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Poem Review: On Hardy's "The Darkling Thrush"

Written by son of rambow on Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Thomas Hardy felt compelled to revolt against a degenerate Victorian hyperaesthesia in which exact articulations, the utterances of meaning and ideas were sacrificed to the melody. What I wish to explore is Hardy's modes of corrective style-- that is, diction, syntax, voice, his use of images and figurative language. It is the premise of this discussion that analyzing elements of poetic style in poems that are generally accepted as representative is one method of exploring the poet's ideas and beliefs. How someone takes or perceives the world is revealed in the way they speak Whether springing from a spontaneous effusion or produced through the fullest exercising of word craft, a poet's attutudes toward what poetry can and should be attempting to communicate are exhibited in style. In other words, style is meaningful and how a poem is said is as revealing as what is being said. I have selected Hardy's "The Darkling Thrush" as a representative poem for this discussion.

Hardy in his prolific output of over nine hundred poems, which he describes in his "Apology" as "miscellanies of verse" in "books of various character", reveals a cast of mind able to accept human experience as a provisional reality of chance and change. A poet's "whole-seeing" can, probably must, occur without an integrating system of belief (Hardy, 559). Hardy's autobiography, The Life of Thomas Hardy, written in the third person, exhibits his personal "reticence" as Tom Paulin notes. Although I find the creation of a seemingly detached biographer by the subject himself as an ambiguous procedure because it creates a persona whether it wants to or not, I believe Hardy's motive was to show a reluctance toward asserting convictions and to resist mythologizing the poetic vocation. In Life, Hardy states that "the mission of poetry is to record impressions, not convictions". He delivers a telling description of how his philosophy translates into a theory of poetry: "Unadjusted impressions have their value, and the road to a true philosophy of life seems to lie in humbly recording diverse readings of its phenomena as they are forced upon us by chance and change" (Paulin, 26).

"The Darkling Thrush" is a poem occasioned by the beginning of a new year and a new century. It is formally precise, comprised of four octaves with each stanza containing two quatrains in hymn measure. The movement of the first two stanzas is from observation of a winter landscape as perceived by an individual speaker to a terrible vision of the death of an era that the landscape seems to disclose. The action is in how the apprehension of this particular moment of seeing changes as the emotional impact of the scene solidifies.

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.

The diction is simple and direct, and the tone is the quiet voice of private conversation. The spectral quality of frost is accurate and unforced suggesting a hoary coating, age, and the ghostly quality literal in its Latin root "spectrum", which means appearance or image. The landscape is an "appearance" we are seeing through the eyes of a subjective perceiver. The phenomena of frost are precisely represented but it also coincides with the psychological state of the speaker which becomes evident as the poem develops. Whether he was leaning on the gate at the edge of a wooded grove in casual observation or from fatigue, a sense of oppressiveness is underscored by consonance. The sluggish weight of "Winter's dregs" picks up and compounds the effect of "spectre-gray" which, in turn, leads into an effect of exhalation in "desolate." The word "dregs" with its strong stress and combination of a hard consonant with a sibiliant in "gs" forces a caesura, and then desolate trails off from its strong stress. "DE solate" when spoken as normal speech lengthens its duration in a falling cadence in comparison to "COPpice GATE" even though it maintains regularity metrically. Although the line is enjambed, the tongue requires a little adjusting, and another slowing down occurs with "The", and "weakening" inserts an extra unstressed syllable, (iamb, anapest , iamb), to the full stop of "day".

The figure of the sun as a "weakening eye" is a personification, a trope resonating off Romantic associations such as Wordsworth's "eye of heaven" for the sun in "Resolution and Independence". It establishes the poem's time as at the closing of a particular day at the end of a seasonal year. Whether the Romantic allusion to visionary powers and their ebbing is noted or not, it is a suggestive adjective for a time when seeing is becoming more difficult due to a reduction of light. As the poem moves further away from visual observation to emotional coloration, it replaces concrete detail with pathetic fallacy, a rhetorical device by which we, in Santayana's words "dye the world our own color" (Santayana, 159).

The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres . . .

The next two lines also have a Romantic link to Coleridge's aeolian harp and the music it made at another dusk when it exemplified Unity, "one Life within us and abroad/ Which meets all motion and becomes its soul". A "wild harp" is also the image opening Coleridge's own "Ode to the Departing Year", a poem in which the harp is unable to evoke a lasting hope (Coleridge, 56). Now , at the turn of the nineteenth century in Hardy's poem, the lyric instrument is broken. It is important to note that the image springs from a concrete detail. The stems of a climbing vine, such as woodbine or hops, that could be found on a gate and neighboring trees, are part of the actual country scene. Vines, denuded and tangled in wintertime, do look like a mess of sprung strings. The vines elaborate subtly on the idea of dregs, both as the residuals of summer fertility and harvest, and the idea of lees, the base remainder of wine. The verb "scored" has several meanings: the idea of tallying up or recording costs or grudges or numbers in a competition as in time's losses and gains reduced to dead stems; the act of notching the sky which is visually accurate if one is looking up through vines and carries a hint of incisions that are painful, and the idea of a written orchestration or musical score which leads the observer to think of music and stringed instruments that are broken. The images, or the things named, of the first four lines have graduated by degrees from the actual things of the real world that they stand for to metaphor and personification, and then to a simile. This is a movement that widens the frame of reference that the tenor has to the vehicle. Hardy is using figurative devices, metaphor, simile, pathetic fallacy, in a way that increases the tentativeness of the comparisons. They resonate with the speaker's thought and emotion at an increasing remove from simple perception of actual details, a move that becomes full-blown in the second octave.

The first stanza ends with the speaker's awareness of the other humans for whom the landscape is also familiar although their effect on it is minimized by the verb "haunted". He was a solitary spectator. They were like ghostly presences that had retired to the comforts of their homes.

And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The first stanza establishes through a natural setting that a significant time, the end of day at the end of the year, is being recollected and retold by a solitary looker standing at a physical boundary, the edge of the woods. The scene has only the barest traces of life, in which natural and human presences are ghostly. What started as a simple description of a winter scene by a physically passive observer subtly develops into a kind of mindscape that implies a vigil. Although the situation of the poem is related in the past tense as a memory, we experience it as an "eye-record" in process , to use Hardy's own term. Hardy's use of figurative devices such as metaphor and simile, pathetic fallacy, his mini-dramas and dialogue poems are typically means of exploring the activity of perception.

Tom Paulin, in Thomas Hardy: Poetry of Perception, provides many examples from Hardy's prose, private papers, marginalia, etc. as well as examples from specific poems that elaborate on the variety of Hardy's researches into matters of perception, optical visions and illusions, and psychological varieties of perceptiveness. In the poem "Alike and Unlike," the experience of looking shows direct optical experience as a moment of seeing tinctured by the activity of the speaker's mind:

But our eye-records, like in hue and line,
Had superimposed upon them, that very day,
Gravings on your side deep, but slight on mine! --
(Hardy, 789)

Paulin points out a similar idea in Milton, where Satan says "The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven". One condition Hardy often dramatizes is the relationship between human consciousness in a solipsistic state and the external world. This is a condition that the Romantics also acknowledged and strove to overcome. Hardy accepts it as a part of man's emotional life. Hardy laments the losses caused by lack of attention "When Life unrolled its very best" in "The Going." In other poems, he evokes many instances of moments when the scenery or weather coincides and seems to be in collusion with emotional states such as the rain in "She Charged Me," which "Bent the spring of the spirit more and more" (Hardy, 277, 365).

Paulin quotes Hardy's notes on an essay by Ruskin. Ruskin is objecting to how second-rate poetry blurs reality when "it does not matter much what things are in themselves, but only what they are to us". The interest for Hardy seems not to be in deciding whether the received impression is true or false, but in how it is affected by the state of mind of the observer. Hardy quotes Ruskin:

The foam is not cruel, neither does it crawl. the state of mind which attributes to it these characters of a living creature is one in which the reason is unhinged by grief. All violent feelings have the same effect. They produce in us a falseness in all our impressions of external things, which I would generally categorize as the "pathetic fallacy" ( Paulin, 18).

