Hardy’s “Darkling Thrush”

I included this poem in my January 1, 2002 entry and I still haven’t found a better poem to start a new year.

Perhaps it’s a testament to the value of art that this poem written at the beginning of the 20th Century seems as valid today as it did the day it was written.

THE DARKLING THRUSH

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 outleapt,
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.

December 1900

I'm really not fond of traditions, but republishing this poem is one of the traditions I really don't mind repeating, particularly since it's the first poem that I ever voluntarily memorized, certainly one of the few I still have memorized.

The Return of the Reader

Although recent readers of this blog may not know that I was inspired to become an English major after reading Thomas Hardy’s novels and poetry in high school, I’m sure I’ve mentioned it several times, most likely on January 1st when I commonly cite Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush.”

Anyway, I was taking an “Honors/Bone Head Class” which had been hastily thrown together by West Seattle’s administration because several of us who had done well overall in our SAT’s had done poorly on the writing section, probably because no one bothered to teach us how to write. At first I had a fit when I was put in the class because I’d never gotten anything but an “A” in an English class and had certainly read more classical literature than 98% of the student body. When I was told that I could either go into the honors class or Mr. Thomas’ bonehead class, I decided I’d take it.

My final class project was on Thomas Hardy, and I bought and read four of his novels: Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure, and Hardy’s Selected Poems. Of course, Mr. Thomas never expected us to do that much work, but once I read Return of the Native I was hooked. I’d never worked that hard on a school project before. In fact, it was also the first “all-nighter” I’d ever pulled and was much surprised to learn that the sun came up at 4:30 in the morning. I considered the “A+” I got on that research paper, and Mr. Thomas’ praise, the greatest achievement of my high school career. Hardy was the reason I changed from a Physics major to an English major when I started at the U.W. the next year.

Those four novels have been sitting on my library shelf ever since, waiting to be re-read. They’re the oldest books I have, except for the four children’s classics my mother bought me for Christmas presents. There’s certainly nothing special about them. Despite just one reading, the bindings are cracking and the pages are turning yellow, but considering how cheap they were, Modern Library books were probably the greatest bargain of my lifetime.

Since there’s very little demand for books like this, I plan on throwing them away after I’ve finished reading them this time because I need the shelf room, and, considering how long it’s taken me to get around to reading them a second time, it’s unlikely I’d ever read them a third time.

Posting might be more sporadic than usual because I don’t think I’ll be commenting on any of the novels until I’ve finished it. I’ve spent nearly three days so far reading The Return of the Native, and it’ll probably take me awhile to figure out what I want to say about it.

Hardy’s “Afterwards”

Although not a typical Hardy poem, I’m fond of the last poem in Moments Of Vision And Miscellaneous Verses, appropriately named:

AFTERWARDS

When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say,
"He was a man who used to notice such things"?

If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid's soundless blink,
The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn, a gazer may think,
"To him this must have been a familiar sight."

If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One may say, "He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone"?

If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the door,
Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees,
Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,
"He was one who had an eye for such mysteries"?

And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom,
And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell's boom,
"He hears it not now, but used to notice such things"?


I can’t imagine wanting to be remembered any other way. I would consider it a compliment if one of my grandchildren observing a butterfly in May after I’m gone would simply say, “Pahtah ‘used to notice such things.’?

Though I’ve never had enough money to preserve a huge piece of land in the Cascades, I hope my grandchildren will remember while hiking those lands that I, too, contributed to their purchase through years of small, but constant donations, my small attempt to preserve nature as I came to know it as a child.

Though I’ve never been much into stargazing, I, too, have “had an eye for such mysteries,? living a life of constant wonder.

Most of all, I hope my kids and grandkids will remember me as someone who “used to notice such things,? taking joy from the simple pleasures of nature even when my personal life was in turmoil or my country wracked by war.

Most of all, though, this poem puts the claims that Hardy was a pessimist or cynic into perspective. Though he looked at life and society directly, his intent was always to free others from the chains that bound them, not to laugh at their misery from on high.

For Life I Had Never Cared Greatly

Though I can’t completely identify with Hardy’s "For Life I Had Never Cared Greatly," it certainly does ring true in some aspects. Since it was written nearly a hundred years ago and still describes the general pattern of my life, I wonder if it depicts an archetypal pattern:

FOR LIFE I HAD NEVER CARED GREATLY
For Life I had never cared greatly,
As worth a man's while;
Peradventures unsought,
Peradventures that finished in nought,
Had kept me from youth and through manhood till lately
Unwon by its style.

