Frail Thrushes - Carolling Ecstatically (December 2019)

Earlier this year, in the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, when the maturing sun was plumping hazel shells I talked to you about hope and pelted you with conkers and set you an essay writing challenge on beauty. I’d like to return to hope and conkers but first I have a new essay challenge – 1-2 thousand words again due the first day back, and I’d love you to write about a place, tell me something interesting about somewhere interesting.

Back to conkers, though. Do you still have yours? I’ve got mine, and it’s a sad affair. The conkers I threw were rich and beautiful – gems of autumn, a hope to brighten lives in the worsening weather – but now, in the depths of winter, they are dark and shrivelled. This is what winter can do to you, this is what winter can do to hope. Thomas Hardy, a great 19th Century novelist and amazing 20th Century poet reflected on the gloom of winter in a poem written in 1900, 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.

As I was writing this assembly, I went onto JSTOR, that completely remarkable repository of scholarship, searched for The Darkling Thrush and read a couple of articles. I commend the practice of looking beyond the obvious, of developing depth to your scholarship – read articles – off JSTOR, in the Economist, in the FT, in the New Scientist, in the BMJ – delight in knowing things that other people don’t. Anyway, I came across an article that said that Hardy may have been thinking about a painting by G.F. Watts as he wrote the poem.

The painting is entitled “Hope” and this is what Norman Vance has to say about it: “Watts depicts an apparently despairing classical maiden seated on top of the globe, her head bowed, blindfold, clutching a damaged lyre whose broken strings can be seen against the dreary sky.” In the first stanza that Lauren read, before we hear about the thrush, before we get to the hope, Hardy writes “The tangled bine-stems scored the sky like strings of broken lyres”. Hardy is suggesting, tentatively and cryptically, that even in the spectre-grey frost of winter’s dregs we should look for hope.

I go further than Hardy, though. I don’t want to think of you as the poet, leaning on the coppice gate, reflecting on the century’s corpse. I want you to be the thrush flinging your full-hearted song of joy illimited upon the growing gloom. This Christmas I want you to go out into the world and bring good cheer, to enjoy whatever rituals your family uses to break up the darkest days, to go outside in the daylight, getting fresh air and exercise and come back to make cups of tea for your parents. To do the washing up.

This will leave you asking what cause is there for carolings of such ecstatic sound, what blessed Hope I know of that trembles through the good-night air? The answer is not this shrivelled conker – holding out for spring, but you – each one of you. If you look at it right – and I’d like you to look at it right – each one of you has cause to have hope, to be hope. The world is full of incidents and accidents, of opportunities and disappointments and sometimes you will feel that something beyond your control has made things worse, or that a golden opportunity for success has been missed. To let that get to you is to miss the key point – which is that wherever you go and whatever you do it will be you that is going and doing, and that you are excellent. You have amazing skills and talents, you are adaptable and resilient. You can cope with and bring hope to whatever situation you find yourselves in.

A great poet from the end of the 20th century wrote:

Call me, call me by my name or call me by number
You put me through it I'll still be doing it the way I do it
And yet, you try to make me forget
Who I really am, don't tell me I know best I'm not the same as all the rest
I can't wear this uniform without some compromises
Because you'll find out that we come In different shapes and sizes
o one can be myself like I can
For this job I'm the best man
And while this may be true
You are the one and only you* 

Sadly Jstor came up with no hits when I searched for articles related to that one, but no matter. No one can do the job of being yourself like you can, but this doesn’t mean you have to do it alone. We are each part of a community, a network of people who can give hope to each other. As you leave school tomorrow to start your reading, resting and reviewing – and I would like to take this opportunity to emphasise that you should do those in equal measure: resist the temptation to do more resting, socialising, than the other two – make sure you develop some depth, practice some scholarship, but also I say don’t waste the whole break on study – read something for fun and make sure you rest up so you’re fresh to face next term. As you leave school tomorrow to read, rest and review in equal measure, do so with hope, and, at the end of Remembrance term, remember the opportunities you have, remember that you have power to forge your own future, remember that you are one of many incredible young people working for a better world, remember to do it the way you do it, and remember the Darkling Thrush, frail, gaunt and small, carolling ecstatically, and choose to bring joy to those you meet this Christmas.

*"I am the One and Only" by Nik Kershaw