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God’s “unweeting way”; a few notes on Hardy.

February 4, 2011

Thomas Hardy

With this entry I miss the New Year by a month or so. But laggard that I am, what excuse?—all the more given that Thomas Hardy collected the following poem first in Times’s Laughingstocks and Other Verses (1909).

“Now that the miscellany is brought together,” Hardy writes in his brief preface, “some lack of concord in pieces written at widely severed dates, and in contrasting moods and circumstances, will be obvious enough. This I cannot help, but the sense of disconnection, particularly in respect of those lyrics penned in the first person, will be immaterial when it is borne in mind that they are to be regarded, in the main, as dramatic monologues by different characters.” He continues, with customary modesty: “As a whole they will, I hope, take the reader forward, even if not far, rather than backward.” The “forward” movement—”even if not far”—in the poem under discussion here interests me. Hardy lays his pen upon that hinge, so to speak, that swings from a 19th century dispensation to a post-Darwinian 20th one. And he does it at the hinge of the year.

NEW YEAR’S EVE

From a 1919 reprint of “Time’s Laughingstocks.”

“I have finished another year,” said God,
“In grey, green, white, and brown;
I have strewn the leaf upon the sod,
Sealed up the worm within the clod,
And let the last sun down.”

“And what’s the good of it?” I said,
“What reasons made you call
From formless void this earth we tread,
When nine-and-ninety can be read
Why nought should be at all?

“Yea, Sire; why shaped you us, ‘who in
This tabernacle groan’—
If ever a joy be found herein,
Such joy no man had wished to win
If he had never known!”

Then he: “My labours—logicless—
You may explain; not I:
Sense-sealed I have wrought, without a guess
That I evolved a Consciousness
To ask for reasons why.

“Strange that ephemeral creatures who
By my own ordering are,
Should see the shortness of my view,
Use ethic tests I never knew,
Or made provision for!”

He sank to raptness as of yore,
And opening New Year’s Day
Wove it by rote as theretofore,
And went on working evermore
In his unweeting way.
—1906.

Any reader of Hardy’s poetry knows how conversant he is with God, and with the stars and the dead for that matter. In this poem, God has the first word, gratified, as he is, at having logged in yet another year:

“I have finished another year,” said God,
“In grey, green, white, and brown;
I have strewn the leaf upon the sod,
Sealed up the worm within the clod,
And let the last sun down.”

Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, gazing on Yorick's skull.

We have emblematic colors for the seasons, winter on through autumn: grey, green, white, and brown—and for the latter, dead leaves as well, “strewn” “upon the sod” as with workmanlike deliberation. But best in this first stanza is the penultimate line, where God speaks of himself as having  “sealed up the worm within the clod,” where “clod” means what it does in O.E.D. sense 3a: “A lump of earth or clay adhering together.” The “worm”: so nicely resonant in English poetry, particularly of the Renaissance, as a token of death and decay. Bear in mind Shakespeare’s fine understatement, as given to Rosalind in reply to Orlando, her suitor, in As You Like It (IV.i.1876ff.): “No, faith, The poor world is almost six thousand years old, and in all this time there was not any man died in his own person, videlicet, in a love-cause. Troilus had his brains dash’d out with a Grecian club; yet he did what he could to die before, and he is one of the patterns of love. Leander, he would have liv’d many a fair year, though Hero had turn’d nun, if it had not been for a hot midsummer night; for,  good youth, he went but forth to wash him in the Hellespont, and, being taken with the cramp, was drown’d; and the foolish chroniclers of that age found it was—Hero of Sestos. But these are all lies: men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.” Or, better still, Hamlet‘s apt rejoinder to Claudius (IV.iii.2731ff.):

Claudius. Now, Hamlet, where’s Polonius?

Hamlet. At supper.

Claudius. At supper? Where?

Hamlet. Not where he eats, but where he is eaten. A certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet. We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service—two dishes, but to one table. That’s the end.

We are deep in O.E.D. sense 6c for “worm”: “worm’s or worms’ meat, said of a man’s dead body, or of man as mortal.” Would that God had really “sealed” the damned creature up “within the clod”; he is rather too busy about his office. Which brings me to the second stanza, when the speaker of the poem, the persona adopted for this little dialogue, sends his query up to God:

“And what’s the good of it?” I said,
“What reasons made you call
From formless void this earth we tread,
When nine-and-ninety can be read
Why nought should be at all?

