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 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.