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Making Statements About “The wind blew words…” (Thomas Hardy)

September 28, 2009

Thomas Hardy

“The wind blew words along the skies…” (Hardy)

The wind blew words along the skies,
And these it blew to me
Through the wide dusk: “Lift up your eyes,
Behold this troubled tree,
Complaining as it sways and plies;
It is a limb of thee.

“Yea, too, the creatures sheltering round—
Dumb figures, wild and tame,
Yea, too, thy fellows who abound—
Either of speech the same
Or far and strange—black, dwarfed, and browned,
They are stuff of thy own frame.”

I moved on in a surging awe
Of inarticulateness
At the pathetic Me I saw
In all his huge distress,
Making self-slaughter of the law
To kill, break, or suppress.

Often, in discussing poetry, I prefer to set aside the language typically used in all our talk of “interpretation.” Instead, I adopt a distinction between “non-controversial” statements and “controversial” statements that we might make about a poem—”The wind blew words…,” for example.  “Non-controversial statements” are statements about which we can be fairly certain, statements that are not really subject to debate. “Controversial statements” are those about which reasonable people might disagree. Of course, the line separating the one kind of statement from the other is never absolute. It can shift, as it becomes apparent, say, that something we’d considered relatively “non-controversial” might more properly belong in the other bin, so to speak. I treat the distinction I make here in the spirit of pragmatism—as a means for going deeper into the poem, for starting up a clear-headed debate about it.

Following is a list of such statements, divided as I have just explained, about the poem printed above, by Thomas Hardy.

NON-CONTROVERSIAL STATEMENTS

1) “The wind blew words,” a poem known by its first line and otherwise untitled, was collected first in Thomas Hardy’s fifth volume of verse, Moments of Vision (1917).

1a) Scholars of Hardy have determined that the bulk of the poems collected in this volume date from 1913-16, the years just after Hardy’s first wife, Emma, died, and, of course, the years that saw the outbreak of WW I. We find this out by consulting the relevant scholarship—for example, in a library, where you will find good editions of Hardy such as The Complete Poetical Works of Thomas Hardy, edited by Samuel Hynes.

2) “The wind blew words” is in three stanzas, each one arrayed in six alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and trimeter, and rhyming ABABAB. Even an hour spent reading around in Hardy will show that, when it came to matters of form, he never strayed very far from the main tradition of English lyric poetry (from, say, the 16th century through the beginning of the 20th). His poems typically organize themselves into stanzas (in which patterns of rhyme and meter are fairly quickly set-up and then repeated), though the sheer variety of his stanzas, across the whole body of his work, is unusual enough to merit notice. He is a great fancier of “nonce forms” so-called (forms established for the purpose of writing a single poem). (Further comment on the form of the poem appears below.)

3) The word “sways” in line four refers strictly to physical motion, whereas the word “plies” carries among its possible implications the rather different idea that the tree is struggling. To imply such a thing is to speak of the tree as if it were animated, alive in an almost human way. Critics sometimes call this sort of thing “the pathetic fallacy.”

3a) To speak of the tree as “troubled” is perhaps also to commit the pathetic fallacy, though, to be precise, the word “troubled” need not necessarily imply that the tree feels “emotion.” We sometimes speak of “troubled” waters, for example, in which case the reference is essentially to physical movement. But having said this much, we must acknowledge that the word “complaining” really does bring out the “emotional” force of the word “troubled”—that is, unless we limit ourselves to the nautical sense of “complaining,” as applied to creaking timbers in the structure of a ship.

An unidentified European with two "Pygmies" (the people called themselves either the Aka, the Efé or the Mbuti, and lived in central Africa).

An unidentified European with two "Pygmies" (the people called themselves either the Aka, the Efé or the Mbuti, and lived in central Africa).

4) The “black, dwarfed, and browned” “fellows” referred to in stanza two are the peoples of Africa and Asia. And we may be still more particular. In speaking of “dwarfed” men Hardy likely has in mind the peoples known to Europeans generally as “pygmies,” native to southwest Africa. The “black” men are sub-Saharan Africans generally, and the “browned” men presumably Indians, and, perhaps, also Arabs. When this poem was written and published, all, or some, of these peoples were subject to British colonial rule, which often justified itself—sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly—with the claim, which this poem incidentally contradicts, that “white” men are in some sense set apart from, and also above, “colored” men. (Cf. the map reprinted below.) We need not specify the poem’s attitude toward the idea of white supremacy to say, non-controversially, that it belongs to (among other things) the long history of (white) meditations on the question of “race.”

