Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Number 19: Thomas Hardy "A Christmas Ghost Story"
A Christmas Ghost Story
South of the Line, inland from far Durban,
A mouldering soldier lies--your countryman.
Awry and doubled up are his gray bones,
And on the breeze his puzzled phantom moans
Nightly to clear Canopus: "I would know
By whom and when the All-Earth-gladdening Law
Of Peace, brought in by that Man Crucified,
Was ruled to be inept, and set aside?
And what of logic or of truth appears
In tacking 'Anno Domini' to the years?
Near twenty-hundred livened thus have hied,
But tarries yet the Cause for which He died."
-- Thomas Hardy
Hap Notes: Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was a poet who wrote novels. It just so happens that his novels, which he started writing to make money while he wrote poetry, often overshadow his poetry, which is a pity, really. Of course, I'd give my eyeteeth to have written Jude, the Obscure. He wrote books that always end up on a college syllabus or list for extra-credit reading and most people have read at least one of the following: Tess of the d'Urbervilles or Far From the Madding Crowd or Return of the Native or The Mayor of Casterbridge or the aforementioned Jude.
But, Hardy considered himself a poet. Good lad.
Hardy started out as an architect's apprentice (his dad was a stone mason) and the notebooks he left after he died show a writer who built a novel somewhat like a peculiar house; the notebooks reveal little newspaper snippets, facts about the natural world, notes on buildings and character sketches from which he "built" novels and poems. He understood masonry and the elements of physical labor although he was a devoted book worm who was either reading or writing most of the time. He had been sickly as a child and was small in stature (How small? I believe it's said that he was a slight bit over five feet tall.) His work, of course, is gigantic.
Hardy's poetry is a sweet and salty mix of Victorian rhythms/words/rhyme with some plain-speaking common English. This is why he's hard to classify as either Victorian or Modern but if we were just sitting around idly chatting about Hardy I would put him in the Moderns. His work has a strong sense of the ironies of life and the mysteries of what often seem to be an uncaring universe. By the way, in spite of his often bitter sounding prose and poetry he was a very gentle man who was a strong anti-vivisectionist and loved animals (and women- just sayin'.)
The poem needs little explication from me outside of my telling you that Canopus is a very bright star. Why did he use Canopus instead of Sirius, the brightest star? Well, he was a scholar of Latin and Greek and he knew that Canopus was the name of Menelaus' pilot for whom the star was named. Canopus steered the ship as Menelaus went to retrieve Helen of Troy after Paris had taken her. So he figures in the Trojan War. Ah ha! He's saying something about how "primitive" wars should have stopped after "that man Crucified." Troy having taken place in B.C. as opposed to A.D. (Anno Domini.) Durban is a city in South Africa. The speaker in the poem probably fought in the Boer Wars which were bloody, brutal and "primitive."
And, of course, a star attended the birth of Jesus, yes? Hence, a "Christmas" ghost story comes full circle with the star he addresses.
Hardy was not a man of action. In fact his wives both (he was married twice; one wife died, the second wife was his much younger secretary) complained that he spent way too much time holed up in his study, writing and reading. The world came to visit him.
Just a cursory glance at the attendees at his funeral will give you a good look at his influence: Prime Minister (at the time) Stanley Baldwin and the Leader of the Opposition Ramsay MacDonald, heads of Oxford and Cambridge colleges (where Hardy was an honorary fellow) and literary figures like James Barrie, Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy, Edmund Gosse, A. E. Housman, Rudyard Kipling and George Bernard Shaw. Have we mentioned his influence on D.H. Lawrence, our friend Walter de la Mare (from the Christmas eve poem), William Butler Yeats and Virginia Woolf? There's way more but I'll stop- you get the drift.
Here's a good Hardy quote (we'll see more of him this year, too): "A resolution to avoid an evil is seldom framed till the evil is so far advanced as to make avoidance impossible."
Another good one, "“It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in a language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.”
You can find more Hardy poetry here: www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/thomas-hardy