Darkling I Listen

Posted: September 29, 2010 in Literary Musings
Tags: , , , ,

I can’t think of many better poets of spiritual despair (is there any other kind?) in English than Thomas Hardy.  Oh… there are whiny poets and obscure poets, but no poet that is just so matter-of-factly able to articulate defeat in the face of life’s sheer cussedness.  From his  infinitely depressing ouvre, “The Darkling Thrush” holds a special place in my imagination when I’m feeling self-pitying or irritable or just deeply at odds with the general drift and trend of the world.  Roughly the poem is about a man (we presume) going for a walk on the first day of the year–not only the year, but the year 1900, so the first of the century.  He hears a thrush singing beautifully in a bare bush and wonders, “what the HELL are you doing that for?j”

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.


I always wonder about this speaker–this guy who chooses to be out of doors when everyone else has “sought their household fires.”  He wants to be depressed and seeks a landscape and time and climate that matches his “fervourless” internal monologue.  But that monologue is interrupted by the thrush’s “full-hearted evensong/Of joy illimited,” and the change in the speaker’s tone suggests both irritation and mild contempt.  What in hell’s name does a half-frozen bird have to sing so happily about?  And, despite his derision, the speaker is forced to admit that he “could think” that this silly animal (who has none of the blessings of our enormous human brains) is capable of accessing “Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew/And I was unaware.”  That’s even more depressing than just being in a bad mood:  misery loves company and the bird won’t give it to him.

Speculatively, I’ve considered this a retort to Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” in which the depressed poet tries to fly away with the happy bird but comes back to earth anyway.  That poem ends ambiguously:  “Was it a vision or a waking dream?/ Do I wake or sleep?”  I can see Hardy rolling his eyes at what he would no doubt consider Romantic obfuscation.  He’d say:  “Look, Johnny.  You’re dying of tuberculosis.  You can’t fly with the damn bird, and yes you’re awake.  And, by the way, the bird, even if it were dying of tuberculosis, wouldn’t know it.  So it’s WAY happier than you.”

Both poems indict our big brains–with their annoying capability of self-consciousness–as the major culprits in our daily miseries.  The best “nature poetry” (so-called) always does this.  If we could forget ourselves, get out of ourselves, and just do what we were meant to do (sing, in the case of birds and poets alike), we’d probably be all right.  But, according to both poems, it’s probably impossible or at the least self-delusional.

Because it is the Jewish month of Tishri, the month of “beginning,” I thought it appropriate to meditate on a poem about the new year.  Although Hardy doesn’t help me identify how I begin more positively, he does a bleedin’ good job of showing me what my problem with renewal and recovery is:  ME.


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