Cold whittles the bird population down. By December, all that remain are the clean-up crew — hawks, owls, buzzards — the noisemakers — crows, jays, woodpeckers — and the winter flock of dusky little ones. Thomas Hardy wrote a poem about a year-end encounter with a wintry bird, “The Darkling Thrush.”
A number of eminent Victorians left the faith of their birth, a few for Rome, more for nothing. Hardy fled to a very dour faith — in an often malicious Fate, working through the iron laws of Nature. His creed both enabled and hobbled his genius, giving his novels and poems gravity while tugging them into rigid patterns. Sometimes he stacked the deck so grossly, he stumbled into unintended humor: The suicide of the starving children in Jude the Obscure is the atheist’s death of Little Nell. At other times, even at his hokiest, the reader’s snark dies in the mouth: “The Convergence of the Twain,” about the predestined meeting of an ocean liner and an iceberg, would be almost a Hammer film if it were not taken from the headlines of April 15, 1912.
Hardy’s bird poem begins this way.
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
Hardy country for sure.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
Everything we see is ruined (dregs, broken) or dead: The frost is like a spectre (Brit spelling), and the neighborhood’s population — not visible — haunts it. Nothing speaks: The bine-stems recall snapped lyre strings. (Scored is a particularly well-chosen word: It can refer to arranging a piece of music, but here it means scratching.) The eye of the sun is about to shut.
Hardy goes on.
The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant . . .
Hardy’s poem was published on December 29, 1900 (a poet friend of mine emailed me a copy on Y2K). This is a portentous touch, but the poem describes feelings that can arise every winter.
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
There is a voice after all, but it is only the mourning wind.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry . . .
Not to embarrass anyone, but when it is bitter cold we men feel it in our testicles. If ladies experience uterine sensations of a similar kind, discuss among yourselves.
And every spirit upon earth . . .
Seemed fervourless as I.
Winter, century, windy silence — and we can tell, by looking at the page, that we are only half done. But wait:
At once . . .
I love these words, they ring like a bugle. Listen! Ten-shun!
. . . a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
For the first time, we get a full four-line thought. All the previous quatrains have been compound sentences, or jammed-together clauses. But this voice goes on and on; indeed, the emotion it expresses is illimited.
Who is the singer?
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
More music, filling four lines. Hardy even adds an internal rhyme, thrush/thus, to ornament the terminal ones. This singer will not stop for the wind, or the growing gloom. I do not know how it is with English thrushes, but robins, despite their reputation as harbingers of spring, do overwinter in my part of the country, in flocks that move about as they forage.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound . . .
I also love that word “ecstatic.” The “c”s and “t”s pop like firecrackers (anticipated by the “t”s and “c”s in the line before).
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.
This concluding sentence is also the longest in the poem, eight lines, and it covers a great emotional and intellectual distance. The blessing and the capital letter attached to “Hope” recall the proximity, almost at year’s end, of Christmas, as of course do the words “carolings” and even “evensong.” The thrush seems to be a churchgoer, possibly (given where it lives) an Anglican. Its good-night air is happy because it expects to wake up, either in the same old landscape or, one day, in a much better one. Hardy does not share the hope, however, so we end where we began.
Or do we? There is more going on in the poem, perhaps more than Hardy intended. (The new criticism, on which I was weaned, taught us to attend to the poem, not to the poet’s ideas about it.) There is a third voice in “The Darkling Thrush” — Hardy’s. He is like the thrush in a couple of important respects. While not aged — he was 59 when he wrote it — he was getting on. Like the thrush, he is outdoors. The neighbors may be hunkered down, but he and the bird are out in one of the coldest, shortest days of the year.
All the meanings of that day are Hardy’s. The facts he describes are few: frost, dusk, clouds, wind, birdsong. The rest is metaphor and simile. The land doesn’t know from centuries or corpses, the clouds do not think they are a crypt, the wind is just blowing. And while I do not think it is anthropomorphic to attribute joy to a bird-brain, the idea of Hope is the listener/poet’s: I could think . . . Hardy claims in the last line to be unaware of it. But of course he is aware of it; he wrote it down. When someone asked H. L. Mencken whether he believed in infant baptism, he answered, “Believe in it — I’ve seen it done!” What Hardy, like Mencken, cannot do is know — acknowledge — it.
That is his problem. And his opportunity. Resemble the thrush, if not for eternity, then for today and tomorrow.
National Review Institute (NRI) is the nonprofit 501(c)(3) journalistic think tank that supports the NR mission and 14 NRI fellows (including this author!), allowing them to do what they do best: Advance principled and practical conservative journalism. NRI is currently in the midst of its End-of-Year Fund Appeal and seeks to raise over $200,000 to support the work of the NRI fellows. Please consider giving a generous end-of-year tax-deductible contribution to NRI. Your gift, along with all those from the NR Nation, will provide the essential fuel for our mission to defend those consequential principles for which National Review has fought since 1955, and for which, with your support, it will carry the fight far into the future. Thank you for your consideration.
This article appears as “Some Blessed Hope” in the December 31, 2019, print edition of National Review.