John is a retired librarian who writes articles based on material gleaned mainly from obscure books and journals.
Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Year’s Awakening” comprises two stanzas of ten lines each, in the form of rhyming couplets.
Each stanza opens and closes with the words “How do you know?” so that the poem expresses a sense of wonder at the changes that are happening with the onset of spring. Only in the ninth line of each stanza is the reader made aware of the thing being addressed, which adds to the sense of mystery.
How do you know that the pilgrim track
Along the belting zodiac
Swept by the sun in his seeming rounds
Is traced by now to the Fishes' bounds
And into the Ram, when weeks of cloud
Have wrapt the sky in a clammy shroud,
And never as yet a tinct of spring
Has shown in the Earth's apparelling;
O vespering bird, how do you know,
How do you know?
The first five lines sound like a direct reference to the opening of the General Prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in which the context of the forthcoming pilgrimage is set by reference to the passage of the Sun through the Zodiac: “… and the yonge sonne hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne”. The mention in the first line of “the pilgrim track” surely makes Hardy’s intention clear.
Hardy adds an extra sign of the zodiac by mentioning Pisces (the fishes) as well as Aries (the ram), thus fixing the date in late March when the former changes to the latter.
However, as is typical with Hardy, nature does not always play fair and the optimistic opening of Chaucer’s work, which suggests that winter has been forgotten and that every day will now be mild and sunny, is replaced by reference to “weeks of cloud” that fail to hint that spring is just around the corner. Perhaps Hardy is not being fair to Chaucer, though, because the latter has got April very much in mind whereas Hardy is still stuck in March!
There is another link to Chaucer with the “vespering bird”, in that one of Chaucer’s signs of spring are the “smale foweles” that “maken melodye”. However, Hardy’s bird is not “making melody” with the joyfulness of spring but “vespering”, by which can be understood the vesper bell that summons the faithful to evening worship. That said, although the bird may not be singing very lustily, it is at least singing.
All Hardy can do is ask the question why, despite the signs of spring being so difficult to see, the birds have started to sing. Perhaps they have secret knowledge of the passage of the sun through the zodiac?
The question in the second stanza is, at heart, the same as that in the first, although addressed to a different subject, namely the “crocus root”:
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How do you know, deep underground,
Hid in your bed from sight and sound,
Without a turn in temperature,
With weather life can scarce endure,
That light has won a fraction's strength,
And day put on some moments' length,
Whereof in merest rote will come,
Weeks hence, mild airs that do not numb;
O crocus root, how do you know,
How do you know?
Hardy cannot understand what it is that sparks the crocus into life at the same time every year. As in the first stanza, the weather is still awful but the crocuses are starting to grow.
One might complain that Hardy is not quite correct to state that crocuses can start to grow “without a turn in temperature”, as this is the key that starts their development in early spring, rather than the increase in amount of daylight that Hardy supposes. The change might not be particularly noticeable to humans, given that air temperatures can vary so much from hour to hour, but the rise in soil temperature is much steadier and is enough to produce changes in spring-flowering bulbs.
However, it is still a wonder of the spring to see crocuses emerge in late March and burst into flower as soon as the sunlight hits them. It is hardly surprising that Thomas Hardy, who had a very enquiring mind but training in architecture rather than formal science, should have regarded the emergence of crocuses in spring as being little short of miraculous.
This poem is therefore an expression of wonder at the rebirth of life in spring, which Hardy aptly entitles the “year’s awakening”. Presumably the last few weeks of March 1910 were particularly poor in terms of their weather because Hardy mentions this in both stanzas. However, the harbingers of spring, be they birds or crocuses, have come good yet again, whether they “know” something or not.
John Welford (author) from Barlestone, Leicestershire on May 07, 2019:
Hardy is possibly my favourite poet - maybe because we came from the same part of the world!
Gypsy Rose Lee from Daytona Beach, Florida on May 06, 2019:
Thank you for this interesting analysis and the introduction to Thomas Hardy and his poetry.
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on May 06, 2019:
An interesting analysis of The Year's Awakening. Thank you for sharing your insight, John.