We all know the old question. Why is there something rather than nothing (or “nought”)? Why should it be, as the Buddha tells us in The Four Noble Truths, that to live is to suffer? (Or, to fetch in something more recent, and which we know Hardy to have read, why should things be as Arthur Schopenhauer says they are in The World as Will and Representation?—namely, that to be alive, and human, is to suffer not merely those ills to which all things living fall prey, but many more in addition?) After all, the speaker doesn’t ask much. Against his ninety-nine reasons why, as a philosopher lately put it, it is “better never to have been,” all he asks is for one reason why it is necessary, let alone better, to have been? I should think he deserves reply, the Book of Job notwithstanding (though we’ll soon enough realize that we have to do, here, neither with the God of the Old Testament or the New).

I like the impertinence with which Hardy has his speaker address God: “And what’s the good of it?” You have to hear the undertone of impatient resentment, of querulousness, animating that rather closed question. He is calling God to account. And he compounds the complaint with words from the scriptures themselves, to which this “God” seems oddly oblivious. The implication: they were no revelation of his, and, of course, St. Paul is supposed to have penned them anyway—so, let him rise and make reply. Had Paul fallen out of line, a loose cannon in this most canonical of books, The New Testament? Had he made promises God had neither conceived nor entertained? He was, after all, an ambitious man.

Whatever the case, stanza three has our speaker addressing God as “Sire,” in O.E.D. senses I.1.b (“Applied to persons of ancient history, or to ecclesiastics”) and II.4.a (“One who exercises dominion or rule; a lord, master, or sovereign”):

“Yea, Sire; why shaped you us, ‘who in
This tabernacle groan’—
If ever a joy be found herein,
Such joy no man had wished to win
If he had never known!”

Pietro De Cortana's painting of Ananias restoring Paul's power of sight. 1631.

Hardy has his speaker borrow, essentially verbatim, from 2 Corinthians 5:4: “For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life.” Let’s set that verse in context: “For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven: If so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked. For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life. Now he that hath wrought us for the selfsame thing is God, who also hath given unto us the earnest of the Spirit. Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord: (For we walk by faith, not by sight:) We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.” A highly promissory text, to be sure, where “earnest” in “the earnest of the spirit” means, of course, a “promise,” or a “pledge” (as in the “earnest money” one puts down when buying a house in America): “A foretaste, instalment, pledge, of anything afterwards to be received in greater abundance” (O.E.D. sense 1a, for the second entry on the word “earnest” used as a noun). The plea, here, calls in that chip.

“That mortality might be swallowed up of life”—what a tall order! Implicit in the speaker’s quotation of the passage is the hope that “groaning” in an earth-bound tabernacle, and a flesh-bound body, simply can’t be, or oughtn’t be, or shouldn’t be—the mad injustice of it!—all there is to life, as, for example, Schopenhauer maintains. What of that house not made by hands? What of that in-born “will” to be “rather…absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord”? Read the poor mortal’s plea in its proper scriptural context and you see at once that the suffering of the body, of the flesh, is chiefly in question. Sure, life affords its occasional joys. But in the balance, much more pain than joy. From a merely utilitarian view, then, why should God have undertaken the whole enterprise of creation anyway? Which takes us again to David Benatar‘s Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence (2008). And to any number of other poems by Hardy—”The Aëorolite,” to take only one example. To all of which the Almighty makes this rather weak reply:

Then he: “My labours—logicless—
You may explain; not I:
Sense-sealed I have wrought, without a guess
That I evolved a Consciousness
To ask for reasons why.

“Strange that ephemeral creatures who
By my own ordering are,
Should see the shortness of my view,
Use ethic tests I never knew,
Or made provision for!”

“Well, you tell me“—that’s what the reply amounts to. His “labours,” though the first stanza makes them out systematic in a way, at least insofar as they are consciously done and accord with the seasons, etc.;—his “labours,” it turns out, have all along been “logicless.” So much for eschatology. He hasn’t thought it all out. He’s done it all “sense-sealed,” which, I suppose, is to say “blindly” (at the very least). And for that matter “without a guess” that his “labours” might bring into being any such thing as “consciousness.” The tell, as poker players say, is in that word “evolved,” which brings Divinity into commerce with Darwin, the Old Dispensation into commerce with the New and “modern” one. Here’s the “forward” movement Hardy speaks of in the preface.

