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Thomas Hardy

William Strang-etching of Thomas Hardy 1893Me and Thomas Hardy have a bit of a history.  Way back in school I had one of those inspirational English teachers – thank you, John Pearce – who had spent time in the US.  Enthused by his experiences there he adopted the bright-eyed bow-tie look of American academe and their formal Book Report system.  The time soon came when there was no escape – we had to choose a ‘classic’ for our report; I picked Hardy’s Under the greenwood tree because it was the shortest I could find, so that was the first ‘classic’ I ever read.  I seem to recall I was pleasantly surprised but little else.

Far from the madding crowd 1967 film posterA few years later the 1967 John Schlesinger film of Far from the madding crowd loomed large in my personal filmography (and I still invariably feel compelled to watch it to the end if I happen upon it channel hopping).  I think I may even have seen it with a certain somebody but subsequent events caused me to cast myself in the Alan Bates Gabriel role in relation to Julie Christie’s Bathsheba.  (What a bastard, that Terence Stamp.)  Fine film; never felt like reading the book because I liked the film so well.  About the same time, one of those small things that stick in the mind – the extraordinary Roma Gill performing Hardy’s poem The goldfinch with its unfortunate and later suppressed last verse in an EngLit lecture at uni.  (I’ve posted about this elsewhere – it’s the last item there.)

Fast forward a decade or four and I’m shouting at the television screen, more specifically at Tess of Tess of the bloody d’Urbervilles.  Come on girl, do wise up why don’t you?  Talk about miserablism and victim culture.  Someone recently told me they’d actually thrown Jude the Obscure across the room in frustration at the same sort of thing.  Glass half empty doesn’t seem to enter into it.

Mayor of Casterbridge PanSo it was with some trepidation that I approached this month’s book club book, The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), or to give it the grandeur of its full title – which the cheap skate free download text I used some of the time to its great discredit did not (never mind the typos) – The life and death of the Mayor of Casterbridge: a story of a man of character.  I needn’t have worried.  I liked it a lot and that word grandeur I used just now was not intended ironically, let alone sarcastically.  Michael Henchard’s tale is a full-blown searing tragedy, its denouement all the more touching for its lack of Shakespearian violence (though I’ll admit some will say, not totally without cause, melodrama).  Here is a driven man, touched by folly and a notion to honour soured by bad faith, blown this way and that by circumstance (and coincidence, but never mind).

Reading the first couple of chapters I was struck by just how much Hardy’s prose gives screen adapters, how easy he makes their jobs.  I thought, I know all this, because I’d seen the 2003 tv production with Ciaran Hinds as Henchard and they hadn’t had to do a thing except put the prose onto film literally, so powerfully and vividly described are the events leading to Henchard’s getting pissed on rum-laced furmity and auctioning off his wife.  The main action of the novel picks up 20 years on with his swearing off the booze and achieving mayoral respectability.  The bustle and nuances of the town and the timeless yet changing landscapes of Wessex are finely drawn throughout.  The marital morality that is one of the plot drivers is odd, of course, but par for the time, I guess, and it does keep things going (though you do want to give Elizabeth-Jane a kick every now and again).  There’s even humour to be found.  Mostly in the pub, true, but I was surprised to find it at all, not least in the particularly fine passage where the furmity seller, now on very hard times indeed, is up before the magistrates (again) and reveals Henchard’s big secret at the end of her trial, a very neat stroke.  I’ll not be going on a Hardy binge or anything soon, but I am glad I had the pleasure of The Mayor of Casterbridge.

On the question of Thomas Hardy‘s miserablism I was impressed by his sturdy defence of his position against his critics in his General Preface to the Wessex Edition of his works published in 1912:

One word on what has been called the present writer’s philosophy of life […] Positive views on the Whence and Wherefore of things have never been advanced by this pen as a consistent philosophy. Nor is it likely, indeed, that imaginative writings extending over more than forty years would exhibit a coherent scientific theory of the universe even if it had been attempted […] But such objectless consistency never has been attempted, and the sentiments of the following pages have been stated truly to be mere impressions of the moment, and not convictions or arguments.

That these impressions have been condemned as ‘pessimistic’ – as if that were a very wicked adjective – shows a curious muddle-mindedness. It must be obvious that there is a higher characteristic of philosophy than pessimism, or than meliorism, or even the optimism of these critics – which is truth. Existence is either ordered in a certain way, or it is not so ordered, and conjectures which harmonize best with experience are removed above all comparison with other conjectures which do not so harmonize. So that to say one view is worse than other views without proving it erroneous implies the possibility of a false view being better or more expedient than a true view […].

