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.”