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.

Hardy’s “The Wound”

It’s been awhile since I’ve sat down and read a large number of Thomas Hardy’s poems at one time, and I’ll admit that I find his poetry darker and more pessimistic than I remember from my first reading, certainly more pessimistic than my personal philosophy. Still, I sometimes fear his viewpoint may actually be more realistic than my own.

I remember reading a long time ago Hardy’s statement that he considered himself an ameliorist, not a pessimist; he recognized there was much that was wrong with the world but hoped things were gradually improving. You might be hard pressed to verify that from Moments Of Vision And Miscellaneous Verses, though, where the dominant moods seem to be “regret” and a “sense of loss” two moods I’m not completely unfamiliar with at my age. Of course, when it comes to “love” I’d suppose anyone over the age of fifteen could claim the same.

A sense of “loss” haunts these poems. One of my favorites is the simple:

THE WOUND

I climbed to the crest,
And, fog-festooned,
The sun lay west
Like a crimson wound:

Like that wound of mine
Of which none knew,
For I’d given no sign
That it pierced me through.

The irony of identifying the narrator’s wound with a beautiful sunset somehow appeals to me, perhaps because it suggests that the wound came from a beautiful moment, one that has been lost forever and I, as well as most people, can certainly identify with that. Of course, precisely because it is so common, people dismiss it as if it’s unimportant or insignificant. Everyone else gets on with their life, why not you?

It’s impossible to read this collection of poems without coming to believe that the tragedy that haunts Hardy is a “lost love.” Poem after poem refers to an unidentified lover who has died, leaving the narrator irretrievably forlorn:

THE FIGURE IN THE SCENE

It pleased her to step in front and sit
Where the cragged slope was green,
While I stood back that I might pencil it
With her amid the scene;
Till it gloomed and rained;
But I kept on, despite the drifting wet
That fell and stained
My draught, leaving for curious quizzings yet
The blots engrained.

And thus I drew her there alone,
Seated amid the gauze
Of moisture, hooded, only her outline shown,
With rainfall marked across.
–Soon passed our stay;
Yet her rainy form is the Genius still of the spot,
Immutable, yea,
Though the place now knows her no more, and has known her not
Ever since that day.

From an old note.

On one level this reminds me of a group photo where one person has been cut out, either out of hatred or merely an attempt to deny the past. Of course, trained as an architect, Hardy must have been familiar with the way painters often fill in the background, saving space for the most important subject which would have been filled in later with greater care and detail. You’ll notice that it also seems to fit the poem I cited above quite well.

The fact that even this precious shared moment was “gloomed and rained? on compounds the sense of sorrow. Though there’s no sense of the kind of “dramatic” moment most people would remember or hang onto, indeed, it was short-lived as it “soon passed or stay there is certainly something special about this girl because her rainy form is the “Genius” and is “Immutable.” In other words, it feels precisely like the spot left in your heart when you lose someone you “love.” Sometimes with love, “what might have been” seems more powerful than what “was.”

Hardy’s “Moments of Vision”

I’ve been wanting to return to the poetry of Thomas Hardy where my original love of poetry began, but haven’t been quite willing to take down the Complete Poems and begin reading from the beginning. So, I was pleased when wood s lot provided a link to Hardy’s MOMENTS OF VISION AND MISCELLANEOUS VERSES at Gutenberg.

I was originally attracted to this volume by the title poem, one I still find it powerful after several readings.

MOMENTS OF VISION

That mirror
Which makes of men a transparency,
Who holds that mirror
And bids us such a breast-bare spectacle see
Of you and me?

That mirror
Whose magic penetrates like a dart,
Who lifts that mirror
And throws our mind back on us, and our heart,
Until we start?

That mirror
Works well in these night hours of ache;
Why in that mirror
Are tincts we never see ourselves once take
When the world is awake?

That mirror
Can test each mortal when unaware;
Yea, that strange mirror
May catch his last thoughts, whole life foul or fair,
Glassing it--where?

On one level, the poem seems to suggest that there is an external force (may one dare to suggest, God?) who forces us to look at our true selves, a mirror that forces us to see our “whole life foul or fair? and “glassing it? on Judgment Day.

On another level, though, it seems to be the individual himself, or, perhaps, more precisely, his conscience that re-examines his life and ultimately judges the way he has lived.

Perhaps this poem rings true because after a certain age one is apt to look back on one’s life and make judgments about how that life has been lived. It’s hard not to have a few regrets, and it is perhaps easier to become sentimental about those regrets than to see them in the framework of later events. Actions we wish we hadn’t taken may in the long run actually teach us truths that profoundly affect the rest of our lives.

That is not to say that “in these night hours of ache? that we won’t despair over decisions we’ve made and events that have shaped our lives. One would probably be less than human not to rightfully have some regrets over a lifetime of actions, and I certainly consider myself human.

Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush”

I included this poem in my January 1, 2002 entry and I still haven't found a better poem to start a new year.

Perhaps it's a testament to the value of art that this poem written at the beginning of the 20th Century seems as valid today as it did the day it was written.

THE DARKLING THRUSH

I LEANT upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky-
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleapt,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

December 1900

There is, indeed, something in the human soul that helps us to transcend the tragedy of the world that each of us must confront everyday of our life.