Just as Thomas Hardy's poem 'The Oxen' is never far from my mind at Christmas, with its wonderful, simple evocation - a group of children in a Dorset farmhouse listening to a Christmas story - of the lost belief and gnawing doubt that has eaten away at western civilisation through the twentieth century, and does so at an ever-increasing pace in the twenty-first, his poem 'The Darkling Thrush' always comes into my mind at New Year. It is no accident that 'The Oxen' was published in 'The Times' on Christmas Eve 1915; it is not generally recognised as a 'war poem' in the usual sense, but it is one. It recognises, quietly, elegiacally, the forces of destruction manifested by the Great War in a way oddly parallel - a kind of 'polar' parallel - to Karl Kraus's very different writing in 'The Last Days of Mankind'; the real problem is in our hearts and minds - our souls (whatever they are!) if you like. Kraus rages; while Hardy has only quiet, poignant words. 'The Darkling Thrush' was published earlier than 'The Oxen', on the eve of a new century, in December 1900, but the sentiments are not dissimilar to those of 'The Oxen'; the loss of faith, certainty, even hope, and an open question as to what replaces it - nothing? The question isn't answered, but 'nothing' hangs there over it all. At one level that idea of 'loss' simply relates to a particular kind of religious belief, but it surely goes much deeper, to a far more extensive loss of faith in and rejection of the whole enterprise of western civilisation, from the Classical world on, through the Enlightment, to an empty and decrepit present. It is hard not to feel that that dying of faith, the 'dying of the light' in its broadest sense, has, in the twenty-first century's short span so far, increased at an extraordinary pace. Whatever objections Hardy had to what he saw was dying, and they were many, passionate, and bitter, he had a grim sense that its loss, rather than the natural growth and change it ought to be capable of, would not lead to the discovery of some new light going forward, but only to a profound darkness... like Kraus...
THE DARKLING THRUSH
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 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.