The Darkling Thrush

In each of the last two weeks, we’ve been looking at good poems that have nevertheless had some imperfections, and we have examined how we as writers might be more sensitive to such things as we construct our own poems. We will be doing the same thing today with another fine poem. Enjoy the poem below, and then, if you’d like to learn more about the craft of writing poetry, consider the commentary below.

The Darkling Thrush
by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

I leant upon a coppice gate,
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled vine-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 me
The Century’s corpse outleant,
Its crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind its death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervorless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead,
In a full-throated evensong
Of joy illimited.
An ancient thrush, frail, gaunt and small,
With 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.

The meter may feel familiar to you: it is the same meter used by Abraham Lincoln in the poem of his we looked at last week. We may scan it like this:

~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /
~ / ~ / ~ /

Now when writing in this meter, it is quite permissible for the poet to deviate a little, so long as the dominant beat structure is uninjured. For example, one might need to use a word that has two unstressed syllables next to each other, and this can be done so long as we leave the correct number of beats in a line (the technical vocabulary for this is called anapestic substitution, using an anapestic ~ ~ / foot in place of an iambic ~ / foot). Thomas hardy does this with the line “The Century’s corpse outleant,” which scans as ~ / ~ ~ / ~ /. The line still has its 3 beats, which are separated by unstressed syllables.
However, a little later in that stanza, Harding miscounts his beats. The line “And every spirit upon earth” is supposed to have 4 beats (since each line of the poem has been alternating between 3 and 4 beats), but a natural reading of this line (that is, as we would pronounce it in normal speech, in prose, or even in the first line of any poem, before the meter has been established) would be ~ / ~ / ~ ~ ~ /.

What has happened here? Well, when 3 unstressed syllables occur in a row, the one in the middle sometimes takes on a little extra stress. This typically happens when 3 small functions words proceed in a row. But here, the middle syllable in question is the “up” from “upon.” And how do we pronounce “upon?” Do you say upon ( ~ / ) or upon ( / ~ ) ? In normal speech, we say the first; but in this poem, an over-regularization of the meter would suggest the second.

In English, proper word stress helps us to identify meaning: content words get stressed more than function words, and the roots of words tend to get more stress than the prefixes and suffixes. Over-regularization, or reading the poem with an artificially perfect meter instead of a natural pronunciation, can distract us from the meaning by shifting the stresses around. For example, in the line “The bleak twigs overhead,” an over-regular reading (The bleak twigs overhead) will de-emphasize the noun, twigs. Meanwhile, in the line “An ancient thrush, frail, gaunt and small,” the word “frail” get de-emphasized. In such a line, the poet must therefore consider the relative importance of each word, and order them appropriately. Here, the impression upon the reader is of a gaunt and small thrush, instead of a frail and small thrush: swapping the position of the words frail and gaunt would create the other impression.

Finally, over-regularization can totally distort a line: for example, “In a full-throated evensong,” sounds terrible, for we do not naturally stress an “a” before a word. A more natural reading would be “In a full-throated evensong,” scanned ~ ~ / ~ ~ / ~ /. Note that such a reading yields only 3 beats instead of the 4 that the line is supposed to have. It appears that the poet has made a mistake: possibly he was counting syllables instead of beats, or possibly he had his established rhythm sounding so strong in his mind that he mistakenly read the line with a stress on “a,” and so counted 4 beats instead of 3.

I still like this poem; the last stanza really makes an impact on me, stirring both heart and mind. But I note the error here so that when I write, and when you write, we can work to eliminate such mistakes in our own work; for it would be a pity if some prospective reader missed out on a stirring last stanza because they had to slog through too many difficulties before then, and gave up.

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