Friday, 24 September 2010

Thomas Hardy: 'I Looked Up From My Writing'

Until Geoffrey Hill started giving voice to his detractors --- 'obstinate old man', 'obnoxious chthonic old fart', 'rancorous, narcissistic old sod' --- the most self-indicting of modern poets had been Thomas Hardy. Both Hill and Hardy embody in their works what Blake called 'The Accuser who is the God of this World'. Hardy's celebrated 'Poems of 1912-13', a series of elegies for his dead wife, vacillates between guilt and excuse, as first the Accuser and then the defence gets the upper hand.

Hardy's 'Poems of War and Patriotism' from his 1917 volume, Moments of Vision, are similarly fraught, although the conflicts tend to take place between poems rather than within them. Decent and dutiful verses like 'Men Who March Away' and 'A Call to National Service' are juxtaposed with poems like 'A New Year's Eve in War Time' describing horrors, griefs and self-doubts.

Among the greatest of Hardy's poems is a lyric titled 'I Looked Up From My Writing'. It is the final poem of the sequence, and it denounces everything which has preceded it. The Accuser wins by pointing out the Neronic culpability of anyone writing poetry in time of war. Or perhaps the poet wins even in the act of condemning himself, because what he does with that accusation---grotesquely, callously, opportunistically, joyously--- is turn it into yet another poem:

I looked up from my writing,
   And gave a start to see,
As if rapt in my inditing,
   The moon's full gaze on me.

Her meditative misty head
   Was spectral in its air,
And I involuntarily said,
   'What are you doing there?'

'Oh, I've been scanning pond and hole
   And waterway hereabout
For the body of one with a sunken soul
   Who has put his life-light out.

'Did you hear his frenzied tattle?
   It was sorrow for his son
Who is slain in brutish battle,
   Though he has injured none.

'And now I am curious to look
   Into the blinkered mind
Of one who wants to write a book
   In a world of such a kind.'

Her temper overwrought me,
   And I edged to shun her view,
For I felt assured she thought me
   One who should drown him too.


  1. Thanks for drawing attention to this, Tim

  2. Hardy was so voluminously, sometimes boringly prolific one can easily forget he could also be deadly brilliant. Ballad simple here... count syllables or rhythmic regularity? Pshaw; away with thee! And the word choices... "inditing" pulling in "indict" as well; "overwrought" as a verb presumably saying "made me overwrought," but reading more like "overwhelmed me"; "edged"... away, I suppose, yet the phrase makes the poet "edgy" too; "shun her view" with maybe three meanings at once: hide from her eyes, stop looking at her, reject her opinion.

    And what of "should drown him"? The writer "ought to drown himself"? Or his uncaring act (the blinkered writing) "would effectively drown" that grieving father a second time?

    Maybe I'm overworking the words, but Hardy sure packed a lot into four short lines.

  3. Neronic culpability? Or Byronic futility?

  4. I go along with Ed, that the final lines imply culpability. The poet is not just guilty of indifference or irrelevance; he is complicit in the suffering. Writing is a hostile act.

  5. "Hostile" is a pretty strong word and, I'm afraid, prejudicial. Writing may reasonably be described as "assertive," but "hostile"? Was Hardy's writing the cause of the suicide? If not, is it so hostile that the poet should drown himself for daring to write? I can't believe, at least on the basis of what's in this poem, that Hardy would accept so postmodern an idea.

  6. Hardy's poem ascribes to the moon the opinion that the poet is 'One who should drown [the grieving father] too.' It's not a postmodern idea that writing is hostile; it's clearly articulated in the poem. Hardy often expressed guilt about writing in time of war.