In a preface to the book, Hardy writes:
Of the subject-matter of this volume which is in other than narrative form, much is dramatic or impersonative even where not explicitly so. Moreover, that portion which may be regarded as individual comprises a series of feelings and fancies written down in widely differing moods and circumstances, and at various dates.
No clear boundary separates “dramatic” poems from those in which the poet “impersonates” a character. Under the heading “dramatic” may fall such varied things as “The Colonel’s Soliloquy“; “The Going of the Battery: Wives’ Lament“; “The Souls of the Slain,” in which the unquiet spirits of dead soldiers address their (also dead) commander; “By the Earth’s Corpse,” in which Time and God query one another; “Winter in Durnover Field,” an ingenious, bleak triolet that puts a rook, a pigeon, and a starling in conversation—with stage directions, no less; and “The Ruined Maid,” in which two young women confer (one “ruined,” one aspiring to be). Poems in which Hardy “impersonates” characters include (I think) “Song of the Soldiers’ Wives,” “The Bed-Ridden Peasant to an Unknowing God,” “To Lizbie Brown,” “The Levelled Churchyard” (in which the dead speak), and, of course, “The Respectable Burgher on ‘The Higher Criticism.’”
Poems that bear Hardy’s “individual” stamp, written more or less in propria persona, include “On an Invitation to the United States,” the sequence of poems associated with Hardy’s travels on the Continent in 1897 (“Zermatt: To the Matterhorn,” etc.), “At a Lunar Eclipse,” “The Darkling Thrush,” and so on.
Which among the “individual” poems are better described as “feelings” and which as “fancies” is a matter for debate. But I don’t think Hardy makes a distinction without a difference. No one would call “At a Lunar Eclipse” or “The Darkling Thrush” “fanciful.” But such things as “At a Hasty Wedding,” a wonderfully sardonic triolet, may be.
“Mad Judy” falls among those poems that are “explicitly impersonative,” though that’s not to say Hardy’s “person” isn’t somehow in it. Much of the interest in the poem has to do with whether any of its sentiments are ventriloqual, so to speak. One wonders whether Hardy “throws his voice” when Judy, on hearing of weddings (which imply childbearing), is said to “sigh” and “rock and mutter”: “More / Comers to this stony shore!” How much of her voice is also Hardy’s? Certainly not all of it. But just as surely some.
The speaker of the poem—the figure Hardy “impersonates”—is a hale country villager, unnamed, undistinguished, and therefore representative, I take it. He speaks for “the hamlet.” (I say “he” for the sake of convenience: the sex of the speaker is not made clear and, so far as I can tell, is of no consequence.) Hardy interposes that “speaker” between himself as author/poet and the character who is, ostensibly, the subject of the poem: Mad Judy. This interests me because Judy’s notions are not, insofar as the poem makes them known to us, utterly different from Hardy’s, at least as we may discern them elsewhere in the book. In “To an Unborn Pauper Child,” for example—which (being, as I take it, “individual”) doesn’t compel the reader to dislocate the voice speaking in the poem from the poet’s own.
Judy’s “aberrancy,” her “insanity,” takes a peculiar and definite form. Philosophers would call her an anti-natalist. The view the rustic speaker takes of her is clear: she is insane. So says the hamlet. What view does Hardy invite us to take of Judy, and of the hamlet? And is that view his own?
When the hamlet hailed a birth
–Judy used to cry:
When she heard our christening mirth
–She would kneel and sigh.
She was crazed, we knew, and we
Humoured her aberrancy.¹
When the daughters and the sons
–Gathered them to wed,
And we like-intending ones
–Danced till dawn was red,
She would rock and mutter, “More
Comers to this stony² shore!”
When old Headsman Death laid hands
–On a babe or twain,³
She would feast, and by her brands
–Sing her songs again.
What she liked we let her do,
Judy was insane, we knew.
