Autumn was in the air this morning! Here in Western Pennsylvania, the temperature bottomed out at 49 degrees Fahrenheit, a delectable foretaste of Fall. For me, it is THE best season of the year, full of harvest, campfires, the warming palette of the changing leaves, and pumpkin everything. I never grow tired of pumpkin! There’s a reason Thanksgiving falls within the autumnal calendar. And yet, we’re currently just past the middle of August, a month often visited by brutally hot days as Summer finds its voice in the waning month before the equinox. In fact, unnaturally for rainy Grove City, many lawns in our region wear the crispy brown of lack of rain and too low a cut of grass.
The world around us still swelters in the unrest of this particular Summer with little hope of a coming Fall, at least if you watch the evening news. It’s hard to imagine peace, love, rest, thanksgiving, and hope when you consider all that’s happening all over the earth in these days. This juxtaposition of an autumnal foretaste this morning and the struggles of our time led me to Thomas Hardy’s The Darkling Thrush.
Hardy is hardly the most optimistic of writers. Read The Mayor of Casterbridge, for example. Just when it looks like things are getting better, they get worse. And when you think it can’t get any worse, it does. I certainly would not recommend his novels as an antidote for depression. But this one poem stands out for its somewhat guarded optimism. The first two stanzas ooze with ominous and depressing diction: spectre-grey, dregs, desolate, weakening, tangled, scored, broken, haunted, sharp, corpse, crypt, cloudy, death-lament, shrunken hard and dry, and fervourless. It doesn’t get much better in the third stanza, despite the arrival of the thrush, described as “aged, … frail, gaunt, and small” with “blast-beruffled plume.” Indeed the milieu is bleak and gloomy and no cause for caroling exists. Still, the bird in “a full-hearted evensong / of joy illimited” trumps a song of Hope.
As you look at the world around you today, may you hear the song of the darkling thrush. Its song can be heard, if you are still enough to listen. You probably need to turn off the TV or radio, open the windows (you need the fresh air anyway), and close your eyes. Be still and know…
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
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.