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“Must come and bide. . .”

May 13, 2012

Stanza one of the last lyric in Poems of the Past and Present (second edition, London, 1903). The Greek title means: “to the unknown god.”

“Not to be born is, beyond all estimation, best; but when a man has seen the light of day, this is next best by far, that with utmost speed he should go back from where he came. For when he has seen youth go by, with its easy merry-making, what hard affliction is foreign to him, what suffering does he not know? Envy, factions, strife, battles, and murders. Last of all falls to his lot old age, blamed, weak, unsociable, friendless, wherein dwells every misery among miseries.”

— “Oedipus at Colonus,” Sophocles (trans. Sir Richard Jebb)

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Thomas Hardy published “To An Unborn Pauper Child” first in The Academy on 23 November 1901, alongside “Mute Opinion,” “The Bedridden Peasant to an Unknowing God,” and “The Subalterns.” The group appeared under the general heading “Mr. Hardy’s New Poems.” The holograph manuscript Hardy later delivered to his publisher bears in it the alternative (and cancelled) title “To an Unborn Child,” with an epigraph (also cancelled): “She must go to the Union-house to have her baby. —Casterbridge [i.e., Dorchester] Petty Sessions.”

Detail, preface to Poems of the Past and Present (Harper and Brothers, 1902).

Hardy collected the poem in Poems of the Past and Present (1902), the preface to which reads, in part: “[The book] will probably be found . . . to possess little cohesion of thought or harmony of colouring. I do not greatly regret this. Unadjusted impressions have their value, and the road to a true philosophy of life seems to lie in humbly recording diverse readings of its phenomena as they are forced upon us by chance and change.” Hardy’s modesty (more apparent than real, I suspect) oughtn’t mislead anyone. He’s out for “a true philosophy of life” (and supposes that poetry might offer one). A careful and charitable reading of his poems (and certainly of The Dynasts) shows that, yes, indeed, he has a philosophy of life (or something like one). A quasi-philosophical vocabulary already underlies the preface, the implications of which are awakened by the Schopenhaurian poem that concludes the volume (about the unknowing “Willer” that makes “life become”). The “phenomena” of life, aptly “recorded” in all their casualties and changes, lead us (or may lead us) to certain assumptions about the “noumena” underlying and “willing” them. “Adjusting” our “impressions,” or “records,” can only falsify those assumptions (Hardy considers himself an empiricist, taking the world as it comes).

About Hardy’s “philosophy” we can say at least this: a strain of anti-natalism certainly runs through it (and may even be its tonic note). Often we find him with the chorus in Oedipus at Colonus: “Not to be born is, beyond all estimation, best.” Hardy goes so far as to make God Himself an anti-natalist, as here, in “By the Earth’s Corpse” (which precedes “To an Unborn Pauper Child” by two pages): “That I made Earth, and life, and man, / It still repenteth me!”

But to the poem:


Breathe not, hid Heart: cease silently,
–  And though thy birth-hour beckons thee,
      – Sleep the long sleep:
       – The Doomsters heap
Travails and teens around us here,
And Time-wraiths turn our songsingings to fear.

Hark, how the peoples surge and sigh,
And laughters fail, and greetings die:
—–Hopes dwindle; yea,
—–Faiths waste away,
– Affections and enthusiasms numb;
Thou canst not mend these things if thou dost come.

Had I the ear of wombèd souls
Ere their terrestrial chart unrolls,
—–And thou wert free
—–To cease, or be,
Then would I tell thee all I know,
And put it to thee: Wilt thou take Life so?

Vain vow! No hint of mine may hence
To theeward fly: to thy locked sense
—–Explain none can
—–Life’s pending plan:
Thou wilt thy ignorant entry make
Though skies spout fire and blood and nations quake.

Fain would I, dear, find some shut plot
Of earth’s wide wold for thee, where not
—–One tear, one qualm,
—–Should break the calm.
But I am weak as thou and bare;
No man can change the common lot to rare.

