A Quickie on the Turning Millennium: Thomas Hardy’s "The Darkling Thrush"

Poetry is definitely not my locus of study, but I thought I would post a pre-millennium-themed poem that somewhat captures (what I think is) the American zeitgeist as we race towards 2009. Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” which he dates “31 December 1900,” meditates on the last moments of the 19th century, and Hardy makes known the speaker’s own hesitance to break into “full-hearted evensong / of joy illimited” in response to what he thinks is a gloomy new year, as he is “unaware” of whatever “blessed Hope” the gaunt bird is blustering about.

I would assume that most Americans out there hope for a productive new era, and more specifically new year, in politics, economics, art, and so-on, and we can find this small yet “full-hearted” prospect in the song of the thrush whose image blends light-heartedness and pathos that contrasts the dull winter world the speaker easily accepts. The old thrush may be Hardy’s nod to Keats’ elegiac “Ode to a Nightingale,” yet Hardy provides more hope for humanity at large in the image of his dull bird (I think).

The speaker remains skeptical and depressive facing the looming, bleak new year as he uses words and phrases like “seems,” “I could think,” and “I was unaware,’ parts of speech that separate the speaker from the very landscape in which the thrush seems to be reveling in as it sings its song. In contrast the speaker, much like the populace he possibly represents, is desolated in the landscape within which he resides.

This landscape is of the speaker’s making, and by metaphorical extension readers of the poem. We can see this in the speaker’s use of “I” at the end of the poem’s first half. This “I” denotes the subject’s potential ability to change its surroundings according to it own subjective abilities (for the better or the worst), and the thrush, in all its natural and innocent glory creates its own putative “hope.”

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 fervorless 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.

31 December 1900
—Thomas Hardy

This entry was posted in Commentary, Literature, Poetry.

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