It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.  But then there’s this gem, from Thomas the Fiddler – Hardy came from a family of decent musicians and was no mean fiddler himself – which is taken from Under the greenwood tree:

Your brass man is a rafting dog, well and good,
Your reed man is dab hand at stirring ye, well and good,
Your drum man is a rare bowel shaker, good again,
But I don’t care who hears me say it
Nothing can spake to your heart with the sweetness of a man of strings.

70034 Thomas Hardy by David LawrenceAnd finally, apropos of nothing that has gone before, Hardy was one of the authors whose names graced the sides of the last express steam locomotives built in the UK, the Standard Class 7s, known as Britannias.  70034 Thomas Hardy was built at Crewe in 1952 and barely lasted 15 years before it was scrapped just a few months before the film of Far from the madding crowd was released.  Shame it was never garrisoned in Wessex; it served most of its time on East Anglian expresses with a swan song in the north-west.

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Well, at least one of the three is touched upon here below.  “Death. Literature. Or ducks” is taken from the eminently quotable Chapter and verse.  Ivan Connor, the character who says it, is confessing his ignorance of said trio, which is a shame given he’s a once successful literary novelist.  But later for him.

This year I resolved to take full advantage of Stony Live! – the local annual music bonanza.  Or at least go to at least one gig a day and stay for at least one pint, and I almost made it.  Highlights for me were:

  • the Stony Steppers Roadshow‘s nicely titled One step beyond – “a whirlwind tour of percussive dance traditions linked with the social history of the British Isles … and beyond” – was a grand evening’s entertainment.  We had hornpipes, flamboyant Appalachian stepping, music hall and vaudeville styles along with, among other things, the usual dose of the Steppers’ fine Lancashire clogging.  Music was good too.  I certainly wasn’t expecting the haunting First World War tableau when it came, but it worked.  Nor was I aware there was a Welsh clog variant, though – to tell the truth – for these eyes it would have been hard to tell apart from the costume.
  • as it happened, there was a another Welsh moment at An Evening with the Bard next night when the quiet power of Fay Roberts held the audience entranced with a poem in Welsh – apparently explaining why she doesn’t write poetry in Welsh – and the language has never sounded so seductively sweeter.  Fay was in good and playful form, as was Danni Antagonist – the Bard of Stony Stratford herself – especially when augmented with the guitar stylings of own MK’s Laureate, Mark Niel.  Steve Hobbs and the acerbic Paul Eccentric made us laugh too.  A good evening, should have been more there to enjoy it.
  • the Concrete Cowboys did a sublime lunchtime set on Saturday in the Fox and Hounds, singing and playing songs from the classic bluegrass repertoire and beyond. If there were to be a heaven, one part of town would be singing along with a couple of beers to The battle of New Orleans and the Cowboys’ adopted theme song – You aint goin’ nowhere.  A class act; as well as the stand up cardboard John Wayne they now boast a blow-up cactus to enhance their visual presence.

And, lo and behold, the weather held for Sunday’s Folk on the Green.  What are a few spots compared with last year’s community spirit enhancing drenching downpour.  The Cuttings Family did a fine and varied set ranging from hand-cupped-ear traditional song to a lovely version of Mark Knopfler’s Why worry – great song.   And how good was it to see the reformation of The Cock and Bull Band in their latest guise?  Pretty good, actually, and it’ll get better.  T-shirt of the day has to go to Sean, the tall bloke from Stony Steppers, for his ‘Who let the clogs out?

Onto the books.  Reading Thomas Hardy‘s Selected shorter poems in the bath as you do (chosen and introduced by John Wain: Papermac, 1966) I was struck by how suitable some of his stuff – amazingly now only a century old – would be to a folkie concept show or album – after all, he was a fiddler himself.  Has it been done?  It also struck me there is a place (somewhere) for the verses’ recitation against hard slow electric blues guitar – late Muddy Waters, say – riffing, an interesting juxtaposition, because as a bit of a misery a lot of the time, he certainly did appear to have the blues.  Don’t know where that second thought came from.

I do know where this came from though:

Ultimately, when stubborn historical facts had dispersed all intoxicating effects of self-deception, this form of Socialism ended in a miserable fit of the blues.

