«Introduction..2 - 10 Chapter One: Evangelical Principles and Hardy’s Fiction.11 - 36 Chapter Two: Nature, the Law and Christian Ethics in The ...»
The contrast between the believers’ felicity and the poet’s misery intimates the possibility that Hardy inadvertently associates his inability to find happiness with his loss of faith. In “A Sign Seeker”, “The Impercipient” and “In a Whispering Gallery” it is particularly faith that relates to the supernatural that is pertinent. Most critics agree that Hardy’s loss of faith in the supernatural, specifically salvation and eternal life, gave rise to a depressive and gloomy perception of life, what Lance calls Hardy’s “negative metaphysics” (175). The source of Hardy’s negative outlook on life would seem to lie in his imaginative awareness of the possibilities of good in life, which he appears to link with faith, and his conviction that these possibilities are out of reach for him as a result of his unbelief. Importantly, this unbelief is not of Hardy’s seeking. It is possibly caused, as has been shown, by the Immanent Will Stotko 49 remaining deaf, dumb and blind to man’s needs. There seems to be no consciousness which connects God to society’s state of need and therefore no hope for merciful intervention could exist for Hardy.
The qualities of the Biblical God described in the Sermon on the Mount are conspicuously absent in the Immanent Will or God as revealed in Hardy’s poetry. The Bible claims that God knows the individual needs of man (Matthew 6.32) and “gives good things to them that ask him” (Matthew 7.11). “The Bedridden Peasant,” and “God-Forgotten” portray God as “The Immanent Doer[’s] that Doth not Know” (“The Blow” 24). In these poems God fails to intervene in order to alleviate suffering due to ignorance.
This idea is developed further in “The Blow” which investigates the cause of pain and sorrow and expresses Hardy’s hope that man is innocent “of this foul crash our lives amid” (16). The notion here that suffering may possibly not be attributable to the fault of man is consistent with his novels. Characters do not suffer as a result of their own wrong doing.
Their suffering is due to an external cause. “The Blow” suggests that the external cause responsible for pain and sorrow is God But the Immanent Doer’s That doth not know, Which in some age unguessed of us May lift Its blinding incubus,
And see, and own:
“It grieves me I did thus and thus!” (24 - 28) In this poem it seems to be important to Hardy that God does not wilfully inflict sorrow on humanity: “thankful yet/ Time’s finger should have stretched to show/ No aimful author’s was the blow” (20 - 22). Yet, the poet wishes God to admit guilt and repent for causing suffering. The use of the word “grieves” is a direct echo of Genesis 6:6 “And it repented the Lord that he had made man on earth and it grieved him in his heart.” Here Hardy subverts the Old Testament assertion that man’s wickedness caused God to regret having created him. This illustrates how Hardy experimentally mutates Biblical themes in his search for answers to life’s questions. According to Scripture, man’s disobedience causes his separation from God and the curse of the earth which brings about suffering. But it appears that in this poem Hardy imagines man to be innocent and God to be guilty. Curiously, he retains the Biblical view that suffering did not just happen like the Big Bang, it is caused by someone and there is guilt involved. But in this poem he reverses roles, putting the blame on God.
“By the Earth’s Corpse” reaffirms the idea that God regrets having created “Earth, and Life and man” (31), but suggests that suffering is not directly caused by God. Instead, God mourns that his “oft too unconscious hand/ Let enter undesigned” the evil “endured by earth’s patient kind”. Again, ignorance on the part of the Immanent Will functions as a possible cause for suffering.
In “The Mother Mourns” and “”God Forgotten” God/Nature makes humanity responsible for the separation between God and humankind.
Stotko 50 “The Subalterns” undermines the concept that God does not know about man’s plight on earth. It contends that the evil that befalls humanity in the form of the elements, sickness and death are predetermined by God: “there are laws in force on high” (4) which determine what is to be. There is a complete absence of loving care or goodness on the part of the Immanent Will. The relentless laws take their course and cannot be diverted to suit any individual. Alternatively, “The Lacking Sense” proposes that Nature “Brings those fearful unfulfilments, that red ravage through her/ zones/ Whereat all creation groans” (28 - 30).
