Thomas Hardy

Not many people who have two graves, though the famous novelist and poet, Thomas Hardy, has. His body is buried in Westminster Abbey, next to another great writer, Charles Dickens. But his heart lies in the churchyard at Stinsford, a tiny village in the Dorset countryside which he loved so much, and which he wrote about so well in his “ Wessex novels”. You may have read some of his novels, or seen TV or film adaptations of Far from the Madding Crowd or The Mayor of Casterbridge or Tess of the D’Urbervilles. He is also one of the most important English poets of the last hundred years.

His father, and grandfather, used to sing and play in the choirs and bands that provided music for the church services. Young Hardy enjoyed music and grew up in this atmosphere of simple worship. As an adult, however, he encountered the challenges to dogmatic religious belief that were sweeping England, sparked by books such as Darwin’s Origin of Species and the new “higher criticism” of the Bible. Hardy slowly moved from the Christian teachings of his boyhood to become a thoughtful, questioning agnostic. Later in life he wrote: “My pages show harmony of view with Charles DarwinT H Huxley, Herbert Spencer, David HumeJohn Stuart Mill and others …” It was through such wide reading, and his personal experience of life (which included tragic events in the lives of friends), that he came to reject belief in the Christian concept of a personal, loving God. However, Hardy did not like labels and never joined any of the early humanist or rationalist associations.

His viewpoint is well expressed in these two comments about him:

“Hardy reflected Nietzsche’s agonised cry that ‘God is dead’, in his novels. His view of life was that since there is no God to give meaning to life, Man is alone in the Universe, no better and no worse than other creatures who live or have lived for a brief moment on this speck called Earth. The Universe is neither malevolent or benevolent; it is simply indifferent …” J Clipper in Study Guide on The Return of the Native (Bantam)

“In some men such a belief would lead to cynicism and sterility. In Hardy it leads to pity for his fellow human beings, interest in the natural world, and love of being alive … Life itself for us is its own justification.” New English Library English Language and Literature

Hardy’s novels are often tragic. He sometimes uses phrases like “guardian angels” or the “President of the Immortals” or refers to “Fate”, which can give the impression of a belief in the supernatural. But, as an (self-)educated agnostic at the turn of the century, he cannot have believed literally in any of these, and seems to have used them as metaphors for his sometimes rather pessimistic view of life and its possibilities for his victim-characters such as Tess Durbeyfield or Michael Henchard. He also wrote, inThe Mayor of Casterbridge, that “character is fate” and this seems closer to his view of reality – that we are responsible for our own lives and “fates”, something that all humanists believe.

Hardy wrote hundreds of poems. In a number of them he explores deep questions about the existence of God. One is called God’s Funeral; in another, A Philosophical Fantasy, he humorously shows his doubt as to how he should address God:

”Such I ask you, Sir or Madam
(I know no more than Adam,
Even vaguely, what your sex is,
Though feminine I had thought you
Till seers as ‘Sire’ besought you;
– And this my ignorance vexes
Some people not a little,
And, though me not one tittle,
It makes me sometimes choose to
Call you ‘It’, if you’ll excuse me?)…”

Hardy’s poem, The Convergence of the Twain, describes dramatically how the great liner Titanic and the iceberg each moved across hundreds of miles of ocean to collide. Hardy makes us think about the idea of “Fate”, the power of natural forces, and whether this was an accident or a planned “Act of God”.

In The History of English Literature Legouis and Cazamian say that his poems show us his “manifold consciousness of human misery, the moving and metaphysical realisation of an unknown God and an impassive universe, and abhorrence of war”. This last quality is shown in a short poem simply calledChristmas: 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.”

But this disillusionment with organised religion is not what has gained him his world-wide acclaim and his memorial in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. It is the warm humanity and humour of his writing, the compassion which he evokes in us towards the characters in his stories, and his deep love of the beauty of the English countryside.

In a moving poem called Afterwards he hoped that after he “had been stilled at last” people would remember how he used to enjoy the new green leaves in the Spring, watching the hawk perch on a tree or a hedgehog crossing the grass, and how he would stand “watching the mysteries of the full-starred heavens”, and that they would say, “He was a man who used to notice such things.”

His poems are often read at humanist funerals. He wrote about death in a very humanist way, with no vision of a Christian afterlife, simply offering the hope of being remembered by others or surviving in one’s children or as a part of nature:

“I am the family face;
Flesh perishes, I live on…
The eternal thing in man
That heeds no call to die.” (Heredity)

“…A ruddy human life
Now turned to a green shoot…
These grasses must be made
Of her who often prayed,
Last century, for repose;
And the fair girl long ago
Whom I often tried to know
May be entering this rose.” (Transformations)