(posted Wednesday, June 24, 1998)
To hear Robert Pinsky read “The Darkling Thrush,” click here.
As the turn of a millennial century approaches, many works of art in various media will respond to that rotation of the calendar. It will be hard for a poet to surpass the poise and penetration of Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” which is dated as being composed on the last evening of the 19th century.
The delightfully vivid bird, with its blend of comedy and pathos, may be Hardy’s bow of his head toward such Romantic birds as the nightingale heard by John Keats in his great “Ode to a Nightingale” much earlier in the century.
Words and phrases like the repeated “seems,” “I could think,” and “I was unaware” enact Hardy’s somewhat skeptical holding back from a declaration that the natural surroundings reflect his mood or the human calendar. The way the first half of the poem ends with the word “I” also makes me feel a recognition that the fervorless or haunted or corpselike quality of the landscape–like the bird’s putative “hope” later–is something that the subjective observer at least half creates.
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 fervorless 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.
Dec. 31, 1900