A strange God He is, working with neither the rhyme nor the reason that the poet, and the speaker he creates, set over against him as antagonists, examiners, coming at God with their “ethical tests”—tests that Hardy’s God, here, seems both disinclined and unable to take. Who knows but that Hardy’s speaker ought to use “enhanced” techniques of interrogation, as the term of art now has it? He’s groaning in the tabernacle, after all: an emergent plight.

I’ll grant Hardy’s God this, though: he speaks with perfect candor. No “intel” here to gather and send up the chain of command. He confesses himself more short-sighted even than these “strange ephemeral creatures” we call men, who, again, in this earthly tabernacle do groan. He grants having “ordered” these creatures, which is to say, in this context, having allowed for such conditions that they should arise. God had thought that much out anyway. But that these creatures should have become “conscious,” that they should have interests, that they should suppose themselves somehow peculiarly vested in the whole enterprise of creation, and that they should hold Him to account—well, that all comes as quite a surprise to the Almighty. God, after all, is more, not less, short-sighted than his own creatures. And now here they come at him with their needling questions, at which point God can only throw up His hands and say: “Beats me.” If the reader has yet to fathom it, this is no God such as Christians conceive. He is a mechanic, a day-laborer, a mere factor. He is simply how the cosmos works, and not in any Deistic sense such as certain Enlightenment thinkers supposed. Nor is He what some now call the force behind a “theistic evolution” wherein evolution by means of natural selection is simply the peculiar means by which God has sought to bring about bring the whole Omnibus about. That view has always struck me, anyway, as a way to smuggle God and “design” back in across Darwinian borders; and if it gives those who subscribe to it some measure of peace as in this earthly tabernacle they do groan, well, as a pragmatist, I can only say so much the better, but count me out. William James dispenses with the matter in his usual ecumenical way:

William James

Remember that no matter what nature may have produced or may be producing, the means must necessarily have been adequate, must have been FITTED TO THAT PRODUCTION. The argument from fitness to design would consequently always apply, whatever were the product’s character. The recent Mont-Pelee eruption, for example, required all previous history to produce that exact combination of ruined houses, human and animal corpses, sunken ships, volcanic ashes, etc., in just that one hideous configuration of positions. France had to be a nation and colonize Martinique. Our country had to exist and send our ships there. IF God aimed at just that result, the means by which the centuries bent their influences towards it, showed exquisite intelligence. And so of any state of things whatever, either in nature or in history, which we find actually realized. For the parts of things must always make SOME definite resultant, be it chaotic or harmonious. When we look at what has actually come, the conditions must always appear perfectly designed to ensure it. We can always say, therefore, in any conceivable world, of any conceivable character, that the whole cosmic machinery MAY have been designed to produce it. Pragmatically, then, the abstract word ‘design’ is a blank cartridge. It carries no consequences, it does no execution. What sort of design? and what sort of a designer? are the only serious questions, and the study of facts is the only way of getting even approximate answers. Meanwhile, pending the slow answer from facts, anyone who insists that there is a designer and who is sure he is a divine one, gets a certain pragmatic benefit from the term—the same, in fact which we saw that the terms God, Spirit, or the Absolute, yield us ‘Design,’ worthless tho it be as a mere rationalistic principle set above or behind things for our admiration, becomes, if our faith concretes it into something theistic, a term of PROMISE. Returning with it into experience, we gain a more confiding outlook on the future. If not a blind force but a seeing force runs things, we may reasonably expect better issues. This vague confidence in the future is the sole pragmatic meaning at present discernible in the terms design and designer. But if cosmic confidence is right not wrong, better not worse, that is a most important meaning. That much at least of possible ‘truth’ the terms will then have in them.

To anyone who would carry such terms as “design” and “God” back into the stream of his experience, Hardy’s “New Year’s Eve” offers no quarter, and cold comfort. The God of Hardy’s poem can have had no truck with “design,” and so can offer none of the “promise” of belief in the cosmos as a “designed” thing. As James might say, the poem renders “design” a “blank cartridge”; “it does no execution” in these stanzas. The poem puts paid to it. Because not only is our God, here, “logicless,” short-sighted, “sense-sealed,” and working “without a guess” as to what his “labours” may toss up by way of “ethical tests,” out of “scriptures” they suppose Him to have inspired; he is also “unweeting”:

He sank to raptness as of yore,
And opening New Year’s Day
Wove it by rote as theretofore,
And went on working evermore
In his unweeting way.

