“How shall a man escape from his ancestors, or draw off from his veins the black drop which he drew from his father’s or his mother’s life?”
I chanced upon this poem of Thomas Hardy‘s a few weeks ago and have not been able to let it go. I will, after some commentary on its details, couple it, below, with a similar meditation on ancestry, pedigree, and heredity from R.W. Emerson‘s essay “Fate.” Both texts belong to that strain in poetry and prose, written by men, in which, as Shakespeare‘s Coriolanus has it, they “would stand as if a man were author of himself / And knew no other kin” (V.iii). I will, in due course, lay in a sort of rebuttal to this “strain” in the writing of men—from Simone de Beauvoir. But first, “The Pedigree” itself, as a lyric, and as a part of the book in which Hardy first collected it, Moments of Vision (1917).
Note that the title-poem to this volume, and the first in order, takes up the figure of a mirror, posing four questions of it. This specifies the “moments of vision” with which the book will be concerned: those that render mankind “transparent”; those that make of us “bare-breast spectacles”; those whose “magic” “penetrates like a dart” and “throws our mind back on us, and our heart”; those that, in “the night hours of ache” reveal “tincts we never see” when the “world is awake”; those that “test each mortal” “unaware,” catching his thoughts even unto the last, “foul and fair” alike, but “glassing” it all we know not where—unless in the pages of such a book as Moments of Vision. (N.B: Hardy replaced “Reflecting” in the last line with “Glassing” in later editions of the book.) “The Pedigree” offers Hardy an equally distressing “moment of vision,” in its window/mirror. But before reaching that poem of a family “pedigree” in Moments of Vision we encounter first yet another that bears down on it hard, titled “Heredity.”
Here we have not to do with any particular family pedigree, but with the “family of man,” as we often style it: homo sapiens sapiens. Hardy could not yet know what that “eternal thing in man” is that doesn’t die, even as it expresses itself in fleshy iteration upon fleshy iteration, in generation upon generation of perishing flesh, down the long slide to—well, to where, other than to some likely ultimate extinction, too distant to foresee? (I rather doubt Hardy supposes this animating force would really over-leap “oblivion” to leave the “call to die” forever “unheeded.”) We now call “that eternal thing in man” DNA. And in “Heredity” Hardy curiously anticipates his countryman (and fellow Darwinian) Richard Dawkins, in such books as A River Out of Eden (1995): “The river of my title,” says Dawkins, “is the river of DNA, and it flows through time, not space. It is a river of information, not a river of bones and tissues: a river of abstract instructions for building bodies, not a river of solid bodies themselves. The information”—say, the eternal “family face” of which Hardy speaks, “Projecting trait and trace / Through time to times anon”—”passes through bodies and affects them, but it is not affected by them on its way through.”
This force, by whatever name we call it—”Will,” “Immanent Will,” “the selfish gene,” DNA, etc.;—this force never “heeds the call to die,” even as young Englishmen by the thousands “heeded” the call in 1917, when Moments of Vision appeared. So read this volume at your peril, because, with it, Hardy holds up a mirror before himself and England in 1917, that year of heedless slaughter, and holds it up also for all of us. When the book was published, as Samuel Hynes, editor of The Complete Poetical Works of Thomas Hardy (Oxford, 1984) points out, the poet set these thoughts down in his journal: “I do not expect much notice will be taken of these poems: they mortify the human sense of self-importance by showing, or suggesting, that human beings are of no matter or appreciable value in this nonchalant universe.” I assent to the suggestion that human beings are of “no matter” in “this nonchalant universe.” But for me, the question of whether they are of “value” or not remains decisively open, American pragmatist that I am. We may yet enter into what Dawkins calls, in The Selfish Gene, “a conspiracy of doves.” We can always be of “value” to ourselves, and let the “universe” wag as it will (at least until our sun exhausts itself).
