( Originally Published 1907 )
A FRIEND of mine one of those people described by Keats as being married to a romance and given away by a sonnet stopped in the course of a pilgrimage in Wessex at the hotel of a small market town. As he waited for lunch he discussed men and things with a farmer, a cheerful, bucolic soul, whose name may have been Gabriel Oak.
Does Thomas Hardy ever come here? " he asked.
" Thomas Hardy! Thomas Hardy! " and the farmer's face took on the pale cast of thought. Suddenly his countenance cleared. " Ah," he said, with an air of quiet triumph, born of superior know-ledge, " you mean Bill Hardy, the pig dealer, a little round-faced man wi' whiskers under his chin. Oh yes, he comes here every market day."
My friend expressed his satisfaction at the information, and sat down to his lunch with the comfortable sense of a secret possession. Farmer Oak stood before him, delightfully unconscious that he was immortal.
For Thomas Hardy shares the privilege of the prophets of old. He loves quiet and obscurity, and he has realised that to be obscure you must dwell among your own people. He knows, too, that to keep the inspiration pure you must drink at the spring whence it issues, and not slake your thirst at the muddy waters of London. And so, when, after years of London life, hovering between architecture and literature, he found that he had a career in literature open to him, he returned to his own people and there not far from the little cottage at Upper Bockhampton where he was born, where his mother died in her ninetieth year, whence, fifty years ago, he used to trudge to the architect's office at Dorchester, and whither he used to return to burn the midnight oil over the classics and the Greek Testament he lives in the deepening shadow of the mystery of this unintelligible world. The journey that began with the bucolic joy of Under the Greenwood Tree has reached its close in the unmitigated misery of Jude the Obscure, accompanied by the mocking voices of those aerial spirits who pass their comments upon the futile struggle of the " Dynasts," as they march their armies to and fro across the mountains and rivers of that globe which the eye of imagination sees whirling like a midge in space. Napoleon and the Powers! What are they but puppets in the hand of some passionless fate, loveless and hateless, whose purposes are beyond all human vision?
O Immanence, That reasonest not
And for answer comes the mocking voice of the Spirit Ironic ---
For one I cannot answer. But I know
Night has come down upon the outlook of the writer as it came down over the sombre waste of Egdon Heath. There is not a cheerful feature left, not one glint of sunshine in the sad landscape of broken ambitions and squalor and hopeless strivings and triumphant misery. Labour and sorrow, a little laughter, disillusion and suffering and after that, the dark. Not the dark that flees before the cheerful dawn, but the dark whose greatest benediction is eternal nothingness. Other men of genius, most men of genius, have had their periods of deep dejection in which only the mocking voice of the Spirit Ironic answered their passionate questionings. Shakespeare himself may be assumed to have passed through the valley of gloom in that tremendous period when he produced the great tragedies; but he came out of the shadow, and The Winter's Tale has the serenity and peace of a cloudless sunset. But the pilgrimage of Thomas Hardy has led us ever into deeper shadow. The shades of the prison-house have closed around us and there is no return to the cheerful day. The journey we began with those jolly carol-singers under the greenwood tree has ended in the hopeless misery of Jude.
And yet what a journey it has been! What companions we have had by the way Tranter Dewey taking off his coat to the dance, Farmer Oak in the midst of his sheepfold looking up to the stars for the hour of night, Giles Winterbourne and Marty South planting the young larches amid the deep silence of the woodlands, Michael Henchard, magnificent in his rude, elemental strength, most impressive in the hour of his utter discomfiture and desolation above all, the companionship of Nature, which is the true secret of his abiding hold. Nature is never a mere picturesque background for the human play. It is the most potent personality. Light, said the Impressionists, is the chief person in a picture. Nature is the chief actor in the Hardy drama—Nature, vast, sentient, mysterious, upon whose bosom the brief human figure is tossed like driftwood in its passage from eternity to eternity. One feels here, as in Wordsworth's poetry to which the poetic prose of Hardy is the complement—that
The mighty Being is awake,
Out of that immensity and mystery of Nature, poor humanity emerges to play its part, and that a sad one. For even the gleams of joy and what humour is more rich, more reminiscent of the Shakespearean vintage than that of the Wessex rustics? are shadowed with the sense of doom that makes our triumphs trivial and happiness itself a jest. " ' Justice ' was done and the President of the Immortals (in Aeschylean phrase) had finished his sport with Tess." In that sentence we have an epitome of Thomas Hardy's conception of human life a creature in the hand of an impenetrable Fate, cold, passionless, indiscriminating, whose justice is a mockery, to whom virtue is nothing and vice nothing, and from whose grim ironic grasp we escape to utter darkness and silence.
