Sunday Night Journal, December 31, 2017
Sunday Night Journal, January 7, 2018

52 Poems, Week 1: The Darkling Thrush (Thomas Hardy)

I suppose I read this poem a dozen times or so when I encountered it in one of my college textbooks. It was either second-semester English, where we used the old favorite Sound and Sense anthology, which I still have, or in a higher-level course in Victorian poetry, where we used a lime-green paperback called something like Victorian Poetry: Clough to Kipling. I have just been surprised to find that I still have it, too--I thought it had fallen apart long ago. And it is the one that contains the poem. Both courses were taught by a great instructor, Dr. Eugene Williamson of the University of Alabama. 
As many times as I've read the poem, I never knew what a "coppice gate" was. I didn't think it mattered--I just assumed that whatever sort of gate was, the image of any gate would serve the purpose, and so I never bothered to find out. Just now I looked it up, and learned that a coppice is "An area of woodland in which the trees or shrubs are periodically cut back to ground level to stimulate growth and provide firewood or timber." That was slightly surprising, as I had supposed that a coppice gate was a particular style of gate, not the gate to a coppice.
I was more inconveniently puzzled by "outleant", which made for a sort of bump in the reading. Clearly it was supposed to be a visual description, but I couldn't make it work. One would suppose it to mean "leaning out," but that doesn't make a lot of sense in the context. Now, thanks to the Thomas Hardy Society (link is to a PDF), that's cleared up: it means "stretched out, one of Hardy’s own compounds."

I've always thought of it as a New Year's poem. 

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. 
I often find those last two lines running through my head.


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Hardy was a very good poet.

This is a lovely poem, but I never feel so morose about a winter landscape. Or at least, it isn't at odds with my mood. I feel peaceful and at home there.

I do love it, however, when I see a bright red cardinal sitting in the bare branches.


Ah, haven't read that in ages, but it's a good one!

I never read much of Hardy's poetry beyond what was in that Victorian text. There's a lot of it and I'm sure there are many gems in there.

I don't usually find a winter landscape depressing, either. I would probably be more likely to if I lived in a place with long, cold, dark winters.

It was Sound and Sense that really opened the door to poetry for me. I know that we had studied some of those poems in high school, but I can't remember that. One night while I was doing my homework from S&S for my Freshman English class, I realized that I was really enjoying doing the work, and that I looked forward to the discussion in class the next day.


It's a great anthology. Still in use, I think. Seems like we discussed it here some time ago.

I once read a book on Biblical hermeneutics in which the author said that Bible students should shelve all their commentaries and scholarly works and not even look at one until they had read Sound and Sense. Good advice.

Very good.

I suppose it is a testament to the power of poems and my own subconscious mind that though I have largely ignored poetry since completing my degree in English I recognize this poem as one I had read way back then. Apparently Hardy could do anything.

I don't usually find a winter landscape depressing, either. I would probably be more likely to if I lived in a place with long, cold, dark winters.

I didn't either until I made the move from California to Boston, Mass., where I spent nine of those long winters. Take it away, Emily D.:

There's a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses ...

Now that's interesting because there is a certain slant of light on winter afternoons that I find absolutely numinous.

Probably not the same slant.


Surely it would depend a lot on what your mood is starting out. Also it may not be the same for southerners, even where there's an actual winter.

That's true. The sun is in a different position in the sky in the north.


The thing is that when the sun is low on the horizon in the morning or evening, the bare trees all turn to gold.


Yes, that's one phenomenon. :-)

So, what's another one?


Just saying that it can look many different ways and speak to or evoke many different moods. The one you describe is indeed beautiful but one I haven't seen for many years.

I know what you were saying. I was just windering if there was something else you were thinking of. ;-)


No, I didn't have anything in particular in mind, just that it's so various. Or can be. Winter here is hardly every anything but simply dull. You would never bring "cathedral tunes" into any discussion of it.

"I once read a book on Biblical hermeneutics in which the author said that Bible students should shelve all their commentaries and scholarly works and not even look at one until they had read Sound and Sense. Good advice." That is why I am such a strong proponent of a liberal education for seminarians.

My favorite winters have been spent in Minnesota. I like the slant of the sun and the crispness. I'm originally from Oklahoma, so I am a transplant to the north.

I used to think I would like to live in some place like Minnesota at least for one year, to see what a really serious winter would be like. I did live in Denver one winter and that was pretty shocking to me, and it's relatively mild compared to Minnesota (I think). Now that I'm in my late 60s I'm not so sure. Even mild cold seems colder. This is the age when retirees move down here from anywhere north of Kentucky or so.

This time of year I wish I could work in san francisco.

One January when I was living in Boston, I had to spend three days in Los Angeles for my job. The contrast was unreal, and for the first time in my life, L.A. looked beautiful to me.

Every time I've been to California I've understood why Californians tend to be nature worshippers.

Every time I see the word, "California" I want to get on a plane.

Not working is going to be hard on my California addiction.


It helps to remind yourself that the government of California officially hates you.

But the ocean loves me, and the government leaves me alone.

The government of Alabama on the other hand gave me a $216.50 ticket.


You must have been doing something wrong.


Now that I think about it, it happened in Mississippi.


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