But then I must bear in mind that Moments of Vision appeared in 1917, the year of the Third Battle of Ypres, the general name for that series of engagements running from June to November in which some 600,000 men were killed or wounded (and in which mustard gas was first deployed): not so hard, at that hour, to doubt not merely the “significance” of mankind, but its value also. In any case—and to recur to Hardy’s journal—nonchalant, as it happens, is le mot juste: “Calm and casual; (deliberately) lacking in enthusiasm or interest; indifferent, unconcerned,” as the O.E.D. has it. The word derives, as Hardy perhaps knew and felt when he penned these sentences—and as the O.E.D. explains—from the Old French present participle “nonchaloir, earlier nonchaler: to neglect, despise (late 11th cent.).” Let ten million particular men die on the fields and in the trenches of France. The “family face” of mankind, foul and fair, endures. As to circumstance, especially in time of war, it “despises” the “human span,” or in any case remains, with respect to it, nonchalant. But all of this is preparation. By the time the reader of Moments of Vision reaches “The Pedigree” he will have read not simply these two poems, but two others touching matters of cruelty and suffering, and treated elsewhere in The Era of Casual Fridays, “The Blinded Bird” and “The wind blew words along the skies…“. And at the volume’s close he will read a fourth poem from the book, also gathered within these web-pages: “I look up from my writing…“. In any case, reading straight through, or reading round with what Hardy might call “crass casualty,” the reader will have been well-readied for chastening in “The Pedigree,” to which I now turn.
The poem is organized into five numbered stanzas, each one heterometric—that is, of varying meter. The first four each comprise 7 lines, and the fifth, 8, for a total of 36 lines. These vary in length from 6 syllables to 15, allowing for elisions in such words (or pairs of words) as “chron’cler gave” (3 syllables), “wat’ry” (2), “Th’ un-cur-tained” (3), “hi’ro-glyphs” (3), and so on. 11 or so of the lines are in iambic pentameter (for example, lines 2 and 3, with an elision allowed for in 2; lines 9, 10, and 14; and so on—again, allowing for the occasional elision). A number of the lines are in iambic trimeter (for example, “It was a mirror now”). A few lines are extravagant in length and number of stresses (as I scan them, lines 4, 6, 7, 12, 13, 17, 21, 27, 28, 34, and 36). I find 10 more or less strong enjambments (or “run-on” lines) in the poem: at lines 2 and 3 in stanza one, with perhaps a slightly felt instance also at line 6; perhaps at line 6 in the second stanza; at lines 16 and 19 certainly in stanza three; in the fourth stanza at lines 22, 23 and 25; and at line 33 in the final stanza. These enjambments mute the rhymes somewhat. And the rhyme itself is irregular, but irregular in a “significantly regular” sort of way: at least one terminal rhyme in each stanza ties it to two lines in another. “Age” links the first stanza to “lineage” and “Mage” in the second; “face” links the second to “trace” and “place” in the third; “each” links the third to “speech” and “reach” in the fourth; and the rhyme in “making it” links the fourth stanza to “counterfeit” and “unknit” in the fifth.
I go into such tedious detail about the structure of “The Pedigree”—and doubtless others might scan the poem a bit differently than I do here—to make a point. It assumes a tangled up sort of structure that, though irregular in many respects, nonetheless binds all five stanzas together inextricably. Every rhyme has its “antecedents,” its pedigree (other than the first), and, of course, also its “successors.” In other words, the form the poem takes—the way Hardy “knits” it together—mirrors its theme (the confused binding-together of a family over time). Or rather say, the metrical and rhyming “tangles” “trouble” the discerning reader rather in the way the vagaries of the pedigree “trouble” Thomas Hardy, branching off this way and that, and yet all of a piece in which the poet, to his dismay, finds himself implicated. “The Pedigree” is “wry” not merely in its “purport” but in its form. Samuel Hynes, the aforementioned editor of Oxford’s Complete Poetical Works of Thomas Hardy, notes that the poet “grumbled privately that reviewers [of Moments of Vision] did not appreciate” his “metrical “experiments.” I am simply trying to do them justice here.
