As 2016 draws to a close and we look forward to the coming year The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy (1840- 1928) seemed a fitting choice for this month’s poetry page.
The poem was written in 1899 but not published until 29th December 1900. We begin with Hardy leaning on a wooden gate watching the sunset on the last day of the nineteenth century. The first two stanzas promote a dark and lifeless atmosphere with little hope for the future.
‘The land’s sharp features seemed to be/The Century’s corpse outleant’ is a powerful metaphor. Hardy makes the clear association between the beautiful yet unforgiving Dorset landscape, that was so deeply rooted in his poetic imagination, with the political failings of the nineteenth century, which saw so many of his native countryman left impoverished and destitute.
As we see the sun set on harsh times the poem changes direction and the mood is lifted. The symbol of the thrush in the third stanza brings the poem to life, as Hardy is left contemplating the possibility that through its song, the Thrush knows something he doesn’t, that there is hope of a better century ahead.
There is no questioning that many share Hardy’s view on that last day of the nineteenth century about events that have happened in 2016. It is a year that has witnessed a series of astonishing and extreme events and unforeseen deaths. However, as Hardy recognised 116 years ago, there is no reason to write off brighter days ahead.
Therefore may 2017 guide you all to the happiest of days and surround you with the warmest of affections.
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.