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The Darkling Thrush

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.

 

 

A post-funeral party for my mother at the family home. Our next door neighbor’s oldest son, Charlie as I knew him from childhood, now Chuck, came to fetch his mother and ended up staying for drinks and conversation. We’d never spoken more than a few words before—when I was a little girl he was already a teenager—but that evening we discovered a mutual love of poetry. Just not the same kind of poems. He gravitated to poems that were dense, lyrical, metaphysical, while my taste was . . . not that.

 

I asked him to give me his favorite poem for a Poem Elf “assignment.” He emailed me a George Herbert number that I was too lazy to deal with. He sent two more options, an Emily Dickinson poem (the very difficult Miss Dickinson, no thank you) and this Hardy poem. I glanced at it, printed it out and planned to get to it soon-ish, applying the same effort I give to annual plans to touch my toes.

 

Almost five years later “The Darkling Thrush” turned up and I thought, just get’er done. The timing proved—I hesitate to say “serendipitous” because recent events are too dark for that word. Let’s say the timing fills me with wonder, considering that I truly I had not read this poem ever, at all, and had no idea what it was about.

 

After the year we’ve had—and I’m talking about 2021—any poem that offers light in darkness is a welcome guest in my head.  But this one is just beyond. So beautiful, so un-treacly, so begging to be read out loud and memorized, so seasonally and emotionally timely.

 

Charlie, forgive me, I won’t be offering an in-depth look at “The Darkling Thrush” however much the poem deserves such scrutiny. My completed assignment is just the sound of oohs and ahhs and a big “Come outside and look at the moon!” scrawled across my blue book. (If you want a meatier but still accessible discussion of the poem, link here.)

 

Hardy’s language is dazzling; the world it creates is not. Everything is gray, broken, lifeless. It brings to mind black-and-white Bedford Falls sans George Bailey. And just like “It’s A Wonderful Life,” Hardy’s world is mesmerizing even in its ugliness. Here’s his description of the barrenness of winter—

 

The ancient pulse of germ and birth

      Was shrunken hard and dry

 

Here’s what he sees when he looks up—

 

The tangled bine-stems scored the sky

      Like strings of broken lyres

 

(FYI bine is basically a hard vine.)

 

It’s deathly quiet there by the coppice gate. Nature’s lyre is silenced so to speak, and there’s no human chatter because they’ve all gone home to warm up. Image after image, the poem is relentlessly visual until a joyful noise breaks through the bleakness.

 

Wonderful that the thrush is an old one. The quality of hope would be different if a Shirley Temple bird sang rather than one who’s been around the block and still sees reason to warble —

 

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,

      In blast-beruffled plume,

Had chosen thus to fling his soul

      Upon the growing gloom.

 

And then we come to that last stanza. Doesn’t it feel that it’s been written for us, for right now, for this winter, for this uneasy moment?

 

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.

 

 

Darkling thrush, wherever you are, show yourself! We are in need of your song.

 

*

 

I wondered what a thrush looks like and discovered there are many varieties of thrush, each with its own look and sound. I’ve narrowed down the list of Hardy’s bird to two kinds, the song thrush and the mistle thrush. Both live in the southwest of England where he lived, both sing in the late evening and both sing in winter. Of the two, I’m pretty certain The Darkling Thrush is the mistle thrush because they enjoy singing in the worst of weather. Enjoy the video below, “Know Your Thrushes.” Getting to know your thrushes is a very pleasant distraction indeed.

 

 

 

*

 

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was born the oldest of four in a small village forty-some miles southwest of Stonehenge. His father was a stonemason and fiddler. He was a sickly child and as an adult was a very small man, barely over five feet, a fact I mention because some compare the tiny thrush to Hardy himself.

 

He was an architectural apprentice in London but missed the rural landscape he grew up in. He worked as an ecclesiastic architect for ten years in London and Dorset, writing in his spare time and publishing an unsuccessful novel. He married and moved back to Dorset where designed and built his house, Max Gate, now part of the National Trust. Eventually he was able to make a living solely from writing.

 

He became estranged from his first wife, supposedly in part because she objected to the dark view of marriage he presented in his novels. When she died he married his secretary, 39 years his junior, but mourned his first wife the rest of his life.

 

Hardy considered himself primarily a poet, but I suspect most people know him as I do, as the writer of those wonderful, big depressing Victorian novels like Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. He wrote fourteen novels altogether (and they are all long) and loads of poetry which influenced the likes of Auden, Frost and Larkin.

