The Darkling Thrush

A poem by Thomas Hardy:

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.

This is probably my favorite poem about finding small moments to hold onto. James Kavanaugh’s “There Are Men Too Gentle to Live Among Wolves” is a close second, though. In Hardy’s poem, I love the idea that the author doesn’t learn anything from the bird, in the sense that the bird provides no explanations or narrative to contextualize the author’s melancholic mood. His block-ice lugubriousness is lifted but only briefly, and simply; Hardy remains unaware of the source of the bird’s joy and of how to attain it himself, except to enjoy the bird’s enjoyment and capture the moment. Don’t over-intellectualize the bird, is I guess the lesson here.

Here’s what Carol Rumen at The Guardian had to write about it:

Hardy’s thrush of course belongs to the Romantic tradition, in which birds seem to express emotion in “songs” that have human significance. Modern readers interpret bird-song differently: we know the “ecstatic carolings” to be territorially possessive; as mundane as estate agents’ ‘Sold’ signs. Today’s ornithologically-minded poets content themselves with more descriptive responses, though birds have never yet gone out of poetic fashion.

I don’t quite know what that paragraph means but it sounds like maybe she’s over-intellectualizing the bird.

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