As to diction, only “brands” is much out of the way, though it’s a word we might expect to find on the lips of a rustic. Hardy likely has in mind a sense now archaic for “brands”: the hearth-fire. Judy sings and feasts by the hearth, when Headsman Death lays His hands on a village “babe or twain” (about which more later). Stanza one rhymes well. The “cry/sigh” pair sounds a perfect counterpoint to the “birth/mirth” pair. In this we feel the art of the poet as against the utterance of the speaker. The two may be distinguished as much in technique as in sentiment. The genius of this “impersonative” poem relies on our feeling that it must be so. We have the artful and the artless. The artless presented artfully.
But what evidence does our hale speaker adduce that Judy’s “aberrant” and “insane”? Well, she weeps and sighs at the birth of each new villager, even as everyone else celebrates; that much we know. She “rocks and mutters” when villagers marry, or manifest an intention to marry (“More / Comers to this stony shore!”). And that is all we know.
We speak of “unreliable narrators” in connection with fiction. Here we have to do with an “unreliable speaker.” He cannot earn out trust, at least as to what we should make of Judy.
Hardy’s rustic persona speaks of “daughters and sons” “gathering” to “wed.” It should go without saying that they are sons and daughters, of course. But calling them that, as against, say, lasses and lads, maids and beaus, or any other of several possibilities, brings them before us in their generative and relational offices (so to speak). These sons and daughters relay the vitality their parents imparted to them; they marry to generate still more “daughters and sons,” who shall, in due course, do the same, ad infinitum. Ever “more comers to this stony shore”!—by which, of course, Mad Judy means Earth, the world; the stage on which we strut and fret, often signifying nothing (but sometimes not); the realm beyond the womb; the realm that is the womb’s extension.
It’s as if Mad Judy anticipated the “iceberg” analogy philosopher David Benatar deploys in Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence:
Nor is the harm produced by the creation of a child usually restricted to that child. The child soon finds itself motivated to procreate, producing children who, in turn, develop the same desire. Thus any pair of procreators can view themselves as occupying the tip of a generational iceberg of suffering. They experience the bad in their own lives. In the ordinary course of events they will experience only some of the bad in their children’s and possibly grandchildren’s lives (because these offspring usually survive their progenitors), but beneath the surface of the current generations lurk increasingly larger numbers of descendents and their misfortunes. Assuming that each couple has three children, an original pair’s cumulative descendents over ten generations amount to 88,572 people. That constitutes a lot of pointless, avoidable suffering. To be sure, full responsibility for it all does not lie with the original couple because each new generation faces the choice of whether to continue that line of descendents. Nevertheless, they bear some responsibility for the generations that ensue. If one does not desist from having children, one can hardly expect one’s descendents to do so.
Judy might say the same of the espoused “daughters and sons” and the “like-intending ones” that celebrate the wedding (including the rustic speaker): each couple sits atop (and is also a layer within) “a generational iceberg of suffering.” 88,572 per couple, down ten generations. That strain again: More comers to this stony shore!
Just how mad is Judy? If we had it on good authority that she was, in fact, insane, we might understand her village anti-natalism. The insane suffer immeasurably. Why shouldn’t a woman so situated generalize her suffering, or take it as among not merely possible outcomes of any given birth, but as among likely ones (the insane are often pathologically self-involved)? Of course, only the insane would wish a child born to suffer insanity. So by that test, Judy is in her right mind, and the poem is a conundrum.