Must come and bide. And such are we—
Unreasoning, sanguine, visionary—
—–That I can hope
—–Health, love, friends, scope
In full for thee; can dream thou’lt find
Joys seldom yet attained by humankind!

Hardy read of a pauper woman in the records of the court of petty sessions (in Dorchester); this occasioned the poem. But it soon becomes clear that the poverty into which the woman’s child will be born is not the poem’s chief concern. Hardy would address (if he could) the unborn child of an heiress in the same way. Knock pauperism out of the title and you find no trace of it in the poem. Anyway, the text printed in The Academy has “Had I the circuit of all souls” for “Had I the ear of wombèd souls” (a reading that persisted, though struck out, in the holograph Hardy provided to his publisher when he readied the book for print). Without question, the poem generalizes the argument that it’s better never to have been. One could prefer, I suppose, that the poem never speak of a pauper at all. I can imagine a bad sort of reader—a reader quite innocent of Hardy—supposing that the poem has about it a condescending, eugenic inflection not unknown in early twentieth century writing about pregnant paupers. I mention the possibility only to dismiss it outright.

Hardy begins: “Breathe not, hid Heart: cease silently, /And though thy birth-hour beckons thee, Sleep the long sleep.” Of course the child isn’t “hidden”; it is in potentia, like the “hid scent in an unbudded rose” of which John Keats writes in Lamia. Things hidden imply their own discovery, their unfolding, their finding out, their advent; the birth-hour beckons. Hardy address the unborn child by way of the epithet “Heart,” taking the part for the whole. This imparts to the poem a solicitude carried through to the end. The solicitude, in fact, places the poem in an affective register altogether in sympathy with the suffering of which it will speak. It is a very felt thing. Indeed, it is (in its weird way) a lullaby: “sleep the long sleep.”

Hardy needn’t tell us that when the babe does “breathe” it will do so first by crying, as if it knew what lay in wait: the “travails” (oppressive labor) and the “teens” (“woes,” “pains,” or, in an archaic sense perhaps more appropriate to the poem, harms inflicted). Note that suffering, here, is neither merited, as through original sin (we are certainly not in a Christian context); nor is it incidental. No, the Doomsters heap our lives with travails and teens. The verb is perfect in its excess. In an earlier, better known poem, “Hap,” Hardy speaks of “Crass Casualty” and “Dicing Time” as “purblind Doomsters” that would “as readily” strew “blisses” about his “pilgrimage as pain.” Purblind or not, the Doomsters in “To an Unborn Child” are of one mind: pain it will be.

The most striking line in stanza one is the last: “And Time-wraiths turn our songsingings to fear.” So far as I know, “Time-wraith” is a compound peculiar to Hardy (or anyway original to him: Google tells me that the phrase now turns up in role-play gaming). A “wraith” is, of course, a spectre, usually of the dead; or, in some cases, a spectral presence portending the death of the person it resembles. Time makes wraiths of us all; that goes without saying. Portents (apparitions) of what Time does “turn our singsongings”—a word, spelled as such, unique to Hardy—to “fear”: a) they “turn” our songs to fear in theme (we are reading a lyric, a “song,” on exactly such a theme; fear is among this poem’s burdens); and b) they “turn” our joy (as embodied in song) into fear. I’m reminded of Arthur Schopenhauer‘s remark in “On the Suffering of the World”: “Each individual misfortune, to be sure, seems an exceptional occurrence; but misfortune in general is the rule.” What have we here if not the First Noble Truth of the Buddha, the oldest anti-natalist argument of them all, wherein the object is to escape the round of existence? “Suffering, as a noble truth, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the loathed is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering — in short, suffering is the five categories of clinging objects. The origin of suffering, as a noble truth, is this: It is the craving that produces renewal of being accompanied by enjoyment and lust, and enjoying this and that; in other words, craving for sensual desires, craving for being” (translated from the Pali by Ñanamoli Thera).

And so we make babies that make babies that make babies and the suffering merrily goes on.

Stanzas two to six of “De Profundis I” (better known by the title Hardy later gave it: “In Tenebris I”).

