Many poets have written about the end of the year, sometimes with hope, sometimes with despondency. Hardy’s writing is often suffused with gloom and this poem conforms to that trend. The century is coming to an end, it is winter and as far as the eye can see, the only visible color is grey. Suddenly the air fills with the melodious notes of a thrush’s song. The bird is not in its prime nevertheless, it seems to have a reason to sing which is not known to the poet.
The poet paints a word picture of a winter landscape. It is the turn of the century and like the year coming to an end, life itself seems to be ebbing out of nature. The dominant color is a drab grey. The century is ready for burial and the sky that is leaden in appearance will make a vault for its corpse. Out of this stillness breaks out the notes of a thrush’s song. The poet spots the bird – like everything around, the bird is also old and bedraggled but it seems to have a reason for singing that the poet is not aware of. Through the gloom of the dying century shines a thin beacon of hope.
As a writer, Hardy dealt in despondency and despair – these are the dominant emotions encountered in his writings, be it fiction or poetry. This poem paints the bleak picture of a winter landscape when nature itself like the century is close to death. There are no leaves on the trees, no humans stir out of their homes and nature seems to be in the throes of death. The poet’s emotions seem to match the general mood that prevails. He sees no cause for cheer. That’s when the notes of a thrush break the somber wintery air. Looking for the bird, the poet sees a thrush well past its prime, singing as though it had nary a care in the world. Nowhere around could the poet see a cause for such a joyful song. It could well be that the bird knew of some hope that was not known to the poet.
The poet is outside, surveying the wintry landscape. Leaning upon a gate that gives on to a small wood, all he can see is the desolation that the cold season brings in its wake. Frost has rendered the countryside a dull grey which the weak sun of winter does not brighten. The use of the word ‘dregs’ evokes the idea of an unappetizing or discarded part of wine or something similar. Leaning on the gate, he sees against the sky the tracery created by the dead stems of the woodbine, that seems to resemble the broken strings of a lyre. The air of desolation is complete because there is no one visible anywhere, all having retreated to the warmth inside their houses.
Taking the image of death further, Hardy writes that the sharp unrounded features of the land seemed to be the rigid corpse of the dying century lying under the leaden sky that served as a vault. The howling wind is like a lament or a dirge being sung to the dead soul. The eternal fount of life on earth seems to have dried, leaving everything devoid of throbbing life much as the poet himself is, at the moment.
While thus contemplating the winter gloom, there rings out the liquid notes of bird from the bare branches overhead. The poet sees a thrush that itself is well past its prime, its bedraggled feathers ruffled by the cold air, trilling its melodious song in spite of the gloom and cold that pervade.
There seemed to be little reason for such outpourings of joyous sound when the land near and far was in the throes of decay. The poet then feels that the bird perhaps knew of some source of hope that he, the poet, was unaware of.