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Creative Project: The Darkling Thrush by
Thomas Hardy

by Michelle Ferreira

Darkling Thrush

I chose Thomas Hardy’s poem The Darkling Thrush (1900) specifically for its imaginative quality and sombre tone. I knew immediately that it would be difficult to illustrate but I wanted to take on the challenge of illustrating the work of one of my favourite 19th century poets.

Materially, I chose a thick textured paper. In part, this was due to the fact that I had decided to do a pastel-based illustration at the outset (I later changed my mind). The paper has been “hand-cut” by me and is oversized. I wanted to represent that this kind of poem and illustration would perhaps be included in a Victorian giftbook (which were usually books of a larger size).

For the illustration itself, I contemplated various approaches but settled on attempting to illustrate the entire poem, as Laurence Houseman would. As we learned in class, Housman did not pick a particular moment or image to illustrate but would conflate image and textual meaning in his work so that it represented the entire text in all moments (i.e. The Housebuilders). I wanted to create a direct interplay between text and image, but where the image was privileged and swallows up the text; in fact, the text is superimposed on the image, almost as an afterthought. The text of the poem occupies a space I like to call the “thought space” of the illustration. It is the space located between the broken gate, leading to the path to “civilization”. It is the thinking space of the male figure on the left (drawn in the likeness of Hardy). This is a space between the gates physically, but also figures as the space between man and thrush, man and nature, industry and the pastoral, modern and ancient.

My main aesthetic conceptual goal was to mimic a Victorian woodcut engraving. I believe that the woodcut is the archetypal Victorian illustration for poetry and I wanted to recreate that without, of course, using an actual woodcut, but by mixing mediums. Here, I have combined ink, felt-tip markers, charcoal, and pencil.

As I mentioned, I envisioned a pastel illustration, but I quickly figured that it would not work for this poem, and certainly not for the size of the page I was intending to use. There were spatial difficulties as the poem is long. I did experiment with charcoals, but then I really wanted to create something that would be closely linked to the course. At this point, I decided to recreate the woodcut effect. I also thought the woodcut concept would be great for this poem because it would emphasize contrast. My project is all about contrast literally and figuratively; the illustration only highlights the contrast. The black and white areas stand out equally.

The intended effect was, as previously mentioned, to illustrate the entire poem. I did not choose to show man and bird interacting because they do not in the poem – it’s a subjective work of poetry. I also wanted to create a raven-like status for the thrush where its location is paramount and seen at all times – the eye wanders to it constantly, and hopefully it haunts the page. The male figure is obviously contemplating what he sees (as should we) – he is pessimistically lamenting the turn of the century. We see him thinking this but we are also in a place of privilege because we see his thoughts as well as the entire scene, as though we were creeping up behind. The anticipated impression upon the reader is the drawing in to contemplate, just as Hardy’s subject does, the conflict between the dying century (effectively the end of the Victorian era) and the dawning new modern age, the disparity between despair and hope.