One natalist argument, one argument in favor of bringing more people into being, is that one of them may put the world right, or anyway make it better. Isn’t history peopled with men and women who “mended” certain of the abominations we visit on ourselves, and certain other evils that plague us? Haven’t we had our greatest generations? Well, we have. But the anti-natalist argument still holds. Why? This child—and not simply because he or she will be born to a pauper—cannot “mend” the failing “laughters,” the dying “greetings,” the dwindling “hopes,” the “faiths” all wasting away, the “affections and enthusiasms” going “numb.” Come the revolution and these will abide. Hardy heaps them up to remind us.

The plurals ought to be here: laughters, faiths, and so on. Having addressed the “hid Heart” the poet now asks it to listen as “the peoples surge and sigh.” “People” is already plural; pluralize it and you mean “nations,” the whole of the world. Yes, entire peoples “surge and sigh”; they flow and ebb; the Doomsters toss them about; their singsongings fall to fear. What a succession it is! You’re born; you surge; you sigh; you fail; the promises of all your friendships—your “greetings”—die; your hopes dwindle; your faith, the one thing you might suppose it in your power to keep from the Doomsters, wastes away; all goes numb. We are in tenebris (to borrow the title of a suite of three lyrics also printed in Poems of the Past and Present, though they bore that title only in later editions: Hardy first called them “De Profundis”). We are deep in shadow.

Now we reach the heart of the poem:

Had I the ear of wombèd souls
Ere their terrestrial chart unrolls,
—–And thou wert free
—–To cease, or be,
Then would I tell thee all I know,
And put it to thee: Wilt thou take Life so?

To be, or not to be: that is the question. But not in the sense that Hamlet asks it. Anti-natalist arguments have nothing necessarily to tell us about ending a life already well underway. They tell us that it is better never to have been embodied. Which is what Hardy would tell all “wombèd souls” (or, as in the cancelled holograph reading, “the circuit of all souls”). The question closing the stanza answers itself in the negative. The Doomsters, the Immanent Will, call it what you like, see to it that our “terrestrial charts” (the things that map out our life on earth) are “heaped” with miseries. So, wombèd souls: to “cease” coming into being is better than to be. Say no to Life.

Vain vow! No hint of mine may hence
To theeward fly: to thy locked sense
—–Explain none can
—–Life’s pending plan:
Thou wilt thy ignorant entry make
Though skies spout fire and blood and nations quake.

“Vain vow“: Hardy feels obliged, duty bound in good conscience, to advance this anti-natalist argument. And not to the wombèd soul that can’t hear him anyway, but to the reader who certainly can. So the vow is “vain” in two senses: a) vain because “no hint” of Hardy’s can reach the unborn child; its “sense” is “locked.” And b) vain because no anti-natalist hint of Hardy’s is likely to reach his readers, either. The pro-natalist bias is strong. Most people recoil at such arguments. Likely more than one reader of “To an Unborn Pauper Child” has taken refuge in the misleading idea that “pauperism,” and not vitality as such, is the problem the poem chiefly addresses. I think Hardy was aware of this. Several of the revisions he made to the poem, before publishing it, temper it. The holograph has “dismal plan” for “pending plan,” and, in the last stanza, “fatuous” for “sanguine” and “joys never here attained” for “joys seldom yet attained.” The prefaces he wrote to several books of his poetry indicate that Hardy found many of his readers and reviewers obtuse. Some didn’t take his “pessimism” in the right way. Some assumed such things as anti-natalist sentiments, even when merely entertained, necessarily make a man unremittingly dour or misanthropic. They needn’t, of course. Anti-natalist sentiments, properly understood, derive from compassion. The revisions made for the published text of “To an Unborn Pauper Child” suggest (perhaps) that Hardy anticipated some measure of resistance.

