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Columns - The Words

A gloomy Victorian writer who had one of his novels publicly burned by an Anglican bishop may seem an odd choice for spiritual reflection. Yet the poetry of Thomas Hardy - melancholy, despairing, even bleak - is a reminder that faith is both a gift and a challenge.
Hardy (1840-1928) was best known in his own time for his novels, which deal with the social constraints of Victorian society, misfortune and the crushing hand of fate. The sale of one of his novels, "Tess of the d'Urbervilles," has increased significantly recently because it is mentioned in the publishing phenomenon "Fifty Shades of Grey Trilogy" - an irony that Hardy, a master of irony, probably would not have enjoyed.

Among his other novels are "Far From the Madding Crowd," "The Return of the Native" and "Jude the Obscure." Surely one of the most depressing novels in the English language, "Jude" was seen by some at the time as an attack on Victorian morals and the institution of marriage. Dubbed "Jude the Obscene," it was publicly burned by Bishop William Walsham How - "probably because he couldn't burn me," Hardy quipped years later.

After "Jude," Hardy gave up writing novels and devoted his time fully to writing poetry. Among his more than 900 poems are a number that deal directly with his theological concerns. Often he presents a world guided by a god or forces indifferent to the suffering of its inhabitants, both human and animal. (Hardy seems to have been an animal lover.)

In "God-Forgotten," God does not even remember he made the world, and the narrator entertains the "childish hope" that God can be reminded of the "tiny sphere" he created and its troubles. ("Thou shouldst have learnt that Not to Mend/For Me could mean but Not to Know," God says.)

In "By the Earth's Corpse," God regrets making the world because even He cannot undo the suffering people endured while they lived. In "God's Education," an amoral god does not even understand the concept of cruelty.

Hardy apparently saw Darwin's theories and the emerging field of Bible criticism as challenges to faith. More significantly, though, he was troubled by death, war and suffering. He once explained in a letter to a clergyman that he couldn't reconcile evil with the idea of an all-loving, all powerful God. The title of one of his poems, "The Bedridden Peasant to an Unknowing God," is a summary of both his worldview and preoccupations.

The poet does not dwell on the shortcomings of institutional religion. His quarrel is with the god he still longs to find. Consider "The Oxen," which is based on the folk belief that the animals in the manger kneel every Christmas Eve as they did when Christ was born. Hardy begins the 16-line poem with the memory of a Christmas scene, with children gathered around a fireplace as an adult explains, "Now they are all on their knees." Nowadays, the narrator continues, few people would believe such a tale. And yet, he concludes, it still has a hold on him:

If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come, see the oxen kneel,
In the lonely barton by yonder comb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so."

In this Year of Faith, as Christians celebrate again the birth of Jesus in a manger (as recorded by St. Luke, whose attribute is a winged ox), the poet's concerns are a reminder of the paradoxical nature of revelation expressed by the prophet Isaiah: "Truly, You are a God who hides Himself, O God of Israel, Savior!" (45:17).

Carl Peters is the managing editor of the Catholic Star Herald.

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