For many years during my chequered career as an English teacher, I taught a very limited selection of poems by Thomas Hardy which featured in the interim anthology, Soundings, edited by Augustine Martin. This was as part of the then Leaving Poetry Certificate course – where the only requirement for selection was that the poet had to be dead! How times have changed – for the better. Having now retired I have been able to revisit the poems and glory anew in their darkness – a rather sad, pathetic version of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’!
During his lifetime, Thomas Hardy was much engaged with the great issues which exercise the minds of all thinking men; time, death, suffering, immortality. Three of his finest poems (‘Afterwards’, ‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’, ‘During Wind and Rain’) deal with these matters. Students of Hardy’s oeuvre will already know that he was not a particularly cheerful or optimistic observer or commentator on the human condition. He could not, for example, believe that the universe was the work of a benevolent Creator. At different times in his writings we can see that he thought creation to be a cruel joke, or as an accident, and he even once suggested that some ‘Vast imbecility / Mighty to build and blend / But impotent to tend / Framed us in jest, and left us now to hazardry’ (‘Nature’s Questioning’). Human life appeared to him to be devoid of any clear plan or purpose, and personal immortality was clearly an illusion. He could find nothing to give meaning to the weight of suffering in the world, to the ravages of time, or to the cruelty of death.
The three poems mentioned above embody varying reactions to the predicament of human beings in the face of the remorseless forces of destruction. In ‘Afterwards’ we find a calm, stoical acceptance; while ‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’ he affirms the continuity of everyday life against a background of war and turmoil, while in ‘During Wind and Rain’ he portrays a relentless picture of absolute desolation and despairing, tragic anguish.
Recited by Jeremy Irons
‘Afterwards’ happens to be one of my own personal favourite poems of all time. The poem was written in 1917 (the same year as Eliot’s, ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’, was published). Hardy was 77 at the time. It is not really a poem about death, but about the world Hardy feels he will soon be leaving, and about the ways in which he would like to be remembered after he has gone. It is a sincere, truthful poem, showing Hardy’s resignation and stoicism, as well as embodying his modest view of his own significance. At the time of writing, Hardy was nearing the end of a long and illustrious career, as poet and novelist. In the poem, however, he hopes not for universal remembrance after death, as a great man of letters, but instead that a few kind people will remember him for his lifelong interest in nature and for his fondness for living things. He does not look forward to death with terror or dread, or even with excitement; he greets the prospect of his ‘bell of quittance’ with quiet detachment. Detachment, indeed, is the keynote of the poem. It is as if Hardy were observing his own fate from a distance; the fact that he talks so much about himself in the third person (a la J.M. Coetzee in more recent times) lends force to this impression.
One way of reading ‘Afterwards’ is as the utterance of one returned to life from the past, as a kind of tolerant, objective, kindly observer. The major focus of interest in the poem is not the poet himself but the things he used to notice while he lived: there is a beautiful tension between the things so lovingly observed and the idea of death which broods over the poem. Hardy’s ability to be objective about his own demise is finely suggested in the second line:
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings
Instead of using morbid nature imagery to portray his death, as he does in poems like ‘The Darkling Thrush’, he instead evokes the joys of early summer. Furthermore, his claim to have been a close observer of nature during his lifetime is validated in the beautiful image of the hawk in lines 5 – 6:
Like an eyelid’s soundless blink
This beautiful and powerful simile, combining as it does speed and soundlessness, would occur only to one who had, indeed, looked long and closely at the minutest details of a scene.
The third stanza is both endearing and sad. Hardy was a firm believer, whether in regard to humans or animals, that the chief aim of man should be to strive to keep pain down to a minimum by loving kindness. His lifelong campaign against cruelty to animals and birds, referred to here, in this stanza, will, he suggests, come to nothing once he has passed away:
But he could do little for them, and now he is gone.
I find that it is impossible to read this line in its context without feeling a pang at the absurdity of isolated human effort in the face of the relentless progress of evil in the world.
