Friday, May 15, 2015

The goddess whom she instinctively adored - Hardy's paganism - plus a fetching nude sheep

I’ll expand on Hardy’s paganism.  Or that of the narrator of Far from the Madding Crowd, easily the most important character in the book.  I do not remember how common mythological references were in other Hardy novels, but Madding Crowd is full of them, and they all come from the narrator.  He is one odd bird.

Some references are mere metaphors.  A group of drinkers “grew as merry as the gods in Homer's heaven” while they listened to “a ballad as inclusive and interminable as that with which the worthy toper old Silenus amused on a similar occasion the swains Chromis and Mnasylus” (Ch. 23)  Virgil’s sixth Eclogue, if you are curious.  The narrator is not afraid of making me look up one of his allusions.  His characters, farmhands and shepherds, would have no idea what he is talking about.

At least one classical reference is pure comedy.  A sheep has just been sheared:

The clean, sleek creature arose from its fleece – how perfectly like Aphrodite rising from the foam should have been seen to be realized –  looking startled and shy at the loss of its garment…  (Ch. 22)

I hope that was meant as comedy.

But as the metaphors and jokes and so on accumulated, I began to realize that none of this figurative language was actually descriptive.  Virgil and Venus do not help us see the scene – metaphor as an aid to precision – but rather add a layer of meaning.  All of my notes are from the middle of the book or later, because early on I did not understand what I was seeing in the text.  I did not understand that when the narrator pulled in a Greek god he meant it.

This was the strangest one:

Although she scarcely knew the divinity's name, Diana was the goddess whom Bathsheba instinctively adored.  (Ch. 41)

Only the narrator (and the reader) see all of these gods swirling around the humans and their sheep.

It was an odd experience reading E. R. Dodd's The Greeks and the Irrational (1949) alongside Hardy:

The Greek had always felt the experience of passion as something mysterious and frightening, the experience of a force that was in him, possessing him, rather than possessed by him.  The very word pathos testifies to that: like its Latin equivalent passio, it means something “happens to” a man, something of which he is a passive victim. (Ch. VI, 185)

The passage describes three of the four major characters.  Or what about the link between Pan  who is the god of panic, sheep, and panicky sheep (Ch. III, p. 95), all important parts of Hardy’s pastoral novel.  Or  the discussion of Eros as “divine madness, “the one mode of experience which brings together the two natures of man, the divine self and the tethered beast” (Ch. VII, p. 218).  This chance meeting of books made Hardy’s, or the narrator’s, paganism and related irrationalism stand out clearly.

Dodds gives a hint about Hardy’s deeper purpose, too.  The classical scholar is pushing back on the simple idea of Greece as the birthplace of Reason.  He argues first that there were always other competing traditions, and that as Greece declined those traditions filled the vacuum, sometimes in decadent forms.  Hardy’s pagan view of life is itself a reaction against – a warning to? – or just an expression of unease about the rationalism of his own time, a reminder of the power of the gods we instinctively adore.  


  1. Well, I'm persuaded. Hardy is not on my normal reading menu, but your commentary on _Far From the Madding Crowd_ has me poised to dive into some good (dare I say "bizarre") stuff. Sensuous sheep! Good grief!

  2. I've been enjoying these Hardy posts too, particularly after reading Hardy's colleague Arnold Bennett for the first time. Too early so say, having only read one short work, but I suspect Bennett would never have invoked the gods like that. Even though his protagonist in Anna of the Five Towns is clearly uncomfortable with the Methodism that surrounds her, neither she nor Bennett seem ready to adopt (even via the narrator's consciousness) a pagan substitute.

    My past experiences with Hardy have been something like (though better than) those with Thomas Wolfe, a slight irritation at that additive layer of meaning you mention. I like your hypothesis about why it's there.

  3. Bizarre - yes, some of Hardy is genuinely bizarre. Pleasingly bizarre, mostly. Occasionally, less pleasing.

    The temptation with Hardy, or Wolfe, must be to break the book into its component "symbols," which must be a good way to kill a book. The solution to the problem here is to work on that oddball narrator. Judging by book blogs, most Hardy readers are not aware the narrator exists. I find that strange.

  4. hardy is an applecherryrhubarbmince pie; slices from the natural world, the mythological preworld, the peasant society of southern england, even a touch of zen thrown in. it makes for an interesting and formidable poetic touch, with selected bites of each slice used to illuminate the rest. sudden revelation sometimes, not always, can happen; and sometimes just oddball quirkiness. makes for super good poetry, though. not so sure about more extended works.