 

He was nominated twice for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He died at age 87. A  controversy over where he was to be buried was resolved when his heart was interred next to his wife’s grave in his native village and his ashes in Westminster Abby Poet’s corner.

 

 

 

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poem is next to the pool cues

The Self-Unseeing

by Thomas Hardy

 

Here is the ancient floor,

Footworn and hollowed and thin,

Here was the former door

Where the dead feet walked in.

 

She sat here in her chair,

Smiling into the fire;

He who played stood there,

Bowing it higher and higher.

 

Childlike, I danced in a dream;

Blessings emblazoned that day;

Everything glowed with a gleam;

Yet we were looking away!

 

 

If Thomas Hardy wrote this poem today, he might title it, “The Self Unrecorded” and change the last line to “Yet we forgot to press play!”

 

The mania for documenting even the most private events on social media may be a tired theme of editorials and parent-to-parent conversations, but this old poem provides a fresh look at the issue.  Once upon a time when memory was human and not digital, charming scenes like the one in the poem had to be experienced and reflected upon before they could be re-created in literature, music or art.

 

Hardy, in this jewel of a poem, laments, or pretends to lament, that he was so wrapped up in the moment that he didn’t realize how precious and passing his domestic paradise was.  A little boy dances by the fire to the music of his father’s fiddle.  Even at the distance of a hundred years we can see how darling this dreamy boy is.  No one is watching him, not his mother, who looks into the fire, and not even himself from his mind’s eye. He’s not performing: he’s living.

 

For Hardy, the self unseeing is both the child who didn’t see how good and sweet his home life was and the grown man revisiting the scene who can’t see, in a literal sense, what has passed.  The door, the fire, the music, the people, all gone.

 

In an age when people document, record and stage every event and non-event of their lives—even giving birth and having sex, the two moments of our greatest abandon–—is the self unseeing even possible?*

 

But poem’s lovely re-creation of a childhood memory suggests a question that’s still valid today:  if the child weren’t so wrapped up in a dream, that is if he were acutely aware of the value of his family life and the fleeting quality of the moment, would he even dance?  Would his dance be less pure, less sweet for being self-conscious?

 

The choice is to be in the moment or to remember it.  If a moment glows with a gleam, and you stop to tell yourself, remember this always, haven’t you ruined it just a little?  Added a drop of mortality and loss before any loss has occurred?

 

To put it in the language of the poem, is it better to daydream, to dance and make music, or to be the self seeing?

 

I’m on the side of dancing and daydreaming, of unseeing, of abandon, though perhaps as a mother who never owned a video camera, I’m renaming my own neglect.

 

I left the poem in an old bar in southwest Detroit, a favorite of a friend whose grandparents once lived across the street. As a little boy, my friend used to come here with his grandfather and sit at the bar with a coke and bag of chips.

 

Talk about floors that are footworn and hollowed and thin. Men came here after working at the nearby Ford or Cadillac plants to relax before heading home. The clientele and décor have changed somewhat since then, but the bones are the same, the bar is the same, the neighborhood feeling is still a draw.  The same family has been running the bar since 1910, and the vigorous 88 year-old owner still chats with her customers as she pours a stiff drink. Much of the pleasure of going here is the strong sense of the past, of the working men of Detroit, their small pleasures and relief from the factory floor.

 

Thomas Hardy by Britannica Image QuestThomas Hardy (1849-1928) was born in a rural village in England. His father was a stonemason and fiddle-player, and his mother was a former cook.  She loved literature and taught him to read when he was four.

 

Hardy wanted to go to university but couldn’t because his family was poor. At age 16 he apprenticed to an architect and had a career working on the restoration of churches.  He didn’t marry till he was 30.  After a few years he and his wife became estranged, probably because of his frequent infatuations with other women and the isolation he needed to write. Even so, he was traumatized when his wife died in 1912. He later married a woman 39 years younger than he was.

 

A prolific writer, Hardy wrote 14 novels, long ones, and 900 poems.  If you’re looking for summer reading, Hardy’s novels are bleak but they’re all-absorbing, and will pull you away from your Twitter feed into a way of life as long gone as the possibility of a self-unseeing.

 

*Oh dear.  Is this is what Carrie Bradshaw would sound like if she wrote about poetry and not sex?

 


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