But of course we do not know whether Judy is insane. Hardy has so arranged things that we have only her anti-natalism to go on. Now, that may indeed be “aberrant.” It most certainly isn’t the rule in any hamlet of which I’m aware. But it’s not, pace certain opponents of David Benatar, prima facie evidence of insanity. Here’s where the poem gets us. Had Hardy retained the reading he cancelled for the second line in stanza three (“neighbor swain” for “babe or twain”) we might have, or suppose we had, a better purchase on Judy; we might ignore her, or humor her, as the villagers do. But Hardy restricts her concerns to nativity. Wise of him to do so. Of course it’s unseemly to “feast” and “sing” when Headsman Death carries off a babe or two. But, if only for a moment, see things as Judy appears to (and as Peter Singer does, in certain cases): a “babe”—and as I say, let’s bear with the idea, taking it as Judy apparently would;—a “babe” is not yet fully a “person.” Death deprives an infant to a lesser degree than it would a “neighbor swain.” Maybe Hardy first wanted to fetch in the archaic sense given in OED 5 for “swain”: “A country gallant or lover; hence gen. a lover, wooer, sweetheart, esp. in pastoral poetry.” That would be the swain as progenitor. But Hardy set that possibility aside for a reading that makes it a bit more difficult to write Judy off as insane. Of course the parents of any dead babe suffer immensely. But Judy doesn’t concern herself with parents: she has at heart exclusively the interests of infants, and their capacity (as it would appear) to suffer on this stony shore. Why shouldn’t infants, both actual and possible, have a spokeswoman? (Incidentally, the phrase “a babe or twain” strikes my ear as unduly cavalier. This ought to qualify the fellowship a reader might otherwise have with our rustic speaker. The tone of the poem is complex.)
Lest anyone recoil in disgust at Judy’s song-singing by her brands, I’d point out that we often commend such sentiments as she expresses, if not such festivity as she entertains while expressing them. We commend them in Ben Jonson‘s epigram “On My First Son,” for example:
O, could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ‘scap’d world’s and flesh’s rage,
And if no other misery, yet age?
Jonson doesn’t say it were better had his son never been. He says—and the consolation is quite conventional—that it’s better the boy made his exit before the miseries that attend all lives too much affected him. Judy apparently entertains these sentiments. The idea so blithely advanced by the speaker (hale rustic of the hamlet!) is that births and the ceremonies that sanctify, produce, and attend them (marriages, christenings) are unqualified and perfect goods. Who can object, after all, to what the Republican Party now calls “the culture of life” (a phrasing that inadvertently calls to mind a petri dish)? Well, under certain circumstances, Ben Jonson might. Under certain circumstances so might we all. Why do Christians lament a state they should envy—an early death, the earlier the better? I note, without attaching much significance to the matter, that Jonson doesn’t imagine his son in heaven, as he does his daughter in the elegy he wrote for her.
I will now go a bit afield, but only a bit. Christians often prefer not to dwell on the world-denying (and anti-natalist) strain in the Pauline scriptures. Saint Paul not only chose to be celibate, but commended it to all who were capable of saying no to sexuality. The only way to redeem sexual desire—which, in the Pauline writings, is for the most part an evil, even within marriage—is of course to marry. We have, here, to do with redemption as control. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:1-9: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” So far he is with Mad Judy. “Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.” Is that what marriage is chiefly for—to avoid fornication? What were those Corinthians up to?
Paul and Judy now begin to part company—though not absolutely. Paul regards marriage less as a positive good than as a lesser evil. Marriage is chiefly a way to manage sexual “incontinence,” not an occasion to be fruitful and multiply. Lest his preference for celibacy (and, by default, anti-natalism) be lost on the congregants at Corinth, Paul adds the following codicil: “But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment. For I would that all men were even as I myself,” that is, celibate.
But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide [in celibacy] even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.
Marriage is valued for what it allows you to avoid, not for what it makes possible. Men and women who “cannot contain” are permitted to marry, the alternative being damnation. Marriage is not a “commandment” but a last resort. Even within marriage, each spouse must police the other, and both must atone: “The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife. Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency.” Matthew Henry, revered expositor of the gospel, may make 1 Corinthians 7 a bit sunnier than it is:
The apostle tells the Corinthians that it was good, in that juncture of time, for Christians to keep themselves single. Yet he says that marriage, and the comforts of that state, are settled by Divine wisdom. Though none may break the law of God, yet that perfect rule leaves men at liberty to serve him in the way most suited to their powers and circumstances, of which others often are very unfit judges. All must determine for themselves, seeking counsel from God how they ought to act.
