June 2 is Thomas Hardy’s birthday. The gloomy old bugger
was born in 1840 and died in 1928 after 60 years of writing
a series of doom-laden novels and hundreds of poems that
give the impression of having been ground out rather than
dreamt up. Yet I loved reading him in my youth: his gloom
called to my gloom as I languished in the melancholia that
seemed, at 20, a suitable response to life’s vicissitudes. At
the morning teatime of my life I was deeply into twilight
and shades of grey.
This year, mainly out of curiosity, but also for something to
read that’s as unlike contemporary New Zealand politics as
I can find, I’ve gone back to Hardy: first, Far From the
Madding Crowd, and now, The Return of the Native. The
pessimism that once seemed romantic, in a subgothic sort
of way, now verges on the absurd; an almost wilful
perversity, you’d think, drove him to such gratuitous
pronouncements as (in The Return of the Native):
The view of life as a thing to be put up with, replacing
that zest for existence which was so intense in early
civilizations, must ultimately enter so thoroughly into
the constitution of the advanced races that its facial
expression will become accepted as a new artistic
departure…a long line of disillusive centuries has
permanently displaced the Hellenic view of life, or
whatever it may be called.
There was so little to be happy about, Hardy further
concluded (in 1878), that physical beauty in men and
women would probably come to be an anachronism.
Cheer us up, why doncha! But the sheer consistency of
Hardy’s philosophy, and his sustained dramatization
of it on the fictional stage of Wessex, compels admiration
and even affection. And although his prose, like his
poetry, almost strangles itself on its own contortions at
times, he tells a great tale. His four greatest novels—Tess,
Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge and Jude
the Obscure—are stories that will be read again and again
so long as there's an English language. As his best poems
will be, or ought to be, too. His Collected Poems, bought in
1970 for $NZ5.70, remains to this day one of the most
treasured books on my shelves.
Born three years after Queen Victoria came to the British
throne and inaugurated the Victorian age, Hardy lived long
enough to have his pessimism confirmed by the Great War
of 1914–18, thus earning the right to dismiss Christianity
in four withering lines written at Christmas 1924:
"Peace upon earth!" was said. We sing it,
And pay a million priests to bring it.
After two thousand years of mass
We've got as far as poison-gas.