  5. The pie metaphor made me laugh.

    I could not quite find my way to write about the "zen" aspect. It is there. It is in the poems from 30 years later I am reading now.

  6. Well, and et in arcadia ego, right? The shepherds are there looking at things that are not at all idealized or simple, even if they are literally "pastoral." The Greek gods may have been fate but they were also fatal.

  7. Eh, there is some idealization and simplification with these shepherds. What is odd, though, is the insistent frame the narrator puts around them.

    "[Bathsheba's] looks were calm and nearly rigid, like a slightly animated bust of Melpomene" (Ch. 54) - Greek muse of tragedy, had to look that one up. In this scene, there is literally a corpse in the room with Bathsheba. A reminder of the presence of death is hardly necessary. The narrator is actually making the scene more artificial.

  8. (aka Christopher Lord)...With your focus on what I now think of as "Hardy howlers," those terrible sentences unique to a writer of Hardy's greatness (this one from “Tess” immediately made me think of you: "But the circumstance was sufficient to lead [Angel] to select Tess in preference to the other pretty milkmaids when he wished to contemplate contiguous womankind.") you have influenced my reading of Hardy; I hope to influence yours as well.

    Hardy ranks with Melville, Hawthorne, and late Dickens in the audacious use of symbolism—“go big or go home.” Few contemporary writers—Richard Ford’s flood in “Empire Falls,” Annie Proulx’s tethered house in “The Shipping News” and almost anything of John Irving’s—come close to these writers in trying for big effects.

    Look up from the granularity of individual sentences and see what Hardy is doing on a larger scale—putting tiny, highly individualized people against a vast backdrop of time, geography, and even space. Why, Tess believes in astral projection, throws herself on the “altar” at Stonehenge, and Troy slices the air all around Bathsheba with his “sword.” You have to admit, he’s gutsy.

    Far From the Madding Crowd represents a significant maturity in Hardy’s plotting; as I mentioned in another post, novelist Floyd Skloot has one of his characters in “The Phantom of Thomas Hardy” writing about the “geometry” of Hardy characters, and here we have a classic love quadrangle: three men, one woman. Unfortunately, Hardy gives us the underdeveloped Bathsheba Everdene, when Oak, Boldwood, and Troy all deserve the fiery uncontrollable femininity of Eustacia Vye, but she’s four years and one book in the future. But all three men have their good and bad points, and Hardy does the best job so far in his work of delineating character. Frankly, Bathsheba as written (versus how Julie Christie and Carey Mulligan portray her on screen) isn’t worthy of any of the three of them. Note, however, in the last few pages of Madding Crowd how she almost disappears entirely behind the word “wife,” used at least four times by Gabriel and the rustics after Bathsheba speaks her last line of dialogue, as if Hardy has put her in her place at last, under the thumb of a good man. It’s a tough situation for a 21st century audience.

    And the landscape is breathtaking in its numbing clarity, expanse, and influence on character. One of my friends thinks Madding Crowd is all about sheep: he misses the flock for the bleats. Who but Hardy could dare the pathetic—truly pathetic—scene in the churchyard where Fanny’s grave is destroyed by rain pouring from the mouth of a “gurgoyle”? Who would teach a character humility by sending his sheep pouring over a cliff, driven by an overenthusiastic puppy?

    Hardy, that’s who, and we should be in awe of his singular novelistic gifts.

    Even “the sheep look up” from time to time, even if they might drown in doing so. I hope you will look up from Hardy’s sentences to his larger artistic endeavors. You will find many achievements, notwithstanding Tess’s Sorrow and Jude’s Father Time.

    Now that you’ve read Madding Crowd, Return of the Native, Mayor, The Woodlanders, Tess, and Jude, you’re about at the end of top-notch Hardy. I would recommend Under the Greenwood Tree or A Pair of Blue Eyes (somewhat autobiographical at least in a gross sense) as a change of pace. The other novels are really for Hardy completers, but lesser Hardy is often more interesting than most contemporary writing, says this “I read dead people” reader…

  9. I think I've hit just about everything you mention in one piece or another. I restrain myself to one post of howlers per novel. With The Woodlanders I restrained myself to one sentence. Such self-control!

    Go back two posts, for example, for "gurgoyles" + "gutsy," except my word was "audacity."

    My one serious disagreement is that I think there are lots of contemporary writers who "go big." Many of them write for TV, or for comic books. I am not trying to convince you to read Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman, but it exists, its use of symbolism as audacious as anyone's. Or, to stick to prose fiction, Krasznahorkai, Aira, Saramago - I don't have any trouble finding symbolically bold contemporary writers.

    Thanks for the Hardy recommendations. I hope to get to The Well-beloved soon.