FOREVER AUTUMN: THOMAS HARDY’S DURING WIND AND RAIN

Today we shall take a look at Thomas Hardy’s poem During Wind and Rain.

It might be puzzling at first glance, but one quickly notices that the first five lines of each stanza depict a pleasant scene of middle-class family life in rural England roughly at the beginning of the Edwardian period, while the last two lines of each stanza consist of a ballad-like lament (repeated in two different forms) followed by an image of transience. These latter images, when combined, show us the coming and arrival of a storm, quite in contrast to the bright and happy scenes, but nonetheless, we shall see, related.

This odd combination of pleasant family vignettes combined with images of storm have, as their point, very much the same as that of the poem Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas. In the latter we are shown the happy childhood of a boy quite unaware that even as he is enjoying his simple pleasures, time is already gradually killing him. In Hardy’s poem the family similarly are engaged in their domestic pleasures, quite unaware that a storm is arriving. The storm is time and death.

So that is Hardy’s point, very close to that of Dylan Thomas, who wrote:

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would
take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

You will find it helpful, I think, to read my posting on Fern Hill in the archives of this site.

This notion of humans heedlessly going about their little pleasures, unaware that time is engaged in killing them, is found also in the very old Buddhist parable of the children playing in a house. They are so absorbed in their play that they fail to notice that the house is aflame. In Fern Hill these children are the boy Dylan Thomas; in During Wind and Rain they are the happy middle-class family.

Here is the poem:

They sing their dearest songs–
He, she, all of them–yea,
Treble and tenor and bass.
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face….
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

They clear the creeping moss–
Elders and juniors–aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat….
Ah, no; the years, the years;
See, the white storm-birds wing across!

They are blithely breakfasting all–
Men and maidens–yea,
Under the summer tree,
With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to the knee….
Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ripped from the wall.

They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them–aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs….
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the raindrop plows.

The first stanza shows us a group, likely a family, father, mother, children and perhaps some friends, gathered together and happily singing familiar songs, something that was very common in the days before radio and television and the Internet. They sing in harmonious parts, high voices, medium voices, and low voices, and the candlelight shines on their faces, making them glow like moons in the shadowy pre-electrified room. One person plays accompaniment on a musical instrument, perhaps an upright cottage piano with its two candleholders placed above the music rack, to left and right, and the candles lit.

This cheerful scene is followed by the first lament:

Ah, no; the years O!

— like the repeated refrain of a song.

Next comes the second stanza, another pleasant scene. We see them, some older, some younger, tidying up a garden, removing moss, cleaning the paths, building a pleasant seat for conversation or contemplation in the shade of a vine or beneath the boughs of a tree. But that is followed by the second lament:

Ah, no; the years, the years;

Then comes a third pleasant scene. Here both males and females are lightheartedly having their breakfast outdoors beneath a tree. The waters of the bay glitter in the distance, and wandering pet chickens approach the legs of the sitters curiously, hoping for some stray bit of food to eat. And after it the first lament is repeated:

Ah, no; the years O!

Finally we see the last pleasant scene. The family has come up in the world; it is the day of their moving into a larger and more commodious house, a big event for a rising middle-class family. All the furniture and bright belongings are placed outside the door on the lawn, the sunlight shining on it and warming it all, clocks and carpets and chairs, as the interior of the house is gradually tidied and arranged and things are brought in piece by piece to be placed in their new locations. And then comes a repetition of the second lament:

Ah, no; the years, the years;

In each case, in each stanza, the ballad-like lament is followed by a scene contrasting with the happy family scenes. If we put all four together, we can see that they gradually build up a storm, a sense of impending unpleasantness, to a final climax:

How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!
See, the white storm-birds wing across!
And the rotten rose is ripped from the wall.
Down their carved names the raindrop plows.

First we see a multitude of leaves falling from the trees, and next “storm-birds” — birds flying across the sky ahead of the coming storm; a wind rips an aged but decayed rose stalk from the wall against which it had been growing for years; and finally we see tombstones in the beating rain, the drops streaming down and through the grooves of the carved names of the same family we have seen in the preceding happy times.

Notice that Hardy connects this rising storm with autumn. That is because autumn, as in hokku, is the time of withering, decay, and ultimate death. It is also because in England storms tend to come from the West, off the Atlantic. That also gives us the connection with the wind in the poem, which likely was the wind from the West. We see that autumn/wind connection expressed in Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, which begins,

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being
Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing…

And that, of course, gives us the beginning autumn image Hardy uses in the last line of the first stanza — leaves blown from the trees.

What is the meaning of all this? It is that human joys and human lives are fleeting, that even while we are in the midst of our pleasures there are unheeded signs that it will not last. Hardy’s method was to show us those hints of coming distress after each happy scene, preceded always by a lament of the swift passage of the years, of inexorable time:

Ah, no; the years O!
Ah, no; the years, the years;

It is the years, it is time that is the destroyer of temporary human joys, the taker of brief human lives. It is the same view, untinted by romanticism, that we find in Hardy’s remarkable novels, a view exemplified by his statement “… my sober opinion — so far as I have any definite one — of the Cause of Things, has been defined in scores of places, and is that of a great many ordinary thinkers: that the said Cause is neither moral nor immoral but unmoral: ‘loveless and hateless’ I have called it, ‘which neither good nor evil knows’” Hardy considered himself “a harmless agnostic.”

This poem achieves its end, its point, by mixing happy scenes of the dead past with the result of it all, rain streaming down tombstones. The pleasant scenes are all counterbalanced by scenes of autumn and storm. Hardy is saying that in spite of its superficial spring-summer appearance, life is really forever autumn. As Omar Khayyam says in Fitzgerald’s version,

Whether at Naishapur or Babylon,
Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run,
The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one.

The meaning of Hardy’s poem is, in one word, impermanence — the same theme that underlies all good hokku.

The old Japanese writer of hokku, Rōka, wrote a verse which, though it long precedes Hardy’s, nonetheless expresses the same sentiment more subtly by concentrating only on the present moment:

Sadness;
Cold rain dyes the letters
On the grave-stone.

Here is the original and a very literal translation:

Kanashisa ya
Shigure ni somaru
Haka no moji.

Sadness ya
Rain in is-dyed
Gravestone ‘s writing

You will recall, if you are a regular reader here, that ya is an untranslatable particle indicating a meditative pause, indicated in English here by a semicolon.

The word shigure means the cold rain of late autumn to early winter. Traditionally this is considered a winter hokku, but remember that according to the Hokku Calendar, winter begins about the time of Halloween.

Regarding this stanza of Hardy’s poem —

They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them–aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs….
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the raindrop plows.

— you may have read the interpretation that “a high new house” means the family has died and has moved to heaven, and the furniture placed out upon the lawn signifies the sale of their belongings. I do not think that is a legitimate or reasonable understanding. Hardy the self-declared agnostic was not a believer in a heaven. His view as we have seen, was that the tiny, brief lives of humans take place on the vast stage of a universe neither moral nor immoral, but “un-moral.”

Some see the “pleasant parts” of the four stanzas as representing the four seasons, beginning with winter, progressing to a spring garden cleaning, then to a summer breakfast, and finally autumn, but I do not think there is enough evidence for that. Instead it would appear that aside from the last line of each stanza, all can be placed in a spring through summer setting, thus contrasting with the “forever autumn” theme of the poem as a whole.

That theme also explains the title of the poem, During Wind and Rain. The family going about their domestic pleasures are quite unaware that their actions are all happening as an “autumn” storm (time) is rising that will sweep all away.

David

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