The wars of Thomas Hardy

Reading his poetry on his terrain, perhaps in ‘Hardy’ font, affords an understanding of why Hardy thought prose was an inferior form

Updated - October 18, 2016 01:43 pm IST

Published - June 12, 2016 01:03 am IST

PACIFIST SENTIMENTS: "Thomas Hardy’s work in war verses is mostly inspired by the second Boer War and World War I." A ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles in a communication trench during the Battle of the Somme." — Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ Source: The Imperial War Museums

PACIFIST SENTIMENTS: "Thomas Hardy’s work in war verses is mostly inspired by the second Boer War and World War I." A ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles in a communication trench during the Battle of the Somme." — Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ Source: The Imperial War Museums

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 week.

I did not know Hardy made a remarkably quiet entry into this world by way of the middle bedroom in a thatched cottage — so quiet, in fact, that he was considered stillborn. I had no idea that 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 that 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 the 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 age of 74.

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 the Poet’s Corner), what struck me as particularly interesting was his war poetry. Rather, the anti-war sentiments in his war poetry.

A pacifist at heart I had a vague recollection of reading somewhere how Hardy thought of himself primarily as a poet who wrote prose out of sheer necessity, and how prose was an inferior form in his opinion. Verse, on the other hand, 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 was 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. It prompted me to search out more of Hardy’s poetry on my phone, and pretty soon I was scrolling through his war verses.

Hardy’s work in this area is mostly inspired by the second Boer War and World War I, 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 war efforts in World War I, smartly pointing to ‘A Call to National Service’ and ‘The Men Who March Away’. It is difficult to say that these were not meant as patriotic poems (as Samuel Hynes points out in ‘Hardy and the Battle God’, Hardy was part of the ‘literary battalion’ put together by the Whitehall to drum up support for the war, an assignment which 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.

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.”

The wretchedness of war 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 ‘The Soldier’ 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, 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.

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 World War I has “kin folk” killing “kin tongued”. 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; in ‘Channel Firing’ he awakens the dead to mock the efforts of the living to make “Red war yet 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 dow n/ 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. 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, as Hynes puts it, it is 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.

Chindu Sreedharan is the author of Epic Retold , published by HarperCollins. He teaches journalism at Bournemouth University, England.

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