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The Various Wars Of Thomas Hardy

16/06/2016 8:27 AM IST | Updated 23/08/2016 11:52 AM IST
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There were several interesting things that I did not know about Thomas Hardy when I went for a wander around Casterbridge -- Dorchester in southwest England, to you and me -- on his 176th birthday last fortnight.

I did not know Hardy made a remarkably quiet entry into this world by way of the middle bedroom in the thatched cottage you see above -- so quiet, in fact, that he was considered stillborn. I had no idea he was exceptionally finicky about the pictures that accompanied his novels and sent sketches and detailed instructions to his illustrators on how his characters should look. I wasn't aware he often wrote on coarse off-white paper in black ink in a flowing hand that was a treat to look at but difficult to read, and that there's now a "Hardy font" available for download. I did not know he was credited with coining the term "cliffhanger" by literally leaving a protagonist hanging off a cliff at the end of an instalment of A Pair of Blue Eyes for Tinsley's Magazine. And I did not know he wrote some exceptionally moving love poetry about his first wife after marrying his much-younger second wife at the interesting age of 74.

[T]here are many who feel he did his bit to support Britain's efforts in World War I... but it is prudent to argue that Hardy's heart wasn't in the job...

But of all the things I did not know of Hardy and came to know only recently (and here's a gory bit: his heart was cut out from his body to be buried with his first wife in the village cemetery, but the rest of him lies in London at Poet's Corner), what struck me as particularly interesting was his war poetry. Rather, the anti-war sentiments in his war poetry.

I had a vague recollection of reading somewhere how Hardy thought of himself primarily as a poet who wrote prose out of sheer necessity -- to pay the cable guy, order pizza, that sort of thing -- and how prose was an inferior genre in his opinion, novel-writing nothing more than enforced labour to "keep base life afoot". Verse, on the other hand, was different. It was magical, powerful, and in it was "concentrated the essence of all imaginative and emotional literature".

As someone quite content with Hardy's outputs in the "inferior genre", I had not really put much thought into the nature of his verse and was consequently unaware of the strong humanist -- I would say pacifist -- sentiments in some of his war poems. What set me on the poetry track were the lines of "The Convergence of the Twain" that I found at the Dorset County Museum, which houses the finest Hardy Collection in the world. Hardy had written it in aid of an event on 14 May, 1912 to support the Titanic Disaster Fund. I found it chilling, and I dare say the fair Rose of Titanic would have been a much subdued and less idealistic creature had she chanced upon Hardy's stark fatalism and knew of the "Shape of Ice" growing in stature in the "shadowy silent distance" and creeping forward for an "intimate" "consummation" with the "vaingloriousess" she was about to board. The lines prompted me to search out more of Hardy's poetry on my phone -- Casterbridge has good internet connection, I can tell you that -- and pretty soon I was scrolling through his war verses.

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A view of Dorchester, the town on which Thomas Hardy modelled Casterbridge

Hardy's work in this area is mostly inspired by the second Boer War and World War I -- you will notice I am staying well clear of the verses in The Dynasts here, for much as I admire my county-cousin, I do not want to tackle his 500-page tome just yet -- and he is generally seen as taking a humanist approach but not being an explicit anti-war advocate. In fact, there are many who feel he did his bit to support Britain's efforts in World War I, smartly pointing to "A Call to National Service" and "Men Who March Away". It is difficult to say that these were not meant as patriotic poems (as Samuel Hynes points out in the essay "Hardy and the Battle God", Hardy was part of the "literary battalion" put together by the Whitehall to drum up support for the war, which assignment he seems to have accepted unprotestingly), but it is prudent to argue that Hardy's heart wasn't in the job, mainly because the man himself said so in all but those words. "I cannot do patriotic poetry very well -- seeing the other side too much," he wrote to writer John Galsworthy towards the end of World War I.

"I cannot do patriotic poetry very well -- seeing the other side too much," he wrote to writer John Galsworthy towards the end of World War I.

If that doesn't give us a hint of Hardy's disaffection with war, here is an extract from an earlier letter in which Hardy makes his sentiments abundantly clear: "[I] think it an insanity that people in the 20th Century should suppose force to be a moral argument ... of late years I have almost despaired of civilisation making any big step forward."

