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
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.
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’, 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.‘
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’. 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’. 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’.
Keats’ active imaginative apprehension of one of the ‘lovely shapes and sounds intelligible of that eternal language which God utters’, 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.’
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.
 In The Collected Poems p. 137
 Line 36 in ‘North’ in North, (Faber 1975) p.68
 ‘The Rain Stick’ in The Spirit Level, (Faber 1996) p.1
 Paradise Lost Book III lines 37-39, in John Milton: Paradise Lost ed. Alastair Fowler, (Longman 1971) p.145
 ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ line 51 in The Poetical Works of John Keats ed. HW Garrod (Oxford 1939) p.259
 Ibid lines 57-58
 ‘Frost at Midnight’ lines 58-62 in Samuel Taylor Coleridge Poetical Works I edited by JCC Mays (Princeton 2001) pp453-456
 ‘The Elixir’ in George Herbert The Complete English Works ed. Ann Pasternak Slater (Everyman 1995) p. 180
8 responses to “The Darkling Thrush; an old/new year’s reflection”
Thanks for commenting on this remarkable poem, Malcolm. How appropriate for December 31st. I once included it in a paper I did for a religion and literature seminar back around 1984. The paper was entitled “The Flight toward Anomie” and brought together six “bird” poems arranged chronologically to show a progression from early romanticism to the early twentieth century in which the confidence of Shelley and others that Nature “speaks” to us finally dissolves into a world in which Nature is now mute and either projects meaningless or (in the case of Hardy’s thrush) suggests that there is perhaps meaning but that it’s seemingly inaccessible to us. (The six poems were Shelley’s “To a Skyland”, Bryant’s “To a Waterfowl”, Dickinson’s “Hope is the Thing with Feathers”, Hopkins’s “A Caged Skylark”, Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” and Frost’s “Come In.”)
Thanks Charles I’d like to read that paper if you still have it. Do you know dorothy Sayers essay ‘the poetry of search and the poetry of statement’? It has a great passage from Steohen Spender on the modern poet as caged bird compared with the free flight of our forbears.
Thank you Malcolm! For taking time, for a reminder of limitation without the inconsolable secret, for nurturing our faith.
Happy New year
Thanks Tim may God bless you with yearning in the new year
I still have the paper around–somewhere! Will send when it’s found.
Don’t know the Dorothy Sayers essay but will search. Love its title. Is it part of a larger collection? I’m sure it is.
Have a book close by I’d recommend to one and all–Vivian de Sola Pinto’s 1951 book, CRISIS IN ENGLISH POETRY, 1880-1940, especially the first two chapters (“The Two Voyages” and “Hardy and Housman”). I have an idea that Sayers’s essay (above) may have interesting tie-ins with the “Voyages” chapter.
Forgot: blessings for the new year, Malcolm. Am grateful beyond words for the “Blessed Hope” we’ve both been granted glimpses of. Thanks be to God.
All I can say is, wow! Thank you!
Thanks, it’s always good to know when something has been appreciated. Happy new year.