Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Winter of Our Discontent: The Darkling Thrush

 

The Darkling Thrush
By Thomas Hardy

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
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.

Thomas Hardy published this poem on the eve of the 20th century,* after he’d had enough of writing novels. The first half of the poem is all death, isolation, and inactivity. The thrush, perhaps a common blackbird, introduces music to the scene and changes it entirely. The thoughts of the listener and author turn away from the dead landscape toward joy and hope.

I love that these few lines contain another place and time that I can experience with such immediacy without even leaving my house. The songbird inspired the poet to create something even more beautiful and lasting, which I can appreciate and ponder from the page of a book or lines on a screen. Having returned to it over and over in recent years, I can even recall some of lines to myself (if I really applied myself, I could memorize the entire work).

For more analysis of the poem, Richard Brookhiser recently wrote an essay in National Review. Like Brookhiser, I just love the language of the poem. I love that the song is “full-hearted” and not “full-throated,” and the description of “blast-beruffled plume.” It’s a reminder to be joyful, which I often need, while at the same time acknowledging how difficult that is.

The passing of Roger Scruton has made me reflect on the role of beauty, which as he said, redeems our suffering. I recognize that possibility in the beauty of “The Darkling Thrush” since it offers all of us a way to alter our perception of even the bleakest circumstances.

Today began with a dusting of snow, then sleet, and now rain. It’s a fittingly wintry day to look toward a solitary pursuit like reading to find beauty and pleasure. When we take the time to appreciate it, the best writing elevates us and our sense of being human. Especially in winter, I think that writing may perform that role even better than seeing beautiful paintings or sculptures in museums. With reading, we can revel in the beauty of language without the need to travel or compete with crowds.

Hardy describes a solitary scene, and we probably experience it best when reading alone. Still, I wanted to share it with you, in the hope that it would ease any discontent among my fellow readers.


*Interestingly, some sources say that this poem was published on December 29, 1900, and others that it was written on December 31, 1900. In either case, Hardy is marking the passing of the old century and looking toward the new one. It would seem then, that he would have considered 1901 to be the start of the 1900s. With the controversy over whether 2020 marks the beginning of a new decade, I wonder whether he shouldn’t have written the poem in 1899. Maybe back then everyone was in agreement on when to start counting a new decade or century, or if not, they had to keep it to themselves.

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There are 21 comments.

  1. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Lovely, thank you. I can’t say I’m a great fan of Hardy’s novels, but some of his poetry is among the best that ever was.

    • #1
    • January 18, 2020, at 4:00 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  2. Arahant Member

    Lilly B: With the controversy over whether 2020 marks the beginning of a new decade, I wonder whether he shouldn’t have written the poem in 1899. Maybe back then everyone was in agreement on when to start counting a new decade or century, or if not, they had to keep it to themselves. 

    There was no year zero. The first decade was 1-10 CE, inclusive. The first century was 1-100 CE, inclusive.

    • #2
    • January 18, 2020, at 4:08 PM PST
    • 1 like
  3. Arahant Member

    Also, thanks for bringing more poetry to Ricochet.

    • #3
    • January 18, 2020, at 4:08 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  4. Gossamer Cat Coolidge

    Lilly B: That I could think there trembled through
    His happy good-night air
    Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
    And I was unaware

    What a beautiful poem! I had not read it before, but I’m surprised that these last lines are not more well known. Or perhaps they are and I just do not know them. Takes the poem to a completely different place from where it started.

     

    • #4
    • January 18, 2020, at 6:22 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  5. Arahant Member

    This reminds me of a German poem I translated years ago. I may have to fire up the old computer that has that info.

    • #5
    • January 18, 2020, at 6:35 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  6. JennaStocker Member

    “I love that the song is ‘full-hearted’”

    Perfect. Thank you for this post and especially your emphasis on beauty as a kind of redemption for suffering. It’s not lost on my life experiences that trying times – those that may take us to the depths of hopelessness- make us pause and allow for the reflection of those things we in which we can rejoice.

