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 gateWhen Frost was spectre-grey,And Winter's dregs made desolateThe weakening eye of day.The tangled bine-stems scored the skyLike strings of broken lyres,And all mankind that haunted nighHad sought their household fires.The land's sharp features seemed to beThe Century's corpse outleant,His crypt the cloudy canopy,The wind his death-lament.The ancient pulse of germ and birthWas shrunken hard and dry,And every spirit upon earthSeemed fervourless as I.At once a voice arose amongThe bleak twigs overheadIn a full-hearted evensongOf joy illimited;An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,In blast-beruffled plume,Had chosen thus to fling his soulUpon the growing gloom.So little cause for carolingsOf such ecstatic soundWas written on terrestrial thingsAfar or nigh around,That I could think there trembled throughHis happy good-night airSome blessed Hope, whereof he knewAnd I was unaware.
I often find those last two lines running through my head.