by Sam Buntz
If we lack a hope that transcends the vagaries of time and space, the best we can do is not to hope: to never expect much. That was the wisdom of Thomas Hardy, later echoed by poetic descendants, like Philip Larkin. Yet, while Hardy is a poet who advises stoic endurance in the face of the world’s “neutral tinted haps and such,” he goes further than his disciples. While Larkin also advises endurance, he is, compared to Hardy, somewhat spiritless: he has no appetite for a cosmic quest, and disdains poetic mythmaking for that reason. Despite being shorn of orthodox belief by the revelations of Darwin, Hardy actually did have the urge for such metaphysical exploration. Unlike some of his followers, he doesn’t cease to think after receiving an initial impression—he pursues, he speculates, he wonders. As John Irving put it in A Prayer for Owen Meany, Hardy was “almost religious.” He had the temperament and the wonder, but he lacked hope for an eternal world, for final bliss. He knows all about time, but is uncertain regarding eternity.
A great example of Hardy’s philosophical mind in action is the poem, “The Masked Face.” The speaker finds himself in “a great surging space,” with no “firm-fix’d floor” and locked doors at both ends. A mysterious masked face arrives to tell him that this place is “Life.” When the speaker complains about the locked doors and the confusion reigning in this weird locale, the mask-veiled being replies:
“There once complained a goosequill pen
To the scribe of the Infinite
Of the words it had to write
Because they were past its ken.”
And in an untitled poem, labeled a “fragment” (though it seems complete enough), Hardy talks about another metaphysical trip. The speaker visits the Dead—all who have ever lived—where they wait in a hidden gallery. He asks them what they’re waiting for, and they reply that they’re waiting for “God” or “the Will, or Force, or Laws” or “vaguely…the Ultimate Cause” to finally “know it.” To the speaker’s repeated questioning they explain that they’re waiting for God to “know how things have been going on earth and below it: / It is clear he must know some day…” They continue:
“‘Since he made us humble pioneers
Of himself in consciousness of Life’s tears,
It needs no mighty prophecy
To tell that what he could mindlessly show
His creatures, he himself will know.
“‘By some still close-cowled mystery
We have reached feeling faster than he,
But he will overtake us anon,
If the world goes on.’”
In his work, Hardy took inspiration from Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher who viewed the “Will to Live” as fundamentally pointless, even malign: we are all its helpless puppets, and our glory lies in renunciation and asceticism. But despite Schopenhauer’s profound influence, Hardy, in these particular poems, refuses to see life as a meaningless slog. He doesn’t consider the onward march of the Will as so much sound and fury. Rather, Life is a process that may, in fact, lead to a desirable conclusion, and there may be some greater design behind it—though not one consciously directed by the Biblical God. Rather, God is Life (or the Will) in Hardy’s estimation—a process leading towards some final comprehension. (This is very similar to George Bernard Shaw’s philosophy, as well). We have only to play our part in it, without complaint or accusation. Yet, at the same time, this shred of hope for the future—if it really is hope—is slathered with qualifications. God or the Will or the Ultimate Cause will reach some great reckoning “if the world goes on”, says Hardy (italics added). The sense of existential nausea, of reeling in immensities of time and space with no point of orientation, never really dissipates.
There is a certain tendency in some British artists—writers, playwrights, poets, film-makers—to indulge in misery for its own sake. “British Miserablism” is actually a school and a style. In a warped way, these artists look back to Hardy—but they fail to recognize that a tragedy is not a tragedy if there never was any chance for things to go right. If it’s always been 3 A.M. in the soul, and has never been high noon, where’s the loss? But, by situating his poetry in this greater semi-mythical context—speculating on the ultimate purpose of God or the Will, however vague it may be—Hardy lets us see genuine tragedy in the human condition. Things could be going right—we might’ve been born in the hidden room lying at the further end of that shifting, bewildering space called “Life,” discussed in “The Masked Face”. We might’ve lived to see the unveiling of the Mask, to note whether some more or less benevolent countenance lay behind. But we’re born in the middle of the process, unable to understand the purpose of the Infinite in authoring our sufferings—and our joys, for that matter (Hardy, in “Hap”, imagines higher powers, randomly scattering bliss and pain around his “pilgrimage”). That’s our real tragedy, in Hardy’s view. We can but serve and die, doing a little good in the process, and hoping merely that someone else will finally learn what it was all about.
But Hardy didn’t just influence poets like Larkin—poignantly unhappy, while dedicated to muddling through. He also influenced W.H. Auden, a writer who knew all that Hardy knew about time, but also knew much more about Eternity. Auden called Hardy an ideal mentor for the inspiring poet—since Hardy used so many verse forms and meters, and also provides numerous instructive examples of a great poet’s lesser and awkwardly shaped efforts—and understood the negative lessons Hardy taught about time and death. As Auden writes in “As I Walked Out One Evening,” “The glacier knocks in the cupboard / And the desert sighs in the bed / And a crack in the tea-cup opens / A lane to the land of the dead.” But Auden also affirms a hope transcending time and space—which Hardy never really could, since the vague hope he does have is ultimately bound by time, occurring at the end of a historical process. In “In Praise of Limestone” Auden imagines a higher world where “The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from / Having nothing to hide.” This is a far more specific hope than Hardy’s desire to see the Will somehow become aware of what’s happening on earth. Auden has absorbed Hardy’s teachings, while daring to leap beyond them—reaching, as a poet, the same kind of final reckoning that Hardy intuited but did not dare to attain.