As for the argument and theme of the poem: the “moon” governs it, so to speak, with its “watery light.” The moon in question is on the wane (“in its old age”), and Hardy binds it to the ocean, with its tides, and fancifully likens its “mute and cold globing” to the much smaller sphere of a dolphin’s eye, as seen through a “lapping wave.” Hynes’ collation informs us that, in its first edition, the line read “Like a dying dolphin’s eye” rather than “a drifting” one, and that the manuscript registers still another variant: “dying fish.” Hardy made the change from “dying” to “drifting” in subsequent editions of the volume, perhaps because he didn’t want to lay things on too thick: everything is so sadly waning already that one hardly needs the dolphin (usually an auspicious omen anyway) to be “dying” into the bargain. (And how would one know by gazing through a wave into the eye of a dolphin whether it were or were not dying?) So, let the dolphin “drift” rather than “swim” (say) and have an end on it; “drifting” nicely catches the idea of motivelessness, fecklessness, weakness—the idea of yielding, in any case, to the currents of Time. The moon, of course, has long been an emblem of change, mutability, mortality, and so on. The trope is a hoary one, and carries us back all the way to the Ptolemaic geo-centric cosmology, in which everything “sublunary” was subject to change and death. Here, the clouds that cross the moon “in its old age” are said to be “green-rheumed.” “Rheum,” as the O.E.D. tells us, is “watery matter secreted by the mucous glands or membranes, such as collects in or drops from the nose, eyes, and mouth, etc., and which, when abnormal, was supposed to cause disease; hence, an excessive or morbid ‘defluxion’ of any kind.” Other meanings include: “tears,” “moisture distilled from the sky,” “catarrh,” and, by figurative transference, as in this poem, any “pernicious moisture or humour, or something resembling it.” So, a vague but unsettling “dis-ease/disease” complements the mute, cold, aging moon in the first stanza, with its dolphin adrift (rather than a-swimming). The poem’s mood is shaped by all of these details—details, I might add, made yet more pathetic by a sense of “exposure,” strongly felt, here, by the poet, “half-unrobed,” as he is, before his “uncurtained” window panes. In “The Pedigree,” the poet is very “deep” in the sublunary (even “submarine” and “rheumy”) “night”; and he is also weirdly vulnerable. I wonder, by the way, whether we are invited to hear a slight note of skepticism in the phrasing of lines 2 and 3. Saying that the chronicler “gave” this pedigree “as” his is not precisely the same as saying that he yet acknowledges it as his; and as the poem develops one does feel that the poet would as soon extricate himself from his pedigree as not—if only he could. Which of course he cannot.
Whatever the case, in this vulnerable and dis-eased state of body and mind the poet “scans” the “sire-sown tree” of his family, even unto the “primest” (or first) “fulgemen” of his line—the patriarchs who first, in “sowing” their oats, “inseminated” and “sired” the “tree” whose “tangled” stems wind their “wry” way down even to Thomas Hardy himself; at which point they are said to “twist into a seared and cynic face,” the face of his own family, mirroring his own, and, moreover, “like a Mage” to “[wink] and [token]” him to lay himself bare again (or anyway “half-unrobed”) before that “uncurtained” window, which has now become a “mirror.” Before passing to what he sees there I would note the possibility that the poet’s ambivalence about his pedigree is registered in line 9: “the hieroglyphs of this spouse tied to that.” We do speak of “marital ties,” of course, and even, more lately, of “tying the knot.” But there is more to the line than that. “Hieroglyph” must work here in O.E.D. sense 2: “A figure, device, or sign having some hidden meaning; a secret or enigmatical symbol; an emblem”—the “purport” of which it will be the work of the last 3 stanzas to disclose. And I can’t help but feel a slight, dismissive note of undue bondage implied in such phrasings as “this spouse tied to that,” as if to acknowledge that great truth that not all marriages are healthy, either in how they work, or in what they produce. And to be sure, once the poet follows the line all the way down to himself, the “tangles” “trouble” him in their issue.
