Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Thomas Hardy: 'A New Year's Eve in War Time'

Thomas Hardy wrote several New Year's Eve poems. The most famous is 'The Darkling Thrush', which mourns the passing of a year and a century. Hardy is the wintriest of poets, and he tends to see New Year's Eve exclusively as an ending, without looking forward to seasonal renewal. Shelley's question in his 'Ode to the West Wind' --- 'If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?' --- is one which Hardy never thinks of asking. Hardy's failure to believe in the prospect of renewal suits a poetry of old age, a posthumous poetry in which the poet views himself as 'but a dead man held on end'. His agnosticism denies that resurrection must follow death.

'A New Year's Eve in War Time' is collected in the section subtitled 'Poems of War and Patriotism' from Moments of Vision (1917). It is unusual in that it does look forward to the New Year. In fact, the authorial date at the end of the poem ---1915-1916 --- would have the reader believe that it is written either side of midnight. Yet the 'Young Unknown', a potential Christ-figure come to redeem the world --- turns out most likely to be bringing more of the same: more tears, more famine, more flame, more severance, more shock. The poem sits uncomfortably alongside poems like '"Men Who March Away"' and 'A Call to National Service', betraying the hollow rhetoric of those public proclamations.

A New Year's Eve in War Time

I
   Phantasmal fears,
   And the flap of the flame,
   And the throb of the clock,
   And a loosened slate,
   And the blind night's drone,
Which tiredly the spectral pines intone!

II
And the blood in my ears
Strumming always the same,
And the gable-cock
With its fitful grate,
And myself, alone.

III
The twelfth hour nears
Hand-hid, as in shame;
I undo the lock,
And listen, and wait
For the Young Unknown.

IV
In the dark there careers---
As if Death astride came
To numb all with his knock---
A horse at mad rate
Over rut and stone.

V
No figure appears,
No call of my name,
No sound but "Tic-toc"
Without check. Past the gate
It clatters---is gone.

VI
What rider it bears
There is none to proclaim;
And the Old Year has struck,
And, scarce animate,
The New makes moan.

VII
   Maybe that "More Tears!---
   More Famine and Flame---
   More Severance and Shock!"
   Is the order from Fate
   That the Rider speeds on
To pale Europe; and tiredly the pines intone.

1915-1916.

1 comment:

  1. Depressed unto Death from old age and empty solitude and War, it doesn't seem likely Hardy COULD honor the turnaround resurrection of the year. Definitely no relief and little pleasure for the reader. But the mastery of rhythm and rhyme, of short-line thought into form... whew!

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