However, the poet states that “all unwittingly she wounds the lives she loves” (24). Like The Immanent Will, she is presented as being unaware of her fault but unlike the Immanent Will, she loves humanity.
Another concept Hardy explores is the idea that man created God. According to Robert Schweik he derives this idea from Feuerbach’s view that “the Christian God is the product of man’s need to imagine perfection” (Kramer 66). “A Plaint to Man” and “God’s Funeral” elucidate Hardy’s interpretation of this concept. In both poems Hardy intimates that man created God as a “solace” to the “gloomy aisles/ Of this wailful world” and in “God’s Funeral” God’s purpose includes the exercise of justice and “to bless those by circumstances accurst”. “A Plaint to Man” is written in direct speech with the man-made god addressing its creator, questioning its right to exist. The reason given for the creation of God is the need for a “mercy seat”. Man cannot bear the sorrow on earth and creates in God a coping mechanism for this sorrow and hopelessness.
“Such forced device,” you may say, “is meet
For easing a loaded heart at whiles:
Man needs to conceive of a mercy-seat Somewhere above the gloomy aisles Of this wailful world, or he could not bear The irk no local hope beguiles.” (13 - 18) Hardy’s use in this context of the specifically Biblical term “mercy-seat” (sic) is important. The suggestion that man needs a “mercy-seat” if life on earth is to be at all tolerable, or indeed bearable, is perhaps indicative of a subconscious reliance on the Scripture as a frame of reference in seeking answers to the meaning of life.
In the Bible (Exodus 25.17), the mercy seat is the golden throne placed above the Ark of the Covenant. On the Day of Atonement, blood is sprinkled on the mercy seat as a sign that the sentence of the law has been carried out in accordance the Scripture: “And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without the shedding of blood there is no remission” (Hebrews 8.32). Thus the judgement seat is transformed into a mercy seat which becomes the place of communion with God (Exodus 2.27). It is symbolic of God’s great mercy to his people because it provides a solution to the problem of sin and reconciles God to man. In the New Testament the same Greek word for mercy seat is used of Christ Stotko 51 (Romans 3.25). Through the shedding of his blood he becomes the mercy seat. The term “mercy-seat” in the poem therefore implies that there is possibly a deeper concern than initially meets the eye, namely, Hardy’s preoccupation with sin and atonement.
Hardy’s assertion that man can only bear living on “this wailful world” with the aid of a “mercy-seat” suggests a latent consciousness of sin and judgement which nothing on earth can resolve. A supernatural force seems necessary to provide a means to deal with these issues, which leads to the creation of God. “A Plaint to Man” describes the demise of man’s need for God through a system which Hardy called evolutionary meliorism, however, it leaves the question of guilt, sin and atonement unanswered.
The poem declares that man’s need for a god has dwindled to extinction because man has come to realise that he is capable, without divine intervention, of initiating lovingkindness and brotherhood amongst men. Man can achieve morality and ethics without
The fact of life with dependence placed On the human heart’s resource alone, In brotherhood bonded close and graced With loving-kindness fully blown, And visioned help unsought, unknown. (28 - 33) Hardy himself proposes a George Eliot-style theory of humanistic meliorism that the world can be improved through love and the brotherhood of man. He recognises that loving-kindness is essential to man’s existence and in “God’s Funeral” the mystical form of God’s corpse symbolically represents the ideal of “loving-kindness full blown”, (“Yet throughout all it symboled none the less/ Potency vast and loving-kindness strong” [15-16]). The poet’s specification “none the less” implies that whether God be a reality (for believers), or imagined, He remains an ineradicable emblem of the law of love, humanistic or Biblical, to the poet.