Anyway, every man jack of us enters the world in perfect “ignorance,” though “skies spout fire and blood and nations quake.” I find it characteristic of Hardy that he should take the “terrestrial chart” to its eschatological conclusion. The allusion, I assume, is to Revelation 8:7 and 16:17-19: The first angel sounded, and there followed hail and fire mingled with blood, and they were cast upon the earth: and the third part of trees was burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up. . . And the seventh angel poured out his vial into the air; and there came a great voice out of the temple of heaven, from the throne, saying, It is done. And there were voices, and thunders, and lightnings; and there was a great earthquake, such as was not since men were upon the earth, so mighty an earthquake, and so great. And the great city was divided into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell: and great Babylon came in remembrance before God, to give unto her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of his wrath.” It’s bad enough to be born, the poem suggests. But to be born into Armageddon after the breaking of the seventh seal?

The poem concludes:

Fain would I, dear, find some shut plot
Of earth’s wide wold for thee, where not
—–One tear, one qualm,
—–Should break the calm.
But I am weak as thou and bare;
No man can change the common lot to rare.

Must come and bide. And such are we—
Unreasoning, sanguine, visionary—
—–That I can hope
—–Health, love, friends, scope
In full for thee; can dream thou’lt find
Joys seldom yet attained by humankind!

The “birth-hour beckons”; the child will come though “nations quake.” So, Hardy, addressing it in terms of endearment recalling the “hid Heart” of the opening line, makes not a “vow” but expresses a wish: “fain” would he find for the child—seeing as how its wombèd soul has no choice but to take body and trace out its dismal terrestrial chart;—fain would he find for the child some place of refuge. Unwombed though the child must be, he would place it in a place very like a womb (if not a tomb): “some shut plot / Of earth’s wide wold [land] for thee, where not / One tear, one qualm, / Should break the calm.” No better able to fulfill his wish than to keep his vow, Hardy concedes what anyone ought to: “I am weak as thou and bare; / No man can change the common lot to rare.” We are all in our infancy: weak and “bare” (the feeling of exposure is important). That’s the “common lot.” That’s our portion.

Not the pauper child only, but everyone “must come and bide.” Wonderful that Hardy should give us two verbs and no subject; the line, the imperative, subjects us all. We come. And we “bide,” the verb Hardy prefers to “live,” owing to the connotations it bears of mere waiting, mere endurance, mere and so on. Then follows that fine triad as to what “we” are: unreasoning, sanguine, visionary. The foregoing five stanzas have “reasoned” out an anti-natalist argument. But as I say, Hardy likely expects few readers to accept those reasons; our incapacity oddly mirrors that of an ignorant, and as yet unborn, child: no one hears, no one heeds (the Immanent Will has seen to that). Our irrationality we accept readily enough, homo sapiens sapiens though we call ourselves. Reason is always in bad taste; whim, on the other hand, charms. We are also “sanguine.” The primary meaning is the one the word bore in the quaint, Medieval psychology of the humours: hale, optimistic (against all reason). The line controls for, keeps out of view, the other meaning of sanguine: “causing or delighting in bloodshed; bloody, sanguinary. Now poet. or rhetorical” (OED 2b). I say the poem controls for that meaning. I mean that it makes the reader feel that the less pleasant connotations of the word are being “controlled”: back of the whole poem lies not merely the recognition that such is humankind (causing or delighting in bloodshed), but an implicit assertion that it must be. That’s why it’s better never to have been, better—yes, let’s follow Hardy where he takes us—that none of us had ever been. (Maybe the idea is simply that it would be best had we never become conscious, which is to say “human”; Hardy says as much in “The Aerolite.”) That Hardy bethought himself to occlude the darker implications of “sanguine” is perhaps indicated by his suppression of the word that “sanguine” replaced: “fatuous.” Following hard upon “unreasoning” that word might call up its earlier connotations: demented, imbecilic, etc. So let’s go with “sanguine”: hearty, full of vitality (and full also—but banish the thought, for now—of bloodlust). “Visionary” completes the succession from irrational to hale to, well, deluded. I think Hardy has chiefly in mind OED sense 1b for “visionary”: “Given to fanciful and unpractical views; having little regard to what is actual or possible; speculative, dreamy.”

