Evaluating two poems in comparison to each other: a) Thomas Hardy's "The Darkling Thrush", b) William Wordsworth's "My Heart Leaps Up"
Evaluating two poems
in comparison to each other:
A) Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush”
B) William Wordsworth’s “My Heart Leaps Up”
One first striking feature about Wordsworth’s poem is its relative shortness. However, this shouldn’t (mis)lead one into thinking that the lyric is easy to read and comprehend. Too quickly does one tend to think in clichés about such poems. They’ve got a simple, straight forward structure, strung together by a rhyme-pattern functioning as a “catch-tune” so as to make one remember (+ recite) it right away (without meeting any difficulties). Yet this (assumption) is deceptive. Even such tiny structures can bear images, such as in Wordsworth’s poem, tightly knit together with each other in (thematically) correlative pairs. Thus “behold” rhymes with “old”. And when we (>the readers) “die” we go up to the “sky”, i.e. into Heaven and not to Hell (or conversely back into the Earth’s very soil according to ancient Greek understanding).
Like any plant we ‘reach out’ for light (which means life). We automatically, inadmittedly strive for and after ‘Heaven’. Wordsworth’s thinking is typically Christian it seems to me. In any case he believes in God, a God that is characterized by a biblical context (cf. “Thee Child” <re-using the language of the Bible). God is seen here as our Creator to crown/reward us with eternal blessing when we depart/‘die’. So death is something natural (a natural phenomenon). It should be accepted, yes even greeted/welcomed and not be mourned. It is in Heaven (= “sky” here) that we meet up with the ‘example’ we are meant to follow: the Lord’s “Child”, Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Messiah who bestows us with ‘immortality’ (as if we were made/turned into pieces of art) provided we have obeyed the Christian code of morals (=rules), which for Wordsworth coincide with the natural laws (the laws of nature). This idea (of getting to Heaven) is based on a belief, and any faith has got nothing to do with logic, reason or rationality. Likewise it is a universal (undisputed) fact that any belief is centred in a person’s heart. And it is this “heart” which “leaps up” in joy and “natural piety” to God.
Wordsworth’s view of life is - unlike Hardy’s - plain and positive. Man is born to enjoy life on earth in accordance with God’s will. Death redeems him from this (earthly) life just to endow him with eternal life thereafter. This happens in a clear-cut, straight line like in a classical racing competition in Olympia (cf. the images in the parables of the New Testament, in which he who races from “a” to “z” = from “alpha” to “omega” on a straight linear track in the ‘agon’ wins the laural). This uncomplicated attitude to life is consistently expressed in the dense shape of this well put poem.
In contrast to Wordsworth’s poem Hardy’s reveals a completely different view/perspective of life. This becomes evident in an intricate, elaborately worked out system of closely interrelated images, rich in their ramifications of denotative and connotative meanings. Thus it is the ambiguity or rather ambivalence of some of the images that gives the poem an underlying mysteriousness, as if ‘mystery’ was the keynote to life in any case.
The very fact that the poet is in a pensive mood makes us wonder why. The image of the poet leaning against the “gate” throws up questions. For what reason and as to what has the poet got ‘stuck’ somehow? Is it indecision that stops him temporarily from going about his ‘business’? And/Or why does he not open the “gate” and go on to where he presumably is bound to go/move to? After all everybody knows what the normal function of any “gate” commonly is. It is a door, a key, a solution for someone to somewhere or something or somebody. Not so here. Obviously pondering about old age and where life has brought him to in the end, the poet is unsure as to what to do and how to live on in this seemingly senseless life. Thus the narrator hangs around in a kind of disorientation, which itself is veiled/expressed in further images like those of the “Frost” and “Winter”. Significantly these are capitalized to suggest they are like persons the poet tries to communicate with through some sort of inner/interior monologue. Yet in this cold and icy atmosphere of winter he can’t obtain an answer to the question(s) on his mind. He finds himself isolated, detached from nature and actually alienated from himself.
The theme in this context is ‘impending death’. This is obviously what the poet is reflecting on. Therefore and in line with this the second stanza compares the land (i.e. the countryside) to a man/person that is doomed to die, in whom we recognize the poet himself, just in another form/manifestation (>transformed). We can gather this from a number of alliterative details: “the Century’s corpse, “cloudy canopy”, a “shrunken” “ancient pulse”. Like nature, this wintry landscape, the poet is without any vigour (cf. “fervourless”) and determination.
Those grey skies of melancholy and gloominess are torn open (and cast aside) all of a sudden by a bird – quite naturally – that starts to sing “his evensong”, thus liberating the poet from his deep and dark mood. The “evensong” of the thrustle (which, or rather who, is as old as he himself is) ‘evens’ him out.
The lesson or moral this poem most certainly wants to teach us is that even ‘old age’ doesn’t make life senseless. There is hope for everyone (independent of age) in any place at any time and any moment.
Some afterthought on these two poems:
What the two poems have in common and what unites them at heart – apart from their different styling and wording which separates them formally - is one and the same piece of advice to the readers. It is a message of good news meant to imbue us with hope as long as we do not lose our innate ability to marvel at nature. The simple fact that even an aged thrush carries on tweeting a song of overriding joy evening by evening cannot be explained. It is not subject to reason.
And that’s what we wonder at. We want to know how it comes that this bird still believes in life so to speak, has something to look forward to. So even in old age there is some sense in our life, instilling us with hope. And where there is hope, there is future. Imminent death should not bereave us from keeping up the good things in life. With any new miracle children hit upon they wonder why and want to find out about it. Their interest in it is roused and raised. They feel like pressing on with things. They look at life in positive terms.
And this is the message contained in the image of the thrush: Only if we renew our capacity to perceive life through the eyes of a child, are we bound to regain faith (and strength) in ourselves.
Tradition has it that a rainbow signifies something bright, revealing a kind of promised land to us. The grey skies open up. The darkness that has beset us with gloom and melancholy vanishes. In an instant we win back confidence. Where there is light, there is hope. And where there is hope, there is life. So it is not the rainbow in its purely scientific make-up that strikes us wonder. It is the unaccountable certain something about this natural phenomenon which amazes us time and again.
What the thrush – in its quasi metaphorical use - is for Hardy, the rainbow is for Wordsworth.
Nature often takes us by surprise in that it makes us wonder at things we do not grasp rationally. And we are meant to be happy at such moments. In addition to the pure joy they give us they fill us with ease. They make us pluck up courage again and in a way put us back on track.
The very sight of something beautiful has an edifying effect on us. It casts a spell on us, whose mesmerizing charm we cannot withdraw from.