I have said that Hardy's concept of nature is complementary to Wordsworth's. It is the shadow of the deep valley, cast by the mountain on whose sun-ward slopes the light still sleeps. The spirit of Night broods over all majestic, mysterious, ominous. Night and the twilight Jupiter casting the shadow of Tess as she digs in the allotment, the pageant of the stars passing before the rapt gaze of St. Cleeve, the breath of the night wind awaking the thin music of the heath or stirring the woodlands to a richer symphony, the primeval monoliths, terrific, awesome, instinct with meaning and mystery in the vast and suggestive twilight this is the atmosphere in which the figures move on to a destiny as inscrutable as Night.
In all this and the philosophy it connotes he is the antithesis of Meredith, whose voice is of the morning, and whose vision is of the day. Meredith is the mind looking out with quick and thrilling interest upon the play of life; Hardy is the heart wrung by its agonies, an infant crying for the light." To Meredith Nature is a joyous companion filled with the spirit of immortal youth; it is " The Lark Uprising " of whom he sings. To Hardy it is a merciless Fate, uttering itself in the hoot of the night-owl.
He is the Millet of literature, sounding the same note of the sorrow of the earth, working in the same elemental media. It is not his semi-barbaric women that we remember. They are excrescences. It is his peasants, untouched by the centuries, types of the enduring elements of humanity, as Egdon Heath is the type of the earth's ageless story, whom we love —Gabriel Oak, the glass of truth and the mould of manhood; Giles Winterbourne, tender and self-effacing, a hero in corduroys; Marty South, nursing her love in secret, and when Death has given to her the object of her devotion crooning by his grave her triumphant grief:
Now, my own, own love, you are mine, and on'y mine; for she has forgot 'ee at last, although for her you died! But I whenever I get up I'll think of 'ee, and whenever I lie down I'll think of 'ee. Whenever I plant the young larches I'll think that none can plant as you planted; and whenever I split a gad, and whenever I turn the cider wring, I'll say none could do it like you. If ever I forget your name let me forget home and Heaven! . . . But no, no, my love, I can never forget 'ee; for you was a good man, and did good things !
It is this intense insight into the beauty of simplicity and the heart of the humble, this passion for the native and the sincere, combined with the immensity of the stage on which the drama moves, that differentiates the Wessex tales from all other literature and suggests the elemental boldness of Norse legends Norse legends touched with the shadow of modern thought and the spirit of doom that pervades the Greek drama.
But if he is the Millet of literature, he is Millet without the " Angelus." His peasants are bowed to the brown earth in the mystic light, but no far-off bell tolls a message through the quiet air. And without that message the parallel breaks down at the crucial point, for it was with that throb of the bell in the " Angelus " that Millet rang through the heart of the world and still rings. The laborious day is over, the grey sky still shadows the sombre plain; but there is a rift in the west, and a word is borne to the tired heart on the pulsing air. Hope is not gone out of the world. But there is little hope beneath the pall that hangs over the Wessex stage. " Life is ever Lord of Death," says Whittier, and with him all those whose eyes turn to the dawn: " Death is ever Lord of life," says Hardy, and with him those whose eyes turn to the sun going down in pitiless gloom. It is the eternal conflict between the optimist and the pessimist, between " Yea " and " Nay," between the upward look and the downward. But the world is with those who, like Browning's Grammarian, are " for the morning," not with those who are of the dark and hear only the voices of the night.
