Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Thomas Hardy as eco-poet - my tusky ones vanish

Writing about Hardy’s theodicy poems I included a couple that were also ecological poems, or something close to it.  Proto-ecological.  “By the Earth’s Corpse,” for pity’s sake.  Hardy’s imagination is well suited to ecology: he is attentive to both nature and time, to natural cycles and to human-made change.  Time, to Hardy, is long.

His ecological sense provides an answer to his question about evil.  In “The Mother Mourns” (PPP), the poet, wandering in the Wessex woods, overhears Nature herself “breathing in aërie accents, / With dirgelike refrain”:

‘No more such!...  My species are dwindling,
    My forests grow barren,
My popinjays fail froim their trappings,
    My larks from their strain.
‘My leopardine beauties are rarer,
    My tusky ones vanish,
My children have aped mine own slaughter
    To quicken my wane.  (ll. 73-80)

Nature says that she will surrender, abandoning the earth to the slime molds:

Let me grow, then, but mildews and mandrakes,
    And slimy distortions,
Let nevemore things good and lovely
    To me appertain’  (ll. 81-84)

The problem, Nature argues, is that Man is too intelligent:

‘I had not proposed me a Creature
    (She soughed) so excelling
All else of my kingdom in compass
    And brightness of brain’  (ll. 21-4)

On the other hand, in “In the Wood” (WP) which a subtitle says is from Hardy’s novel The Woodlanders, although strictly speaking it is not, the speaker is horrfied by the Darwinian struggle of the trees, the way they seem to actively hate each other, “[c]ombatants all!”  The narrator is happy to return to the company of people, where “at least smiles abound” and “now and then, are found / Life-loyalties.”

Let’s see, what else do I want to jot down.  Hardy’s Napoleonic poems are interesting, but perhaps they are just raw material for The Dynasts.  The poems written about – during – the 1902 Boer War are of higher interest.  They are almost all from the point of view of the “soldiers’ wives and sweetharts,” waving farewll to the troop ships or checking the lists of casualties at the War Office.  “Drummer Hodge” is an important exception.  It is almost another eco-poem.  The buried soldier, “uncoffined,” will now be a “portion of that unknown plain,” “[h]is homely Northern breast and brain” food for “some Southern tree.”

I mentioned in a comment a narrative poem (“The Rash Bride,” TL) in which a woman is driven to suicide by Christmas carolers, which is a little bit bleak, and ridiculous, and that poem is followed by one about more Christmas carolers, ghosts this time (“The Dead Quire”).  But the oddest poem in the three books I read must be “The Levelled Churchyard” (PPP), which has more ghosts, this time lamenting about the destruction of their ancient cemetery by “zealous Churchmen’s pick and plane.”  It is another eco-poem, really, although the ecology is that of the ghost:

‘We late-lamented, resting here,
    Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear,
    “I know not which I am!”


‘Where we are huddled none can trace,
    And if our names remain,
They pave some path or porch or place
    Where we have never lain!’  (ll. 5-8, 13-16)

Pretty funny.


  1. "human jam", yum. when odd things happen they may provide a hint that there is more out there than we are aware of. exploring that edge seems one of hardy's dimensions, although he might not be cognizant of it. haiku convey a similar thinning of the veil between us and what's real...

  2. That's right, that is exactly what Hardy is doing, exploring the edge. That "human jam" bit is exploring the edge of good taste. I love that stanza.