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Thomas Hardy(click to see video)
View a video mini-lecture on Thomas Hardy.
Hardy’s memorial stone in Poets Corner, Westminster Abbey.
Although Hardy repudiated the claim, he was labeled “The Great Pessimist.” Hardy, instead, described himself as a melioristA person who believes the world and individuals have the potential for improvement., a person who believes the world and individuals have the potential for improvement. Nonetheless, the pessimistic tone of modernism permeates his work.
If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”
Then would I bear, and clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased, too, that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.
But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
—Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan….
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.
In modernism, the proper response to fate beyond individual control is stoicism—an endurance of the pain and heartache of life with dignity and without complaint. Such stoicism is evident in Hardy’s poem “Hap.”
In “Hap” the title gives an important clue about the poem’s content: the word hap means chance.
The first two stanzas of the poem are just one sentence. It is important to note that the entire first stanza is an “if” clause. The speaker is not saying, “There is a vengeful god”; he is saying “If there were a vengeful god.” If there were a vengeful god that laughed at him, saying that his suffering provided pleasure for the vengeful god, then he would react as he describes in stanza 2.
If there were a vengeful god, then he would bear the suffering stoically, halfway finding comfort in the fact that at least there was some reason for his pain, at least some god was directing what happened to him.
Note the first short sentence of stanza 3: “But not so.” The monosyllabic words, each accented, emphasize the speaker’s conclusion. The “if” clause he proposes in stanza 1 is not so; in other words, there is no god, not even a vengeful one. This conclusion leads the speaker to ask why, then, he suffers in life—why are his hopes unfulfilled and his happiness ruined? The last four lines provide the answer to his question: it is simply chance. He personifies time, picturing Time rolling dice to see what will happen to him. It may be something good, or it may be something bad. Either way it’s simply a roll of the dice, a matter of “chance.”
As in “Hap,” the title “The Impercipient” provides an important clue about the poem’s content. The word impercipient is from the same Latin root word as the words perceive and perceptive. The prefix “im” means not. Therefore, this poem is about a person who does not perceive or understand.
That from this bright believing band
An outcast I should be,
That faiths by which my comrades stand
Seem fantasies to me,
And mirage-mists their Shining Land,
Is a drear destiny.
Why thus my soul should be consigned
Why always I must feel as blind
To sights my brethren see,
Why joys they’ve found I cannot find,
Abides a mystery.
Since heart of mine knows not that ease
Which they know; since it be
That He who breathes All’s Well to these
Breathes no All’s Well to me,
My lack might move their sympathies
And Christian charity!
I am like a gazer who should mark
An inland company
Standing upfingered, with, “Hark! hark!
The glorious distant sea!”
And feel, “Alas, ‘tis but yon dark
And wind-swept pine to me!”
Yet I would bear my shortcomings
With meet tranquillity,
But for the charge that blessed things
I’d liefer have unbe [not be].
O, doth a bird deprived of wings
Go earth-bound wilfully!
Enough. As yet disquiet clings
About us. Rest shall we.
“The Darkling Thrush,” written at the beginning of a new century, is a statement of sharp contrast to the philosophy of the Romantic Period, one hundred years before this poem was written. Hardy dated the poem 31 December 1900, the eve of the new century.
Cottage where Hardy was born.
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
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.
The speaker recounts leaning on a gate leading into a coppice, a small wooded area, on a gray, frosty day. The world appears drab and dark (the “weakening eye of day” referring to the sun’s inability to penetrate the gloom). No people are out enjoying nature, as is often portrayed in Romantic poetry; they have all sought the warmth of human companionship around their household fires. The entire first stanza sets the stage with images of death.
In the midst of this description, Hardy draws attention to the bare, tangled branches, comparing them with the strings of a broken lyre. His image is chosen purposefully. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s image of the eolian harp (lyre) is one of the central images of Romantic poetry. “The Eolian Harp” was first printed in 1796, just over one hundred years earlier. The eolian harp symbolizes Romantic mysticism, a spiritual presence in the world (Coleridge’s “one Life, within us and abroad”) moving through nature, including human beings. Hardy says the eolian harp is now broken; that image no longer works. His universe is not spirit-filled, but lifeless and dried up. The land itself looks like a corpse.
