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“Waiting Both” (Thomas Hardy)

September 27, 2009

Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy collected the following poem first in Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs, and Trifles (1925), his penultimate volume of verse, where it falls first in the volume as a kind of bleak invitation. All that came afterward, in book form anyway, were Hardy’s Winter Words (1928), published in the year of his death.


A star looks down at me,
And says: “Here I and you
Stand, each in our degree:
What do you mean to do,—
Mean to do?”

I say: “For all I know,
Wait, and let Time go by,
Till my change come.” — “Just so,”
The star says, “So mean I,
So mean I.”

Charles Darwin

With these ten lines, none longer than three iambic feet, Hardy puts us all in Time—heaven and earth alike. There is no getting outside Time and change (as in definition 1.d of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary: “The passing from life; death”): such was Charles Darwin‘s great message to the world. Hardy understood it well.

But consider the touching humor of the poem, where “here” is a place a star and a man might jointly occupy (as in “Well, here we are, you and I. What next?”); where we greet the greatest of all questions with a shrug (“For all I know…”); where the star-stuff is in us such that we can entertain a rueful fellow-feeling even with things whose life-cycles span a few billion years as against our three-score-and-ten. Because, yes, indeed, stars also “change,” which is to say “die,” the poor mortals, as I have pointed out with reference to the O.E.D.

Let’s place this poem in the annals of what sometimes is called “ethno-astronomy“: a reflection on (and of) the way people talk about the stars in a given time and place—in this case, the years when Einstein’s theories, and the new astrophysics back of them, were fully felt in Europe.

Then there’s the nice touch that allows for “waiting” as a thing we might “mean to do.” Doesn’t that do away with our petty distinctions between action and passion, between doing a thing and having a thing done unto us?

I was holding forth on this one in class last semester, as I suppose I do every semester. I doubt if I quite put it across. By way of summary, at any rate, I suggested to my students that Hardy had at least given them all a good line to use when a friend calls to ask what’s up. “Oh, I’m just waiting.” For what? “For my change to come.”

As for the signal line in the poem, the topic, the burden of the thing, see Job 14:10-14: “But man dieth, and wasteth away: yea, man giveth up the ghost, and where is he? As the waters fail from the sea, and the flood decayeth and drieth up: So man lieth down, and riseth not: till the heavens be no more, they shall not awake, nor be raised out of their sleep. O that thou wouldest hide me in the grave, that thou wouldest keep me secret, until thy wrath be past, that thou wouldest appoint me a set time, and remember me! If a man die, shall he live again? All the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come.”

Well, so we will, so we will.

N.B.: “Waiting Both” was first published in The London Mercury for November 1924. Hardy penned the poem in the early 1920s, according to Samuel Hynes in his edition of the complete poems.


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