The song of the thrush
I first really encountered poetry in 1978, at Mount Lourdes Grammar School (http://www.mountlourdes.com) in Miss Reihill’s English class. Of course I’d been exposed to poetry in primary school, but my vague recollection now is that it was the kind of whimsical doggerel that is customarily used to patronise children, engaging the senses rather than the emotions. My first three years at grammar school were a desert of dullness, enlivened only by a Touchstones anthology where I discovered an excerpt from John Masefield’s Reynard the fox (http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/38052), which I sneaked readings of under the desk while the rest of the class laboured through whatever novel it was that the teacher insisted be read aloud. I, of course, had long since read to the end of said novel, and was withering with lassitude and boredom as a result. Thus, entry to Miss Reihill’s class to begin my O’level English courses (I remember vaguely that she didn’t teach juniors) was a little like joining the army. Suddenly there was discipline, order, exactitude, imperative commands that demanded instant obedience, sweeping glances that quelled us; and ferocious attention require because what we were doing was very important.
The biggest weapon in Miss Reihill’s armoury, the one that floored me utterly, was A Choice of Poets: an anthology of poets from Wordsworth to the present day, chosen and edited by RP Hewitt (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2743792-a-choice-of-poets). I still have my painfully annotated teenage copy, pointing out the likes of ‘irony’ with such conscientiousness that methinks I must have had no sense of it. However, I also dimly remember that sense of not really knowing enough to get it; that recognition of a whole new world opening I was just on the threshold of it. Looking at Choice of Poets now, its deficiencies are obvious, legion. The teenage girl leaning, Wordsworthian-like, on a bridge, gazing pensively into the mid-distance, is the only female representative therein, or should I say thereon, excepting, of course, wives, girlfriends, mothers, sisters, daughters, muses and highland lasses. No Christina Rossetti. Staggeringly, no Emily Dickinson. No Edna St Vincent Millay. No Stevie Smith. No Sylvia Plath. Nothing to indicate a woman might write the stuff. All white males. But, my god, these white males were good, dead or alive (and in 1978 one or two of them were still alive). These white males grabbed my attention, held me captive, brought me sometimes close to tears even in the middle of a classroom. I was all theirs, have been ever since.
Looking back, it is shocking at just how few of them we studied in depth, but I can still recall the names: Wordsworth; Keats; Hardy; Hopkins; Owen; Frost; RS Thomas. Astonishingly, poets I now could not imagine life without, poets who are in the book include Eliot; Edward Thomas, Auden. But of the poets that we did study to a reasonable degree, two stood out for me, one solidly traditional, the other, dazzlingly innovative; but both employing great sensuality of rhythm and rhyme: Hardy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Hardy) and Hopkins (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerard_Manley_Hopkin). Hopkins overwhelmed me, his syntactical and rhythmical originality, totally coherent and convincing in the blaze of his outrageous talent. Too things shone: his passion and his discipline, and the tension between them enervates his poetry with an awesome power and brilliance. In his life, of course, these opposite poles caused him crippling self-denial, heartbreaking depression, that weep out of his terrible sonnets; and terrible they are. No-one has written of despair so succinctly, so devastatingly accurately.
Hardy was a different matter. I fell in love with – there’s no other way to describe it – The Darkling Thrush (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2009/dec/28/poem-of-the-week-the-darkling-thrush-thomas-hardy). It was certainly one of the poems that had me on the edge of tears, stanched only by the prospect of public humiliation. It was also probably the first poem I ever learned by heart totally involuntarily. Despair is at the heart of this poem too, albeit despair of a more modest type in the form of Hardy’s famous pessimism, that lowness of spirit, the atmosphere of sadness, tragedy, that pervades all his work. It is a despair moderated by a certain self-distancing, resignation in the face of forces too great for the individual self. However, Hardy’s affinity for the natural world, his fine observation of apparently inconsequential details, that drew me into his poetry more generally – ‘The bars thick with drops …. Like silver buttons ranged in a row (At a Middle-Field Gate in February). That he was a man who used to ‘notice such things’ (Afterwards) made me feel not quite so alone and foolish in my own noticing of such things when I tramped the winter fields in the after-school gloom. Hardy’s voice – modest, resigned, attentive, was one I felt a kinship towards, looked to for affirmation of my own solitary wanderings among Fermanagh drumlins.
But back to that simultaneous assault on both my senses and my emotions by The Darkling Thrush. The poem hearks to Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, with its darkling, its full-hearted evensong echoing full-throated ease, and given the intense meticulous notes I took on both poems, I’m sure that the absence of any reference to Darkling’s intertextuality is true to my memory: Miss Reihill refrained from making any such connection – possibly she didn’t want to overload us; we only studied two poems of Keats, after all. The bleak landscape that Hardy sets as background for the eruption of the thrush’s blessed Hope intensifies its impact, makes it even more authentic. Hardy wanted to hope, wanted to trust, but his reluctant pessimism acts as a break to his first impulse. In Darkling, there is a tension, a triangulation strung between the land’s sharp features, the thrush’s ecstatic carollings, and Hardy’s own feelings, his consternation, even anxious concern, for the bird’s vulnerability in fling(ing) his soul/ Upon the growing gloom. However, even through that consternation, Hardy is moved to reflect that this aged frail gaunt creature must have a greater awareness of Hope than he himself does; the thrush in all its frailty, its blast-beruffled plume, its happy good-night air, appears to have a profounder connection with the imponderable trustworthiness of the Universe than does the fervourless Hardy himself. Hope trembles, but holds. The third point of the triangulation is a doubting envy.
