10 January, 2011

... of Darklings and Dawnings

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) welcomed the 20th century in with his poem “The Darkling Thrush”. A hundred and ten years later, I share this poem with you:

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 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. 

(Thomas Hardy: December 31 1899)
Is our continuous, if fitful, search, for love and world peace  – or any other penultimate meaning of life we may choose - a blessing or a curse.  Why are we burdened/gifted, plagued/pleased with the question: “What IS the point of it all?” 

Is this poem about the ongoing Cycle of Life, or - as the world entered the 20th century of the Common Era, know also as Anno Domini  (the Year of Our Lord)  - the breaking of that circle, and the shaking of the foundations as Hardy knows them. 

Does Hardy consider that there may indeed be Some blessed Hope”, whereof the thrush knew -  in and through the joyful Evensong soul-outflinging carol -  and of which Hardy was Unaware? 
Or, to quote another, semi-contemporary poet, is there no help, for all these things are so,and all the world is bitter as a tear.? Algernon Charles Swinburne (1873-1909) .

A final, densely-kernelled, word from Thomas Hardy himself, which I will soon explore:  

“Perhaps I can express more fully in verse ideas and emotions which run counter to the inert crystallized opinion – hard as rock… (and maintained by vested interests). If Galileo had said in verse that the earth moved, the Inquisition would have let him alone.”


  1. Every coin has its counter side. Plagued or pleased, baffled or blessed. And how many other shades of meaning come in-between?

    Certainly think we do well to explore the poetic/artistic and musical when it comes to living the prophetic which holds both the same-old and the startling newness of life together.

  2. What a beautiful and thought provoking, heart-stirring poem. I think as long as we can ask the question, "What is the point of it all?" with a seeker's heart, one full of curiosity and intrigue and love for the divine...than it is a blessing. If it is uttered in complacency and desperation of melancholy, then it is, indeed, a curse.