“‘Peace upon earth!’ was said. We sing it and pay a million priests to bring it. After two thousand years of mass, we’ve got as far as poison-gas.”
“The Blinded Bird” (Thomas Hardy)
So zestfully canst thou sing?
And all this indignity,
With God’s consent, on thee!
Blinded ere yet a-wing
By the red-hot needle thou,
I stand and wonder how
So zestfully thou canst sing!
Resenting not such wrong,
Thy grievous pain forgot,
Eternal dark thy lot,
Groping thy whole life long;
After that stab of fire;
Enjailed in pitiless wire;
Resenting not such wrong!
Who hath charity? This bird.
Who suffereth long and is kind,
Is not provoked, though blind
And alive ensepulchred?
Who hopeth, endureth all things?
Who thinketh no evil, but sings?
Who is divine? This bird.
This poem first appeared in Hardy’s Moments of Vision (1916), where it precedes “The wind blew words along the skies…” (a poem I discuss elsewhere in The Era of Casual Fridays). I find “The Blinded Bird” almost unbearable to read, less for the appalling facts it details—about which more in due course—than for the obvious pain that those facts occasion in the poet. Of course, the affiliation, the fellowship, of poet and song-bird is almost as old as English poetry. Our poets can’t seem to let the theme alone; it was particularly abused by the Romantics. Poets are said to be “singers,” etc.; and we have Shelley and his skylark, and Keats and his nightingale. But the affiliation between poet and bird, and between poem and bird-song, is quite different in “The Blinded Bird,” a point made all the clearer by the poem’s appearing opposite “The wind blew words…”:
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
At the pathetic Me I saw
In all his huge distress,
Making self-slaughter of the law
To kill, break, or suppress.
This poem assumes the (Darwinian) unity of all organic life—of all creatures great and small, wild and tame, caged or un-caged. 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 or “pygmies” (as the British called them) native to south-central Africa. The “black” men are sub-Saharan Africans generally, and the “browned” men Indians, and, perhaps, also Arabs. When this poem was written and published, all of these peoples were subject to British colonial rule, which often justified itself—sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly—with the claim, which “The wind blew words…” incidentally contradicts, that “white” men are in some sense set apart from, and also above, “colored” men.
We need not specify the poem’s attitude toward the idea of white supremacy to say that it belongs to (among other things) the long history of (white) meditations on the question of “race.” Now, when poems appear to make “arguments” or “statements” (not all poems do these things) we must do our best to understand them. 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).”
In “The Blinded Bird,” we find expression of precisely the sort of “fellow-feeling” with a suffering bird one might expect a writer who held these (Darwinian) beliefs to consider irresistible—in fact, painfully irresistible: bird and poet are “framed” from the “same stuff.” It will surprise no reader of “The Blinded Bird” that Hardy was both a member of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), the oldest animal-rights organization in the world, and an ardent anti-vivisectionist. Readers of the poem unfamiliar with a terrifically arcane Flemish sport will not likely understand why the bird was blinded by “a hot needle,” rather than in some other way.
The sport is called “vinkensport,” defined in the following manner in Wikipedia: “Vinkensport (Dutch for ‘finch sport’) is a competitive animal sport in which male chaffinches are made to compete for the highest number of bird calls in an hour. Also called vinkenzetting (Dutch finch sitting), it is primarily active in the Dutch-speaking Flanders region of Belgium. Vinkensport traces its origins to competitions held by
Flemish merchants in 1596, and is considered part of traditional Flemish culture. . . As of 2007, it is estimated that there are over 13,000 enthusiasts, called vinkeniers (‘finchers’), breeding 10,000 birds every year. Animal rights activists have opposed the sport for much of its history. Early proponents of the sport would blind birds with hot needles in order to reduce visual distractions.” The Wikipedia entry continues to make what would seem an incontestable point: “Thomas Hardy—the celebrated English author, antivivisectionist and member of the RSPCA—is said to have written his poem ‘The Blinded Bird’ as a protest against the practice.” So much then, for the theme of the poem: it expresses outrage not simply about cruelty to animals (in this case, a finch), but about cruelty done to them for the purpose of sport. It should go without saying that most vinkeniers do not, in fact, engage in bird-blinding. But some certainly did, and it is these men whom Hardy has in his sights in this devastating poem. But there is much more to be said about the poem than that.