Hardy’s figure, here, of the Mage’s mirror, into which he gazes with such temerity, gives his “countenance” back to him both as his own and as not at all “his” own: “And in it a long perspective I could trace,” he says, “Of my begetters, dwindling backward each past each.” Part of the point surely is that family lines are as likely to “dwindle” forward as “backward”; in fact, they almost inevitably do. In any case, the poet certainly feels himself diminished, as he recognizes in this fantastic mirror—which but gives him back his own thoughts manifest—”Generation and generation of my mein, and build, and brow.” The alliterative spondaic stress on “my mein” has about it a certain irony: he is a replica, a mirror of still other mirroring and mirrored faces. “And then I did divine, ” he writes in stanza four, “That every heave and coil and move I made / Within my brain, and in my mood and speech, / Was in the glass portrayed / As long forestalled by [his ancestors] so making it.” The reader is allowed to wonder how inclusive that “every” is. For example, is “The Pedigree” itself somehow amongst those coils and heaves and moves he makes within his mind, or exhibits in his moods, or utters in his speech? Has his work in poetry somehow been “long forestalled”? To what degree and how? A bleak sort of humor, the sort that’s easy to miss, may underlie this stanza: If any man were ever fated to write a poem such as “The Pedigree,” well, it simply had to have been Thomas Hardy. Incidentally, to “forestall” means, in O.E.D. sense 1: “To lie in wait for, intercept, cut off (a person or animal).” And also: “To intercept and appropriate (a living, a revenue).” And still again: “To intercept (goods, etc.) before they reach the public markets; to buy (them) up privately with a view to enhance the price: in former days an indictable offence.” And moreover: “To bar or deprive (a person) by previous action from, of, out of (a thing). To pre-occupy, secure beforehand; also, to influence beforehand, prejudice.” No doubt “coil” here means (again, the O.E.D.): “Noisy disturbance, ‘row’; ‘tumult, turmoil, bustle, stir, hurry, confusion.’” And there is always latent in the word, now, that Shakespearean “mortal coil: the bustle or turmoil of this mortal life,” as the O.E.D. reminds us. Hardy finds that his own “coiled” thought is rather more immortal, which is to say rather less his own, than he’d supposed or wished it to be: it extends backward, “fogged in far antiqueness past surmise and reason’s reach,” and so it will go forward, too (or so I have to assume). An “anxiety of influence” very different from the one Harold Bloom laid all poets under back in the 1970s! Every thought “forestalled”—no severance allowed for, and no severance pay. And so the poet says, with all due dismay, that he is “sunk in tone”: “the merest mimicker and counterfeit,” though all along he’d thought “I am I, / And what I do I do myself alone.’” Samuel Hynes’ collation allows to see that Hardy was harder on himself in his revisions. In its first printing, the line “I am merest mimicker” had read: “I am mere continuator.” Better to continue something than to “mimic” it, I should think. However that may be, it is as if Hardy felt somehow “conscripted” into the writing a kind of poetry that is both “his” and not merely “his.”
In any case, having “wrought its purport wry,” the “cynic twist of the page” he’d been gazing at, the one that had bid him look at the window as a mirror rather than through it, “unknits” itself. And beyond the window “the stained moon,” which in the manuscript of Moments of Vision had merely been “the moon,” “retakes” its place alongside that “drift”—which, again in the manuscript, had been a “drifting cloud,” but which now, as merely a “drift,” is allowed to partake at once of the “green-rheumed clouds” and that “drifting dolphin’s” “globed” eye.
So, what is the reader to make of the “cynic twist” of the “pages” in Moments of Vision?—because, without a doubt, Hardy here has in view the almost proverbially “cynic” “coils” of his own poetry, not merely those “inked down” on the “page” given him by some “chronicler.” He is telling us that he can write no other way, even if he might prefer to. He’s inditing (and indicting) his ars poetica. The crowning irony is this: Hardy is telling us that he was fated to write, that he cannot help but write, poetry of the sort that befitted the era in which he wrote the most of it—from the Boer War down through the wicked consummation of the Great War. In a world, a universe, so sublimely “nonchalant” with regard to merely human interests, he finds himself fitted out, by temperament, to address us. And with this small epiphany comes the reader’s own “moment of vision.” The pages of Hardy’s book, “like a Mage,” betoken us, with their “cynic twists,” to look into the mirror and catch ourselves “unaware”: the “foul and the fair,” the “night hours of ache,” the “bare-breast spectacle” of our sorry human comedy. What an appalling bind for Hardy, to have found himself so “forestalled” to write the poetry of an age that merited nothing better than the lines he framed for it. “Moments of vision,” “glassings out” of our peculiar plight? The “mirror” is the one glass we cannot see into, cannot see through. Instead, what we see in it, as another poem in Moments of Vision tells us, is simply this: “the pathetic [Us]” in “all his huge distress / Making self-slaughter of the law / To kill, break, or suppress.” And so we “[move] on in a surging awe / Of inarticulateness.” Until Hardy gives us the words he apparently had no choice but to give, and all finds its articulation.
