grief melts away/like snow in May/ as if there were no such cold thing” and so in this great poem of recovery he writes: And now in age I bud again,/After so many deaths I live …

And what about us? I think that we too, in drear-nighted December need to remember our ‘green felicity’, and surely that is just what we do at Christmas. In the darkest time of the year Christ, The Life within us and the seed of light is sown. The root of Jesse, the stock of that True Vine from which we all spring, is planted in our hearts, just when for many of us our hearts feel at their darkest and most ploughed up. So through the dark days of advent I pray for Him to come so deeply and quietly into our hearts that, as Lancelot Andrewes said: “He may with one word make all green again”.

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Oh Clavis; A Fourth Advent Antiphon and Sonnet


an ancient door awaits its key

Oh Clavis, Oh Key!

Of all the mystic titles of Christ, this is the one that connects most closely with our ‘secular’ psychology. We speak of the need on the one hand for ‘closure’ and on the other for ‘unlocking’, for ‘opening’, for  ‘liberation’. The same ideas are also there in the lines from O Come O Come Emmanuel that are drawn from this antiphon, which could easily be part of anybody’s work in good therapy:

“Make safe the way that leads on high,

and close the path to misery.”

I see this antiphon, and the sonnet I wrote in response  to it, as the ‘before’ picture that precdes the beautiful fifth antiphon O Oriens about Christ as the Dayspring and  when l wrote this sonnet I found that I had at last written something clear about my own experience of depression. I hope that others who have been in that darkness will find it helpful.

I am grateful to the photographer Margot Krebs Neale for the image. You can learn more about the antiphons from Julia Holloway’s wonderful site Umilita

As before there should be a play button just before the poem for  you to hear the antiphon sung and the poem read aloud. Alternatively you can click the hyperlink on the poem’s title and listen to it on my audioboo page.

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel;
qui aperis, et nemo claudit;
claudis, et nemo aperit:
veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Clavis

Even in the darkness where I sit
And huddle in the midst of misery
I can remember freedom, but forget
That every lock must answer to a key,
That each dark clasp, sharp and intricate,
Must find a counter-clasp to meet its guard,
Particular, exact and intimate,
The clutch and catch that meshes with its ward.
I cry out for the key I threw away
That turned and over turned with certain touch
And with the lovely lifting of a latch
Opened my darkness to the light of day.
O come again, come quickly, set me free
Cut to the quick to fit, the master key.

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O Radix, A Third Advent Reflection and Sonnet

The third Advent antiphon, O Radix, calls on Christ as the root, an image I find particularly compelling and helpful. The collect is referring to the image of he ‘tree of Jesse the family tree which leads to David, and ultimately to Christ as the ‘son of David, but for me the title radix, goes deeper, as a good root should. It goes deep down into the ground of our being, the good soil of creation. God in Christ, is I believe, the root of all goodness, wherever it is found and in whatsoever culture, or with whatever names it fruits and flowers, a sound tree cannot bear bad fruit said Christ, who also said, I am the vine, you are the branches. I have tried to express some of my feelings for Christ as root and vine more elliptically in my song the Green Ma, but here I do it more directly in my sonnet on the third advent antiphon. Once again you should be able to hear it by clicking on the play button before the poem or by clicking on the link in the title of the poem.

Tree of jese

the tree of Jesse a carving in the Louvre

O Radix

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem Gentes deprecabuntur:
veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.

O Root of Jesse, standing
as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer

O Radix

All of us sprung from one deep-hidden seed,

Rose from a root invisible to all.

We knew the virtues once of every weed,

But, severed from the roots of ritual,

We surf the surface of a wide-screen world

And find no virtue in the virtual.

We shrivel on the edges of a wood

Whose heart we once inhabited in love,

Now we have need of you, forgotten Root

The stock and stem of every living thing

Whom once we worshiped in the sacred grove,

For now is winter, now is withering

Unless we let you root us deep within,

Under the ground of being, graft us in.


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