January 9, 2005


Singing in the Dark: An Old Poem for a New Year (Ephraim Ben-Eliezer, 1/09/05, Bruderfof.com)

The Darkling Thrush
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
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.

I first met the Darkling Thrush in Mr. Jones’ 10th grade English class. At the time, I was a mediocre student who would stay up till 2:00 a.m. engrossed in a novel, but who hated poetry with a passion. Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” changed that.

Mr. Jones explained that a “coppice” is a small wood and a “spectre” is a ghost. He painted for us the bleak scene of a sky scarred with broken harp strings. We found out that “illimited” is a Hardy-ism which is a superlative for “unlimited.” (Don’t you like it?)

Good poem, you may say, but is it really great? Where’s the fire to penetrate the closed mind of an adolescent? Perhaps it was the memories: spending wet nights in a small wood five miles down the road, patiently waiting, rain dripping down our backs, to hear another kind of thrush speak (a nightingale). Perhaps it was just the sheer joy of hope in my hopeless situation. (I was backlogged with homework at the time.) No, there was something else.

To understand the poem, you have to understand Thomas Hardy. Despite denying it, Hardy was a cynic. He started writing his magnificent Wessex novels in 1860, each one more tragic than the last. In 1891 he finished Tess of the d’Urbervilles, effectively unmasking Victorian hypocrisy. But it wasn’t until 1895 that he really thrust his knife into the fabric of society. The cold welcome that Jude the Obscure received made Hardy quit writing novels altogether. A pity, because some experts believe that if he would have continued to write he may have surpassed Dickens as the greatest novelist in the English language. Hardy instead turned to verse.

What fascinated me was the date of the poem. December 31, 1900.

The irony is that you had to be a cynic to be prepared for just what a waste the 20th Century was going to be (1914-78, anyway) but an optimistic one to believe that Hope would be restored by its end.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 9, 2005 8:16 AM

Some of his friends thought that Hardy wrote Jude the Obscure with the intention to offend, in order to give cover for his decision to quit writing novels. His wife wanted him to keep writing novels, which paid much better than poetry. Certainly, Jude is the least artistic of his mature books. The Mayor of Casterbridge is his masterpiece, and Far from the Madding Crowd is the best soap opera ever written.

Posted by: pj at January 9, 2005 1:04 PM

The poem brought to mind Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" Better the optimism of the darkling thrush than the ignorant armies that clash by night. Another good summary of the upcoming centuy.

Posted by: jdkelly at January 9, 2005 2:21 PM