A New Year’s Day Poem

January 1, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

ROBERT PINSKY: Thomas Hardy dated his poem “The Darkling Thrush,” December 31, 1900, the last day of the 19th century, as Hardy figured it. The purest debate about where centuries begin and end should recognize its context in a fact Hardy cunningly evokes: All these divisions are arbitrary and artificial– human nomenclature and refer to human reality, not nature.

I think “The Darkling Thrush” must be the greatest work ever written about the end of the century, and i doubt that it will be equaled. It is also a great work about the difference between nature as it is and nature as we see it in our own terms.

Hardy deals brilliantly with that distinction between our arbitrary numbers and visions on one side, and the real rhythms of time as we try to measure them on the other. He does that partly by distinguishing his own gloomy perceptions from the natural landscape around him. “The Darkling Thrush” begins:

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.

That’s the first half of the poem, and it ends with the word “I.” The subjective “I,” that says the landscape seems like a corpse; the wind seems like a death lament. Here’s the second half of the poem, where what seems and what he could think take another direction.

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.

Then the date: “31 December, 1900.”

I wish you an amusing and productive New Year.