In short: “such are we”—irrational, given to fancy, and sanguine to the point of Pollyanna-hood (when not to the point of slaughter). That alone allows the poet, and the poem, to entertain, in its closing lines, precisely what it has taught us cannot be possible: “Health, love, friends, scope / In full “; that alone allows the poet to “dream” the child will “find / Joys seldom yet attained by humankind!” Or, as the text reads in holograph, before Hardy gave it birth: “Joys never here attained by humankind.” Fatuous hope to be sure. And meant to be. But what of it? The poem is here to say: We are the sort of creatures that always say yea to what perhaps ought to be negated: vitality, or, as Hardy prefers to call it (after Schopenhauer), “Will.” Why? Because we are its hirelings, its puppets. True, the poet “can” hope. (The great joke is that “Will” disposes us to hope.) But so can the poet have God say, in these same pages, that He repents ever having made “Earth, and life, and man.” The poet can also say, in “De Profundis I” (later re-titled “In Tenebris I”), that being “past doubtings all” he “waits in unhope.” The anti-natalist argument, the rational argument as this poem understands it, carries the day; the arguments in favor of vitality, the arguments that “Will” leads us to make ad tedium, fail.

Cover to the Oxford University Press edition.

I have spoken of “anti-natalism.” The term belongs to philosophy. The best exponent of it now is David Benatar, in Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence (Oxford, 2006). Schopenhauer turns up in Better Never to Have Been, but not Hardy. “The central idea of this book,” Benatar explains, “is that coming into existence is always a serious harm. That idea will be defended at length, but the basic insight is quite simple: Although the good things in one’s life make it go better than it otherwise would have gone, one could not have been deprived by their absence if one had not existed. Those who never exist cannot be deprived.” So far as I can tell, this is what Hardy says in speaking to, and of, that unborn pauper child. Cease now and suffer nothing. Benatar continues: “However, by coming into existence one does suffer quite serious harms that could not have befallen one had one not come into existence. To say that the basic insight is quite simple is not to say that either it or what we can deduce from it will be undisputed.” Is this why Hardy tempered the published text of the poem, as I’ve pointed out? Maybe, though I wouldn’t insist on it. “I shall consider all the anticipated objections in due course,” says Benatar, “and shall argue that they fail. The implication of all this is that coming into existence, far from ever constituting a net benefit, always constitutes a net harm. Most people, under the influence of powerful biological dispositions towards optimism, find this conclusion intolerable.” Where Benatar speaks of “powerful biological dispositions” Hardy speaks of “Will” or “Immanent Will” (the force that “stirs and urges everything“). The point is the same: “Anti-natalist views,” as Benatar puts it, “whatever their source, run up against an extremely powerful pro-natalist bias. This bias has its roots in the evolutionary origins of human (and more primitive animal) psychology and biology.” Why? Because “those with pro-natal views are more likely to pass on their genes.” Of course.

Suppose Benatar is correct in his anti-natalism and in his suggestion as to why most people find anti-natalism abhorrent. Suppose also that Hardy felt both the force of anti-natalist arguments and the intuitions that oppose them. The result would be precisely such a poem as he gives us in “To an Unborn Pauper Child”: unimpeachable as to the anti-natalist position, but keenly aware, at all times, of the complex relation that such “unreasoning, sanguine, visionary” creatures as us—or such “unreasoning, fatuous, visionary” creatures as us—will have to that position. In us the Immanent Will, the unknowing force that causes all things to become, has—quite blindly if inevitably—stumbled upon minds. We see vitality (or can see vitality) for what it is and has made of us. We understand (or can understand) that existence precedes essence, as the Existentialists liked to say: it is up to homo sapiens sapiens, the means through which the world becomes aware of itself, to say what sort of creatures we are, or ought to be, or even whether or not we should “cease” to be. So flummoxed by these responsibilities are we that we do such things as write, read, and then write about “To an Unborn Pauper Child.” Even in web-logs.

Hardy closes Poems of the Past and Present with this:


Long have I framed weak phantasies of Thee,
——O Willer masked and dumb!
——Who makest Life become,—
By labouring all-unknowingly, maybe,
——Like one whom reveries numb.

