Hardy’s “At a Country Fair”

Most people I’ve recommended Hardy to seem to feel that he is “too depressing,” and I can certainly understand that reaction. Looked at too closely, life may well be depressing. What’s truly depressing, though, is how few people seem to realize there is something they can do about how depressing it is.

We don’t have to be bound by our forefathers’ customs. We don’t have to follow archaic rules that determine how we live our lives. We don’t have to have ridiculous expectations that allow others to exploit our weaknesses. Most of all, we don’t have to be led around blindly by those in power, those who most benefit from our inability to see the world for what it is:

AT A COUNTRY FAIR

At a bygone Western country fair
I saw a giant led by a dwarf
With a red string like a long thin scarf;
How much he was the stronger there
The giant seemed unaware.

And then I saw that the giant was blind,
And the dwarf a shrewd-eyed little thing;
The giant, mild, timid, obeyed the string
As if he had no independent mind,
Or will of any kind.

Wherever the dwarf decided to go
At his heels the other trotted meekly,
(Perhaps–I know not–reproaching weakly)
Like one Fate bade that it must be so,
Whether he wished or no.

Various sights in various climes
I have seen, and more I may see yet,
But that sight never shall I forget,
And have thought it the sorriest of pantomimes,
If once, a hundred times!

While Hardy may well have been inspired to write the poem by observing this depressing scene, he probably doesn’t intend for us to merely become depressed at the thought of some mean-spirited dwarf leading a gentle giant around rural England in some freak show. Hell, most of us can get depressed just looking at our own lives; we don’t need to imagine depressing scenes in far away countries.

No, he wanted us to realize that we are the victims in a gigantic freak show, where, instead of inheriting the kingdom, the meek and timid are led around by some “shrewd-eyed” Karl Rove and his ilk, as if we “had no independent mind,/ Or will of any kind.”

It’s not “Fate bade that it must be so” but, rather, our own fatalistic expectations that tell us that we have no power to change our condition, that we must blindly follow those who claim to see the light, who promise we shall be rewarded on another plane, while they, of course, are rewarded on this plane. Never realizing our true strength nor that truth can only reside within ourselves in the here and now, we continue to be led by others until we begin to follow our own light.

6 thoughts on “Hardy’s “At a Country Fair”

  1. I agree there’s a general lack of critical thought in our culture. I’m reading Edmundson’s book “Why Read.” He makes a compelling argument that humanities teachers could do more to engage students in examining their lives and testing their own “final narratives.” The problem, as he tells it, (and it’s one of many problems) is that literature teachers approach great writing from a detached perspective without expecting it to offer insights that are presently relevant. There’s a reluctance to help draw out the core beliefs of students for them to examine in the light of insightful writing.

  2. Certainly one of the reasons there’s such a reluctance is that it’s considered teaching “values,” generally perceived as “Humanistic values” by conservatives. See my earlier essay on the girl’s poem that was cut out of the student magazine because it challenged some parents’ mores.

    I’m afraid the world hasn’t changed too much from the time when Hardy quit writing novels because there was such a public outcry against his masterpiece Jude the Obscure.

  3. I’m sure parents can intimidate teachers, but I think Edmundson’s is a useful point in addressing the limitations teachers bring on themselves. A teacher who discounts the value of literature in affecting real change in her students will more readily yield to convention at the expense of helping her students think. He quotes Williams’ line about how people are dying for lack of what is found in poetry, and how laughable it would be within the community of educators if one were to earnestly hold such a view. How did we get to this point?

  4. I’m sure many teachers don’t have the faith in literature they should have, but there are a lot of things working against that faith.

    I hung myself out on the cross of poetry when I first started teaching and later taught a one quarter class devoted just to poetry for several years, but the unfortunate reality is that it’s damn hard to sell novels and damn near impossible to sell poetry to an average class of high school students.

    I’d be curious as to what percentage of the book market is devoted to poetry, and that’s probably one of the few accurate ways to measure its popularlity.

  5. I believe that poetry is beautiful and most english teachers are passionate about their work. But it is true that unpassionate teachers do not bring forth passionate students. Is that our problem nowadays??
    em….i believe you don’t sell the poems you create, rather, you use your passion which stimulated you to write the poem and apply it to life. You transfer this passion in whatever you do and you will succeed. Its all abnout your state of mind. People who read poetry i find, expand their mind and spirit. I write/read poetry not to sell it, rather to increase my scope in life. Maybe i am just not very practical…

  6. If you think Hardy can be depressing, you ought to try Housman! I’d seriously recommend `A Shropshire Lad’ as an antidote to any minor quibbles one may have with life. Or even major ones; I have heard it said (with what accuracy I cannot tell) that it was the third most popular book to be taken by British troops to the front in the first world war (after the Bible and the `Pilgrim’s Progress’). Housman’s verse is simpler in structure than Hardy’s, consciously on his part, aiming to revert to the purer forms of the early Latin poets. I find that the effect is to trade literary interest for heightened impact. It might be interesting to compare comments on the two.

What do you think?