Friday, March 4, 2011

Dead Apocalyptic Poets: Thomas Hardy - God's Funeral

Famous for his fictional writing Tess of D’Urbervilles, etc. , his Jude the Obscure (1895) makes use of the imagery of the New Jerusalem and of unregenerate Babylon in the Book of Revelation.
He is also counted as one of the great English language poets.

The subject here derives from one of the 18th centuries great debates.  We have a tendency to believe that we are less religious today than we were in the past.  But that is not entirely true.

There were sceptical philosophers in the eighteenth century, notably David Hume, who questioned the validity of religion, but they had relatively little impact on public opinion. But the nineteenth century saw a crisis of faith in Christianity, for a variety of reasons. In part it was certainly due to science, especially Darwinism, but another important factor was the application of textual analysis to the Scriptures by German scholars. To many thinkers of the time it seemed probable that faith in Christianity and even belief in God would progressively decline, but this has not happened, or at least not in the way that they expected.  from an Anthony Campbell review of A.N. Wilson's God's Funeral.

Hardy himself appears to have been an agnostic.  Pummeled by the new science of the 19th century, yet unwilling to give up entirely on a spiritual reality.

The most plausible explanation of Hardy's views:
His novels, and especially his poems, describe a world from which God has already absconded, and for good. Because this is still the world we inhabit today, he remains one of the most vital and relevant of English writers—more modern, in some ways, than the modernists who succeeded and disdained him.

No matter what the subject, Hardy devoted his poetry to laying out his magnificently sombre, completely disillusioned view of the world. The central fact of that world was the disappearance of God, and with it any reason for believing in providence or justice. Hardy’s most famous poem on this theme is “God’s Funeral,” which describes a procession carrying the corpse of the “man-projected Figure … whom we can no longer keep alive.” Yet this poem is perhaps too monumental, too self-consciously a “statement,” to capture the complex flavour of Hardy’s godlessness. For it is not only the absence of God that Hardy reckons with; it is the way that absence changes how we think about ethics, mortality, and value, the way it challenges all our traditions and aspirations.

Hardy's early religious experience was with the Plymouth Brethren. He was often in the company of Henry R. Bastow, a fellow architect, when they studied the Greek New Testament together. Bastow went to Australia maintained a long correspondence with Hardy, but eventually Hardy tired to these exchanges and the correspondence ceased. Hardy's links with the Brethren also concluded.

Hardy’s idea of fate in life gave way to his philosophical struggle with God. Although Hardy’s faith remained intact, the irony and struggles of life led him to question God and His traditional meaning in the Christian sense.

“ The Christian god – the external personality – has been replaced by the intelligence of the First Cause…the replacement of the old concept of god as all-powerful by a new concept of universal consciousness. The ‘tribal god, man-shaped, fiery-faced and tyrannous’ is replaced by the ‘unconscious will of the Universe’ which progressively grows aware of itself and ‘ultimately, it is to be hoped, sympathetic’. ”

Hardy's religious life seems to have mixed agnosticism and spiritism. Once, when asked in correspondence by a clergyman about the question of reconciling the horrors of pain with the goodness of a loving God, Hardy replied,

“ Mr. Hardy regrets that he is unable to offer any hypothesis which would reconcile the existence of such evils as Dr. Grosart describes with the idea of omnipotent goodness. Perhaps Dr. Grosart might be helped to a provisional view of the universe by the recently published Life of Darwin, and the works of Herbert Spencer, and other agnostics. ”

Nevertheless, Hardy frequently conceived of and wrote about supernatural forces that control the universe, more through indifference or caprice than any firm will. Also, Hardy showed in his writing some degree of fascination with ghosts and spirits. 
from Adam Kirsch, God's Undertaker, The New Yorker Magazine, january 15, 2007.
God's Funeral
Thomas Hardy
I saw a slowly-stepping train --
Lined on the brows, scoop-eyed and bent and hoar --
Following in files across a twilit plain
A strange and mystic form the foremost bore.

And by contagious throbs of thought
Or latent knowledge that within me lay
And had already stirred me, I was wrought
To consciousness of sorrow even as they.

The fore-borne shape, to my blurred eyes,
At first seemed man-like, and anon to change
To an amorphous cloud of marvellous size,
At times endowed with wings of glorious range.

And this phantasmal variousness
Ever possessed it as they drew along:
Yet throughout all it symboled none the less
Potency vast and loving-kindness strong.

Almost before I knew I bent
Towards the moving columns without a word;
They, growing in bulk and numbers as they went,
Struck out sick thoughts that could be overheard: --

'O man-projected Figure, of late
Imaged as we, thy knell who shall survive?
Whence came it we were tempted to create
One whom we can no longer keep alive?

'Framing him jealous, fierce, at first,
We gave him justice as the ages rolled,
Will to bless those by circumstance accurst,
And longsuffering, and mercies manifold.

'And, tricked by our own early dream
And need of solace, we grew self-deceived,
Our making soon our maker did we deem,
And what we had imagined we believed,

'Till, in Time's stayless stealthy swing,
Uncompromising rude reality
Mangled the Monarch of our fashioning,
Who quavered, sank; and now has ceased to be.

'So, toward our myth's oblivion,
Darkling, and languid-lipped, we creep and grope
Sadlier than those who wept in Babylon,
Whose Zion was a still abiding hope.

'How sweet it was in years far hied
To start the wheels of day with trustful prayer,
To lie down liegely at the eventide
And feel a blest assurance he was there!

'And who or what shall fill his place?
Whither will wanderers turn distracted eyes
For some fixed star to stimulate their pace
Towards the goal of their enterprise?'...

Some in the background then I saw,
Sweet women, youths, men, all incredulous,
Who chimed as one: 'This is figure is of straw,
This requiem mockery! Still he lives to us!'

I could not prop their faith: and yet
Many I had known: with all I sympathized;
And though struck speechless, I did not forget
That what was mourned for, I, too, once had prized.

Still, how to bear such loss I deemed
The insistent question for each animate mind,
And gazing, to my growing sight there seemed
A pale yet positive gleam low down behind,

Whereof, to lift the general night,
A certain few who stood aloof had said,
'See you upon the horizon that small light --
Swelling somewhat?' Each mourner shook his head.

And they composed a crowd of whom
Some were right good, and many nigh the best....
Thus dazed and puzzled 'twixt the gleam and gloom
Mechanically I followed with the rest.

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