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The Darkling Thrush
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.
Thomas Hardy was born in 1840 in Higher Bockhampton, Dorset, to a working-class family. Though his intellectual brilliance was recognized early, a university education was out of reach, and he trained as an architect, only later dedicating himself full-time to writing. He wrote novels, plays and poetry. Almost all of his work was set in and around his beloved Dorset. In some ways, Hardy was a bridge between the Victorian and modern periods. His work can be quite Victorian in its construction, but it is modern in its theme—he is famous for his fatalism, his use of irony, his critique of social inequities, and his horror of war. His work was admired by such moderns as Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence, who otherwise had little use for Victorians.
Hardy’s last novel Jude the Obscure appeared in 1895, and it is said that the harsh reviews of that work contributed to Hardy’s decision to abandon novel-writing and focus on poetry.
The poem Scott read, “The Darkling Thrush,” was originally entitled “By the Century’s Deathbed”—it was written in 1899, as the 19th century was ending. As we mark the end of 2021—a difficult year in so many ways—this seems like the perfect poem to reflect on.
The word “darkling” is a word found only in poetry. It means “growing dark.” All the imagery contributes to a sense of gloom and desolation. It is cold, but not beautiful: “Frost was spectre-grey,” and all around the poet are the desolate “dregs” of winter. Above him, the bare branches seem “like strings of broken lyres”—if there was once music in this world, there is music no more.
The bleak scene reflects the bleakness of the broader world. The “sharp features” of the landscape seem like “the Century’s corpse”—the dead body of the century that is ending. The clouds are the crypt, the wind is the “death-lament.” The hard, dry, and lifeless ground also reflects the poet’s his inner state: “every spirit upon earth / Seemed fervourless as I.” In early drafts of the poem, Hardy struggled to find the right word for this line. In one version, he wrote “morrowless”—without a future. But Hardy landed on “fervourless,” a word which brings a religious sensibility into the poem.
Just at this low ebb, when the world, both without and within, seems drained of life and energy, something happens. A thrush begins to sing. In many ways, the thrush shares the influence of the bleak landscape: he is no bright-eyed young bird, but “an aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small, / In blast-beruffled plume.” And yet, the thrush sings, “in a full-hearted evensong / Of joy illimited.” “Evensong,” of course, means more than just a song at evening. It’s one name for the Church’s liturgy of evening prayer. The old thrush doesn’t just sing, he carols joyfully; he “fling[s] his soul / Upon the growing gloom.”
The poet is astonished, because there is nothing in view, far or near, that suggests a cause for this ecstatic singing. The cause, then, must be not in what is seen, but in what is unseen. The poem ends with doubt—a wholesome doubt. Perhaps there is something beyond the gloom, cold, and darkness of the world. Perhaps there is “some blessed Hope, whereof he knew / And I was unaware.”
As the nineteenth century ended, Hardy found it difficult to look forward in hope to what the new century would bring. As we start this new year, 2022, I think many of us are filled with that same trepidation. What will happen with the pandemic? Will our family and friends stay safe? Will we be able to see our family and friends? Will our nation and our world know times of peace and stability, or will it be another year of violence, bigotry, nativism, and reckless disregard for the poor and for the planet? We can’t know the answers to any of those questions, of course. But we can, like Hardy’s old thrush, sing the “full-hearted evensong / Of joy illimited,” the song of faith in our blessed Hope—Jesus, the love and mercy of a loving and merciful God.



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Seattle, Washington  98104
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