Last year I turned to two more modern poems to grapple with the emotions and the ideas that a new year’s beginning gives rise to—one of them, Richard Wilbur’s “Year’s End”, is just extraordinary and if you didn’t read it last year (or even if you did) click on that link and go read it. But one of the classic poems about a year ending and a new one beginning is a little bit older, and I’ve been meaning to tackle it one of these years—given the national mood (and, honestly, my mood much of the time) here in December 2012, with the Newtown shootings all over the media, and news of other terrible shootings cropping up seemingly every day, it feels like the right year to tangle with Thomas Hardy, one of the most melancholy of the great English novelists and poets. Hardy has been wrestled with before here on a Poetry Friday, but I haven’t yet taken on his most widely-read verse, in part because I hadn’t yet known what I wanted to say about it. I think I may know now. The poem for the end of 2012, then, and the beginning of 2013, is a work originally titled “Century’s End, 1900” about the final days of the 19th Century and the beginning of a century Hardy could not have envisioned—a century of world wars and moonwalks, of genocide and civil right movements. The original title is now more or less forgotten, and the poem is known for one of its principal characters, if not the only one who really matters—this is “The Darkling Thrush“:
“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.”
The poem is more or less famous for its ambiguity, so I hope others will offer their takes on the poem in the comments: this is how I read Hardy here, and I think in some ways I’m grabbing the poem’s steering wheel as I do so. That is, I don’t know that the poem I read is the one he felt he wrote. That doesn’t bother me, much.
The opening stanza, then, sets the scene—there’s enough death-imagery here to rival Melville’s description of the Pequod, with a spectral image of the cold personified as “Frost”, and all humanity reduced to doing the work of ghosts as they “haunt” their own homes. In that context, even slightly more innocent images—“weakening eye of day” in other settings might not be too ominous, but here it feels to me like the failing eyesight of someone at death’s door, and even Hardy’s lean on the coppice gate feels like a man accepting the approach of mortality. The tangle of dead brush is tied to, of all possible similes, the “strings of broken lyres” as though the angelic choirs of Christmas have been cast down from Heaven in disarray (too much? I don’t know—the lyre is an unusual choice and very closely identified with “traditional” depictions of angels). And then that second stanza! The outline of the distant hills like the outstretched corpse of the 19th Century, the gray sky the stone of its tomb, the wind a funereal dirge, the very pulse of life absent from the Earth and from Hardy and from all of humanity…yikes. Hardy’s obsession with death and loss is well-documented—much of Hardy’s writing after the suicide of his close friend and mentor Horace Moule in 1873 certainly gives evidence of how shaken Hardy was by that event—but I have to say, these two stanzas lay it on thick even for him. If he had published instead a photograph of himself wearing a sandwich board reading “The Century is dead. And so am I. And so are you, basically.” it would hardly communicate his emotions any more clearly.
So, what am I doing, dragging someone’s clinical depression (in rhyme!) into your winter mood as you start to look ahead to a new year? I’m hoping you’ll stick with me into the back half of the poem and our star—the title character, that little twilight thrush, battered but unbroken. On one level, it might seem like a cheesy choice for Hardy to bail himself out of this funk by bringing in a little animal to cheer us up, but I don’t really feel that way. The appearance of the thrush is like the first crack of light opening into a dark room, and it reaches us because it has the power to reach Hardy. Out of death (those “bleak twigs” are about as lifeless as anything in the first two stanzas) comes forth life—and not just life, but faith, in the form of an avian “evensong”, a sung prayer service familiar to Hardy and any 19th Century Anglican. Hardy ascribes too much to the thrush, of course—it’s not singing an “evensong” any more than it’s singing Greensleeves, and it’s not “flinging its soul” anywhere. Or is it? The poem has dragged us down enough with cheating images—the century doesn’t have a corpse, and the wind is not a lament—so why not let ourselves rise again with these new images? I love the detail about the thrush, the sense of its age and experience, the hint that its song is a song of experience and not of innocence. Animals are often used to exemplify happiness because their lives are so simple and untroubled compared with ours, but Hardy intentionally gives us a bird that is “frail,” “gaunt,” and “blast-beruffled,” I think because he wants to acknowledge on some level that the peace he’s hearing in the thrush’s song is a peace that’s available to us also.
Hardy is struck by the dichotomy between Earth and “Heaven” here—the sadness and deathliness of “terrestrial things” like him and the landscape as opposed to the brightness and hope present for the bird who is not tied to the land (he even uses “air” as a synonym for song, which is clearly him wanting to lift the bird up away from the muck of the Earth). Hardy’s long tussle with faith is pretty consistent—he often uses this image of himself as a man who wishes he could find the peace in believing that others do, whether here with the Hope the bird can see and he cannot, or the possibilities present in his beautiful little Christmas poem, “The Oxen”. I think it works here at the end of the poem, in part because it feels very genuine to me—Hardy’s looking around himself to confirm the bleakness of his outlook, and then maintaining just enough open-mindedness to accept that this may not be a situation where a simple-minded bird doesn’t get it, and he does. Maybe it really is a case where the thrush is the wiser of the two—certainly I find that interpretation compelling. Why? Other than my inclination to optimism (which is shaky at best, as plenty of folks could tell you), there’s a lot about the poem that Hardy may or may not have intended to put us on the thrush’s side. Hardy’s set himself up as someone whose vision is limited—he’s next to a “coppice”, where the trees obscure at least some of his view, and the light is fading rapidly. He’s also set himself up as someone without energy or purpose—he’s leaning on the gate, after all, even though there’s clearly no reason for him to be outside, and he’s “fervourless” to boot. He’s barely even there—somehow despite the fact that “all mankind” is indoors at their fires, Hardy is still outside. Do we make of this that he’s so far gone he barely counts as alive, as human, any longer? Or that he’s somehow outside that community by choice? Hard to say, but he certainly doesn’t come across as someone in the know, someone aware of the realities surrounding him. By comparison, the thrush comes across as the reliable figure—unlike the empty Hardy, he is “full-hearted”; unlike Hardy’s weak frame leaning on the gate, he’s actively flinging himself at the darkness as though attacking it. His vantage point is higher than Hardy’s, atop a tree that ties the air to the earth—symbolically, I feel like he’s being presented as the one figure who can see the whole picture.
So, as we ready ourselves for 2013—the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation and of Gettysburg, the first year not envisioned by the Mayan calendar—I personally walk with a word of optimism from Hardy that he may or may not have intended. There are hopes we cannot always see, and sometimes we need the music of that hope from someone who has a perspective we don’t yet. The more we can stay open to the prospect of life even in the midst of death or despair, the more we may come to find it. It’s what I need to hear in “The Darkling Thrush”, anyway, and hopefully it doesn’t do too much injustice to Hardy’s poem in getting there. Again, I hope other thoughts and reactions will surface in the comments—a happy new year to all!