In the unity of his achievement Mr. Hardy stands alone in the history of English fiction. This is due, as Mr. Lascelles Abercromby has shown, to the deliberate subordination of his art to his metaphysic. It is not necessary to accept his philosophy in order to appreciate its impressive and cohesive influence upon his work. It gives it continuity, design, a cumulative grandeur that make it unique in our literature. His vision of men charged with aspirations and desires caught in the relentless toils of
The purposive, unmotived, dominant Thing
may be a vision of the dark and not of the day. It may be the vision of a recluse brooding in solitude over his own conception of reality and shadowing all his perceptions of the activities of life with his painful obsession. But out of this correspondence of conception and perception springs the unity of Hardy's work. The note is struck at the beginning, even in that sweetest of English comedies, Under the Greenwood Tree, which closes with the hint of tragic secrecy; it deepens through the main structure of his creation until the implicit agony of the conflict between man and " the unweeting Will " utters itself in the explicit rebellion of Jude, and it rises to its complete summation in the " Dynasts."
The material of the Hardy drama is at once simple and stupendous, human and cosmic a few peasants, types of the general sin of personal existence and personal desire in a universe of indifferent fate. The protagonists are nature and man the theme, the conflict between the unconquerable soul and that blind Will that
heaves through space and moulds the times,
In such a struggle man emerges splendid and abject—splendid in his defiant resistance to circumstance, abject in the futility of his challenge to "the all-urging Will, raptly magnipotent." Tess paying the debt she does not owe, Henchard stealing away to die in solitude, the figures of the Napoleonic drama fighting and intriguing while the spirits of the air chant their pitying or ironic comments—all typify the eternal struggle of the free will caught in the trap of blind circumstance. The machinery of the drama has the elemental quality that befits the theme. It moves with the rhythm of inexorable fate. It is rich in climax, yet, no matter how unexpected, the climax is always attained with the simple inevitableness of a natural law the law that breaks the poor human figure on the wheel of doom.
Mr. Hardy would deny that a philosophy such as his, based upon an honest acceptance of facts as he observes them, has any serious relation to the capacity for personal joy. Happiness and gloom, he will tell you, are the products not of philosophy, but of individual temperament, which is unaffected by any theory of the governance or destiny of men. The Turkish lady quoted by Boswell put the view in another way when she said, " Ma foi, monsieur, notre bonheur depend de la façon que notre sang circule." Mr. Hardy has said truly that the human soul has normally less specific gravity than the sea of misery into which it is cast and emerges inevitably to the surface. So far as philosophy has any influence upon happiness, he believes that he is more truly happy who refuses the refuge of revelation he cannot prove and cultivates a reasoned serenity and fortitude on the basis of the perceived facts of life. For what he calls " the professional optimist " he has unaffected scorn. He reminds him of the smile on the face of a skull.
If you have the good fortune to meet Thomas Hardy, you will certainly find him more cheerful than his philosophy an alert and knickerbockered man, pleasant and companionable, trotting through the streets of Dorchester, talking to its people, glad to show you the scenes his genius has made so memorable, and, having done, jumping lightly on his bicycle, in spite of his sixty-seven years, and riding away, leaving you a little puzzled that the wizard should be so like the plain man. But it is not the wizard you have met. Him you will meet on the spacious heath under the night sky, by the gaunt ruin of Corfe Castle, wandering among the shadows that haunt the lonely barrow or on the cliffs hard by Lulworth Cove a presence subtle and pervasive, watching you with a thousand eyes, accompanying you with noise-less tread. For he has performed this miracle. He has printed himself so indelibly upon this Wessex country, has penetrated so deeply to its heart, that it seems to speak in his own accents. It is a world whose realities have become charged with the magic of his dreams.