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Poem of the Month: January
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Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

The Darkling Thrush

1I leant upon a coppice gate
2 When Frost was spectre-gray,
3And Winter’s dregs made desolate
4 The weakening eye of day.
5The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
6 Like strings of broken lyres,
7And all mankind that haunted nigh
8 Had sought their household fires.

9The land’s sharp features seemed to be
10 The Century’s corpse outleant,
11His crypt the cloudy canopy,
12 The wind his death-lament.
13The ancient pulse of germ and birth
14 Was shrunken hard and dry,
15And every spirit upon earth
16 Seemed fervourless as I.

17At once a voice arose among
18 The bleak twigs overhead
19In a full-hearted evensong
20 Of joy illimited;
21An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
22 In blast-beruffled plume,
23Had chosen thus to fling his soul
24 Upon the growing gloom.

25So little cause for carolings
26 Of such ecstatic sound
27Was written on terrestrial things
28 Afar or nigh around,
29That I could think there trembled through
30 His happy good-night air
31Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
32 And I was unaware.


1] coppice: small wood or copse.

5] bine-stems: shoots from a climbing plant.

6] of: “from” omitted 1903.

17] arose: “outburst” in 1903.


4 Responses to Poem of the Month: January

  1. cehnes says:

    When I first read this poem for my candidacy exam, I focused on the visual aspects of Hardy’s language and some of the broader thematic concerns of the poem. However, what interested me this time (two years later) was the poem’s preoccupation with sound (and the lack thereof) — after all, the poem does close with the thrush’s “happy good-night air.”

    This thought lead me to reflect on one of the main reasons I like this poem: the rich sound of the title — the “The Darkling Thrush.” For me, the way those words feel (and sound) when I say them anticipates the bleak, yet full (or rich) tone and landscape of the poem. Although I am not quite sure where to go with this interest in sound, I wonder in what ways the sound of a poem/poetic line interacts with the subject matter of, and images contained within, the poem.

  2. rmiles says:

    The question that perplexes me is, to what extent is Hardy remembering ‘Kubla Khan’? Apart from Keats, ‘When Lilacs Last’ seems obvious, as a way of establishing the thrush ambiguously as life-in-death, or death-in-life — but the ending reminds me of the subjunctive-conditional of the Abyssinian Maid’s ‘sympathy and song’. If a real echo, then ‘That I could think there trembled through…some blessed hope’ becomes an obvious enough example of romantic irony; that is, in his self-aware way Hardy understands himself to be projecting an impossibility onto the thrush (something he could think, inspired by the bird); that transcendence here is not understood to be a real possibility (as it is especially in Whitman) but only a supposititious one held in the course of poetic figuration; as something always understood ironically.If so the only transcendence the poem holds out is the extremely limited one of the satisfaction of art. This would seem to work with the sound qualities, noted above, where a particularly strong feature, I think, is the recurring assonance with flat vowels — suggesting a kind of Elysian dreariness?

  3. kyuen says:

    A splendid poem! Here are my two cents…

    What I like about it is the shift from indistinctness to distinctness. There is, I think, a blurring of objects (or subjects or concepts, whatever you wish to call them) in the first two stanzas. The poet is part of, or is, the sharp, death-like winter landscape and day; consider the poet’s simple action of leaning on the gate (becoming part of the Hallmark-esque scene), the thought “And every spirit upon earth / Seemed fervourless as I” (15-16), and line 4, “The weakening eye of day”, in which “eye” when recited could be “I”. The blurred objects become distinct entities, however, with the appearance of the thrush – the unexpected element in the landscape (so the poet does not know himself that well). The poet is caught off guard – surprised by joy – to the extent that he temporarily forgets (like Wordsworth?) to speak in dull, tedious alternating iambic tetrameters and trimeters, as shown in lines 19 and 21, and lets slip the usual period at the end of the fourth line in the fourth stanza. The poem ends with the poet contemplating his reaction and, I think, a sense of relief that the thrush is distinct from him – “he knew / And I was unaware” (31-32)…

  4. Linda Hughes says:

    Beginning the “Poem of the Month” feature on VPN with “The Darkling Thrush” is a canny choice. It is one of the most famous poems devoted to marking the new year, and one of the grimmest. The new feature also fittingly nods in the direction of one of VPN’s digital predecessors, the online Poem of the Month long sponsored by the Thomas Hardy Association.

    I want to engage with the media of Hardy’s bittersweet salute to the new century and new year, first in terms of the poem’s prosody. Ballad measure was by no means an unusual choice with Hardy. He had drawn upon ballads for several lyrics in Wessex Poems, most notably in “The Impercipient,” set during a Cathedral service, which like “The Darkling Thrush” juxtaposes intimations of transcendence with stark disbelief. Hardy’s ballad measure in “The Darkling Thrush” is notably regular in the first two stanzas, which increases the impression that this formal choice is quite deliberate—an impression further reinforced by the self-referential mention of the “broken lyres” to which Hardy compares the “tangled bine-stems” that “scored the sky” (lines 5-6). In context, the invariant ballad measure of stanzas 1-2 seems to trope the accumulated body of tradition that is dying out along with the century and, it momentarily appears, nature itself.

    A major break in the poem’s rhythmic regularity occurs in tandem with the thrush’s entrance onto the scene. As if to suggest that what the thrush represents cannot be categorized with anything else in the poem, that the bird is both unknowable and singular, Hardy swerves into a pentameter line consisting of three iambs and two spondees: “An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small” (line 21). The diction of the same stanza also notably shifts, gesturing toward the alternative name for Hardy’s prosodic choice: hymn measure. For now, rather than forms of lyric suited to ancient pagan or folk culture (“broken lyres,” “death-lament”), a natural phenomenon is compared to “evensong” and “carolings” (lines 19, 25). Ammitai V. Aviram comments that in semiotic terms ballad meter signifies an “ambiguity between the hymn and the ballad, the sacred and the profane” (Telling Rhythm: Body and Meaning in Poetry [Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1994], p. 264.) The ambiguous double identity of Hardy’s ballad/hymn measure usefully extends the poem’s dual presentation of the human speaker’s “fervourless” imperviousness to faith or hope and the avian singer’s hymnlike ecstasy suggesting renewed life and hope and the text’s refusal to endorse or deny either.

    Another element of the poem’s original medium is also worth recalling. This lyric was first published on 19 December 1900 in a mass-medium periodical, the Graphic, under the title “By the Century’s Deathbed.” The thrush seems to me a wonderful trope of the poem’s media history—it is fragile and ephemeral, doomed to sing and go, yet also represents an endurance of song that cuts across the moments and media of its delivery. On the Victorian Poetry Network the poem has now been remediated as a digital poem in a digital era. “The Darkling Thrush” may be glimpsed in this medium only for a moment at the click of a mouse yet it nonetheless continues to sing in its place, a newly-inaugurated space that may signify the waning of print tradition but also ushers in new hopes for the future of poetry studies.

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