Sunday, February 6, 2011

Thomas Hardy as a man and a poet who noticed things

Here is a poem that Hardy could have written at almost any time during his long life, but was probably written between 1913 and 1916: Afterwards.

When the present has latched its postern behing my tremulous stay
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new spun silk, will the neighbors say,
"He was a man who used to notice such things"?

If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid's soundless blink,
The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn, a gazer may think,
To him this must have been a familiar sight."

If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One may say, "He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone.

If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the door,
Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees,
Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,
"He was one who had an eye for such mysteries"?

And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom,
And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell's boom,
"He hears it not now, but used to notice such things.

You don't have to have read much of Hardy's poetry or fiction to know that he was indeed a man who noticed things, especially (perhaps) the plight of the innocent creatures whom we farm or hunt or catch in traps, or who just happen to share the space we occupy, like that hedgehog scurrying furtively across the lawn. Anyone who has read Jude The Obscure will remember the terrible scene in which Jude and Arabella butcher a pig and make a mess of it. That scene didn't have to be there; Hardy forces it upon our attention partly because he wants us to know the brutal world that Jude has entered by marrying Arabella, but also for its own sake: if you are going eat pork, you ought to know something about the life and death of the animal it comes from.

Hardy also had an eye for the plight of ordinary people, trapped in dead-end lives like a man he notices coming up Oxford Street one evening, with the sun in his eyes:

A city-clerk, with eyesight not of the best,
Who sees no escape to the very verge of his days
From the rut of Oxford Street into open ways;
And he goes along with head and eyes flagging forlorn,
Empty of interest in things, and wondering why he was born.

Hardy's poems are full of people asking that very same question.

There are also some things that, surprisingly, he didn't notice—or, if he did, chose to ignore: the modernist revolution in literature and the arts that was going on right under his nose. He seems never to have heard of Picasso or Cezanne or Matisse or Stravinsky. T. S. Eliot mentions him but he never mentions T. S. Eliot.

Hardy's indifference to modernism in the arts (if that's what it was) did not extend to modern science. In 1920, he bought and read Einstein's Relativity: The Special and General Theory. A Popular Exposition, and took it to confirm what he believed, "that neither chance nor purpose governs the universe, but necessity." Later, thinking further about relativity and space-time, he wrote in his notebook, "Relativity. That things and events always were, are, and will be" and that the people he loved are still living in the past. Which is just a little odd, coming from a man who did not believe in an after-life.

If there are any other modern poets (i.e., poets of the early 20th century) who took the trouble to read up on Relativity, I don't know who they are.

1 comment:

  1. I always think of Hardy as a 19th century man. It was strange reading Robert Graves encounter with him in 'Goodbye to all that'. An old man pottering about the house concerned with his plants. I like your blog :)