Saturday, October 24, 2009

Thomas Hardy--"Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave" (1914)

I was having one of my especially pessimistic weeks anyway, so it is opportune that Hardy should be the next author on my list.

While one reads, or has the option of reading anyway, a great deal about the ever-ongoing decline of a traditional, largely literary-informed understanding of education and the world itself, at least most of these critics have some small consolation in considering or knowing themselves to have absorbed a substantial part of this traditional and solid body of human learning and wisdom. The failings of the age in partaking of and contributing to the further vitality of these areas one can believe with some confidence lie largely with others. Being a serious person almost wholly surrounded by unserious people throughout most of life is doubtless a lonely and frustrating consolation, but still, it is a consolation.

It is not a consolation I am able, except on increasingly rare occasions, to feel myself. The great challenge of all education that would call itself good really is to synthesize one's varied learning in such a way as to become a person of worth to any reasonable community somewhat commensurate with one's potential. I have no sense of having attained this. The obvious solution is to work harder, albeit I suppose in some other direction which I am either resisting or cannot at this time perceive, for I seem to have reached the upper limits of my potential in the direction I have gone in hitherto, and where that has left me is not really acceptable I would not think. I would think that in this mindset the wisdom of meditative poetry, a rhythm and process of thought so noticeably lacking from contemporary life, would be a great help to settling my mind. However I cannot seem to focus on it with the necessary clearness and easiness of intellection. I am too distracted. Hardy of course famously wrote pessimistic novels until, at age 56, he stopped doing that and began writing pessimistic poems. These poems he wrote in his old age are much praised, to the point where I think the most up-to-date experts consider him to be more historically significant as a poet than a novelist. I hadn't read any of his poems before this, though I had read 3 of the novels. Jude the Obscure, his last novel, I thought was the best, though that may be because the unhappy protagonist has superficially a lot in common with me. It is certainly one of the most relentlessly grim books ever written. Tess of the D'Urbervilles I remember thinking was good too, though I was quite young when I read that. The Mayor of Casterbridge I did not like as much as the other two, though its depiction of the narrowness and general lack of appeal of rural life in Victorian England was even more convincing than in the other two books, which at least had some characters I found sympathetic. Hardy is thirty years younger than Dickens, but there is very little sense of anything modern, let alone of the energy and bustle, or outrageousness, that one finds in Dickens's books. Hardy's is a world where people walk ten miles (and back) to post a letter at the end of a long day of work as if it were nothing, go to market in the county town every Wednesday for forty years during which nothing substantially changes, taverns are either dreary or dangerous places where no one ever has any fun, and sex is primarily a lure to personal ruin (did I say I liked this guy?). This contrast in the general approach to reality between two obviously talented writers who were more or less contemporaneous is part of what makes literature interesting however.

I like this poem. That is to say, it scans well, it would probably not be difficult to memorize, and it fits in very nicely with the tradition of English meditative poetry of this type (which even had a "Graveyard School" in the 18th century, four or five of which poets I read, including Young's interminable and now inexplicably once-celebrated "Night Thoughts". Fortunately this was all before the blog). The theme appears to be pretty straightforward. If you haven't read it, the soul of a dead woman perceives someone to be visiting her grave and digging up the earth about it, she asks in turn if it is her husband, her kinfolk and her enemy, all of whom have largely ceased to think about her. Finally she gives up and asks who it is, the visitor reveals itself to be her old dog, who is merely burying a bone and had forgotten that the remains of his old mistress lay there. As far as I can tell that is all there is to it, but the pace, the patter of the poem is very effective and affecting.

Just a couple of observations:

(ll 5-6) The husband's statement on his remarriage (the implication being that it was rather too sudden). H's characteristic pessimism, though really cynicism:

"'It cannot hurt her now,' he said,
That I should not be true.'"

(ll. 26-30) This reference to the English faith in dogs is obviously meant as a joke:

"Why flashed it not on me
That one true heart was left behind!
What feeling do we ever find
To equal among human kind
A dog's fidelity!"

No comments: