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 shy
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. [31 December 1900]
This poem was first published by Hardy on December 29th 1900 with the title 'By the Century's Deathbed'.
Hardy, who could be quite pedantic when he wanted, was aware that the twentieth century really began on January 1st 1901, making 31December 1900 the last day of the 'old' century.
Most people celebrated the start of the new century on January 1st 1900 (as most people celebrated the start of the new millenium on January 1st 2000) but strictly speaking the correct date to celebrate was January 1st 1901 (or January 1st 2001).
Hardy imagines himself on the last evening of the old century leaning on a gate and looking at the frosty landscape which seems dead and drained of energy. We know it must be imagination, since the first publication of the poem was two days before the date on which the poem takes place.
Hardy can see nothing but silence and death in the landscape (hardly surprising, since it is the middle of Winter) but he is suddenly surprised to hear the song of a thrush break out from the bare frosty wood.
The thrush' song reminds Hardy that although everything seems frozen and lifeless this is just a pause in Nature's never-ending self-renewal: it may be icy Winter now, but Spring with its birds and new leaves is only a season away: everything is still, but this is only the pivot in Life's constant forward motion.
The nineteenth century was a time of enormous optimism and progress, but well before its end a lassitude had set in. There was a sense that the forward march of society was not getting anywhere. Living standards, and man's understanding of his world, had improved out of all recognition, but at the same time the old religious certainties had faded and people were beginning to question the social order. In Hardy's own novels we see people question whether the Masters really are set by God above the Workers, and whether a Man really is set by God above his Wife. These were axioms that people had found comfort in for centuries. Now they were beginning to crumble.
By the end of the century there was a strong sense that the old ways would not serve any more, but coupled with this went the fear that any worthwhile change would be fierce and cataclysmic.
Hardy, gazing out at his frozen coppice, hears the birdsong of the coming Spring. He does not understand it, but he acknowledges its presence, even its inevitability.
This 'negative capability', this willingness to observe what there is without trying too hard to cook up an explanation, is among Hardy's strong virtues. In Tess, and The Mayor of Casterbridge, and The Return of the Native, and in poems like this, Hardy shows us English society on the brink of one of its most seismic changes. He gives us the last second before the storm breaks.
His strength as an author is to know what it is to hope, even when you don't know what you're hoping for. The poem says that it is Winter, but Spring is coming. Even when you no longer know what Spring is, even when Spring has become so unlikely that it is unimaginable, even then, Spring is only just around the corner.
Hardy knows that when there is nothing left to believe, when honesty demands that we no longer believe anything, that is the moment when Faith becomes most precious.
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