Saturday, January 5, 2013

Thomas Hardy Changes His Attitude

A lovely lyric for a cold, final day of a year that hadn't turned out as one hoped. Hardy's rhymes have the grace of being strong and lean, achieving both pacing and impact. There is an efficiency here that, aided with the purposeful emphasis of end rhymes composed of everyday things, the poem evokes the musing of someone in the grip of a bad mood that threatens to fester into a spiraling cynicism. Hardy is, of course, not committing philosophy here nor constructing metaphors to describe unknowable metaphysics as to the actual composition of mood and personality. 
The Darking Thrush /Thomas Hardy

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

He is not a Spenglarian, seeing culture as having peaked during a dubiously termed Golden Age, with matters of arts, politics, and spirit declining ever since. This is a conversation or part of it, something shared at the moment; it is an easy intimacy that lacks pretense, an expression of weariness that at first seems profound and permanent but which, more often than not, passes as we emerge from our thoughts and brooding and get on with our duties.

It's this limited scale, the smallness of Hardy's lyric, that makes the poem effective: a complete lack of pretense. He describes his world, creating a scenario where we know that the particular items in his realm are seen in the light of his mood, which is dour. Rather nicely, he makes this personal and eschews generalizations to the degree of insisting emphatically that the entire world is a depressing, hopeless place.  There is a genuine humility here--his bad feelings needn't be the norm by default. 

Seeing the darkling thrush is a plausible cure for his downcast mood; just as he seems incapable of telling precisely why he had fallen into a state of increasing unease, so to the song of the thrush lifts his spirits and provides him with the proverbial light at the end of the especially dank tunnel he found himself in. Deux ex Machina, perhaps, the hand, or at least a finger of the divine lifting the foul curtain that had fallen over his day. Hardy is smart enough a poet not to attribute the arrival of the thrush and its song to any purposeful agenda; credibly, thankfully, he lets us know that he lives in a universe where such interventions, whatever their nature, happen and that he has the senses to perceive them when they occur.

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