5) When poems appear to make “arguments” or “statements—and not all poems do these things—we must do our best to understand them, just as we’d do our best to understand any other sort of communique. The last stanza of this poem says something like this:

† “The ‘natural’ law of the world is that things (and this includes all things: all things wise and wonderful, all creatures great and small) shall kill, break, and suppress, and be killed, broken and suppressed in turn.

† I now recognize, here in this wind-swept place, that I am a part of this (somewhat Hobbesian) world. All men are part of it. Though we once thought Man was opposed to, or at least distinct from, the rest of “Nature,” we can no longer make that assumption (not after what Darwin showed us, for example).

† If I am a part of this world, then I both kill and am killed, both break and am broken, both suppress and am suppressed, all in my turn. (As Emerson says in “Fate”: “Expensive races, race living at the expense of race.” Or As Schopenhauer says in The World as Will and Representation, which we know Hardy to have read: “And to this world, to this scene of tormented and agonized beings, who only continue to exist by devouring each other, in which, therefore, every ravenous beast is the living grave of thousands of others, and its self-maintenance is a chain of painful deaths; and in which the capacity for feeling pain increases with knowledge, and therefore reaches its highest degree in man, a degree which is the higher the more intelligent the man is; to this world it has been sought to apply the system of optimism, and demonstrate to us that it is the best of all possible worlds.”

† Therefore, the “law” I speak of comprehends (for me) not only “slaughter” but “self-slaughter” as well. There is in this (Darwinian) world a kind of universal antagonism, which even divides men against themselves (we never needed Freud to teach us that; we know it by intuition). That portion of the world which is involved in killing is, at any given moment, always a “limb” of me, an extension of me, my Self extended; that portion of the world which is being killed, at any given moment, is also a limb of me, an extension of me, my Self extended. I am implicated in it.

Charles Darwin, ca. 1854, while at work on his great book "On the Origin of Species."

Arthur Schopenhauer in 1818 (painting by Ludwig Sigismund Ruhl)

† If I am a part of this world, then I both kill and am killed, both break and am broken, both suppress and am suppressed, all in my turn. (As Emerson says in “Fate”: “Expensive races, race living at the expense of race.” Or As Schopenhauer says in The World as Will and Representation, which we know Hardy to have read: “And to this world, to this scene of tormented and agonized beings, who only continue to exist by devouring each other, in which, therefore, every ravenous beast is the living grave of thousands of others, and its self-maintenance is a chain of painful deaths; and in which the capacity for feeling pain increases with knowledge, and therefore reaches its highest degree in man, a degree which is the higher the more intelligent the man is; to this world it has been sought to apply the system of optimism, and demonstrate to us that it is the best of all possible worlds.”

† Therefore, the “law” I speak of comprehends (for me) not only “slaughter” but “self-slaughter” as well. There is in this (Darwinian) world a kind of universal antagonism, which even divides men against themselves (we never needed Freud to teach us that; we know it by intuition). That portion of the world which is involved in killing is, at any given moment, always a “limb” of me, an extension of me, my Self extended; that portion of the world which is being killed, at any given moment, is also a limb of me, an extension of me, my Self extended. I am implicated in everything, in all this huge distress—in both cruelty and suffering. And so are we all.

CONTROVERSIAL STATEMENTS

1) The poem, as we know from non-controversial statement 1.a. above, dates from the period 1913-17, the years after Hardy’s first wife died, and the years that saw the outbreak of war in Europe. The poem’s mood and theme are alike colored by these distressing events. It must be read in biographical and historical contexts specific to 1913-17.

1a) The mood and theme of the poem are in no way colored chiefly by the work of mourning, or by the specter of WW I. In fact, the poem is quite in harmony with what Hardy had been writing for more than 40 years, in both verse and prose. If we must situate the poem in a particular historical context, this context must be the rather broader one of Victorian and post-Victorian England, not anything peculiar to the mid 1910s. We find here simply another expression of the general “ache of modernism,” to borrow a phrase from Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

2) This poem is most interesting as a response to Darwin. We know this not merely from its theme—that is to say, from internal evidence—but from the fact that it calls to mind other poems by Hardy that refer specifically to Darwin, for example, his “Drinking Song,” published in his last volume, Winter Words (1928): “Next this strange message Darwin brings . . . we are all one with creeping things; and apes and men blood brethren . . .”