How much of consciousness informs Thy will,
——Thy biddings, as if blind,
——Of death-inducing kind,
Nought shows to us ephemeral ones who fill
——But moments in Thy mind.

Haply Thy ancient rote-restricted ways
——Thy ripening rule transcends;
——That listless effort tends
To grow percipient with advance of days,
——And with percipience mends.

For, in unwonted purlieus, far and nigh,
——At whiles or short or long,
——May be discerned a wrong
Dying as of self-slaughter; whereat I
——Would raise my voice in song.

The Greek title means “to the unknown god.”¹  The poem addresses that entity as the “Willer masked and dumb” who “makest Life become.” Call it, with Dylan Thomas, “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower“; call it, with Walt Whitman, the “procreant urge of the world“; call it, as Richard Dawkins does, the “selfish gene,” or simply DNA. “Will” neither shows itself nor has anything to say (it is “masked” and “dumb”). We are left, with Hardy, to “frame” “weak phantasies” of it (as in “To an Unborn Pauper Child” or The Dynasts, for example). “Will” labors “all unknowingly.” It knows its purposes no better than we do.

The fifth line is a little obscure, but I think it means: Should Will attempt to “know” itself, should it “frame phantasies” of itself, as in “reveries,” these would only “numb” it. Will is easily bored. Unlike the God of the Old Testament, Will is neither vain nor jealous; it has no overweening interest in itself; it couldn’t care less. Unlike the God of the New Testament, Will doesn’t love us; it doesn’t become flesh and dwell among us, bearing the Word and walking on water; nor does it crucify itself to redeem us. We are “ephemeral” manifestations of Will—highly temporary embodiments or individuations of a Will, or vitality, that takes, oh, countless forms, only to cast them all aside while retaining its essential unity. We are phenomenal; Will is noumenal. Our lives are as “moments” in the long calendar that reckons the work of Will. “Nought shows us,” nothing indicates to us, whether “consciousness” “informs” Will. Nor does anything tell us what that consciousness might be like (or of) if it did exist. Will’s “biddings”—e.g., “must come and bide”—are “as if blind.” This phrasing is curious. I can sort it out only by taking the sentence whole and in paraphrase: “Thy will, thy biddings (imperatives, commands), undertaken without insight or foresight (as if doubly blind), and operating in such a way as to deaden as often as to enliven, reveal to us (epiphenomenal as we are) nothing whatsoever as to the nature of your consciousness (which, at any rate, we have no reason to suspect exists).” But although Will works, and always has, in “rote-restricted ways”—mechanically and without understanding—we may speak of it as having a “mind,” if only for the sake of argument. “Haply” (i.e., perhaps) the ancient ways of Will are now “ripening,” coming to fruition. Will may be “transcending” its “listless,” or languidly indifferent, “efforts.” Haply, just maybe, these “efforts” have attained, or will soon attain, “percipience”: consciousness, awareness, perception. And with percipience comes the “mending” Hardy tells the unborn pauper child it could never achieve. What evidence does Hardy adduce for this possibility? Well, “in unwonted purlieus” (far-flung precincts of the world), and every once in a while, he discerns that a wrong has been put right, or anyway put to death. Note that the wrong dies “as of self-slaughter”; it commits suicide. God may have, as Hamlet reminds us, “fixed his canon ‘gainst self-slaughter,” but not the Immanent Will (which has no “canon”).