    • #6
    • January 18, 2020, at 7:27 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  7. Lilly B Coolidge
    Lilly B

    She (View Comment):

    Lovely, thank you. I can’t say I’m a great fan of Hardy’s novels, but some of his poetry is among the best that ever was.

    I absolutely willed myself to finish Tess of the D’Urbervilles. There was so much walking back and forth, although all the trudging was exquisitely described. Maybe the end is supposed to make it all worthwhile, as a reader, but I hated it and ultimately did not like the character of Tess. I have never seen the Roman Polanski movie version, but perhaps I should.

    • #7
    • January 18, 2020, at 7:56 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  8. Lilly B Coolidge
    Lilly B

    Arahant (View Comment):

    This reminds me of a German poem I translated years ago. I may have to fire up the old computer that has that info.

    Please do!

    • #8
    • January 18, 2020, at 7:56 PM PST
    • 1 like
  9. Lilly B Coolidge
    Lilly B

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Lilly B: With the controversy over whether 2020 marks the beginning of a new decade, I wonder whether he shouldn’t have written the poem in 1899. Maybe back then everyone was in agreement on when to start counting a new decade or century, or if not, they had to keep it to themselves.

    There was no year zero. The first decade was 1-10 CE, inclusive. The first century was 1-100 CE, inclusive.

    Yes, so that has created problems for us moderns who think that 2020 should be the start of the 20s, or that 2000 was the beginning of the new millennium. Was there a Ricochet debate earlier this month? There must have been a debate somewhere, since I recall there being very vehement disagreements. Who’s the authority on whether we are officially in a new decade? For example, doesn’t it just make sense that 1980 is part of the “80s”?

    • #9
    • January 18, 2020, at 8:01 PM PST
    • 1 like
  10. Arahant Member

    Lilly B (View Comment):
    I have never seen the Roman Polanski movie version, but perhaps I should.

    Eh, Roman Polanski? Perhaps you shouldn’t.

    • #10
    • January 18, 2020, at 8:10 PM PST
    • 1 like
  11. Arahant Member

    Lilly B (View Comment):
    Was there a Ricochet debate earlier this month?

    Yes, on one thread or another.

    Lilly B (View Comment):
    For example, doesn’t it just make sense that 1980 is part of the “80s”?

    It’s simple math. However, I don’t really care. If you want this to be the 2020s decade, why should I care? Some say the 1970’s began in ’67 and ended in 1982. Group ’em how you want them.

    • #11
    • January 18, 2020, at 8:14 PM PST
    • 1 like
  12. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Lilly B (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):

    Lovely, thank you. I can’t say I’m a great fan of Hardy’s novels, but some of his poetry is among the best that ever was.

    I absolutely willed myself to finish Tess of the D’Urbervilles. There was so much walking back and forth, although all the trudging was exquisitely described.

    lol. A perfect review of most of his novels.

    My favorite Hardy poem (I know, for those of you who’ve been around for awhile, I’ve said this before) is The Blinded Bird, which, along with a short explication, can be found at the link. That a man who could write such exquisitely sentient poetry, and could then churn out such turgid, “trudging” novels is a mystery. Although many of them, like those of Dickens, were first published in serial installments. Perhaps that explains some of it.

    • #12
    • January 19, 2020, at 5:04 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  13. Jim George Member

    @LillyB, what a lovely way to start my morning here on an almost freezing Florida Panhandle morning-thank you for the poem, your thoughts and the link to the Brookhiser analysis which really helped fill in some of the blanks for a poetry novice like moi! As a mater of fact, and not to be too obvious about it, I must say my exhilaration about reading this work of such beauty was “full-hearted”, with appreciation to you and the poet for this haunting piece. And, not to introduce something of a negative note upon the full-hearted evensong, this note “Of joy illimited” is so welcome, and in such stark contrast, in a day when the “dregs” seem to hold sway in our Nation’s capital, and, sadly, elsewhere-including your State at this time of roiling tensions over yet another attempt to diminish (read: take away) the Second Amendment. 

