Sunday, May 24, 2015

Hardy and the purblind Doomsters

Every Thomas Hardy post could be about what I didn’t know.  Did I know that his first books of poems, Wessex Poems (1898), included his own illustrations?  I did not.  He had been an architect; of course he could draw.

He even had his own monogram signature, there in the lower right corner.

Nor did I know about Hardy’s satirical theodicy poems, although I might have guessed.  His oldest poem that is always included with his best, the 1866 “Hap,” is on this theme. 

These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.  (ll. 13-14, WP)

“Hap” is perhaps better described as ironic rather than satirical.  The cluster of God poems in Poems of the Past and Present are satirical.  Whenever God is a character with lines, Hardy is satirical:

        -‘The Earth, sayest thou? The Human race?
        By Me created? Sad its lot?
Nay I have no remembrance of such place:
                Such world I fashioned not.’  (“The God-Forgotten,” ll. 5-9)

And when his memory is jogged, God claims that “’It lost my interest from the first,’” and anyways it’s your fault, mankind, if there has been a problem:  “’All other orbs have kept in touch.’”

One of the best reasons to read a poetry book in its original form is to find these clusters of poems.  With enough repetition, perhaps what the poet is saying will finally penetrate my inattentive head.  So after “The God-Forgotten” comes “The Bedridden Peasant to an Unknowing God,” title self-explanatory, and then the apocalyptic “By the Earth’s Corpse,” in which God does remember that he made mankind, but regrets doing so:

     ‘As when, in Noë’s days,
      I whelmed the plains with sea,
      So at this last, when flesh
      And herb but fossils be,
And, all extinct, their piteous dust
     Revolves obliviously,
That I made Earth, and life, and man,
      It repenteth me!’  (ll.  25-32)

The sequence continues for two more poems, ending with “To an Unborn Pauper Child”:

    Breathe not, hid Heart: cease silently,
    And though thy birth-hour beckons thee,
            Sleep the long sleep:
            The Doomsters heap
     Travails and teens around us here,
And Time-wraiths turn our songsingings to fear.  (ll. 1-6)

The Doomsters have returned, joined by Time-wraiths.  Hardy denied that he was an atheist, and I almost believe him.  He believed, to some degree, in the Doomsters, in powers beyond our understanding, indifferent or even hostile to man.  He may have meant all this as metaphor, but one can believe in metaphors.

Here is Hardy’s idea of a Christmas poem:

The Reminder

While I watch the Christmas blaze
Paint the room with ruddy rays,
Something makes my vision glide
To the frosty scene outside.

There, to reach a rotting berry,
Toils a thrush, - constrained to very
Dregs of food by sharp distress,
Taking such with thankfulness.

Why, O starving bird, when I
One day’s joy would justify,
And put misery out of view,
Do you make me notice you!  (TL)

I am not going to develop the idea, but I might note that the observer here is not God but the author, and that Hardy himself created a world and its people, and that he is the one who heaped “travails and teens” upon them when he just as well could have “strown blisses.”


  1. Poor Hardy. In the words of Spiro Agnew, he seems to have been such a "nattering nabob of negativity" in so many ways.

  2. So can most writers, if one carefully selects the "right" quotations.

  3. Hardy was never any kind of nabob, nor was he, in these poems, nattering, although I suppose that is a matter of judgment. His negativism, I grant. There is a poem in TL in which a woman is driven to suicide by Christmas carolers. That is, I had to admit, pretty bleak, and also funny.

    I am attracted to Fred's idea of describing a writer, using only his own words, as the opposite of how he really is. That would be fun, something like Maurice Morgann's An Essay on the Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff (1777), the all-time greatest piece of literary criticism.

    1. I surrender to being wrong again.

  4. I apologize for my ill-advised comments. It has been a bad Rx day. I'm sorry.

  5. "Nabob" is a good word to play around with. John Galt has a funny novel, The Last of the Lairds, featuring a nabob who has just returns to Scotland and speaks in an Indian-English hybrid that is close to gibberish. Alphonse Daudet wrote a novel title The Nabob that I would like to read, someday, maybe. Also sounds funny.

  6. Wow, so many great lines! Piteous, that's a great adjective to go with dust.

  7. The "God" poems are sharp, poetically sharp. With Hardy, irony and great poetic phrases go together. When his sentiments are gooier, his verse is fuzzier.

  8. But you must acknowledge him also as the author of another Christmas poem, "The Oxen," a poem so delicate and beautiful that it stirs even this atheist's heart.

  9. "The Oxen," now that is a poem for our time. It has some Christmas spirit that Dickens would recognize, aside from Hardy's irony.

    I had not known that poem. It is later than the batch of books I read - 1915, maybe - and I do not remember it from an anthology. Thanks for the pointer.

  10. I second the thankfulness. What a poem!

  11. Those butterflies on the hourglass are lovely.

  12. First I thought, what a shame the later collections do not have illustrations.

    Then I realized that more illustrations meant fewer poems. So I accept the results. Still, yes, I greatly enjoyed Hardy's illustrations; that hourglass is among the best.

  13. Very late to this Hardy party. I've been saving it. One of my favourite poets and was the favourite novelist of my adolescence, although I haven't read any of his novels since the eighties. Probably because I always go back to the poems, or a few poems. It's a long time since I did a proper trawl. The poor starving thrush is so, so Hardy. It reminds me of an anecdote that I was told of him clipping the most awful stories from the papers and then including them in his novels. Always asking, how do we justify a world that includes this?

  14. That story has a rich, pure Thomas Hardy flavor.