“Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.” Thomas Hardy
Whenever a depressing thought intrudes upon my ghostly solitude – like this morning’s revelation that each swallowed Zoloft represents one fewer day of life, another grain of the hourglass gone – I thank my lucky stars for my friend of forty-plus years, Thomas Hardy, whose desolate view of life paradoxically provides comfort.
I first encountered Hardy in the 8th grade when a sadistic teacher made us read The Return of the Native, a novel that Clare Keating and Katie Hickey describe as “an anthropological treatise on the dying practices of English rural culture.”
And she’ll have fun, fun, fun /Till her Daddy takes her T-Bird away!
The teacher, a withered-armed victim of polio, was married to the only taxi driver in town, a man she considered her intellectual inferior, so certainly she had legitimate reasons for being bitter. (She, if you’ll forgive the phrase, wore her biography on her sleeve, slightly too long, half-covering the bad left hand).
Nevertheless, assigning thirteen-year-olds a syntactically difficult novel set on a barren heath, a novel dealing with the themes of illicit sexual unions and tragic blind fate might not be the best recipe for nurturing “life-long readers.”
So, of course, based on my one pubescent encounter, I avoided Hardy, whom I associated with endless tracts of barren waste, unintelligible dialect, and blighted lives.
Nevertheless, my sophomore year at Carolina, I became reacquainted with Hardy, not in his more famous role as a novelist, but Hardy the poet, and it amounted to a Road-to-Damascus reversal. One reading of his sonnet “Hap” and I was hooked.
If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”
Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.
But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
—Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. . . .
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.
Later, I came to appreciate the novels themselves, especially Tess and The Mayor of Casterbridge; however, it’s still the poetry that does it for me, and perhaps my favorite is “During Wind and Rain.”
I invite you to read the last line aloud and to note and enjoy your mouth and tongue forming the plosives – it’s indeed a celebration of life.
They sing their dearest songs—
He, she, all of them—yea,
Treble and tenor and bass,
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!
They clear the creeping moss—
Elders and juniors—aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat. . . .
Ah, no; the years, the years,
See, the white storm-birds wing across.
They are blithely breakfasting all—
Men and maidens—yea,
Under the summer tree,
With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to the knee. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.
They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them—aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs. . . .
Ah, no; the years, the years
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.