Never mind, which form of Socialism (sic), isn’t language, shifting language, a wonderful thing?  It’s from the third section of Karl Marx & Frederick EngelsManifesto of the Communist Party (the 1888 Sam Moore English translation: Progress Publishers, 1952).  That’s my sticky back plastic covered well-biro’d (mass market magic markers didn’t exist then) copy in the picture, purchased in 1966.  I’m reading it again as a consequence of an ongoing discussion with an Idealist friend ( that’s Idealist philosophy) – Hi Neil – wherein I have been making claims for its wit and continuing perspicacity.  The book hasn’t changed so I guess I and the times have.   How pathetic – even when I bought it – now seems the ‘end times’ notion – thought still trapped in its religious ancestry – of the final conflict betwixt proletariat and bourgeoisie.  But a lot of the historical analysis still stands, and you cannot take away from the power of some of the prose about the progressive modernising character of capitalism:

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and relations with his kind … [and a little earlier] … The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe.  It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-labourers.

The consequent state of contemporary publishing, where marketing is king and the genuine writer a hindrance, is one of the things Colin Bateman is complaining about in his very funny Chapter and verse (Headline, 2003).  If you can get over a major plotting flaw (concerning the obvious identity of the sender of the email that sets the whole adventure up) and ignore the dubious idea that the content of the book at the centre of the prank could have that reaction (though it is nicely absurd) this is a splendid comic romp that touches on many serious issues, like how a writer uses his life for literature, how a writer can delude him- or herself and what exactly is great literature.  There are some great comic characters at play in this wide ranging and full-blooded farce, complete with some recognisable Bateman traits.  Set in London, Chapter and verse has scenes in an independent bookshop and plays with the idea of poetry, while our hero, a once promising writer who has been dropped by his publisher, is a bit of a failure, not least in marriage, lives with his mum, holds joyfully expressed deep resentments, gets drunk – you get the picture.  I think it ends weakly (deliberately?) but I wouldn’t let that put you off.  I could quote many bon mots but I think I’ll leave it at Ivan’s answer to the writer’s heart-sink question as to where they get their ideas from – “A little shop in Covent garden” – and that he’s “… as good as gold, although of course the value of gold fluctuates.”

I need to thank esteemed blogger rthepotter for bringing Sally Swain‘s lovely Great housewives of art (Grafton, 1988) to my attention on her intriguing Minutiae blog.  It redresses the balance of the subjects traditionally treated by the great painters by restoring housework’s import in the great scheme of things.  I’m going to respect copyright here and not do any scans.  That’s Mrs Degas Vacuums The Floor in the photo of the book’s cover at the head of this post and there are others similarly subverted, like Mrs Monet Cleans The Pool, but my favourites come from the more abstract realms: Mrs Pollack Can’t Seem To Find Anything Any More and the wonderful (and Rothko is a favourite of mine) Mrs Rothko Scrubs The Carpet.

Even as a toilet book Winifred Coles‘ collection The art of the put-down (Omnipress, 2011) tires quickly.  There are plenty of terrific – if oft quoted – examples, obviously, but it’s like those old football videos with titles like 501 great goals – so relentless that you get a loss of the put-down’s power, the goals’ greatness.  She chooses to divide the book into ‘Cruel Britannia’ and ‘Scorn in the USA’ but a lot of the American stuff is just smart-ass one-liners with no specific point.  I’m not sure it belongs, but how pitiful is it,  Zsa Zsa Gabor saying, “I never hated a man enough to give his diamonds back” – on so many levels?”

 

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Let us be literal for a moment.  Molesworth (I vaguely recall) and many more have probably been here before but (and the spell checker just suggested Wordsworth for Molesworth), “I wandered lonely as a cloud …”    Can clouds be lonely?   Like a lonely goat-herd?  Does it mean anything, really?  Apart from rhyming with that crowd of golden daffodils?  By the same token, looking “at clouds from both sides, now“?  “From up and down“?  Like in, as they will keep on saying, ‘downside economics’?  Whatever, it’s “clouds’ illusions” I labour my way not so much to recall as … if a picture paints a thousand words (and a photo, ergo, too):

Not a pixel was changed in the posting of this picture, no messing with Reflection effects in PaintShop Pro or whatever else you use, no Rotating mirror applied.  Those are clouds at first glance – and I wasn’t alone in this – displaying some weird internal symmetry.  Those black specks are some of the first swallows of the season, by the way.  Andrea bought me that cloud book a few Yuletides ago – might provide some clues as to what’s going on – and I fully intend to read it (The cloudspotter’s guide by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, 2006) one of these days, given I really don’t know clouds at all.

Truth be told, I had to open PaintShop Pro just now to make sure I got the terminology right and resistance to the urge proved futile.  It’s a great function, bestowing a sense of immanence to the most mundane landscape.

It can do magical things with trees, never mind creating three-legged people.  But enough of that.  I drift.

