Old Words for the New Year

When I decided to sit down and write this post today, I wasn’t prepared for the sudden, queasy fear that leapt up inside me at the sight of the blank page. To be perfectly honest, I haven’t written anything more substantial than an email or a journal entry since July—so the sight of that blinking cursor at the top of the document conjured up some strong emotions.

I want to be able to wave my hand vaguely and say “Oh, it’s just a touch of writer’s block,” but deep in my heart I know it’s more than that. I think, in some ways, 2020 has stolen my words.

Not that 2020 has had a lack of words—I’m sure you can testify to this. You’ve lived through this year, too, after all! This year has been a seemingly endless cycle of speculating, debating, deciding, arguing, conferencing, convincing, and questioning. All of this noise has made it difficult to hear myself think and nearly impossible to sort out any way of composing my thoughts on paper, so the loudest question I heard when I opened Microsoft Word this afternoon was, “What do you even have to say?”

The answer is, not much. Or, at least, not much that hasn’t already been said about pandemics and protests, about worry and weariness. Instead, I just wanted to share with you some lines of poetry that have been rolling around in my head for the last month or so. This post is actually the first of several that I’m hoping to post in the coming days. These authors and their poems have been a comfort and a source of hope to me, a reminder that when we have no words of our own, our favorite authors can speak for us. We are the beneficiaries of an inherited imagination that stretches backwards and forwards, uniting our experiences as humans across time and giving us words to use when our own fail. I hope that you can find comfort in their words, too.

Thomas Hardy and the Voice of Hope

In 2011 I went through a major Thomas Hardy phase (Is that the nerdiest sentence I’ve ever written? Probably.). That summer I read almost all of his novels and poetry until his fatalism got the better of me and I moved on to other things. One poem of his that has always stuck with me from that summer is “The Darkling Thrush,” which he wrote on New Year’s Eve in 1899, just before the turn of the century. He describes walking home in the cold, waning light of the old year, a year he describes in the first two stanzas as “desolate,” “broken,” “haunted,” “shrunken,” and “fervourless.” And while Hardy is writing from a place of fin de siècle anxiety, the language of the first two stanzas of his poem make it easy to imagine he was writing about 2020.

The poem doesn’t end in desperation, though. There is a lovely turning point halfway through:

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.

The image of Hardy pausing on a dark, cold night at the turning of the centuries to hear a small thrush singing out is beautiful to me. I love the phrase “blast-beruffled plume,” because it brings to mind images of a bird who has flown through a storm—a bird that is “frail, gaunt, and small,” but who is still choosing to sing his song and “fling his soul” out into the world.

The wording here reminds me of Whitman’s “noiseless patient spider” who flings out filaments of himself, “seeking the spheres to connect them.” In 2020 we are all like that thrush or that spider, seeking connection in a world that feels increasingly disconnected. Hardy is moved by the bird’s resilience and insistence on singing, even though there is “little cause for caroling.”

Hardy, at the end of his poem, remains “unaware” of the source of Hope behind the bird’s song, a line which has always saddened me. Although he invites us to hear the small voice of hope, he never gives it a name. I believe this is because Hardy himself could never fully reconcile his questions about suffering with his ideas about God.

To me, this poem serves as a reminder that even in the darkest days of our lives, the promise of “joy illimited” is waiting for us. And what of the “blessed Hope” that fills the tiny bird’s song? In my mind it can only be the hope of Heaven. For the believer,

“The joys of heaven can only be an exclamation point to the sufferings of earth. We understand now that before we can hear the laughter of reunion, we have to weep of our separation. Before we can rejoice over our rescue, we have to despair of our lostness. But there, in heaven, every tear will be wiped away; there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the new joy will have come” (Terry Lindvall, Surprised by Laughter: The Comic World of C.S. Lewis).

Hardy’s poem is a reminder of that to me, and I hope it can be one to you, as well. The full text of the poem is at the bottom of this post if you’d like to read it in its entirety.

So as we stand together on the threshold of a new year, just as Thomas Hardy did in 1899, maybe it’s okay to not have any words left. Maybe it’s okay to be quiet and simply listen for that small voice of hope, for the darkling thrush that, despite its “blast-beruffled” feathers, sings a “full-hearted evensong / of joy illimited.”

Happy New Year, and Keep Reading,
Sarah

The Darkling Thrush
by Thomas Hardy

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.

https://poets.org/poem/darkling-thrush

One comment

  1. Pam Webb · · Reply

    Sarah, you have such a gift of communicating through your lovely writing! You never cease to inspire me to be a more devoted follower of Christ! I miss you and I hope to see you soon! May God bless you in 2021!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: