Was It Always Thrush?

A Fray Editor bids farewell

Last week’s poetry selection from Robert Pinsky cast our readers upon the winter landscape of the English countryside with Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush.” In his introduction, Pinsky argues that this elegiac piece of light verse may serve us well in this moment of transition, expressing our world-weary and half-futile effort to project hope upon the bleakest of landscapes. Professional poets, amateur wordsmiths, and appreciative readers came out to fling their souls upon the Poetry Fray, joining Pinsky in a remarkable discussion of the poem’s theme, structure, and technique. I found the ensuing talk of transitions and thresholds especially poignant as I listened in and searched for the words to use in this, my final Fraywatch column.

What strikes me is how complex and obsessive Hardy’s fascination with boundaries is here. He sets himself on thresholds of time—large ones, the turn from the 19th to the 20th century, and, more local ones, the transition from day to night. He also positions himself between spatial axes, leaning, and thus neither fully upright nor prone, and on a spatial threshold—the gate. These checks, borders and encountered limits, the varying points of demarcation and contrast, some of which the reader only notices subliminally at first, are what bank up the emotion which is suddenly, almost violently released in that shining word “illimited”. Hardy uses these subtle chafings at self-imposed limits to show his words stretching, deliberately ineffectually, towards the ineffable which can, if conditions are right, be intuited but not spoken. Perhaps that’s what modern poetry is? A via negativa, a lonely haunting of once-sacred spots, an overhearing of a strange, unsanctioned music which might or might not any longer be redemptive, a “desolate” searching in the fading light for numinous signs? The authenticity of the experience in “The Darkling Thrush”, as in so many Hardy poems, comes not from fulfillment but doubt, not from messages but withholdings, from a mind showing how it is possible to dwell in uncertainties, to find beauty in absences and, if they are seized hold of in language acutely enough, poetry in the very feelings of finitude, incomprehension and unawareness.

It is this liminality of Hardy’s poem, so eloquently described by Nicholas Jenkins in his post “dark, dark, darkling,” which renders it so apt for this transitional time. Winter walks fast upon its path across the coppice gates. The end of the century’s first decade draws near. The end of a presidential administration fast approaches. For me, the end of my tenure as Fray editor races forward with each final task achieved. One of the themes in the Fray’s discussion of “The Darkling Thrush” was anxiety over the status of poetry in this era (see, especially, this excellent post by laurence green). Yet, with last week’s selection, Pinsky spotlights at least one contemporary role for poetry in our day—to provide a rubric for meditation upon our all-too-human experiences.

This poem hit me very deeply: the mix of overbearing desperation, purposelessness, and ennui with a profound longing for something more, some tentative hope or answer on the horizon—all encapsulated in a poem that offers no true resolution but rather rests on a sense of anxiety and skepticism, an equivocation between optimism and pessimism that lacks any sheer conviction. For example, Hardy only “could think” there “trembled” through the thrush’s air some hope, but he is far from sure, although it is as if he wants to be. This seems to me to be a very religious and existential poem, where the thrush represents a sense of hope and faith in the ways of the world, in imparting meaning on “terrestrial things,” whereas Hardy is more skeptical of any type of faith that will bring him above his gloom. He seems to mourn for the fact that he is not privy to the almost juvenile joy of the thrush, like an atheist who is always unconsciously mourning for some lost god. Either way, Hardy seems to be a forbear of a modernist kind of skepticism and vacillation between hope in progress and desperation in the face of disaster, with no clear answers to be found.

The terms with which swimming_icarusdescribes “The Darkling Thrush”—a vacillation between hope and despair—resonate with me, capturing the feeling I’ve developed from professionally monitoring an Internet forum over the last three years. The Fray has such vast potential in our fractured postmodern world to be a uniting force. It serves as a cybernetic forum, where speakers of all ages and walks of life, scattered across the globe, can exchange stimulating ideas, observations, and anecdotes during the scattered free moments of our all-too-frenetic days. I’m endlessly amazed at how quickly we’ve transformed the Internet into something routine, forsaking its radical demotic potential for our habits of social stratification. Yes, The Fray is chock-full with craziness, outrage, and insensitivity … as any egalitarian human institution is doomed to be. But its proper measure lies not in its lowest elements, but in its highest. And though, on off-days, the true Best of the Fray may take great efforts to find, one need look no further than the excellent work done by Robert Pinsky—marshaling and moderating invited poets, veteran Fraysters, and casual passers-by for this week’s poetry discussion—to catch an online glimpse of Hardy’s ethereal Blessed Hope.

As you return from the holidays this week, I hope you’ll steal a few moments from the daily midwinter grind to review some of the following threads. In this discussion, Matthew Zapruder traces the lineage of poetic modernism through the use of the term darkling. Molly Peacock finds the music in Hardy’s poem with this excellent thread, noting the bird’s song is described within the formal structure of a carol. One of the best, if longest, discussions followed from this observation by Mark Doty—that Hardy’s blast-beruffled bird is in conversation with Keats’ “What The Thrush Said.” Paul_Breslin sparked an excellent conversation here after analyzing the metrical structure of Hardy’s verse. But for all the erudition on offer, I think my favorite post is Dunbar’s far more concrete reminiscence on the bine-stems of his boyhood in the English countryside.

I’ve never learned adequate words for the occasion of goodbye. But, as I take my leave, I would like to thank you all—Slate’s many thousands of readers—for the time you’ve taken to share your thoughts in our forums. It’s been an honor, a privilege, and a pleasure to read your work and share it with others. If you stand among the thousands who have already submitted excellent work to The Fray, please keep the conversation going. May we all aspire to the standard of verbal craftsmanship laid out by Mark Turpin in his analysis of Hardy’s poem:

Hardy is, if nothing else, a craftsman skillfully following the grain of his material, and in that way, hopes to come to something said truly. What is true is that hope and faith and even often joy are about as substanceless as any idea of the “future” (they all lean on next to nothing) and yet are as equally a part of human experience as doubt and despair. That he would marry them, trying with great energy to remove the seam, I would say, is the result of Hardy’s “honest craftsmanship”, however homely, and is why there is always something creditable about Hardy’s poems.

Like the thrush’s song, sincerely spoken words find their audience in even the most barren of seem-scapes. Keep up the good work; it’s appreciated.—GA … 7:30 p.m. PST