    Your note about the passing of Sir Roger brought to mind the magnificent BBC special “Why Beauty Matters”, which I cannot recommend highly enough; it is truly one of the rare examples of a work of video approaching the level of art itself. 

    I highly recommend to all our colleagues the final line in the Brookhiser analysis: “Resemble the thrush, if not for eternity, then for today and tomorrow.”

    Thank you! 

    • #13
    • January 20, 2020, at 5:28 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  14. Lilly B Coolidge
    Lilly B

    Jim George (View Comment):

    @LillyB, what a lovely way to start my morning here on an almost freezing Florida Panhandle morning-thank you for the poem, your thoughts and the link to the Brookhiser analysis which really helped fill in some of the blanks for a poetry novice like moi! As a mater of fact, and not to be too obvious about it, I must say my exhilaration about reading this work of such beauty was “full-hearted”, with appreciation to you and the poet for this haunting piece. And, not to introduce something of a negative note upon the full-hearted evensong, this note “Of joy illimited” is so welcome, and in such stark contrast, in a day when the “dregs” seem to hold sway in our Nation’s capital, and, sadly, elsewhere-including your State at this time of roiling tensions over yet another attempt to diminish (read: take away) the Second Amendment.

    Your note about the passing of Sir Roger brought to mind the magnificent BBC special “Why Beauty Matters”, which I cannot recommend highly enough; it is truly one of the rare examples of a work of video approaching the level of art itself.

    I highly recommend to all our colleagues the final line in the Brookhiser analysis: “Resemble the thrush, if not for eternity, then for today and tomorrow.”

    Thank you!

    You’re welcome, and thank you for such a positive note to start my morning. I won’t even complain that you’re another Floridian claiming to experience winter, since we at least have sunny skies today in Virginia. The sunshine is deceptive though, when you factor in the cold and wind. It’s 25 degrees out, but it feels like 15! If I wait until the late afternoon to walk the dog, it may actually be above freezing. The weather forecast for rest of the week looks similar, so I predict short walks.

    Speaking of being out in the freezing cold, I wonder if the weather will keep many people from showing up to the gun rights rally in Richmond. I’m far more interested to see what comes of the legislative overreach in Virginia than I am in Impeachment.

    I also loved “Why Beauty Matters” and recently made my daughters watch it. If you haven’t read Scruton’s book Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, I recommend that, too.

    I find it fascinating that we do feel encouraged to resemble the thrush when reading Hardy’s poem, since Hardy himself seems to have had such a dark view of the human experience. Ultimately, I think the complicated human comprehension of the scene Hardy describes and his own professed “unawareness” of the reason for joy is what gives the poem so much meaning.

    • #14
    • January 20, 2020, at 6:58 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  15. Clifford A. Brown Contributor

    The post and comments together show why you need to subscribe to Ricochet.

    This conversation is part of our Group Writing Series under the January 2020 Group Writing Theme: Winter of Our Discontent. Share your tale of winter, discontent, content, or maybe tell us a tale of someone done wrong by an author or film maker. There are plenty of dates still available. Our schedule and sign-up sheet awaits.

    Interested in Group Writing topics that came before? See the handy compendium of monthly themes. Check out links in the Group Writing Group. You can also join the group to get a notification when a new monthly theme is posted.

    • #15
    • January 20, 2020, at 6:21 PM PST
    • Like
  16. Jim George Member

    Jim George (View Comment):
    Your note about the passing of Sir Roger brought to mind the magnificent BBC special “Why Beauty Matters”, which I cannot recommend highly enough; it is truly one of the rare examples of a work of video approaching the level of art itself. 

