Joy and pain, hope and despair, don’t always seem evenly balanced in Hardy, that’s for sure. Just ask Tess. Or Jude. But for the turn of such a year as this I want to remind myself of the beauty-in-the-midst-of-desolation that we find in Hardy’s ‘The Darkling Thrush’. I’m sure it’s familiar to you, but you can re-read (or read) it here.
Of course, it feels all very Hardy that the poem’s speaker projects his inner bleakness and exhaustion onto the outer world. The imagery in the first two stanzas is pretty relentless—’desolate’, ‘broken’, ‘weakening’, ‘haunted’, ‘corpse’, ‘crypt’, ‘death-lament’: all right already, Tom. We get it!—and though ‘joy illimited’ pops up in stanza three, it’s expressed by a thrush ‘aged… frail, gaunt, and small,/ blast-beruffled’. In the final stanza the ‘blessed Hope’ comes balanced precariously on ‘I could think’ (rather than the more-convinced “I thought”; and you can forget about a solid “I knew”!). It’s not exactly clear grounds for optimism, and there’s a longing, half-hoping, half-fearing wistfulness in ‘The Darkling Thrush’ which we find so often find in Hardy (for instance in ‘The Oxen‘, another of his poems for this time of year).
But hey. Perhaps in Hardy and in 2020 a tentative or ‘trembl[ing] sense of hope is pretty good going. After all, it seems significant that the thrush ‘fling[s] his soul/ upon the growing gloom’: we’re reminded that to hope is an act of courage and commitment (maybe even recklessness). There’s no further to fall if you’re despairing or cynical, but if you’re hopeful you’ve still got something to lose. I find it really helpful to be reminded of the relationship between hope and courage as I square up to another year. Let’s hope that in 2021 we all have cause for some more times of “ecstatic carolling”.