Monday 20 December 2010

Thomas Hardy, 'Christmas: 1924'

Thomas Hardy rarely missed an opportunity to express his disappointment with Christianity. War, in particular, prompted him to consider the failure of religion to act as any sort of civilising influence. A dead soldier, speaking from the battlefields of the Boer War, had complained in Hardy's 'A Christmas Ghost Story' (1899) that the 'cause for which [Christ] died' seemed to have been ruled as 'inept, and set aside'. Around the same time, Hardy told a 'religious man' that 'We the civilized world have given Christianity a fair trial for nearly 2000 years, & it has not yet taught countries the rudimentary virtue of keeping peace.'

The consistency of Hardy's thinking on this problem is measured several decades later when, in what would be his final book of poems, Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres, he included a sour little epigram.

Christmas: 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.

Bizarrely, the BBC has a furrow-browed Jack Dee looking at war memorials and images of 'Victims of War' before reciting the poem. By ending with an image of Mother and Child, and the solacing candles, the clip finds comfort in the very source which Hardy's poem had bitterly rejected.


  1. Hardy's bluntness reminds me of Arthur Graeme West's poems about God. But West is beside himself, he's so angry; he's absolutely outraged. Hardy's not so passionate.

    Thanks for moving on from JP. Took a while!

  2. Whatever Hardy's rationale (pro-Peace, anti-Church, bitter misanthrope), I'd rate this Xmas excoriation as jingle-bellicose--a failed aphorism I'd rate "F for missed 'em" instead.

  3. Shame that a man at war within himself, bound by depression and despair, but for a time distracted (taunted, one might say) by a tiny bird... too bad such a lovely marvel doesn't qualify as a war poem for the New Year. Is the poet swayed? Or is he beyond swaying (as later when truly aged, frail and fervourless)? Hardy's other poems pale beside the Darkling's perfect phrases and images. Nothing in the century since has bettered it--equalled maybe; many would cite favorites--and I believe Hardy never again flung his soul so far.

  4. I went to Mass but always felt like more of an Agnostic til my wife died. You can't be pissed at someone who doesn't exist. ;-)

  5. The poem is perfect. Effectively, it is an aphorism, but any embellishment would be wasted. It's a sentiment; the church neither condemns war nor serves to prevent it and, after 2000 years, we haven't learnt anything. perfect.

    1. The poem sums our lack of progress up in just four lines.
      Technology is racing ahead ever faster, far outpacing the human animal’s ability to evolve.