Romance In The Darkling Thrush, Next To The Naturalism Of A Nightingale
Not every Romantic is a purist, and not every Naturalist has no hope—which we see evidenced in two poems by Thomas Hardy and John Keats. While they both touch on the over-riding thoughts and beliefs of their days, they also demonstrate an ability to look beyond their present spheres—to come to clearer understandings of the state of the world around them, and how humankind’s relationship to modernity is evolving.
In consideration of their respective poems “The Darkling Thrush” and “Ode To A Nightingale”, Hardy is as much the antithesis of the Romantic poet, as Keats is the anti-Naturalist,
Keats shows signs of pessimism regarding people’s disconnect from Nature, while Hardy reveals a flash of long-shot optimism in the symbol of a small, lone bird braving a big cold, harsh world. When Keats’s nightingale’s “plaintive anthem fades”(Line 75), and the bird flies away—he is adopting a Naturalist outlook, by embracing the harsh reality of transience.
Conversely, when Hardy’s thrush appears, “Upon the growing gloom”(Line 24), it is as a sign of permanence, that Nature will ultimately outlast the dregs of modern humankind—suggesting a Romantic streak in Hardy. Thus, they each derive the temperaments of their works from their own times–as much as each other’s periods.
Perhaps, since Hardy’s work took place at a more modern stage than Keats, he had more reasons to fear the future—and therefore a greater need to find hope, however inexplicable, in the inspirational sight of a bird of “blast-beruffled plume”(Hardy, line 22). Plus, in a contrary way, it could be said that, since Keats rose up from out of Romanticism, he might have found a more honest voice by objecting to the idolatry of Nature, and addressing the folly of Romantic purists who sought eternity at their fingertips.
While “Nightingale” still holds Nature up high on a pedestal, it also casts doubt upon the human capacity to ever know it fully. Instead, Keats’s poem suggests that a human connection to a higher plane is a fleeting, unpredictable event of fortune. For him, contact with the eternal order behind the veil is no small feat, and not one accomplished at will—or kept alive by mere desire—for after the moment that enlightenment is over, it is hard to tell if it ever even existed, outside of just mortal fancy. Similarly, Hardy also aligns his view of the untouchable essence of Nature as something which cannot easily be explained—but which exists and persists despite us, inhabiting even the darkest regions with its bright song: “Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew / And I was unaware”(Hardy, lines31-32). Indeed, while neither poet will commit to explaining Nature’s schema, their poems seem to insist that some greater force does exist, which humankind cannot know by design—but which must only be embraced when one is presented with the chance to do so—while spending the dimmer episodes in between in prayer for the future. For Keats, however, that essence of eternity is a slippery, fleeting muse, which he sees as vanishing, as much as ever in remains—while for Hardy, the universe is as mysterious as it is barren, yet he senses it will invariably right itself again, despite his own lack of ability to explain exactly why.
Both poems are meditative contemplations on the natural world—each employing a bird as the central symbol of Nature’s romance and permanence. In “Nightingale”, however, shooting from his Romantic roots, Keats explores the fleeting Nature of escape that enlightenment provides. He wants to embody the immortal freedom and perpetual joy that he believes the nightingale possesses, if only for a moment through poetry—but ultimately he must face his own mortality and interminable insularity from the rest of eternity. In the end, he wonders “do I wake or sleep?”(80)–because he flew with a bird, on the “viewless wings of poesy”(33), for a few hours one morning—and all at once, his “sod”(60) existence seemed entirely insignificant next to the immortal birdsong. Keats’s poem points out the seductive wonder of Nature, and calls into question humankind’s ability to understand the sublime fully—given our limiting mortality and short-sightedness. So in this sense, “Nightingale” does a reversal on its Romantic themes, snatching back the human reigns of enlightenment. Oppositely, Hardy’s “Darkling” explores a world gone barren from the desolation of human folly, wherein the seed of new birth is rare. It was written around the turn of the 20th century, when the industrial age was just getting its grips in the tender Victorians, and Hardy was well-positioned to comment on the unraveling of Nature in the onset of technology. Unlike Keats’s nightingale, Hardy’s thrush symbolizes not the unattainable sublimity of the cosmos, but rather the unknowable beauty in a world fallen “spectre-gray”(Hardy line 2)–where, “The ancient pulse of germ and birth / Was shrunken hard and dry / And every spirit upon earth / Seemed fervourless as I”(13-16). In this way then, Hardy’s bird is a glimmer of hope for the future, in the absence of evidence for it—save for one small light in a wasteland of “Winter’s dregs”. Thus, while Hardy is being a blunt Naturalist about the bleak prospects of his time—in stark contrast to his darkly imagined scenery, he uses the mysterious appearance of a thrush to good effect, both in Romantic sentiment and faithful optimism.
As far in then, as these poems shed light on their authors, Hardy could be considered a closet Romantic, as much as Keats could be called a Naturalist in denial . Their literary temperaments arise not only from out of their respective critical climates, but also from out of their deeper senses of self, allowing them to look back and forward, beyond their subjective perches, to cast their investigative poesies upon the universal human truths at work.
Hardy, Thomas. “The Darkling Thrush.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature.
Ed. M. H. Abrams, 8th edition. Vol 1. New York: Norton, 2009.
Keats, John. “Ode to a Nightingale.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature.
Ed. M. H. Abrams, 8th edition. Vol 1. New York: Norton, 2009.
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