His argument for internationalism rather than nationalism -- what Indy Clark calls "global patriotism" in Thomas Hardy's Pastoral: An Unkindly May -- can also be seen as indicative of a philosophy fundamentally in conflict with the idea of war. Here is Hardy explaining his pacifism to Percy Ames, the secretary of the Royal Society of Literature:

"[N]othing effectual will be done to the cause of peace till the sentiment of Patriotism be freed from the narrow meaning attaching to it in the past ... and be extended to the whole globe ... and the sentiment of Foreignness -- if the sense of contrast be necessary -- attach only to other planets and inhabitants if any."

But the strongest evidence of Hardy's antipathy to war lies of course in the lines he penned while Britain was engaged in unpleasant activities abroad, as it is wont to do from time to time. "Drummer Hodge" is often cited as an inspiration for Rupert Brooke's unashamedly jingoistic "Soldier" (allow me to take this opportunity to respectfully suggest the more appropriate title of "Immature Views of A Foolish Soldier Who Never Saw Combat" for all further reprints) with the implication that Hardy was of similar persuasion. But, as Neil Wenborn points out in Reading Thomas Hardy: Selected Poems, their "stances could hardly be more different". Brooke thought it a wondrous privilege to die for England -- which he managed to do, I must say, though not in the noble or heroic fashion he envisaged, succumbing as he did at sea to sepsis from, ironically, insect bites -- but for Hardy's "Drummer Hodge", a country lad killed in a foreign field, there is no glory, not even the courtesy of a proper burial. He is thrown in "to rest uncoffined - just as found" to "homely Northern breast and brain" left to grow "to some Southern tree".

"The Man He Killed" is the anguished cry of a confused soldier struggling to make sense of why he killed someone, someone just like him...

You can see a similar commentary on the wretchedness of war in "The Pity of It", wherein Hardy points to similarities between the Dorsetshire dialect and German and makes the argument that the WW1 have "kin folk" killing "kin tongued", going so far as to call down all sorts of damnation on whosoever "they be" who "flung the flame" between kinsmen. Call me naive -- no, shoot me dead --if that is not as bold an anti-war statement as they come.

There is more. "In The Going of the Battery" Hardy presents the misery of the wives left behind when their men march abroad to die of noble heroism in foreign fields (or of insect bites, if the situation so warrants); in "Channel Firing" he awakens the dead to mock the efforts of the living to make "Red war redder"; and in "At the War Office, London", calling war "scheduled slaughter", Hardy despairs at the misery of the "parent, wife, or daughter" whose heart is "rent" by the "hourly posted sheets" of soldiers killed away from home.

"The Man He Killed" is the anguished cry of a confused soldier struggling to make sense of why he killed someone, someone just like him, just "because-Because he was my foe ...my foe of course he was". In the final stanza Hardy has the soldier speaking about the folly of war:

Yes; quaint and curious war is

You shoot a fellow down

You'd treat, if met where any bar is,

Or help to half a crown.

I would be remiss not to mention "And There Was a Great Calm", Hardy's last war poem, which he wrote to mark the end of World War I. Indubitably understated, it is reminiscent of "The Convergence of the Twain" in its considered indifference and I found it similarly chilling. Let me cite how Hardy concludes the poem:

Calm fell. From Heaven distilled a clemency;

There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;

Some could, some could not, shake off misery:

The Sinister Spirit sneered: 'It had to be!'

And again the Spirit of Pity whispered, 'Why?'

There is no celebration, not even of relief, in "And There Was a Great Calm". If there is one, it is as Hynes puts it, a celebration of "nothing". Hardy opens with the same question he asks at the end: Why? He provides no valid answer. And throughout the poem you get the impression that for Hardy the "Great Calm", the peace purchased at the cost of a war -- a war that allowed Man to cheat Nature off Death -- is pointless. I read the poem again sitting on a gently sloping wooden bench in the heart of Hardy's Wessex -- below me billowed a patch of green with wooden pickets and a thatched hut so perfect that it hurt me even to look, behind me rolled the woodlands and round barrows that made up Egdon Heath in Hardy's mind -- and it occurred to me this was perhaps the most poignant statement on war from an author who revered and surrendered to nature in his works.

A version of this article also appeared in The Hindu.

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