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'The Darkling Thrush'
by 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
Has 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 terrestial 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.
31st December, 1900
For the Victorians the Twentieth Century only began on the 1st January, 1901 - and thus the end of two eras coincided when the aged Queen died on the 22nd of that month. Thomas Hardy at this time was in his sixty-first year, wealthy, famous but disenchanted by the critical effront taken to his penultimate novel, Jude the Obscure (1895), living in an ugly, self-designed house at Max Gate and embroiled in an increasingly desolate marriage. He'd even had a new, private entrance built so that he could come and go without contacting Emma Hardy in any way.
Withdrawing from the Novel form, he returned to his first literary love, poetry, and published Wessex Poems in 1898 (his debut collection at the age of fifty-eight). Afforded a respectful but lukewarm reception, this 'early' verse took a while to win the critics over. 'Poetry is not his proper medium...he is not at home, he does not move easily in it' sniped The Spectator in 1902.
The fictionist in Hardy remained active. Although now always dated 1.1.1900, the poem 'The Darkling Thrush' originally appeared in The Graphic on December 29th, 1900 under a different title, 'The Century's End, 1900'. A deleted '1899' on the author's manuscript indicates that it may have been written earlier still. Either way, 'The Darkling Thrush' appeared in Hardy's second collection, Poems of the Past and the Present in November, 1901 (alongside such other notable - and historically pertinent - work as 'Drummer Hodge'). This desire to tinker with his personal and literary history would continue, even posthumously, with the publication (1928 and 1930) of the writer's two volume Life, ostensibly written by his second wife, Florence, but in fact self-penned.
A-typical in several respects, 'The Darkling Thrush' ends on an up-beat note. Famously pessimistic (a charge the author himself was uncomfortable with) Hardy felt that 'if a way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst'. The rhymes here are - with one exception - precise, even prissily so: this is again uncharacteristic. 'Inexact rhymes now and then are far more pleasing than correct ones' was a tenet which the younger Hardy had brought with him from his architectural studies, tending as they did to evoke 'spontaneity'. Finally, the regular ababcdcd of the four stanzas is very unusual for a poet who prided himself on his ability to conjure up new, but never avant-garde, metrical forms.
The 'Darkling' of the title represents a nod in the direction of John Keats (one of Hardy's most enduring influences). The word occurs in the similarly avian 'Ode to a Nightingale'. The opening line, 'I leant upon a coppice gate...' is very Hardyesque. Of the (almost) one thousand poems of the oeuvre, 152 begin with the pronoun 'I'.
Thomas Hardy would go on writing lyrical poetry, very much in his own style, well into his eighties. In this he is probably unique: even Yeats' muse was silenced (by death) a decade earlier. Hardy's heart is buried - with his two wives - in Stinsford churchyard, Dorset, and the rest of his remains lie (next to Charles Dickens) in Westminster Abbey. Despite his usual, gloomy forebodings ('Alas for that volume' he'd written to his friend, Edmund Gosse) Poems of the Past and the Present was an instant commercial success. The first edition was quickly sold out and a second was being planned just weeks later. Thomas Hardy could still shift copy.
Gittings, R. (1975) Young Thomas Hardy, Penguin.
Gittings, R. (1978) The Older Hardy, Penguin.
Hardy, T. (1994) The Works of Thomas Hardy, Wordsworth.
Tomalin, C. (2006) Thomas Hardy - The Time-Torn Man, Penguin.
Kevin Saving © 2008