    @LillyB, although I’m not sure of how widely accessible it is, the remembrance of Sir Roger in the new issue of the New Criterion by its Editor, Roger Kimball (one of the very few people in the universe I would put in a general comparison with Sir Roger in the field of letters and magnificent use of the English language), is worth reading. The more I read about Sir Roger, including this piece, the more in awe I stand of his life and achievements– philosophy, music — including writing two operas! — , wine, art, architecture, fifty (50!!!!!) books, including several novels and, as if that was not enough, many years behind the Iron Curtain actively working with and helping the countries of Central and Eastern Europe escape the horror of communist rule. In fact, the last honor he received shortly before he died was presented by Hungary in a ceremony in which the President of Hungary stated that while the Soviet Union existed, Sir Roger “wasn’t just opposed to communism philosophically: he was an ardent and active ally to anti-communist forces in Central and Eastern Europe.” 

    Here is a link to the new issue; I sincerely hope it works as I know you, and all who are interested in this true Renaissance Man, will find it most interesting.

    Sincerely, Jim

    • #16
    • January 21, 2020, at 9:37 AM PST
    • 1 like
  17. Lilly B Coolidge
    Lilly B

    Jim George (View Comment):

    Jim George (View Comment):
    Your note about the passing of Sir Roger brought to mind the magnificent BBC special “Why Beauty Matters”, which I cannot recommend highly enough; it is truly one of the rare examples of a work of video approaching the level of art itself.

    @LillyB, although I’m not sure of how widely accessible it is, the remembrance of Sir Roger in the new issue of the New Criterion by its Editor, Roger Kimball (one of the very few people in the universe I would put in a general comparison with Sir Roger in the field of letters and magnificent use of the English language), is worth reading. The more I read about Sir Roger, including this piece, the more in awe I stand of his life and achievements– philosophy, music — including writing two operas! — , wine, art, architecture, fifty (50!!!!!) books, including several novels and, as if that was not enough, many years behind the Iron Curtain actively working with and helping the countries of Central and Eastern Europe escape the horror of communist rule. In fact, the last honor he received shortly before he died was presented by Hungary in a ceremony in which the President of Hungary stated that while the Soviet Union existed, Sir Roger “wasn’t just opposed to communism philosophically: he was an ardent and active ally to anti-communist forces in Central and Eastern Europe.”

    Here is a link to the new issue; I sincerely hope it works as I know you, and all who are interested in this true Renaissance Man, will find it most interesting.

    Sincerely, Jim

    I don’t see the link, but I will see if I can find it. It’s amazing how much he accomplished. 

    • #17
    • January 21, 2020, at 10:34 AM PST
    • Like
  18. Jim George Member

    file:///C:/Users/Jim/Downloads/volume_38-number_6.pdf– so sorry– I enter a plea of Advanced Senioritis! 

    • #18
    • January 21, 2020, at 10:44 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  19. Jim George Member

    @LillyB, the piece about Sir Roger just showed up on Powerlineblog.com, so here is the link in the event you had a problem with the first one I sent–https://newcriterion.com/issues/2020/2/roger-scruton-19442020– hope this works, 

    Sincerely, Jim

     

    • #19
    • January 22, 2020, at 9:53 AM PST
    • 1 like
  20. CarolJoy, Above Top Secret Coolidge

    I must have missed this immensely satisfying poem when it was published a few weeks ago.

    Tonight the furnace is raging; the wind is howling, and my settling in to read the description of the thrush and his song puts it all in perspective. Thanks, Lily B, for this treat.

    • #20
    • February 7, 2020, at 12:12 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  21. Arahant Member

    CarolJoy, Above Top Secret (View Comment):
    Tonight the furnace is raging; the wind is howling, and my settling in to read the description of the thrush and his song puts it all in perspective.

    Paints a picture, doesn’t it?

    • #21
    • February 7, 2020, at 2:08 AM PST
    • 1 like