Enough of that. I dwell on it simply as a reminder that Christianity is not without a tint of anti-natalism. Sexuality troubles Paul deeply—the Whitmanesque “procreant urge of the world” and all that. Why? Because deliverance from the body (“sold,” as it is, “under sin”), and also from the world, are Christianity’s (and Paul’s) stated aims. The world, as Pauline Christianity gives it to us, is a very stony shore. Mad Judy is closer to Paul than to the hale swain who “humours” her “aberrancy.” Paul doesn’t celebrate marriage. He finds it a grave matter. He “permits” it to those who “cannot contain.” In short, the carnival festivity attending marriage and birth in Judy’s hamlet is not necessarily “Christian” in character. It savors more of the May-Day air of chapter two in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. All readers of that novel know what that portends.
The forests have departed, but some old customs of their shades remain. Many, however, linger only in a metamorphosed or disguised form. The May-Day dance, for instance, was to be discerned on the afternoon under notice, in the guise of the club revel, or “club-walking,” as it was there called. It was an interesting event to the younger inhabitants of Marlott, though its real interest was not observed by the participators in the ceremony. Its singularity lay less in the retention of a custom of walking in procession and dancing on each anniversary than in the members being solely women. In men’s clubs such celebrations were, though expiring, less uncommon; but either the natural shyness of the softer sex, or a sarcastic attitude on the part of male relatives, had denuded such women’s clubs as remained (if any other did) of this their glory and consummation. The club of Marlott alone lived to uphold the local Cerealia. It had walked for hundreds of years, if not as benefit-club, as votive sisterhood of some sort; and it walked still. The banded ones were all dressed in white gowns—a gay survival from Old Style days, when cheerfulness and May-time were synonyms—days before the habit of taking long views had reduced emotions to a monotonous average.
I’ve been larking with Saint Paul, of course. Still, who knows but that the old apostle might find our rustic speaker’s celebration of marriage and fertility in bad taste, and visit a chastening epistle on him? These “sons and daughters” certainly aren’t marrying not to burn. I do not say the New Testament is somehow “anti-natalist.” I’m certainly unqualified to weigh in on the question. I only mean to show that any reader who rejects out of hand, or recoils from, such anti-natalist sentiments as occasionally inform Poems of the Past and Present forgets the severity of the Pauline teachings that inform the culture out of which the book came—and which it, in turn, addresses. Of course, as for Pauline anti-natalism—such as it is, and if it is—let’s bear in mind a point Schopenhauer makes in The World as Will and Representation: “To the hope of immortality of the soul is always added that of a ‘better world’; an indication that the present world is not worth much.” Such anti-natalist sentiments as turn up in Poems of the Past and Present—through whatever conduits, “impersonative” or “individual”—never assume another and better world, only that it is (likely) better never to have entered the only (stony) world we know.
All I would claim is that Mad Judy is less mad than our rustic interlocutor makes out. The poem may not align itself with Judy, but neither does it align itself with the easy swagger of the rustic speaker. Judy says, or believes, nothing for which we can’t find culturally “accredited” counterparts, whether in scripture or in such poems as Jonson’s “On My First Son.” The closer we look at her the less “aberrant” she appears. The poem that bears her name compels us to say as much. And over against Judy’s “aberrancy,” Hardy sets the (equally?) unpalatable complacency of the hale swain of the hamlet, and indeed of the hamlet for whom he speaks. We recognize that voice at once as the voice of unreflective common sense and truth self-evident. Human life is good, our speaker supposes, simply because he has one. He is the unpaid spokesman and pawn of the Immanent Will. He may live in a hamlet, he may speak for the hamlet, but Hamlet he is not. O, that his too, too solid flesh would melt. If we are to decide either for him or for Judy, the jury is out.
