For New Year’s eve in my Anthology from Canterbury Press, Waiting 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 responses to “The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy”
I feel that Hardy couldn’t have borne the desolation around him, or perhaps even perceived it as fully, without being aware, however dimly, of the ‘the blessed hope’ he supposed the thrush might be aware of. Similarly I feel as though it’s almost impossible to perceive the devastation of war, to walk through the trenches of WW1, to perceive the suffering of any war, or see intense suffering without discerning, imagining a little of this ‘blessed hope’, of at least conceiving of it and therefore touching its hem. My friend and neighbour is suffering from pancreatic cancer. Can I face, enter into her suffering, empathise without some conception at least of the hope the darkling thrush sings? Are we made aware of the hope a little, like Hardy, to fully enter into the suffering, desecration and devastation in our world? Could Hardy only despair, and write of it like this, because he discerned some hope, undefined, inexpressible in our words, somewhere?
Yes I think that’s true
I have always enjoyed Hardy’s poetry though I am generally rather a superficial reader of such things. This is one of my favourites. Hardy responded to a request by WT Stead for Hymns that have helped:
Lead Kindly Light
Ps 90 Thou turnest man O Lord to dust Tate and Brady
Awake my soul and with the sun
That’s interesting to know
Yes it is very intriguing. I think Ps 90 was sung at the burial service with West Gallery bands playing round the grave. Stead had some a few snotty replies from the Agnostics and free thinkers of the day and a few from the Church Establishment. It is well worth a brief perusal. There was an American version which can be viewed here
Click to access hymns_helped.pdf
So hauntingly beautiful and timely for me especially. Thank you
And congratulations on having the King choose your poem for the carol service!