I’ve been dipping into Thomas Hardy‘s poetry lately.  Mostly in the bath, but fear not, despite being advertised as ‘good’ on AbeBooks, it’s a crap old desiccated and browning copy, though, bought for peanuts and I wasn’t expecting anything else really, so no harm in prospect.  Anyway, I’ve done my best to block out the Titanic commemoration mania so I’m in no position to know if Hardy’s fine poem, The convergence of the twain (Lines on the loss of the Titanic) has been quoted much, but somehow I doubt it, in that he gives equal time and back story to the iceberg.  I’m going to stick my neck out here and suggest it’s not about fate and destiny.  But the main reason I started on Hardy here are some lines from one of his prefaces.

In his ‘Introductory note’ to his last slim volume of poetry, Winter words in various moods and metres, Thomas Hardy writes:

My last volume of poems was pronounced wholly gloomy and pessimistic by reviewers – even by some of the more able class.  My sense of the oddity of this verdict may be imagined when, in selecting them, I had been, as I thought, rather too liberal in admitting flippant, not to say farcical, pieces into the collection.

Which echoed something that has stuck in my mind over the years.  I once heard Jackie Leven, responding to someone in his audience’s half-joking plea tell of a Townes Van Zandt gig where someone shouted out requesting him, “Play us a happy song“.  Professional miserablist and songwriter’s songwriter Townes’ response?  “These are the happy songs.”  Jackie wrote a song about TVZ called Townes at the Borderline – as good a portrait of anyone as you’ll find in song .  It’s on Jackie’s last lovely album, made with long-term collaborator Michael Cosgrave, Wayside shrines and the code of the traveling man,  and on a collection of Townes songs by other artists called Riding on the range, which is well worth exploring.  There are better lines to quote but they don’t make as good a link as what’s to come next than, “I noticed in his guitar case / he had pictures of lost gods / and a small notebook with the cover torn / for when he was lost in words.”

So back briefly – lost words, lost another way – to Thomas Hardy.  Not long ago I posted here in full his poem The goldfinch, including the later suppressed last verse wherein a lover’s gift of a small exquisite feathered creature was rendered as “gave her the bird“.  More of the same from John Keats in his Ode to a nightingale, in stanza 6 of that double-edged ode to joy:

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain –
To thy high requiem become a sod.

And a bit of a miserable one at that.

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By choice, Gerard Manley Hopkins(1844-1889) published little poetry in his lifetime.  For me just one half line of his  – “As kingfishers catch fire” – is as potent as any four words in literature.  Sprung rhythm was his thing, allied to alliteration, assisted by assonance, onomatopoeia and internal rhyme.  He broke the mold of Victorian poetry but as a Catholic convert, and later as a Jesuit priest, he worried that his interest in poetry might diminish his religious devotions.  As some of the religious persuasion will.  As a fresher at Oxford he started off as a keen socialite and a prolific poet, but he was soon running scared, and – just for starters – gave up poetry for Lent.  He made a bonfire of his verse on embarking on a novitiate with the Society of Jesus.  Luckily friends kept their copies of the poems, which were circulated, then collected and published posthumously by his friend,  Robert Bridges.  He was a life long celibate.  Later, I mention as trivia, as Classics Prof at Dublin University, James Joyce had been one of his students.

Here, appropriately, is his poem Spring:

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –
   When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
   Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
   The glassy pear tree leaves and blooms, they brush
   The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
What is all this juice and all this joy?
   A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. – Have, get, before it cloy,
   Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
   Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.
 
And here, with the insertion of one little vowel in the final line, we rather subvert his pious joy:
Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –         
   When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;         
   Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush         
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring         
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
   The glassy pear tree leaves and blooms, they brush         
   The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush         
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?         
   A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. – Have, get, before it cloy,         
   Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,         
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,         
   Moist, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.      
For which I apologise.  And add another kind of ambiguity.  And a crossword clue, whose relevance to this post may, or may not be, obvious, from today’s Guardian, from the setter Philistine:
Done the crime? Now do the time! (6,7) – answer at the bottom of this post.
 
When Thomas Hardy wrote A caged goldfinch, those lovely creatures were kept by the Victorians in cages, for their songs – they were almost wiped out.  The collective noun for goldfinches? – a charm.  Later editions of his poetry – this while he was still alive, by his hand – appeared without the final verse.  No need to wonder why for long:
Within a churchyard, on a recent grave, 
I saw a little cage 
That jailed a goldfinch. All was silence, save 
Its hops from stage to stage. 

There was inquiry in its wistful eye. 
And once it tried to sing; 
Of him or her who placed it there, and why. 
No one knew anything. 

True, a woman was found drowned the day ensuing. 
And some at times averred 
The grave to be her false one's, who when wooing 
Gave her the bird.


 






Crossword answer: Done the crime? Now do the time! (6,7) 
- Poetic justice

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