So it goes. After punting on those “ethical tests” (“You may explain; not I”); after defaulting on the Pauline promissory note of 2 Corinthians;—after all this, he “sinks” (as in a stupor) to a “raptness” that, whatever else it may be, hardly merits the name of deliberation. He merely sets about, and by “rote” at that, weaving yet another year He knows not why—another year for the “groaning” of such “conscious” creatures as He never expected to turn on Him with their King James English demands that “mortality” be “swallowed up of life.”

Charles Darwin

“Unweeting”: an archaic, and now rusticated, spelling of “unwitting.” God doesn’t know what He’s about. We have less to do with a poem that fancifully represents a balked “Q & A” between man and his Creator than a poem that imagines the pointlessness of such a dialogue, in which turning to God for answer is rather like turning to Evolution By Natural Selection, if we could abstract the latter and personify it for the grilling. “Why do we yet have that damned appendix? And while we’re at our questions, why those wisdom teeth that grow in only to be extracted? Where’s the wisdom in that? For that matter, why do we need dentistry at all? Couldn’t you have done it all neater, and without all those extinctions along the way—all those botches?”

You may as well address a slab of marble.

The worm, “sealed” up within the clod, will be at his work soon enough, not so much swallowing up life, as passing it along, transmuted—and earthly, always earthly. As Hamlet says: “Your worm is your only emperor for diet. We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service—two dishes, but to one table. That’s the end.” We’ve made our turn out of the Christian dispensation and into, as luck would have it, perfectly Darwinian territory. He spent his later years at work on what he regarded as one of his most important books: The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits (1881). Wherein he concludes: “When we behold a wide, turf-covered expanse, we should remember that its smoothness, on which so much of its beauty depends, is mainly due to all the inequalities having been slowly levelled by worms. It is a marvellous reflection that the whole of the superficial mould over any such expanse has passed, and will again pass, every few years through the bodies of worms. The plough is one of the most ancient and most valuable of man’s inventions; but long before he existed the land was in fact regularly ploughed, and still continues to be thus ploughed by earth-worms. It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures” (my emphasis).

So there we have it. A fine Victorian book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, and a fine post-Victorian poem, and both toward the same Hamletish end: “Your worm is your only emperor for diet.” Cast your eyes down if you “in the tabernacle groan” and would ask questions. Unseal the worm from the clod and query Him.

N.B. For other entries in The Era of Casual Fridays that treat poems by Thomas Hardy, click here.

Title page of the first edition.

 

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. Henry permalink
    February 4, 2011 11:19 PM

    ‘The Aerolite’ doesn’t posit consciousness as divine dispensation or special providence, as some ID’ers would like to have us believe. The cause is entirely material – this doesn’t make things any better, and the peculiar sardonic bleakness of that poem stems from the fact that Hardy doesn’t have God to push around in it (which pleasure he allows himself to indulge in ‘New Year’s Eve’). I think I’ve said this to you before, but I’ve always thought that this is the best reason (in the pragmatic sense) to credit His existence: we need somebody to blame for arrangements that are, frankly, unacceptable. If the universe were a steak we’d have sent it back (and you wouldn’t have ordered it in the first place). To return to ‘The Aerolite’: what Hardy is playing with here is the Renaissance debate – which enjoyed a recrudescence in the mid-19th century – about the theological status of lifeforms we are likely to encounter on other planets, distant solar systems. Angels or Devils? In need of salvation? Having access to the redemptive energy of the atonement? Calvaries of their own (Eliot’s ‘Infinitely suffering thing’ is a nod towards this particular notion)? In ‘The Aerolite’ the originary possessors of consciousness are angel-like, and we are not, which is why the fit is so bad. Hardy’s cosmology here is very antique indeed, Aristotelian, and this is the point, and the connection to the “worm within the clod”. Worms, living in darkness, abetters of decomposition, are the archetypal sub-lunarian species: the canker beneath every apparently bright and beautiful surface the world presents to us. Much needs to be said – and you are the man to say it – about Hardy as the poet of mulch – isn’t there a lot of this in Frost too? Mulch, the real subject of Darwin’s last book, is theologically charged; it is where, if anywhere, we might find answers to the questions Hardy is asking. Maybe – and this is one reading of the famous ‘tangled bank’ passage at the end of Origin – it’s where we’ll find God – the refuge he has sought having allowed us, unaccountably, to topple him from his heavenly eminence.

