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.
31 December 1900
Hardy wrote this at the century’s end, but the poem remains evergreen for each new year’s turning of the calendar leaves. Hardy’s little bird has, in his song, the transformative power to render some promise to a bleak and “fervourless” scene.
Hardy’s little thrush is a superb addition to the tradition of “bird” poems which runs far back. He makes me think of Keats’s nightingale, of Shelley’s skylark, of Stevens’s blackbird, of Yeats’s enameled bird in Byzantium or those “indignant desert birds” of “The Second Coming”.
Hardy evokes a desolate and melancholy image: people have huddled up away from the world, and the sky is marked with “broken lyres”—certainly an image that represents the brokenness of art and music and human aspirations. But an old bird chooses to sing.
Although we are not turning off a century, for many people 2016 has seemed particularly, unusually cruel. We are weakened by deaths and election results. What better than to look to the animals, who keep on living their lives, getting old, and dying and dying faster and yet faster due to climate change. The lives of animals are as threatened as our lives are. It is nothing but a cruel and brutal consolation to think that the polar bears might die out before the humans so. This New Year’s Eve does have an end-of-days quality to it. And I cannot help but think that the “ancient pulse of germ and birth” is desiccated — on the one hand human generation has run riot; on the other so many of the births of humans and animals are doomed to despair as resources are scant and tirelessly shrinking.