In earliest years--why I know not -
I viewed it askance;
Conditions of doubt,
Conditions that leaked slowly out,
May haply have bent me to stand and to show not
Much zest for its dance.

With symphonies soft and sweet colour
It courted me then,
Till evasions seemed wrong,
Till evasions gave in to its song,
And I warmed, until living aloofly loomed duller
Than life among men.

Anew I found nought to set eyes on,
When, lifting its hand,
It uncloaked a star,
Uncloaked it from fog-damps afar,
And showed its beams burning from pole to horizon
As bright as a brand.

And so, the rough highway forgetting,
I pace hill and dale
Regarding the sky,
Regarding the vision on high,
And thus re-illumed have no humour for letting
My pilgrimage fail.

In college it was definitely cool to be “cool,? to talk as if life meant little and nothing was too important. It certainly wasn’t cool to care too much about a girl, or at least to let her know that you cared a lot.

In the crowd I ran with, a certain sarcasm was de rigueur, and sarcasm came easily, probably too easily, for me. Confronted with the turbulent 60’s, my idealism easily turned to cynicism, and after a tour in Vietnam and a year working as a caseworker, I became even more cynical.

I don’t think it was until I was 30, after I had my first child, that I rediscovered the joy in my life, as if I had returned to a childhood. Sharing a child’s joy for life leaves little room for cynicism, or other such nonsense.

Rediscovering nature, though, particularly re-connecting with hiking, as “I pace hill and dale/ Regarding the sky,? did even more to restore my “vision on high? and left me more enamored of life than ever.

As I age, life no longer seems so much a journey as an arrival. No longer worried about some illusory “future? that never appears, I’m pleased to experience today, right now. And that’s made all the difference, as recorded on these pages.

Hardy’s “At a Country Fair”

Most people I’ve recommended Hardy to seem to feel that he is “too depressing,” and I can certainly understand that reaction. Looked at too closely, life may well be depressing. What’s truly depressing, though, is how few people seem to realize there is something they can do about how depressing it is.

We don’t have to be bound by our forefathers’ customs. We don’t have to follow archaic rules that determine how we live our lives. We don’t have to have ridiculous expectations that allow others to exploit our weaknesses. Most of all, we don’t have to be led around blindly by those in power, those who most benefit from our inability to see the world for what it is:

AT A COUNTRY FAIR

At a bygone Western country fair
I saw a giant led by a dwarf
With a red string like a long thin scarf;
How much he was the stronger there
The giant seemed unaware.

And then I saw that the giant was blind,
And the dwarf a shrewd-eyed little thing;
The giant, mild, timid, obeyed the string
As if he had no independent mind,
Or will of any kind.

Wherever the dwarf decided to go
At his heels the other trotted meekly,
(Perhaps–I know not–reproaching weakly)
Like one Fate bade that it must be so,
Whether he wished or no.

Various sights in various climes
I have seen, and more I may see yet,
But that sight never shall I forget,
And have thought it the sorriest of pantomimes,
If once, a hundred times!

While Hardy may well have been inspired to write the poem by observing this depressing scene, he probably doesn’t intend for us to merely become depressed at the thought of some mean-spirited dwarf leading a gentle giant around rural England in some freak show. Hell, most of us can get depressed just looking at our own lives; we don’t need to imagine depressing scenes in far away countries.

No, he wanted us to realize that we are the victims in a gigantic freak show, where, instead of inheriting the kingdom, the meek and timid are led around by some “shrewd-eyed” Karl Rove and his ilk, as if we “had no independent mind,/ Or will of any kind.”

It’s not “Fate bade that it must be so” but, rather, our own fatalistic expectations that tell us that we have no power to change our condition, that we must blindly follow those who claim to see the light, who promise we shall be rewarded on another plane, while they, of course, are rewarded on this plane. Never realizing our true strength nor that truth can only reside within ourselves in the here and now, we continue to be led by others until we begin to follow our own light.

Hardy’s “The Wound”

It’s been awhile since I’ve sat down and read a large number of Thomas Hardy’s poems at one time, and I’ll admit that I find his poetry darker and more pessimistic than I remember from my first reading, certainly more pessimistic than my personal philosophy. Still, I sometimes fear his viewpoint may actually be more realistic than my own.

