Since our times are similar to those of the poet Thomas Hardy’s, and foreboding and fear robbing faith tempts us as it did him at the turn of the twentieth century, I critique his poem, “The Darkling Thrush,” and hope—by so doing—to encourage those who fear only dark and dangerous times await us.
First, let us read his poem:
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.
A Critique of Hardy’s poem, “The Darkling Thrush”
The cold and austere canvas upon which Hardy paints his message in “The Darkling Thrush” belies a colorful hope that is resident within the gut of the speaker but to which his mind is as yet unfruitful. If “contrast is the mother of clarity,” it is hoped that the grayness of winter upon which the vibrant color of the little bird’s song is launched—that accentuates the churning desire within him to know of something that he simply cannot now fathom—will eventually waft its way up into his cognizant mind from his visceral seat.
The door of the next century (and perhaps all of heaven) is shut to him, and but for the peephole-like-thrush-viewpoint, not a ray of hope is shining upon the advent of the coming new century or his eternal future. But because grayness is not devoid of the whiteness of all light, and the cold of winter never shorn of all the heats of past and future summers, there was, and is, hope within this poem, however gloomy a picture Hardy painted with his words.
When he opened his poem leaning “upon a coppice gate” he implied there was yet a portal of hope from which life could spring forth from; the harshly pruned and immature saplings could still grow into a mature grove of trees. Just as many thought that Michelangelo had painted the Sistine Chapel with a dark palate (only to learn later—after many layers of soot had been removed which had built up over the years from many fires—that Michelangelo’s dark palate was perhaps not so dark after all: his work was a vibrant mosaic of many bright and rich colors) so might we realize the “light shining out of darkness” aspect to the art and heart of Hardy.
Almost certainly the Seed of Christ remained in Hardy’s heart (when we are faithless, He remains faithful), but it appears he became overwhelmed by the encroaching darkness of his times. Hardy was honest enough to acknowledge the state of what he saw and felt, but he was no longer expecting illumination. Having begun in the Spirit, he was now being made perfect in the flesh. As was Paul the Apostle’s indictment against the Galatians in times past, Hardy, who had once believed in Christ (and ought to have walked out that faith in the Spirit), was now being intellectually stunted by a moral fog which affected his ability to grasp the deeper significance of things.
If he had stayed the course of Christianity he would have come to the realization concerning God’s way of life: first natural life dies, then resurrects, and finally, after spiritual life gets diffused into flesh, a vibrant, hopeful, even a worthwhile life, emerges. All the seasons and all of nature preach this perpetually, and they are without excuse, those who become hopeless and impatient with God’s long processes and ultimate purposes.
At the “weakening eye of day,” referring to the last day of the year and the last day of a century (he wrote this poem on December 31, 1899) he was reflective and projective, thinking of how the past had more promise in it than what he felt the future had in store for him. He comes to a sad realization that he is being ruled by a “scepter-gray” cold and darkening outlook. All hope for joy was lost to him as he saw the “broken lyres” and the tangled strings that can no longer be strummed to create beautiful and heavenly music; “bine-stems scored the sky,” reaching out like the man with the withered hand did for Christ (but that man was healed) whereas Hardy is left shattered, cold and vacant (and with a still withered means to reach out towards Christ and health).
His heart is a tangled knot that cannot be unraveled or understood (or so he thought). Consequently, he begins to yearn and implore (pray), but he feels he is only scratching the surface of revelation and illumination. Others are gathered about their “household fires” while he is left all alone in a wide world of indifference.
Surely this world offers nothing but grief, pain, and ultimate emptiness if we do not transcend its allure. We would be wise to look for that “city made without hands;” we are but pilgrims passing though this valley of death existence upon this earth. Hardy’s “fervourless” spirit had been broken and made faithless by his own observation and interpretation of the current landscape and what he thought was happening below the surface where an “ancient pulse of germ and birth” had once promised life from the dead.
Hardy ends up following the advice of Job’s wife; she told Job to “Curse God and die” when things became too bleak. God hears Hardy’s internal cursing so He does what His Word says He’ll do –He sends a bird! “Furthermore…do not curse a king…for a bird of the heavens will carry the sound, and the winged creature will make the matter known” (Ecclesiastes 10: 20). So, into “the growing gloom” a thrush is thrust and a hope is cast; God will not allow the night to descend without a witness to His light beyond this world. It is never as gloomy as the human mind and heart can imagine, nor is the joy that God offers ever fully realized on this side of heaven. The common, aged and underfed nondescript little bird, however, could sing a “full-hearted evensong” because it had a knowledge that transcended a superficial understanding of things.
In the end, the idea that “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6) is seen when Hardy misreads God’s ways: as the natural precedes the supernatural, and mortality goes before immortality, so sorrow must precede joy and life must resurrect out of death. Hardy’s resignation to sorrow and bleakness is really his abdication to suffer; his unwillingness to endure hardship and receive the benefits that cleansing and purging can have is born not so much out of ignorance as out of moral cowardice.
It was G. K. Chesterton who said that “sincere pessimism [is] the unpardonable sin,” and the arrogance that settles one’s lone viewpoint like concrete is sure to blind that person to added light and instruction. When Swinburne said, “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath,” he, regrettably, spoke for many feeble believers who were being beguiled by what science seemed to suggest—that Christianity and God were wrong.
God’s revelation of Himself throughout Scripture, however, is made clear not so much by mental acuity as by heart purity. Much of Christianity, during this timeframe (the early twentieth century), had hardened into an erroneous dogma that the simple and unwitting were dismissing without a proper hearing. When Hardy closes his poem by declaring he is “unaware” of where this bird finds hope, he indicts himself; he cannot see because he will not believe—and he will not believe God because he believes only what his natural observational eye (scientific scrutiny) sees and perceives.
Eating Christ’s flesh and blood is designed to displace us down to a molecular level, and every vestige of us must die and be carried away through blood and waste mechanisms. When Christ sweated drops of blood, He began to purge Himself of our sins. Therefore, Hardy’s obtuseness aside, God is able and willing to carry him home; thankfully, God is greater than his heart and knows all things. Faith in the crucible is hoping against hope, and Hardy’s smoldering wick of faith is not extinguished as evidenced by ears that hear a “blast-beruffled” thrush sing a song of “joy illimited.”