However, it seems his fiction does not support Hardy’s meliorist theory. Evidence of this principle in operation in Hardy’s work is not blatantly obvious as it is in George Eliot’s novels. In fact, the contrary appears to be the case. Tess is by the narrator’s own definition the incarnation of love as described in 2 Corinthians 13, she is also likened to the most perfect woman in the Bible (Proverbs 31), yet all these qualities do not serve to ameliorate her life or the lives of those around her. To men she is a fatal temptation and disaster befalls her wherever she goes in spite of her good qualities and pure intentions. Hardy’s characters demonstrate that this principle does not operate in their lives. The “human heart’s resource alone” fails dismally as a tool for improvement in Hardy’s world. Angel Clare’s father is a sterling example of Christian love in action, yet he is unable to influence his own children. His sons are all selfish and judgemental and the one strong convert whose life he helps change,
reverts back to his old sinful ways. Clym Yeobright and Jude both desire to learn and be useful to others and fail.
Another example of a similar failure of this principle is the long-suffering and utterly unselfish Charlotte De Stancy. She personifies the Victorian Christian virtues of love, selfabnegation and habitual self-denial. These virtues do not lead to personal fulfilment and happiness; rather they result in Charlotte’s joining a nunnery and removing herself from the real world. Hardy’s attempt to intellectually rationalise the ethics of Christianity outside of deism through his idea of the melioration of man based on the sole effort of man appears to remain purely theoretical with no practical application in the fictional universe he creates.
“God’s Funeral” is an attempt to describe the impact on humanity of a decline in a belief in God. Bailey points out that Hardy was disappointed that this poem was received as an attack on religion. He intended it as “an attempt to point toward a faith acceptable to the twentieth century” (287). He is acutely aware of that gnawing something in human nature, that seeks fulfilment which it cannot find in the intellectual or physical realm of existence. This is the “latent knowledge” he feels “stirring” within him (6 - 7). It is this irrepressible feeling in man that reaches out into the universe desiring to find a response, an echo, a dwelling place external to himself, which answers his need for spiritual communion. It is the reason why the “Darkling Thrush” chooses to “fling his soul/ Upon the growing gloom” (23 - 24). The earth is desolate and barren. No “cause” for “ecstatic” “carolings” is to be found there. Yet, something causes the thrush to sing out joyfully. Hardy calls it: “some blessed Hope” (31).
The overtly religious connotations of the words “blessed” “carolings” and “evensong” emphasise Hardy’s acknowledgment of the possible existence of a hope, religious in nature which sadly eludes him.
In “God’s Funeral” the narrator is a man deprived of God whose presence is described as marvellous and glorious and whose disappearance leaves humanity and the poet bereft. In contrast, “A Plaint to Man” details the process whereby an unneeded God slips away into oblivion, unheeded by man. These two poems should be viewed in context as their composite meaning can only be comprehended if they are read as part of a whole. (William Morgan stresses the importance of viewing Hardy’s poetry in the context he placed them within each book of poems.) Each poem sheds light on the other enhancing the aggregate meaning. Although they share the same theme, the tone of the language in each poem sends conflicting signals. The speaker in “A Plaint to Man” is resigned and accepts that through the intellectual process of evolution man is no longer dependent on God, but on the “resource” of his own heart, whereas the tone in “God’s Funeral” is one of poignant regret and sorrow. The poet describes himself as “dazed and puzzled ‘twixt the gleam and gloom” (67).
His defection from belief to unbelief is reluctant and places him in the spiritual twilight zone so typical of the Victorian agnostic. Hardy “mechanically” follows the mourners, not the believers, with whom he has great empathy, indicating that neither his heart nor his intellect
supports his defection. Against his will, he chooses “gloom” that comes with unbelief. Hardy’s fiction and poetry demonstrate that this gloom overshadows his views on life and exerts a pessimistic influence over his work.