Hardy's speculations about the faculty of memory were influenced by ideas raised by scientific empiricists who question whether the sky remains "blue" after the gaze is averted, for example. He was vitally interested in the activity of perception and all its variations when the perceiver's state of mind comes into conjunction with the landscape or external reality as it does in "The Darkling Thrush."

The second stanza introduces the fact that this moment in time also marks the end of a century. The landscape's features become like an immense body layed out. The first sentence shows the speaker's mind encompassing huge spaces of land and sky into the frightening spectacle of the Century's corpse in its coffin. It is a vision of death and cessation in elemental proportions. The sky is a lid. The image is the effect of a "vision" that is boxing in the world and time. "Seemed" is a linking verb that is associated with how something appears to an individual's mind. Its tone is non-assertive, implicitly equivocal, and has the informality of common speech.

The land's sharp feature seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death lament.

The second sentence, which completes the octave, emphasizes earthly shrinkage and dessication. The ending of the century is not a simple closing to the speaker, but an end which seems to sever it from any relation to the future. Every spirit, all of vegetal and human life is under the pall of this death.

The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

"Fervourless as I" is a highly suspicious qualification for anyone who has followed the escalation of emotional pitch in the poem. While the landscape has been painted in all of its funereal hopelessness, the vision is on a grand scale of "ancient" things. The wind "laments". Rather than lacking in intensity and ardor, the speaker's emotions have been boiling up, enlarging the individual response to a universal eclipsing of life force.

At once a voice arose among
The black 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.

The third octave is the most irregular metrically, which is fitting because it is the site of a new, active, alive presence in the poem. The darkling thrush, in all its homeliness and diminutiveness, is the corporeal voice of the real world. It is a local manifestation of an aged symbol. The adjective "darkling" can be traced back to Keats, other bird harbingers in Romantic tradition, and Milton. But, for me, the choice to use it is moving because it seems to de-mythologize the event by attaching the noun ending "-ling" to soften "dark", emphasizing the commonal ( as in "worldling"), and diminutive or familiar (as in "yearling", "darling"). The bird's song is spontaneous and unpremeditated art realized. It "fling[s]" its "soul" into the "gloom" in the antithesis of the speaker's previous flinging of his dispirited soul upon the landscape. It breaks through the boxed-in moment in a joyful act. His exuberance appears to the speaker to be a choice, and not for mere survival in the "growing gloom", but for ardent and full-hearted participation. A lesser poet would have ended the poem here. Hardy refuses to provide a purely cathartic moment.

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.

31 December 1900
(Hardy, 150)

The speaker has not been convinced or transported out of the "growing gloom", but his response has been to "think". The landscape is not rewritten, nor is the fact that an era is over, but his emotional response is to listen to the birdsong and think of hope. Although the "blessed Hope" is a knowledge the bird has and of which the speaker is yet unaware because he cannot see anything in the landscape that justifies it except the bird itself, his acceptance of the unexpected "sign" emanating from a concrete reality, is where I find Hardy at his most humane. Hardy, as the poet outside the poem, is providing a dramatization and a variety of "whole-seeing" as the dialogic voice. And, for all of his negation, the speaker has introduced the ideas of positive opposites to the negatives of death, weakening eyes can strengthen with the new day and new season, broken musical instruments can be repaired, hard and dry seeds can sprout. These implied ideas prepare him, and us as readers, to accept the poem's outcome. The speaker in the poem is taking "a full look at the Worst", a required step in Hardy's thinking toward a "way to the Better" (Hardy, 557). While Hardy states that "we seem to be threatened with a new Dark Age", he shows one imperfect human response through the poem's speaker. In the midst of solipsism and despair, the speaker, nevertheless, is capable of suspending conviction and reacting with joy to possibility. I find the moment believably epiphanic and unsentimental.

Works Cited

# Hardy, Thomas. The Complete Poems. New York: Macmillan, 1976
# Paulin, Thomas. Thomas Hardy: The Poetry of Perception. New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1975
# Santayana, George. Interpretation of Poetry and Religion. Cambridge: MIT Press,

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