But what of further ranges than the pages which I’ve so far treated? How does “The Pedigree” figure not simply in Moments of Vision, or in Hardy’s poetry, but in literature, of whatever kind, taken as a whole? Earlier I spoke of “that strain in poetry and prose, written by men, in which, as Shakespeare’s Coriolanus has it, they ‘would stand as if a man were author of himself / And knew no other kin‘ (V.iii). No undue dislocation of “The Pedigree” follows from our reading it in this larger context.
Now, let’s take for granted, for the sake of argument, Simone de Beauvoir‘s suggestion that this aspiration “to stand as though a man were author of himself” is not simply associated with men, but a function of the general enterprise of patriarchy. “The adolescent is discountenanced, he blushes,” Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex, “if while roaming with his companions he happens to meet his mother, his sisters, any of his female relatives: it is because their presence calls him back to those realms of immanence whence he would fly, exposes roots from which he would tear himself loose. The little boy’s irritation when his mother kisses and cajoles him has the same significance; he disowns family, mother, maternal bosom. He would like to have sprung into the world, like Athena fully grown, fully armed, invulnerable.” Beauvoir concludes: “To have been conceived and then born an infant is the curse that hangs over his destiny, the impurity that contaminates his being.” Not only (male) adolescents are thus “discountenanced” or made to feel “counterfeit,” as in Hardy’s “uncurtained” window, which becomes, as by the work of that Mage he speaks of, a “mirror.” All men are, as Beauvoir would have it. The chastened animosity, the sense of shock, the feeling of circumscription;—all that attends a man’s contemplation of his origins (as in “The Pedigree”) expresses his contempt for his own “contingent” and “natural” origins. As Beauvoir puts it: “Woman inspires man with horror: it is the horror of his own carnal contingence.” A man, so far as Beauvoir is concerned, seeks above all things to transcend mere “repetition,” mere life; he wishes to realize himself as a self-determining “existent” (to adopt her existentialist vocabulary). The fate of being a “mere continuator,” or the “merest mimicker and conterfeit,” is a terrible one. Men, as with Coriolanus, and as with Hardy in “The Pedigree,” wish always to have good reason to say: “I am I, / And what I do I do myself alone.” But this is folly, as Hardy recognizes; the poem he left us is evidence of this recognition. He yields himself up, at the poem’s end, to contingency, to change, to everything “sublunary”: to the “stained” and waning moon, and its “rheumy,” drifting clouds, or at any rate to the “drift” that again takes its place in what had before been a mirror that gave back his own countenance in a hundred iterations. He forfeits his sense of agency and self-possession. He sets himself adrift. He no longer acts, but is acted upon. And the governing mood of the poem tells us what this concession involves: a profound and chastened melancholy.
“How shall a man escape from his ancestors, or draw off from his veins the black drop which he drew from his father’s or his mother’s life? It often appears in a family, as if all the qualities of the progenitors were potted in several jars, — some ruling quality in each son or daughter of the house, — and sometimes the unmixed temperament, the rank unmitigated elixir, the family vice, is drawn off in a separate individual, and the others are proportionally relieved. We sometimes see a change of expression in our companion, and say, his father, or his mother, comes to the windows of his eyes, and sometimes a remote relative. In different hours, a man represents each of several of his ancestors, as if there were seven or eight of us rolled up in each man’s skin,— seven or eight ancestors at least,— and they constitute the variety of notes for that new piece of music which his life is. At the corner of the street, you read the possibility of each passenger, in the facial angle, in the complexion, in the depth of his eye. His parentage determines it. Men are what their mothers made them. You may as well ask a loom which weaves huckaback, why it does not make cashmere, as expect poetry from this engineer, or a chemical discovery from that jobber. Ask the digger in the ditch to explain Newton’s laws: the fine organs of his brain have been pinched by overwork and squalid poverty from father to son, for a hundred years. When each comes forth from his mother’s womb, the gate of gifts closes behind him. Let him value his hands and feet, he has but one pair. So he has but one future, and that is already predetermined in his lobes, and described in that little fatty face, pig-eye, and squat form. All the privilege and all the legislation of the world cannot meddle or help to make a poet or a prince of him.”