2a) This poem is most interesting not as a response to Darwin but as a response to a crisis in the history of European colonialism—a moment when belief in the “natural” authority of “white” men to dominate the world was beginning to erode. In fact, the poem tells us why belief in this “natural” authority had begun to erode in the first place: it was no longer possible to take for granted the biological reality of “race.” So, yes, Darwin is important here, but only insofar as his teachings, when rightly interpreted, had begun to make it impossible to sustain, in any absolute way, not merely distinctions between mankind and the rest of the primates—or between us and all creatures “wild and tame”—but also between such “racial” categories as “whiteness” and “blackness.” Because Europeans had for so long used these categories to make sense out of the world, loss of belief in them amounted to a serious ideological crisis, of which this poem in all its dismay, is a kind of symptom. This ideological crisis, of course, both occasioned and was occasioned by a crisis in the actual system of European colonialism, which, in part, was responsible for bringing on WWI, and which began to fall apart even as the war went forward. And if we leave these far-reaching developments out of account, we miss the better part of what this poem is somehow “about.” We lose touch with what critics sometimes call its “political unconscious.”

This color-coded map illustrates the territories colonized by the great European powers, ca. 1900.

3) “Making” in the penultimate line is controlled alike (at the conceptual level) by both “I”/“Me” and also “this huge distress.” So while as grammarians we want to know what noun controls this participle—want to know in which noun’s gravitational field it is locked—the question really doesn’t much affect our understanding of the poem’s general argument. And, if it is not merely evasive or clever to say so, the grammatical ambiguity (assuming there really is some) perfectly suits, and is even required by, the poem’s theme, which may, in at least one of its forms, be very simply stated: There can be no extrication of “Me” from all “this huge distress”; both I and “this huge distress” are “making” self-slaughter of the law to kill, break, etc.

4) This poem’s assertion of an essential human unity—its [English] speaker is said to be “framed” from the “same stuff” as men “black, dwarfed, and browned,” i.e., men of other races and distant climes;—this suggestion registers a protest against the chaos and slaughter then abroad on the continent of Europe, and indeed in Africa and the Near East as well. For that reason, if for no other, we should take heart from it. In the wake of three hundred years of colonization, the slave trade, and New World bond slavery, it was neither inevitable, nor even quite common, for Englishmen (or white folk generally) to think of themselves as really made of the “same stuff” as (for example) Africans, even if they forbore to express the belief openly.

4b) This poem may in some sense “affirm” the essential unity of mankind. But it does so in a key of dismay that must qualify and limit any “democratic” sentiment that a too-generous reader may suppose it to harbor. This Englishman Thomas Hardy may grant that he is “framed” of the “same stuff” as “black, browned and dwarfed” men, but the thought is hardly an occasion for celebration. On the contrary, one feels here that this recognition inevitably involves, on the part of “white” men, a sense of loss. And what have they lost? They have lost nothing less than the distinction upon which their sense of superiority so long rested; their very sense of identity, in fact, is under threat, eroding, coming un-moored. This poem is in some sense a record of precisely these developments.

5) The stanzaic structure of this poem incidentally calls to mind the English “ballad stanza,” otherwise known as “common meter” or “hymn meter.” True, its stanzas have six lines rather than the four one finds in “common meter.” But the first four lines of each stanza fit the pattern perfectly.

The Book of Common Prayer, as used in the Anglican Church

5a) The stanzaic structure of this poem is meant to call to mind the English “ballad stanza,” otherwise known as “common meter” or “hymn meter.” As the latter name implies, this stanza was familiar to any English churchgoer, from the hymns he or she weekly sung. The association is not beside the point, and is in fact ironic, because Hardy’s poem is quite obviously incompatible with what might be called “Anglican” ways of thinking about the world ca, 1916.

5b) We have no good reason to speak of the “ballad stanza” in connection with this poem, nor any good reason to speak of its stanzaic structure as “ironic.” Here we have merely an example of what critics call a “nonce form,” a form gotten up for the occasion of writing this one particular poem. In structure it belongs to, or borrows from, no special tradition other than the very general tradition of English poetry in rhyming “iambic” lines. We accomplish nothing by being any more specific about the matter than this.

6) So much depends on that phrase “to me” in line two of the poem. Hardy himself may “read” this “distressing” message on the “wind,” but he is not suggesting that everyone else ought to; he is not suggesting that he has figured out what the wind “really” says, only that his own mood leads him to see the world in this special way. It is worth reminding ourselves that, in Tess, he tells us that the world is merely a “psychological phenomenon.” That is to say, we can know only our own “idea” of the world; we cannot know what the world is apart from our ideas about it.

6a) Very little depends on the phrase “to me” in the line two of the poem. Essentially, Hardy makes the claim that the view expressed in this poem corresponds to the way the world “really” is, regardless of whether we acknowledge it or not. In other words, this is not the way the world seems to one particular person (Hardy) in one particular time and place (England, the early 20th century), but the way it ought to seem to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear.

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