In the fourth stanza, Hardy moves from the contemplation of every day, local details to glance momentarily at the mysteries of creation and record his interest in such matters. He is content to contemplate them with due wonder and to reserve his comment for the more homely things he does understand. There doesn’t seem to be any religious significance to his contemplation of created things or of matters after death other than his reference to the ‘bell of quittance’, obviously the bell of his local parish church. The very modesty of his hopes and claims make them all the more moving and impressive. Yet, the long sonorous lines of the poem help paint a picture of Hardy the man: a good neighbour, a keen observer of nature, a man who will be missed when he goes – a man who had an eye ‘for such mysteries’
Recited by Judi Dench
‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’
Along with ‘Afterwards’, ‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’, despite its brevity and simplicity, ranks as one of Hardy’s finest achievements. In three short stanzas, Hardy makes a profound comment on war, and on the basic permanence of simple, everyday things.
Although the poem was written during the First World War in 1915, the subject occurred to Hardy as early as 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, as we read in his The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy. He was in Cornwall when he wrote:
On the day that the bloody battle of Gravelotte was fought they were reading Tennyson in the grounds of the rectory. It was at this time and spot that Hardy was struck by the incident of the old horse harrowing the arable field in the valley below, which, when in later years it was recalled to him by a still bloodier war, he made into the little poem of three verses (p. 84).
The poem makes its powerful, telling and timely point by sharply juxtaposing the momentary aberration of war against a background of centuries of human history. Hardy asserts the pre-eminence of simple human values in the face of the misuse of power and the disintegration brought about by war. According to Hardy, there are two kinds of history: that of war, political events and the rise and fall of Dynasties, and the humbler history of obscure people and everyday life. The man and the old horse ploughing the field, the thin smoke rising from the field, and the two lovers, represent the second kind; the Dynasties represent the first kind. The Great War (To End All Wars) was meant to mark the passing of these Dynasties, but the ‘maid and her wight’ have greater significance than all the dynasties, since, through their children and their descendants down the generations, they will continue the story of humanity long after dynasties and their wars have passed into oblivion.
Read by Tom O’Bedlam
‘During Wind and Rain’
‘During Wind and Rain’ is a very pessimistic, indeed despairing, comment on life and death, providing an interesting contrast with ‘Afterwards’ and ‘At Time of the Breaking of Nations’. It is quintessentially Hardy. As in the other two poems, the powerful effects are achieved largely through contrast and juxtaposition. Here, each of the four stanzas has the same structural features. The setting of the poem is a wild, tempestuous autumn day which bears an obvious weight of symbolism. In each stanza, a happy, beautifully depicted scene from the past is followed by a pathetic refrain whose theme is the havoc wrought by the years, while each final line brings forcefully to life the wildness of the autumn day.
It is said that Hardy wrote the poem with his first wife, Emma Gifford, in mind. She is seen with her family in a series of happy scenes, the security and comfort of which are shattered in turn by the intrusive, tortured refrain on ‘the years’. There is a wealth of implication in the first stanza, with its cheerful family music-making followed by the image of the sick leaves which ‘reel down in throngs’, which seems both to describe the autumn day and to suggest the deaths of the participants in the happy gathering. Again, in the beautiful garden of Stanzas Two and Three, ‘the rotten rose is ript from the wall’, a glance, apparently, at the family’s tendency to madness.
In this poem – one of his darkest and despairing – Hardy finds the origins of death and despair in the past. Time enjoys a cruel triumph, and a total one here, obliterating without a trace not only the most stable and fortunate families and their carefully tended surroundings, but even those remains which might serve to perpetuate their memories. This latter idea is graphically conveyed in the great last line, which is almost a poem in itself:
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs
Even the very names of the dead carved on their tombstones are not exempt from the erasing hand of time. The absolute desolation of this poem is appropriately summed up in the slow, lingering pathos of this line, with its crushing air of finality.
Hardy, Thomas. The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy ed Michael Millgate (1984). London: The Macmillan Press Limited, 1984.
Martin, Augustine (ed). Soundings: Leaving Cert Poetry/Interim Anthology. Gill and Macmillan Limited and The Educational Company. 1969.
My overall analysis of the poetry of Thomas Hardy can be accessed here