What can all this mean? How can Will attain percipience of a kind that will “mend” a world in which, for the most part, it’s better never to have been? How can a “rote-restricted” algorithm for “making life become” “mend anything? Add a bit of Darwin to your Schopenhauer, and you may tender an answer: evolution by natural selection has stumbled, in us, upon consciousness. True, there are feline, canine, lupine, avian, and insect ways of being “aware” of the world. But we do not think of those ways as constituting “percipience” or “consciousness.” The beasts of the field and the birds of the air know what they know. But they do not write The World as Will and Idea, nor Poems of the Past and Present. They do not “widen the circle of empathy,” as Hardy does in “The Wind Blew Words Along the Skies” or “The Blinded Bird.” They do not ponder the “non-identity problem” or puzzle out “the paradox of  future individuals.” As it would appear, Will has attained consciousness (in a strong sense) only in and through us. Through us the world (of which we are inextricably a part) becomes “aware” of itself in ways that allow the world, in our enterprises, to take itself in hand (so to speak). We have certainly used consciousness for wrong—say, in getting up the international slave trade, free markets, Air Supply, and thermonuclear weapons. But nothing about consciousness requires that it be used for wrong. Humanity has generally been a disaster. But it can be a self-canceling disaster. In unwonted purlieus, at whiles short and long, wrongs come to be seen as wrongs, and we are the organs of sight (the Will is blind and “un-knowing”). Though we perpetrated these wrongs (or were the instrument whereby Will unwittingly gave rise to them), we can put that part of ourselves implicated in any particular wrong to death. American bond slavery (let’s say) died “as of self-slaughter” in the 1860s. Whereat Thomas Hardy would “raise his voice in song.”

There are problems with this, of course. We raised hereditary bond slavery from the dead and gave it renewed life in other guise. Apparently, wrong hadn’t slaughtered enough of itself and wanted a second round. Another problem with “ΑΓΝΩΣΤΕι ΘΕΩι.” is that the poem seems to imply, all its blandishments to the contrary notwithstanding, that Will is headed somewhere: it is “ripening.” This cannot be the case. Hardy acknowledges as much, hoping against hope, as the saying goes: “haply,” perhaps, just maybe, the Will that “makest Life become” betters itself, not merely though us, but of its own inclination. This would be a case of a motiveless force acquiring purpose, as against a motiveless force throwing up, quite incidentally, agents who can form and carry out purposes (i.e., men and women). It would be a case of Will realizing itself in us, as against casting us off like sparks.

Cover, Oxford University Press 30th Anniversary Edition.

“ΑΓΝΩΣΤΩι ΘΕΩι.” takes the form of a prayer, though of an unusual kind. Richard Dawkins offers something like it late in The Selfish Gene:

It is possible that yet another unique quality of man is a capacity 
for genuine, disinterested, true altruism. I hope so, but I am not going to argue the case one way or the other, nor to speculate over its possible memic evolution [i.e., its evolution as an idea, a going concern]. The point I am making now is that, even if we look on the dark side and assume that individual man is fundamentally selfish, our conscious foresight—our capacity to 
simulate the future in imagination—could save us from the worst selfish excesses of the blind replicators [DNA, the selfish gene, etc.]. We have at least the mental equipment to foster our long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term selfish interests. We can see the long-term benefits of participating in a ‘conspiracy of doves,’ and we can sit down together to discuss ways of making the conspiracy work. We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination [as in principles of bigotry]. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism—something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.

Dawkins is no anti-natalist. His temperament is sunnier and more sanguine than Hardy’s. And insofar as Poems of the Past and the Present offers, as its preface promises, “unadjusted impressions” of the world, the record is such that the note on which it closes, in “ΑΓΝΩΣΤΕι ΘΕΩι.,” is not characteristic. The volume opens with eleven poems devoted to the Boer War. Later come such bleak poems as “At a Lunar Eclipse” (with its “continents of moil and misery”), “The Subalterns,” “By the Earth’s Corpse,” “At a Hasty Wedding,” “His Immortality,” “Wives in the Sere,” “Winter in Durnover Field,” “The Darkling Thrush,” “Mad Judy” (a strange anti-natalist counterpart to “An Unborn Pauper Child”), “The Levelled Churchyard” (“We late-lamented, resting here, / Are mixed to human jam”), “Tess’s Lament,” and, darkest of all, that trio of poems called “De Profundis” (later retitled, as I’ve pointed out, “In Tenebris“):

Black is night’s cope;
But death will not appal
One who, past doubtings all,
Waits in unhope.