    Henry

    • February 5, 2011 3:47 AM

      Thanks, Henry. The Aerolite I mean to get to in these pages. Heaven knows I tire my students with it often enough.

      This Atmore-ism is well worth preserving: “I think I’ve said this to you before, but I’ve always thought that this is the best reason (in the pragmatic sense) to credit [God’s] existence: we need somebody to blame for arrangements that are, frankly, unacceptable. If the universe were a steak we’d have sent it back (and you wouldn’t have ordered it in the first place).” Agreed. No compliments to the Chef.

      As for TH as the poet of mulch, we have, of course, this one:

      1967

      In five-score summers! All new eyes,
      New minds, new modes, new fools, new wise;
      New woes to weep, new joys to prize;
      With nothing left of me and you
      In that live century’s vivid view
      Beyond a pinch of dust or two;
      A century which, if not sublime,
      Will show, I doubt not, at its prime,
      A scope above this blinkered time.
      —Yet what to me how far above?
      For I would only ask thereof
      That thy worm should be my worm, Love!

      16 Westbourne Park Villas, 1867.

      RF got down into the mulch, too:

      IN HARDWOOD GROVES

      The same leaves over and over again!
      They fall from giving shade above
      To make one texture of faded brown
      And fit the earth like a leather glove.

      Before the leaves can mount again
      To fill the trees with another shade,
      They must go down past things coming up.
      They must go down into the dark decayed.

      They must be pierced by flowers and put
      Beneath the feet of dancing flowers.
      However it is in some other world
      I know that this is way in ours.

      That one he added to the contents of “A Boy’s Will” when he published his first “Collected Poems.” Wasn’t in the 1913 edition.

  2. Henry permalink
    February 5, 2011 5:36 AM

    As to the Atmore-ism, it’s inspired – as most things I think are – by a passage of conversation between calvin & hobbes. Calvin is complaining, along much my lines, about the shoddiness of the universe’s construction. To which Hobbes replies: “But the place is free”. Calvin: “That’s another thing. They should introduce a cover charge to keep out the rifraff.” This actually _is_ what Origin is about: the disclosure that there’s been a cover charge all along, and that we’re all descended, at some stage, from a monkey who wore black-tie.

    • February 6, 2011 1:21 AM

      Heaven knows I can add nothing to that last sentence. Perfectly stated.

  3. Henry permalink
    February 5, 2011 5:44 AM

    Re: 1967. I can’t help feeling that the new fools are the Small Faces, and the new wise is Philip Larkin.

  4. Tito permalink
    March 3, 2011 3:43 AM

    This is probably a bit of a red (grey?) herring, but Hardy’s colors for the seasons are – if you have got it right, that is – grey for winter, green for spring (this fixes it), white for summer, and brown for autumn. For comparison, the corresponding Chinese seasonal colors are (starting with winter again) black, green/blue, red and white. So why does white represent summer for Hardy and autumn for the ancient Chinese? I can only guess that roses or summer clouds are white in Britain, and tigers are white in China.

    • March 3, 2011 3:47 AM

      Thanks for the tigers, Tito, and for stopping by for another turn on my man Hardy.

      Yours,
      Mark

  5. Jack Roberts permalink
    March 23, 2011 7:18 PM

    Dear Mark,

    You and your fellows in Japan have been on my mind. Hope you are weathering all this horribleness. I held forth on Hardy’s New Year’s Eve and a few other of his God lyrics in a
    paper of mine a few years back. Here’s the reference: MORTAL PROJECTIONS: THOMAS HARDY’S DISSOLVING VIEWS OF GOD. Jon Roberts Victorian Literature and Culture 31:0101, 43-66. It’s available through JSTOR. Had I a copy on my office computer I could send you one directly. Let me know if you cannot access it and I’ll send you one. It was written partly in response to A N Wilson God’s Funeral and partly as a gloss on Kenneth Burke’s Rhetoric of Religion. Anyway, take care of yourself. Your old Raritan pal, Jack

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