I remember reading a long time ago Hardy’s statement that he considered himself an ameliorist, not a pessimist; he recognized there was much that was wrong with the world but hoped things were gradually improving. You might be hard pressed to verify that from Moments Of Vision And Miscellaneous Verses, though, where the dominant moods seem to be “regret” and a “sense of loss” two moods I’m not completely unfamiliar with at my age. Of course, when it comes to “love” I’d suppose anyone over the age of fifteen could claim the same.

A sense of “loss” haunts these poems. One of my favorites is the simple:

THE WOUND

I climbed to the crest,
And, fog-festooned,
The sun lay west
Like a crimson wound:

Like that wound of mine
Of which none knew,
For I’d given no sign
That it pierced me through.

The irony of identifying the narrator’s wound with a beautiful sunset somehow appeals to me, perhaps because it suggests that the wound came from a beautiful moment, one that has been lost forever and I, as well as most people, can certainly identify with that. Of course, precisely because it is so common, people dismiss it as if it’s unimportant or insignificant. Everyone else gets on with their life, why not you?

It’s impossible to read this collection of poems without coming to believe that the tragedy that haunts Hardy is a “lost love.” Poem after poem refers to an unidentified lover who has died, leaving the narrator irretrievably forlorn:

THE FIGURE IN THE SCENE

It pleased her to step in front and sit
Where the cragged slope was green,
While I stood back that I might pencil it
With her amid the scene;
Till it gloomed and rained;
But I kept on, despite the drifting wet
That fell and stained
My draught, leaving for curious quizzings yet
The blots engrained.

And thus I drew her there alone,
Seated amid the gauze
Of moisture, hooded, only her outline shown,
With rainfall marked across.
–Soon passed our stay;
Yet her rainy form is the Genius still of the spot,
Immutable, yea,
Though the place now knows her no more, and has known her not
Ever since that day.

From an old note.

On one level this reminds me of a group photo where one person has been cut out, either out of hatred or merely an attempt to deny the past. Of course, trained as an architect, Hardy must have been familiar with the way painters often fill in the background, saving space for the most important subject which would have been filled in later with greater care and detail. You’ll notice that it also seems to fit the poem I cited above quite well.

The fact that even this precious shared moment was “gloomed and rained? on compounds the sense of sorrow. Though there’s no sense of the kind of “dramatic” moment most people would remember or hang onto, indeed, it was short-lived as it “soon passed or stay there is certainly something special about this girl because her rainy form is the “Genius” and is “Immutable.” In other words, it feels precisely like the spot left in your heart when you lose someone you “love.” Sometimes with love, “what might have been” seems more powerful than what “was.”

Hardy’s “Moments of Vision”

I’ve been wanting to return to the poetry of Thomas Hardy where my original love of poetry began, but haven’t been quite willing to take down the Complete Poems and begin reading from the beginning. So, I was pleased when wood s lot provided a link to Hardy’s MOMENTS OF VISION AND MISCELLANEOUS VERSES at Gutenberg.

I was originally attracted to this volume by the title poem, one I still find it powerful after several readings.

MOMENTS OF VISION

That mirror
Which makes of men a transparency,
Who holds that mirror
And bids us such a breast-bare spectacle see
Of you and me?

That mirror
Whose magic penetrates like a dart,
Who lifts that mirror
And throws our mind back on us, and our heart,
Until we start?

That mirror
Works well in these night hours of ache;
Why in that mirror
Are tincts we never see ourselves once take
When the world is awake?

That mirror
Can test each mortal when unaware;
Yea, that strange mirror
May catch his last thoughts, whole life foul or fair,
Glassing it--where?

On one level, the poem seems to suggest that there is an external force (may one dare to suggest, God?) who forces us to look at our true selves, a mirror that forces us to see our “whole life foul or fair? and “glassing it? on Judgment Day.

On another level, though, it seems to be the individual himself, or, perhaps, more precisely, his conscience that re-examines his life and ultimately judges the way he has lived.

Perhaps this poem rings true because after a certain age one is apt to look back on one’s life and make judgments about how that life has been lived. It’s hard not to have a few regrets, and it is perhaps easier to become sentimental about those regrets than to see them in the framework of later events. Actions we wish we hadn’t taken may in the long run actually teach us truths that profoundly affect the rest of our lives.

That is not to say that “in these night hours of ache? that we won’t despair over decisions we’ve made and events that have shaped our lives. One would probably be less than human not to rightfully have some regrets over a lifetime of actions, and I certainly consider myself human.