Suddenly, in the midst of the frozen, dead world, the speaker hears the joyful song of a thrush, not a beautiful, vibrant bird like Shelley’s skylark, but a “frail, gaunt, and small” bird, worn out by storms.
In the final stanza, the speaker notes that the scene around the bird is bleak, certainly nothing to sing about, which leads him to state:
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
For over one hundred years, critics have disagreed about how to interpret these last four lines. There are two possibilities and scholars who support each side.
Possibility 1: There is some “Hope” in the world. Things aren’t as bleak as they seem. The bird is aware of a reason for hope, even if the speaker is not.
Possibility 2: The last two lines should be interpreted, “The bird may think there’s a reason for hope, but I, the speaker, surely don’t know what it is.”
The title of the poem could be seen as supporting either interpretation. The word darkling means “in the dark.” That phrase, however, could be interpreted literally (the bird is singing on a dark, cloudy day—”in the dark”) or figuratively (the bird is clueless—”in the dark”—the bird doesn’t know what’s going on, how bleak the world really is).
Hardy’s audience would have recognized the expression ruined maid although we no longer use the phrase. They would have known immediately that the poem is about an unmarried woman who has lost her virginity. “The Ruined Maid” is, in fact, about two women: one who is “ruined” in a moral sense and another who, though chaste, is living a life of hardship and poverty.
The dialogue of the two women soon reveals that Melia, the ruined maid, is living in town, wearing beautiful clothes and jewelry, living a life of ease. The country woman, though virtuous, wears tattered clothes, digs potatoes to eke out a living, and envies ‘Melia. In the last two lines of the poem, ‘Melia tells her friend that she can’t expect a life of ease; she isn’t “ruined.”
The poem is humorous in effect, but it makes a serious point. Hardy leads the audience to ask themselves about society’s values and the way society works. Isn’t something wrong when virtue leads to poverty and “being ruined” leads to prosperity?
“O ‘Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
And whence such fair garments, such prosperity?”—
“O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?” said she.
“You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,
Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks;
And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers three!”—
“Yes: that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,” said she.
—”At home in the barton you said `thee’ and `thou,’
And `thik oon,’ and `theäs oon,’ and `t’other’; but now
Your talking quite fits ‘ee for high company!”—
“Some polish is gained with one’s ruin,” said she.
—”Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak
But now I’m bewitched by your delicate cheek,
And your little gloves fit as on any lady!”—
“We never do work when we’re ruined,” said she.
—”You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream,
And you’d sigh, and you’d sock; but at present you seem
To know not of megrims or melancholy!”—
“True. One’s pretty lively when ruined,” said she.
—”I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!”—
“My dear—a raw country girl, such as you be,
Cannot quite expect that. You ain’t ruined,” said she.
Before and after the turn of the century the British were involved the Boer Wars. In a portion of what is now the Republic of South Africa, Dutch farmers settled and farmed peacefully throughout much of the 19th century. The native African people had already been defeated and driven off their land by European settlers. When gold and diamonds were discovered, the British were no longer content to let the Dutch settlers rule the area, and the struggle for control of the region and its riches grew into a horrific armed conflict.
The British set up concentration camps (the first time in history this term had been used) to imprison women and children of the Boer farmers who continued to fight. Loss of life among the British, the Boer fighters, and the innocent families was staggering. Hardy personalizes the loss of life by introducing his readers to one individual. In “Drummer Hodge,” originally titled “The Dead Drummer,” Hardy laments a young boy sent for the first time away from home to fight and die in a land he knew nothing about for a cause that mattered little if at all to him.
They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
Uncoffined,—just as found:
His landmark is a kopje-crest
That breaks the veldt around;
And foreign constellations west
Each night above his mound.
Young Hodge the Drummer never knew—
Fresh from his Wessex home—
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
The Bush, the dusty loam,
And why uprose to nightly view
Strange stars amid the gloam.
Yet portion of that unknown plain
Will Hodge for ever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
His stars eternally.
“The Darkling Thrush”