The book, as Hardy tells us in the preface, “will probably be found” to “possess little cohesion of thought or harmony of colouring.” Really? I find it quite coherent. “I do not greatly regret this,” he adds. “Unadjusted impressions have their value, and the road to a true philosophy of life seems to lie in humbly recording diverse readings of its phenomena as they are forced upon us by chance and change.” A “philosophy of life” does underlie the book; we might as well call it “compassionately anti-natalist” as anything else, and aspiring toward neither hope nor despair but “unhope” (a stoic negation of aspirations of any kind whatsoever). The book says what Hardy says to the unborn pauper child: Cease.

What, then, to make of “ΑΓΝΩΣΤΩι ΘΕΩι,” once the reader reaches its queer terminus and closes the book? It strikes me as a touching, but tellingly effortful, endeavor to “adjust” the “impression” the book as whole makes. A fine, forgivable bit of whistling, “haply,” as may be, in a “levelled churchyard,” amidst the general “human jam.”

I close with a blurb that appeared on the second edition of Poems of the Past and Present (as issued in the United States by Harper and Brothers): “Sad and strange.” —Pall Mall Gazette.

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¹ P.S. (25 June 2012): It pays to have friends in high places. I thank Wendell Piez  for correcting the transcription of the Greek I originally provided herein (ΑΓΝΩΣΤΕι ΘΕΩι., which is wrong by a letter or two), and for rectifying my English translation of it. I had “to an unknowing god” for what ought to be “to the unknown god.” Wendell further adds a note of considerable interest:

The point is important, as it resonates with the poem. What is unknown about the god is, precisely, whether he is as unknown to himself as he is to the poet. The poet, however, cannot take this as a given: ‘labouring all-unknowingly, maybe’; or, maybe not. It is with the possibility that this maybe-consciousness may grow beyond itself—indeed, that the ‘moment in Thy mind’ that any mortal being is, nevertheless becomes a moment of ‘percipience’—that the poet closes the book. In other words, I think Hardy is going well beyond Dawkins. It is not just that, in us, creation might discover some measure of altruism. It may be in us—even unknowing of it as it is—that creation discovers consciousness itself.

My gratitude, as always, to Wendell, who also directs me (and through me any readers of these remarks) to Acts 17:15-28 (and also to an entry in Wikipedia discussing the text):

And they that conducted Paul brought him unto Athens: and receiving a commandment unto Silas and Timotheus for to come to him with all speed, they departed. Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry. Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him. Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection. And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is? For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean. (For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.) Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you. God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.

I should add, finally, that Wendell Piez has done considerable work in what we now call the “digital humanities”; indeed, he is general editor of DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly. See his electronic edition of Gustav Fechner’s Büchlein vom Leben nach dem Tode  (Life After Death: A Manual).

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N.B.: You’ll find a discussion of “To an Unborn Pauper Child” at the Thomas Hardy Association‘s “Poem of the Month” site here. David Benatar is head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Capetown; you’ll find links to several reviews of Better Never to Have Been (together, in a few cases, with Benatar’s replies to them), here. For other discussions of Hardy’s poetry at The Era of Casual Fridays, click here. Perhaps Hardy’s most thoroughgoing anti-natalist poem is this one, from Time’s Laughingstocks (1909), the language of which is plainly Schopenhaurian:


I rose at night, and visited
The Cave of the Unborn:
And crowding shapes surrounded me
For tidings of the life to be,
Who long had prayed the silent Head
To haste its advent morn.

Their eyes were lit with artless trust,
Hope thrilled their every tone:
“A scene the loveliest, is it not?
A pure delight, a beauty-spot
Where all is gentle, true and just,
And darkness is unknown?”

My heart was anguished for their sake,
I could not frame a word;
And they descried my sunken face,
And seemed to read therein, and trace
The news that pity would not break,
Nor truth leave unaverred.

And as I silently retired
I turned and watched them still,
And they came helter-skelter out,
Driven forward like a rabble rout
Into the world they had so desired,
By the all-immanent Will.

Circulation records. From an edition of Poems of the Past and Present held in the University of California libraries and digitally scanned for the Internet Archive. This particular copy enjoyed some currency, it would appear, at the height of the Vietnam War. As why should it not have?


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