We might well ask how these harsh sentences—”sentences” in every sense of that word, even unto life without parole—issue from the pen of a man who could also say, in “Self-Reliance“: “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it. A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition, as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he.” But the contradiction is more apparent than real. Readers likelier remember these remarks than the ones Emerson makes a few pages further into “Self-Reliance”: “Life only avails, not the having lived. Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim. This one fact the world hates, that the soul becomes; for that for ever degrades the past, turns all riches to poverty, all reputation to a shame, confounds the saint with the rogue, shoves Jesus and Judas equally aside. Why, then, do we prate of self-reliance? Inasmuch as the soul is present, there will be power not confident but agent. To talk of reliance is a poor external way of speaking. Speak rather of that which relies, because it works and is. Who has more obedience than I masters me, though he should not raise his finger. Round him I must revolve by the gravitation of spirits.” And for him, “soul”—that which “becomes”—is never particular, never “personal.” When we are taken up by it, transported by it, as Emerson says in Nature (1836), “all mean egotism vanishes.” Less well known is his later disavowal of faith in “personal integrity” in “Quotation and Originality“: “Our debt to tradition through reading and conversation is so massive, our protest or private addition so rare and insignificant,—and this commonly on the ground of other reading or hearing,—that, in a large sense, one would say there is no pure originality. All minds quote. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. We quote not only books and proverbs, but arts, sciences, religion, customs, and laws; nay, we quote temples and houses, tables and chairs by imitation.”
But in “Fate” Emerson strikes a real note of disgust at the fact of our limitation/imitation, and this disgust, to my mind, gives force to Beauvoir’s argument in The Second Sex. Emerson speaks of “the black drop” we inherit from our parents, and they from theirs, on back through our pedigree. He speaks of “the rank unmitigated elixir,” the “vice,” that has its passage down the generations of every family, sometimes to be distributed, sometimes to be gathered “in a separate individual.” We’ve no reason to suppose Emerson finds in himself any exception to these iron laws. His life may be a “new piece of music,” but it is in the “family key”; it has already been partly scored, roughed out. And at last he assigns his limitations, his contingencies—everyone’s contingencies and limitations—to the womb, which is as unanswerable as any tomb: “When each comes forth from his mother’s womb, the gate of gifts closes behind him.” Our heredity, our pedigree, closes us in, closes us out.
I cannot conclude without noting the queer, quasi-Lamarckianism of this passage: not merely black eyes and blue ones are heritable, but vocations and class divisions themselves seem, for Emerson, alike “heritable”: “You may as well ask a loom which weaves huckaback, why it does not make cashmere, as expect poetry from this engineer, or a chemical discovery from that jobber. Ask the digger in the ditch to explain Newton’s laws: the fine organs of his brain have been pinched by overwork and squalid poverty from father to son, for a hundred years.” Emerson fails to disentangle the social forces from the biological ones that shape any man’s life. And while it is doubtless true that “social classes” reproduce themselves, nothing in the passage from “Fate” seems to allow for the possibility that this sort of “reproduction” might not at all be like the “reproduction” that yields sons and daughters, as against ditch-diggers and engineers and mathematicians. What Emerson leaves us with chiefly is again that note of disgust at the sheer fact of our “carnal contingence,” as Beauvoir would put it. Issue from the womb, and the “gate of gifts” closes. Every man has “but one future, and that is already predetermined in his lobes, and described in that little fatty face, pig-eye, and squat form.” All of which manifest disgust leads me to suppose Beauvoir got it right: “Woman inspires man with horror: it is the horror of his own carnal contingence.” These “carnal contingencies” are less strongly felt, and certainly less manifestly revolting, in Hardy’s “Pedigree” than in Emerson’s “Fate.” But they are there to be dealt with in both.
N.B. For a list of all entries within this web-log treating poems from Moments of Vision, click here.