A Poem for the New Year: Thomas Hardy's "The Darkling Thrush"

What makes them great.
Jan. 1 2013 8:58 AM

"The Darkling Thrush"

Thomas Hardy's timely meditation on the turning of an era.

Song thrush in snow with apples

Photograph by iStockphoto.

Hope is not an easy word to use well, in poetry or out of it. Evoking hope too easily can feel kind of glib or damp; saying there is none, though the opposite, can feel sentimental in a similar way. The right shade of belief and doubt can seem impossible to express.

In his great poem for a new year, “The Darkling Thrush,” Thomas Hardy gets that kind of meaning right, I think. Hardy says he “could think” of a “blessed hope” of which he is “unaware.”

The moving precision of those qualifications would not be enough in itself: The formulations gain conviction from the presence of the thrush—possibly the most charming bird ever described in words.

As with Hardy's “The Oxen” for Christmas, in a Slate tradition here is Hardy's poem—which he dated Dec. 31, 1900—reflecting on the turning of a century, as well as a year.

Click the arrow on the audio player to hear Robert Pinsky read this poem. You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes.

"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 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 fervorless 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.

31 December 1900

Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky is Slate's poetry editor. His Selected Poems is now available.

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