Most contemporary readers in the U.S. and the U.K. will know little to nothing about vinkensport, but the English Bible they do know, or ought to. And in the last stanza of the poem Hardy revises a well-known text from 1st Corinthinans:
1 Cor. 13: 1-8: Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.
Bear in mind the Darwinian subtext of the poem that succeeds “The Blinded Bird,” and bear in mind what I have suggested about the differences that distinguish this poem about “zestful” birdsong from any number of conventional Romantic poems on the same theme, and one feels in it, as Hardy re-casts the words of St. Paul, a kind of Schopenhaurian atheism hardly unfamiliar to readers of his poetry. Hardy brings “divinity” down to earth. And one feels in it as well the dry reproach Hardy made, in a letter to a Scottish divine who’d queried him on the
age-old Christian theme of reconciling, or attempting to, the idea of an omnipotent and benevolent God with the cruelty and suffering everywhere evident in our sublunary sphere: “Mr. Hardy regrets that he is unable to offer any hypothesis which would reconcile the existence of such evils as Dr. Grosart describes with the idea of omnipotent goodness. Perhaps Dr. Grosart might be helped to a provisional view of the universe by the recently published Life of Darwin, and the works of Herbert Spencer, and other agnostics.” Hardy is even clearer on the so-called theological “problem of evil” in a short poem titled “Christmas: 1924” (where, in the closing couplet, he uses disjunctive rhyme to wickedly good effect):
“Peace upon earth!” was said. We sing it
And pay a million priests to bring it.
After two thousand years of mass
We’ve got as far as poison-gas.
But I’d like to return to “The Blinded Bird.” Much of its force, its bitter recrimination, derives, I think, from its unusual form. Hardy has chosen to frame the poem in three stanzas of equal length (7 lines). The lines themselves vary in length from 6 to 8 syllables, but all have, for the most part, three stresses. (It is in, as I see it, “accentual meter.”) The rhyme scheme is a tight one (ABBACCA), with the added fact that the first and last lines of each stanza register a slight variation of the same phrase, sentence, or, as in stanza three, two sentences. The form, whatever else it may be, is certainly emphatic: it is built to drive home a point. And yet relation of sentence to line varies wonderfully across the poem—a matter I discuss more generally, again, elsewhere in this web-log—as its governing mood of indignation undergoes changes in intensity, bitterness, and sheer wonder at the cruelty men are capable of. In the first stanza, Hardy lays out three sentences in the allotted 7 lines. In the second, he lays a single sentence that is itself a kind of expletive. And then in the third and final stanza, the stanza in which St. Paul’s paean to charity is so ingeniously re-cast, we find no fewer than 7 sentences in seven lines: a curt and recursive style that brings the poem into perfect focus. It is nigh impossible to read this without feeling in it an intimation not simply that God might “consent” to indignities such as these (as is suggested in stanza one), but that there is no God at all: “divinity” and “charity,” such as they are, are here, on earth, with us—indeed, in a finch—or they are nowhere. “The Blinded Bird” puts everyone to shame.
One more thing. I’m risking a little something here, but quite possibly, in describing the bird as “alive ensepulchured” and as “divine”—right here, in a stanza calling us back to the Pauline writings;—quite possibly Hardy is dispatching that second person of our three-personed God: the Son, the Christ, who was “ensepulchured” if not “alive” then at the very least “undead.” For He arose, we are told, and upon that fancy, as many contend, St. Paul built the whole edifice of Christianity, whose “two thousand years of mass” have gotten us “as far as poison-gas.” Probably I am larking in my suggestion about the further reaches of the phrase “alive ensepulchured,” but in any case the general point is clear: Better to set aside the queer aforementioned theological “problem of evil” and get on with the business of reforming our own sorry reprobation. And so Mr. Hardy “regrets that he is unable to offer any hypothesis which would reconcile the existence of such evils as Dr. Grosart describes with the idea of omnipotent goodness.”
Of course, we already have Darwin’s word on it, from the Autobiography: “That there is much suffering in the world no one disputes. Some have explained this in reference to Man, by imagining that it serves for his moral improvement. But the number of men in the world is as nothing compared with that of all other sentient beings, and these often suffer greatly without any moral improvement. A being so powerful and so full of knowledge as a God who could create the universe, is to our finite minds omnipotent and omniscient, and it revolts our understanding to suppose that his benevolence is not unbounded, for what advantage can there be in the suffering of millions of the lower animals throughout almost endless time? This very old argument from the existence of suffering against the existence of an intelligent first cause seems to me a strong one; whereas, as just remarked, the presence of much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection.”
N.B. Unlikely, but possible, is an ironic echo in line 18 of “The Blinded Bird” of a passage from Elizabeth Barret Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1856): “. . . now could I but unloose my soul! / We are sepulchred alive in this close world, / And want more room.” For a video, with sound, of a male chaffinch singing in the forest, click here. Here is a link to the Nationaal Volkssportmuseum Vinkensport. Hardy’s oft-quoted response to Grosart is reprinted on page 174 of The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy: 1840-1892, ed. Richard Little Purdy and Michael Millgate (Oxford, 1978). Hardy, in fact, makes an explicit and counter-Romantic reply to Shelley in a poem published in Poems of the Past and Present titled “Shelley’s Skylark.” Finally, for the most devastating of Hardy’s poems on cruelty to animals, cf. the first comment below, where I reprint his poem “The Mongrel.” Read it if you dare.