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“Some blest champaigns where no gins are…”

September 28, 2009

Thomas Hardy

“The Milestone by the Rabbit-Burrow”
(on Yell’ham Hill)

In my loamy nook
As I dig my hole
I observe men look
At a stone, and sigh
As they pass it by
To some far goal.

Something it says
To their glancing eyes
That must distress
The frail and lame
And the strong of frame
Gladden or surprise.

Do signs on its face
Declare how far
Feet have to trace
Before they gain
Some blest champaign
Where no gins are?

This poem was published in Hardy’s 1922 volume Late Lyrics and Earlier. It is but one of many poems by Hardy that we might range under the general heading: “animal rights.” (He was a member of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, after all.) It is also one of a number of poems that imagine, or fancifully try to, what an “animal” consciousness might be like. The fellow-feeling here expressed for the rabbit, for whom the world is strewn with “gins” (or, in the old sense of the word, “traps”: cf. below), is perfectly genuine. The poem asks—and, I think, tentatively and affirmatively answers—a question: Is “our” consciousness like, or does it somehow include, this lower-order animal (or, say, mammalian) “consciousness,” capable as it is, like ours, of fear and suffering? Sentience is sentience. And fear not merely of those “natural” calamities and predations that befall us, but of those that derive from malice, from designs against us, from “gins”?

The poem muses upon a rabbit musing upon men and looking on their faces for some sign of possible redemption. That “blest champaign” cannot be too far from the Elysian Fields (Greek: Ἠλύσια πεδία). Miles to go before we sleep, rabbit and man alike!

As the poem appeared in the 1922 edition of "Late Lyrics."

I drop in an allusion to Robert Frost’sStopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” not merely for the nonce. We’re told there that the speaker’s

. . . little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
In what sense “think”? In this poem the matter concerns simply the breaking of a habit the horse is used to, and so is a bit uneasy about. We aren’t asked to suppose that the horse’s “thinking” might exist on some possible continuum with our own, as I think we are in many of Hardy’s poems in which animals “think,” or even “speak.” Similitude shades off into identity, at least in Hardy, in matters such as these. By which I mean also that the rabbit is not merely allegorical. It remains somehow perfectly rabitty, while nonetheless serving the larger purposes for which Hardy fetches him in. We are all of us subject to gins and snares, every time we leave our “burrows,” and in fact even while in them. Perfect safety? Try and find it somewhere. And if you can find it, show me the “trace” or path, would you?
But whatever the relation of animal “thinking” in Hardy to that in Frost, I can’t go further without noting the metrical and stylistic affinities that bind them here. Hardy gives us three stanzas of dimeter lines, into each of which is laid a single sentence, answering to the rhyme scheme ABACCB. And in these tight quarters—as with Frost at his best—he never suffers deflection, is never thrown off into any distortions or dislocations of natural, spoken English syntax, unless it is in the elegant inversion with which the second stanza ends, whereby two sets of verbs bracket two sorts of men:
Something it says
To their glancing eyes
That must distress
The frail and lame
And the strong of frame
Gladden or surprise.
The verb “distress” parallels the verbs “gladden” and “surprise,” with the men in question (in the “objective” case), whether they be lame or hearty, laid in between, coupled, as they are—no matter how different in stamina—by the rhyme. It’s all one.
Incidentally, Yell’ham Hill, and the road (with its milestone) that Hardy has in mind, really do exist, near his native Dorchester (marked with a blue pin below):

yellowham hill

As for the language of the last two lines, which readers sometimes mistake, cf. the O.E.D.: “champaign, n. and a. A. n. 1. An expanse of level, open country, a plain; a level field; a clearing. 1400 Morte Arth. 1226 To-warde Castelle Blanke he chesez hym the waye, Thurghe a faire champayne, undyr chalke hyllis. 1475 CAXTON Jason 125 After many journeyes and many wayes and champaynes trauersid. a1500 Chaucer‘s Dreme 2044 A large pleyne Under a wode, in a champeyne. 1605 SHAKES. Lear I. i. 65 With shadowie Forrests, and with Champains rich’d. 1644 EVELYN Mem. (1857) I. 105 A plain and pleasant champain.” And then:gin, n.1 Skill, ingenuity. Also in a bad sense: Cunning, craft, artifice (cf. ENGINE 2). quaint of gin: clever in contriving or planning; also of things, curiously contrived. Obs. HARDYNG Chron. LXVII. viii, By subtelte and his sleyghty gyn.  2. An instance or product of ingenuity; contrivance, scheme, device. Also a cunning stratagem, artifice, trick (cf. ENGINE 3). Obs. 1590 SPENSER F.Q. III. vii. 7 The Hag she found, Busie (as seem’d) about some wicked gin.

N.B.: By the way, I have known students (in America) to find salient, here, only the words “champaign” and “gin.” Notwithstanding the spelling of the former word, and the meaning of the whole poem, they suppose the milestone to point the way toward a pub—their own Elysium. It won’t do to tell them that gins (of the sort Hardy has in view) and snares abound even there.

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