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Featured Poem: The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy

Written by Rachael Norris, 29th December 2020

The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy is chosen and read for us today by The Reader's Head of Learning and Quality, Dr. Clare Ellis.

So many of us approach the ending of one year and beginning of a new with a mixed range of emotions, and reading The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy is a reassuring reminder that such melancholy has often been the case for so many of us.
The poem was written on New Year's Eve in 1900 and yet to me it feels like it chimes into feelings that I experience every year, once Christmas has passed, and we await the approaching January to come.
It has been an especially hard year for us all this time round and no doubt many of will be feeling rather tired. I know I am - I feel the need of a gate to lean upon just like Hardy finds here, all those years ago.
The outlook appears pretty grim as Hardy casts his eye over his local landscape - it is hard to detect any sign of life and even the wind carries sombre notes of a 'death-lament'.
I wonder what a gardener would make of this poem? Especially the lines 'The ancient pulse of germ and birth/ Was shrunken hard and dry,/ And every spirit upon earth/ Seemed fervourless as I.' I felt myself gathering hope at first as I read 'ancient pulse of germ and birth', as if I can trust that a new thrust of life will come through, inevitably, as it has survived through the ages. But I trip up when I follow the line on to read 'Was shrunken hard and dry'. It is so hard to believe that something can live again after it has shrunk into itself - I never quite believe that the strange shrivelled range of bulbs I plant each year will actually flower, for example. I wonder if it requires some inner vision of life to be able to see beyond the literal present? Maybe to realise that things only seem fervourless, but might not actually be completely so?
How did you feel when the voice of the thrush alighted on this scene? 'At once a voice arose among/ The bleak twigs overhead/ In a full-hearted evensong/ Of joy illimited.' Life! It's still there! Hooray! That's how I felt anyway.
I love the way this 'full-hearted evensong' comes from a small scraggily bird as well - 'An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,/ In blast-beruffled plume'. Why? Well, who doesn't root for the underdog in life - aren't we all underdogs? If this little old bird has the courage to make itself heard for the sheer joy of it, to share its inner most heart with a world which holds no promise of return, well maybe I could do the same? Maybe any of us could? Make ourselves heard - for ourselves, and hopefully in the process, for others, for those who are listening for something, someone to hold onto and connect with.
I wonder whether the thrush does really carry 'some blessed Hope' that enables him to carry on singing in such a wholehearted way? Or is this just what we need to believe in as human beings? I'm not sure, but I know one thing: I would not be without The Darkling Thrush at this time of year and will continue to listen out to other such voices from small unassuming creatures which make such a big impact on how I feel able to go on to live and embrace the day, and, indeed, the coming year.
Happy New Year to you all Dear Readers - I hope you hear your own Darkling Thrush as the clock strikes 12!

The Darkling Thrush

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.

by Thomas Hardy

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