The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy

image by Linda Richardson

image by Linda Richardson

For New Year’s eve in my  Anthology from Canterbury PressWaiting on the Word, I have chosen to read Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’, which was written on New Year’s Eve at the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. Though it begins with Hardy’s characteristically bleak forboding, suddenly the poet in him discerns and allows another note of hope.

You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. The image above was created by Linda Richardson. She writes:

I first heard this poem at school and thought Hardy a very depressing poet. I didn’t have the tenacity to stay with the poem through the bleakness until the hope. When we are not mature we only want laughter and fun and a perpetual summer time. There is no virtue in winter and we avoid pain at all costs. The consequence of this is, not only are we likely to be selfish, but we lack the contrasts that give life depth and meaning. The image I made reflects this theme of contrast.

I made a black and white photo transfer of a small bird in a tangle of twigs and painted the canvas with cold blues and violets. I enhanced the roughness of the surface by applying thread in an acrylic medium to the surface of the painting. Out of the grey coldness of the painting comes the idea of pure and beautiful bird song. If we try to make earth our heaven we will be terribly disappointed, but here, amid the stark grey of winter, comes a song of hope. Annie Dillard, the American writer and poet says, “You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary.”

You can find the words, and a short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle

The Darkling Thrush 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.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy

  1. CHARLES TWOMBLY

    Happy to revisit this remarkable poem. My little paper of the eighties on “bird” poems placed it near the end of a trajectory leading toward growing pessimism (a journey in which romanticism runs out of petrol, as it were. The other poems were Wm Cullen Bryant’s “To a Waterfowl,” PB Shelley’s “To a Skylark,” Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the Thing with Feathers,” and Robert Frost’s “Come In.” These follow a chronological sequence, with Hardy placed before Frost. The date of the poem (December 31, 1900) does indeed give a double significance to this verse (end of year, end of century). I love it, Malcolm. Thanks for being part of the great company of “Anglo” poets. Blessings for the New Year.

  2. CHARLES TWOMBLY

    In my wordy comments above, I left out mention of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Caged Skylark,” a poem that fits so nicely in my scheme.

  3. Alice Hornbeck

    Above Charles Twombly says it all. I love this poem and it is best as you have it above and not divided into stanzas

  4. I love this poem. Hardy’s poetry always seems to me more hopeful and joyous at heart than his prose is.

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