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“Oh, I’ve been scanning pond and hole and waterway hereabout for the body of one with a sunken soul who has put his life-light out.”

September 28, 2009

Colossians 2 16-17: “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.”

*  *  *

From The Confessions of Saint Augustine (translated by Edward Bouverie Pusey): “But the word of knowledge, wherein are contained all Sacraments, which are varied in their seasons as it were the moon, and those other notices of gifts, which are reckoned up in order, as it were stars, inasmuch as they come short of that brightness of wisdom, which gladdens the forementioned day, are only for the rule of the night. For they are necessary to such, as that Thy most prudent servant could not speak unto as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal; even he, who speaketh wisdom among those that are perfect. But the natural man, as it were a babe in Christ and fed on milk, until he be strengthened for solid meat and his eye be enabled to behold the Sun, let him not dwell in a night forsaken of all light, but be content with the light of the moon and the stars. So dost Thou speak to us, our All-wise God, in Thy Book, Thy firmament; that we may discern all things, in an admirable contemplation; though as yet in signs and in times, and in days, and in years.”

*  *  *

A full Moon, viewed from our northern hemisphere.

“I looked up from my writing…”
(Thomas Hardy)

I looked up from my writing,
And gave a start to see,
As if rapt in my inditing,
The moon’s full gaze on me.

Her meditative misty head
Was spectral in its air,
And I involuntarily said,
“What are you doing there?”

“Oh, I’ve been scanning pond and hole
And waterway hereabout
For the body of one with a sunken soul
Who has put his life-light out.

Royal Irish Rifles in a communication trench during the Battle of the Somme, July 1916. Click on the image for a higher resolution photograph.

“Did you hear his frenzied tattle?
It was sorrow for his son
Who is slain in brutish battle,
Though he has injured none.

“And now I am curious to look
Into the blinkered mind
Of one who wants to write a book
In a world of such a kind.”

Her temper overwrought me,
And I edged to shun her view,
For I felt assured she thought me
One who should drown him too.

This poem appears at the end of the main body of Hardy’s 1917 volume Moments of Vision (the only thing that succeeds it is a section, distinct in the table of contents for the book, called “Finale”). So we can assume the poem to refer incidentally to the writing of all the preceding poems in the volume, a number of which have to with the Great War, then in its 3rd year, to one consequence of which this poem alludes in its 4th stanza. I have always thought that the Moon’s voice, as given here—as characterized here—is remarkable: slightly mocking in its address, with a note of incredulity. I sense no sympathy, no fellow-feeling, in the “scanning about” the Moon’s done to find the suicide who killed himself by drowning out of sorrow for a son killed in the war—which act provides her with the occasion, in any case, for a somewhat macabre and tasteless pun: he is a “sunken soul.”


Thomas Hardy

Well, yes: he drowned himself. The reference she makes to his “frenzied tattle” makes light, in an odd way, of this suicide’s appalling sublunary ordeal—when viewed from on high, as it is here. The phrasing denies his suffering the dignity we suppose it to deserve (I mean, from a merely “human” point of view). The O.E.D. confirms that there was never a time when “tattle,” whether as noun or verb, did not imply “gossip,” “idle talk,” “prattling,” “baby-talk,” etc. Calling that “tattle” “frenzied” hardly redeems the aspersion. And isn’t it as if the Moon is “rubbernecking,” looking in on—or trying to look in on—some small human disaster or other, from no more respectable motive than curiosity? No wonder Hardy “shuns her view.” She finds him slightly absurd for doing what he does—writing poetry in a world, then at war, and hardly worth the investment he makes in such a book as Moments of Vision. The Moon suggests that Hardy’s mind is “blinkered”: hood-winked, deceived, blind to what any sane and fit intelligence could see—namely, that nothing human is worth the record, when men show themselves perfectly capable of gassing one another, etc.—oh, phosgene, mustard gas, liquid xylyl bromide tear gas, chlorine, what have you—in an intra-European squabble whose deepest roots lay in competitive colonialism. Incidentally, it is worth pointing out that “Finale,” set apart from the main body of the book, as I’ve indicated, contains two poems. The first is called “The Coming of the End.” The second, titled “Afterwards,” includes a well-known stanza in which Hardy intimates how he would like to remembered after his own death:

If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One may say, “He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone.”

For a recording of readings from Moments of Vision at Librivox, click here. For a down-loadable PDF file of the 1919 edition, click here. For another poem by Hardy on the miseries native to our sublunary sphere, cf. the first comment below. Finally, for all articles within The Era of Casual Fridays pertaining to Hardy’s poetry, click here.

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 4, 2009 8:54 PM


    Thy shadow, Earth, from Pole to Central Sea,
    Now steals along upon the Moon’s meek shine
    In even monochrome and curving line
    Of imperturbable serenity.

    How shall I link such sun-cast symmetry
    With the torn troubled form I know as thine,
    That profile, placid as a brow divine,
    With continents of moil and misery?

    And can immense Mortality but throw
    So small a shade, and Heaven’s high human scheme
    Be hemmed within the coasts yon arc implies?

    Is such the stellar gauge of earthly show,
    Nation at war with nation, brains that teem,
    Heroes, and women fairer than the skies?

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