Hidden Hope

Thomas Hardy’s life had its share of contradiction. Best known today for his novels, he considered himself first and foremost a poet. Long estranged from his first wife, Emma Gifford, he realized after her death in 1912 that he had, in fact, truly loved her. A passionate critic of class based social restrictions, he died a wealthy man in 1928. Adamant that he be buried with his wife in the village of Stinsford, Dorsetshire, his ashes were instead interred at Poets’ Corner in Westminster. Yet in a compromise between his executor and his family, his physical heart was buried in St. Michael’s churchyard, Stinsford, near Emma’s grave.

Raised in the Anglican tradition, Hardy maintained an emotional attachment to church ritual while abandoning his belief in God. His novels’ main characters, doomed by fate to tragic ends, embody Hardy’s dark vision of life. He was keenly interested in ghosts, desperately sought evidence for life after death, and wrote of overpowering and indifferent forces controlling human lives by chance or whim. This odd assortment of disbelief and credulity, not unusual among late Victorian writers, afforded Hardy space to entertain doubts about his doubt.

That’s evident in his poem, “The Darkling Thrush,” dated December 31, 1900 to mark the close of the nineteenth century. The word, “darkling,” meaning “growing dark” or “characterized by darkness,” recalls Matthew Arnold’s bleak hymn to the death of faith .

The first voice in Hardy’s poem sees the wintry world as a dry and shrunken corpse populated by seemingly dispirited creatures. In this twilit and frigid wasteland, a second voice appears as a thrush unexpectedly flings “his soul upon the growing gloom,” singing in unrestrained ecstasy. Hardy pauses to wonder at the bird’s response to a landscape he finds so desolate and deathlike. Is this thrush privy to some larger hope invisible to him? He may not have had a (re)conversion experience, but he’s willing to hold his hopelessness in tension with the hidden hope of creatures he took to be “fervourless as I.”

As a long and difficult year finally ends, it’s natural to scan the landscape and mourn the many good people and things that have been lost, broken, or diminished. The mistake is to stop there, ruminating on loss. Hardy – never one to be mistaken for a sunny optimist – reminds us that there’s more to that story. At the closing of the year and throughout the long winter ahead, we betray our best selves if we see only desolation and miss the hope hidden in unexpected beauty and everyday miracles.

The Darkling Thrush

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 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, public domain

Image: Detail from The Magpie, by Claude Monet, 1868.

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