The book as a whole leaves one with precisely what Hardy’s preface to it anticipates: a multi-vocal, nuanced, and never “cooked up” attempt to front the hardest questions, which include that hardest question of all: whether it is better never to have been; whether (indeed) the world would be better without us. Any view as to whether yet more persons ought to brought to these stony shores may be carried to absurdity (if not insanity). Hardy, in entertaining anti-natalist positions in so many guises (“Mad Judy,” “To an Unborn Pauper Child,” “By the Earth’s Corpse,” etc.) undertakes a valuable, affecting, and not un-anguished thought experiment. If nothing else, that experiment forces upon us one point: we have no grounds to suppose that humanity, or sentient life as such, is an unqualified good, let alone grounds to suppose that human life, or life of any other kind, is somehow “central” to the world (or to some larger realm). We must be willing to consider, if not to concede, that the world (and the cosmos) wouldn’t be impoverished without us.
But we stand on the stony shore notwithstanding. The only question worth asking, and Hardy asks it in so many ways, is how to mitigate suffering. He doesn’t rule anti-natalism out any more than he rules it in. He simply asks that we modify our idea as to what “sanity” is so as to include it. We will never know just how “mad” Judy is. Hardy’s genius diffuses the most challenging of his notions—in poems both “impersonative” and “individual”—so as to make them as inescapable (in his books) as they are haunting. Just try to get away untutored.
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¹ In later editions Hardy changed “aberrancy” to “infirmity”; a third reading exists, cancelled, in the holograph manuscript: “sad fantasy.”
² For “stony” the holograph has, cancelled out, “sunless.”
³ For “babe or twain” the holograph manuscript has “neighbor swain”; Hardy cancelled it.
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N.B.: For other readings of Hardy’s poetry at The Era of Casual Fridays, click here. As for the possibility that Hardy seriously entertained anti-natalism, see the reading of “To an Unborn Pauper Child” offered here. For a radio interview with anti-natalist philosopher David Benatar, click here. Peter Singer discusses (favorably) Benatar’s arguments in “The Opinionator,” a regular feature in the New York Times. Singer replies to readers who find Benatar’s arguments disturbing here. For a good essay on the religious, scientific and philosophical dimensions of Hardy’s poetry and prose, see Robert Schweik’s contribution to The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Hardy.
Peter Singer’s thoughtful article on Benetar and anti-natalism ends as follows:
Is a world with people in it better than one without? Put aside what we do to other species — that’s a different issue. Let’s assume that the choice is between a world like ours and one with no sentient beings in it at all. And assume, too — here we have to get fictitious, as philosophers often do — that if we choose to bring about the world with no sentient beings at all, everyone will agree to do that. No one’s rights will be violated — at least, not the rights of any existing people. Can non-existent people have a right to come into existence?
I do think it would be wrong to choose the non-sentient universe. In my judgment, for most people, life is worth living. Even if that is not yet the case, I am enough of an optimist to believe that, should humans survive for another century or two, we will learn from our past mistakes and bring about a world in which there is far less suffering than there is now. But justifying that choice forces us to reconsider the deep issues with which I began. Is life worth living? Are the interests of a future child a reason for bringing that child into existence? And is the continuance of our species justifiable in the face of our knowledge that it will certainly bring suffering to innocent future human beings?
Which elicited the following “comment” from a reader of the NYT:
All this from Singer is words until I see him take his own life. As with charity, self-sacrifice must begin at home otherwise it’s nothing but posing. Moreover, Singer has absolutely no argument in support of these nutty notions. I have no idea what motivates him but the outcome is silly.
In other guise, we hear, in these latter remarks, the unreflective, self-satisfied speaker of “Mad Judy.” So much as entertain anti-natalist arguments, even in the hamlet that constitutes the readership of “The Opinionator”—and do so as a thought experiment, at that—and you find yourself dismissed as “nutty.”