For years I assumed that Hardy’s darkling was a song thrush, largely from his application of the adjective small. Excluding blackbirds, we have only two resident thrushes, the song thrush and the mistle thrush, and song thrushes are the smaller of the two. However, The Poetry of Birds (edited by Simon Armitage and Tim Dee) (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Poetry-Birds-Simon-Armitage/dp/0141027118) classifies Darkling as a mistle thrush, despite that ‘darkling’ may mean simply dark one, which doesn’t really act as a species-identifier. But for all that I’ve heard song thrushes singing in winter Belfast parks, generally, in the countryside, in the absence of city light and warmth, the mistle thrush is one of the first announcers of spring; and while happy good night air, and carollings, suggest to me the more measured tempo of the song thrush, the fact that the carollings are ecstatic, flung, implies the wilder, harsher, more abrupt song of the mistle. Mistle thrushes shout, demand, that spring arrive. Song thrushes merely celebrate its arrival. So, while my jury may be still a little out on Darkling, a clinching argument is the temporal setting of the poem. The arrival of the new 20th century, the new year of or 1899 or 1900. Given the date, more likely on balance to be mistle. I will therefore yield Darkling to the mistle thrush. However, there is compensation: in the same volume, I discovered a gem that is so completely song thrush there is simply no argument.
The Throstle is by Tennyson (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred,_Lord_Tennyson). For all that he is featured in A Choice of Poets, and has thus been harboured in my possession for over thirty years, I do not know Tennyson at all. I have perhaps avoided him as someone of privilege, of undoubted talent, but who, in their class and in their contemporaneous praise, had passed into the category of the sentimentally bland and obvious. Not real enough. Not gritty enough.
Perhaps I was too harsh. After all, what is birdsong but a celebration of the ornate as refined by generations of sexual selection? The Throstle (it’s an old English word for thrush, of the same pedigree as the German Drossel for the same species) had me laughing with delight from the first stanza. In fairness to A Choice of Poets, while it is merciless in its description of Tennyson’s faults (“bogus medievalism … surface beauty but little real depth … shamelessly complacent and contemptuous of the poor and the foreign”), it is unequivocal in its praise of Tennyson’s “exquisite ear”. Nowhere, may I say in my very minute sampling, is this more evident than in The Throstle. The poem translocates the singing of a song thrush into the English language near-perfectly. Certainly far more intelligibly and beautifully than conventional bird guides – my Svensson et al (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Collins-Bird-Guide-Lars-Svensson) does the usual impersonation of Finnish: kucklivi kucklivi tixi tixi tixi, pi-eh, truu, truu, truu, tixifix, chu-chu-chu, kokukiklix, kokukiklix. Does that make any sense? I ask you. Even the generally infallible Geoff Sample (http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/Collins-Bird-Songs-Calls-Geoff-Sample), who shows great flair and aptness in his descriptions, (eg: ‘plaintive’ for the robin – could anything be more true?) that marks him as a poet in another life, can only manage a summary of the well-known triplicates of song thrush singing; characterises the refrain as “Pretty dick. Pretty dick”. How rude. If, admittedly, accurate not only on the aural level but also, somewhat ironically, on the ultimate raison d’etre of birdsong.
Anyway, back to the poem. The Throstle is gorgeous. If you don’t know the song of the song thrush, it’s just a light pretty poem, and it is that. If you know the song, the pleasure is magnified. In some ways Tennyson chose his subject well. The song of the song thrush is deliberate in tempo, its delivery a good deal more measured and slow compared with the blurring rush of syllables that characterises so many other species, at a speed far too quick for the human ear to process. The rate of spoken English and the rate of a song thrush singing converge relatively closely. Nevertheless the poem is a fine aural achievement.
‘Summer is coming, summer is coming,
I know it, I know it, I know it.
Light again, leaf again, life again, love again.’
Yes, my wild little poet.
Sing the new year in under the blue.
Last year you sang it as gladly.
‘New, new new, new!’ is it then so new
That you should carol so madly?
‘Love again, song again, nest again, young again.’
Never a prophet so crazy!
And hardly a daisy as yet, little friend,
See there is hardly a daisy.
‘Here again, here, here, here, happy year!’
O warble unchidden, unbidden!
Summer is coming, is coming, my dear,
And all the winters are hidden.
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
A fine rendition and interpretation both. A proper translation.