Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Thomas Hardy's occasional stoild "moos," and other good writing

Some examples of Hardy “attempting to convey the intangibilities of his feeling in the coarse meshes of language” and succeeding (Ch. 3).  The character in Far from the Madding Crowd who thinks that line, or who it describes – not so likely he thinks it himself – “remained silent.”  Not Hardy.

The shepherd is goin’ courtin’:

[He] used all the hair-oil he possessed upon his usually dry, sandy, and inextricably curly hair, till he had deepened it to a splendidly novel colour, between that of guano and Roman cement, making it stick to his head like mace round a nutmeg, or wet seaweed round a boulder after the ebb.  (Ch. 4)

One thing we have here is an example of the poet’s imagination, always alert for unlikely yet true comparisons.  One of the great innovations of 19th century fiction was the discovery by novelists that it was possible to use poetic effects in their prose, while here a genuine poet has learned to pour his imagery into fiction.  What I find especially poetry-like here, really, is that a single comparison is not enough.  In no novelistic sense are four similes necessary.

They are all plausible comparisons for Hardy’s rustics to make, even if they do not grow mace in Wessex, but they must belong to the narrator.  He is the poet.  “Roman cement” is the most Hardyish signature, with some ancient layer of the ancient past touching everything, even hair color.

Another thing we have here is a genuine Thomas Hardy humor, which is liberally applied to Madding Crowd.  One possible response to my examples of bad writing is that they are meant to be funny.  Like comparing the shepherd’s hair to bat dung and a wet boulder, they are sometimes deliberate, amusing grotesques.

A different kind of grotesque, more Gothic.  Something terrible has just happened, involving, as is often the case in Far from the Maddng Crowd, sheep:

By the outer margin of the pit was an oval pond, and over it hung the attenuated skeleton of a chrome-yellow moon which had only a few days to last – the morning star dogging her on the left hand.  The pool glittered like a dead man's eye, and as the world awoke a breeze blew, shaking and elongating the reflection of the moon without breaking it, and turning the image of the star to a phosphoric streak upon the water.  All this Oak saw and remembered. (Ch. 5)

The language simultaneously describes what shepherd Oak sees and what he is feeling.  The natural world has turned on him.  Note that the scene is not static, not just a painting put into words.  It moves and changes.

The last word, “remembered,” is one of Hardy’s many debts to George Eliot, one of her “flash forward” moments, which Hardy uses somewhat more than she does.

One more, another funny one, but with cows, not sheep:

Here the only sounds disturbing the stillness were steady munchings of many mouths, and stentorian breathings from all but invisible noses, ending in snores and puffs like the blowing of bellows slowly.  Then the munching would recommence, when the lively imagination might assist the eye to discern a group of pink-white nostrils, shaped as caverns, and very clammy and humid on their surfaces, not exactly pleasant to the touch until one got used to them…  Above each of these a still keener vision suggested a brown forehead and two staring though not unfriendly eyes, and above all a pair of whitish crescent-shaped horns like two particularly new moons, an occasional stolid “moo!” proclaiming beyond the shade of a doubt that these phenomena were the features and persons of Daisy, Whitefoot, Bonny-lass, Jolly-O, Spot, Twinkle-eye, etc., etc… (Ch. 24)

Again, a character is present (hidden by my ellipses), but the “lively imagination” does not seem to be hers but rather Hardy’s, or by suggestion mine.  If I did not see the cavernous, ectoplasmic cow nostrils before, I sure do now.  It was passages like this, of which there are a number in Far from the Madding Crowd, that made we wonder if some of what sounded to me like bad writing concealed an occasional stolid “moo!” if I only knew how to hear it.


  1. As I read your analysis -- following my reading earlier of a few Hemingway stories -- I get a glimpse of the kind of writing Hemingway was rebelling against with his economical and controlled style. Hardy -- always poet at heart -- knew what he was doing when he abandoned novels in favor of poetry; I know that I prefer Hardy as the poet rather than the novelist.

  2. Yes, Hardy was highly Victorian. There would inevitably be a reaction against this style - many reactions.

    I, too, prefer his poetry. I am testing that judgment now, reading it in more bulk than I ever have before.

  3. I love those unexpected, crazy similes, perhaps because I try so hard to invent my own.

    And as always you managed to make me reconsider a writer I used to find dull; I read a Hardy novel and didn't think too highly of it, but perhaps at the time I didn't look for cave-like cow nostrils. A person grows up and develops a stranger taste in words...

  4. There is plenty of dull stuff. More ordinary at least. The Oxford paperback features a cornball passionate love sort of quote you could find in a thousand other novels. Ten thousand. Can anyone really be reading Hardy for that?

    Cow nostrils like caves, lightning like skeletons, and a sheep as pretty as Venus nude on the half-shell - that's the good stuff.