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

MIDNIGHT ON THE GREAT WESTERN: THE JOURNEY OF LIFE

English: A map of the Great Western Railway sy...

The following poem by Thomas Hardy is a combination of objectivity and subjectivity.  The first two stanzas are descriptive;  they set the writer to thinking.  The second two express the writer’s consequent thoughts.

The setting is a passenger compartment on an old steam train chugging through the south of Britain in the early 20th century.  It is the Great Western line, which ran from London across the south of England and all the way into Wales.

Our poet — Thomas Hardy — is on the train as it passes through the darkness, and he is awake at midnight, looking at and pondering a boy travelling alone, his form revealed by the dim light of the oil lamp suspended from the roof of the carriage.  The boy and the writer are travelling — as did most people — in the cheaper third-class seats rather than in first class.

We will take the poem stanza by stanza:

In the third-class seat sat the journeying boy, 
And the roof-lamp’s oily flame 
Played down on his listless form and face, 
Bewrapt past knowing to what he was going, 
Or whence he came. 

One has the feeling, from the description, that the poet is seated opposite the boy, who is sitting there listlessly and sleepily — seemingly without energy or interest in anything around him.  His body is relaxed and slumped, his face blank.  We see this by the dim, dingy light of the oil flame burning in the roof lamp, the light that feebly illumines the compartment.

The boy is so absorbed in his sleepy abstraction that Hardy says he is “bewrapt past knowing” — wrapped up in his weariness and lack of thought to the extent that he is not thinking about where he is coming from or to what he is going; he has no concern for past or future.

 In the band of his hat the journeying boy 
Had a ticket stuck; and a string 
Around his neck bore the key of his box, 
That twinkled gleams of the lamp’s sad beams 
Like a living thing. 

The boy is wearing a hat, and the hat has a band about the lower part of the crown, and in that band his ticket is stuck for convenience, so that anyone checking may see it immediately.  And around the boy’s neck is hung a string, and from that string a metal key is suspended.  It is the key that opens the boy’s travelling-box, his “luggage” as we would say.  The key “twinkled gleams of the lamp’s sad beams,” meaning it reflected flashes of light from the roof lamp as it jostled while the carriage kept up its gentle shaking.  This flashing reflection of the lamp makes the key seem almost like a living, moving thing.

At this point Hardy begins to muse on what he is seeing.  He addresses the boy, though of course only in his mind:

What past can be yours, O journeying boy 
Towards a world unknown, 
Who calmly, as if incurious quite 
On all at stake, can undertake 
This plunge alone? 

Hardy wonders what the boy’s past must have been like to make him seem so uninterested, so lacking in curiosity about what future might await him, so without interest on “all at stake” meaning his whole life ahead.  What could have given the boy such calmness as he undertakes “this plunge alone” — this journey into the unknown, travelling with no one watching over him?

 Knows your soul a sphere, O journeying boy, 
Our rude realms far above, 
Whence with spacious vision you mark and mete 
This region of sin that you find you in, 
But are not of?

Hardy asks if perhaps the soul of the boy — his inner being — is not really in or from “some sphere,” some realm far beyond our earthly, rude, everyday realm, from which the boy with wider sight than ours  looks down and measures (“metes”) — evaluates — what goes on in our rude material realm, “this region of sin” that the boy finds himself in, “but is not of.”  The boy to Hardy seems quite innocent, as though he had some supernatural knowledge of things that has made him quite unconcerned with matters on our worldly plane of existence.  How else could the boy be travelling alone, plunging through the night from past to future, and yet be so unconcerned about everything in this world so filled with troubles?

It is, of course, just a poet’s musing, but Hardy shows us, through his thoughts, what a dark place he considers this world to be, and he thinks this calm, innocent boy must surely see things from a higher realm than we are able, given that he seems to pass through the darkness of our earthly realm so unconcernedly.

We can take this midnight journey, if we wish, as a metaphor for life.  We come from the unknown and pass to the unknown.  Gauguin wrote on one of his famous Tahitian paintings, “D’où Venons Nous… Que Sommes Nous…Où Allons Nous?” — “From where do we come?  What are we?  Where are we going?”  It is the universal, human, unanswered question.  And it is certainly the question in Hardy’s mind as he watches the languid boy sitting half-asleep across from him, the light flickering from the metal key suspended about his neck as the softly jerking train carriage passes on through the midnight darkness.

David

THOMAS HARDY ON AGING: I LOOK INTO MY GLASS

Thomas Hardy, by Walter William Ouless (died 1...
The poet and novelist Thomas Hardy

Yesterday I happened upon an obituary for the younger brother of someone I knew many years ago.  It had a photo.  When I last saw him, he was a good-looking boy of about 13 years.  It was a shock to see what time (and I suspect smoking) had done to him.

Thomas Hardy wrote a sad poem about aging.  It is not like the TV commercials that tell older people their golden years have come, that life is just going to get better and better.   Instead it is a very realistic look at aging and a lonely life.  Let’s examine it part by part:

I look into my glass,
And view my wasting skin,
And say, “Would God it came to pass
My heart had shrunk as thin!”

One may think of this as spoken by a man or a woman, but given that it was written by a man, that is the course we shall follow.

Hardy says he looks “into my glass,” meaning his “looking glass,” an old term for a mirror.  And when he looks into the mirror, he sees what all old people see — his “wasting skin.”  “Wasting” here means just what happens to the skin as one ages — it dries and wrinkles and discolors, it loses its fresh appearance, and it is obvious that it has lost its strength and youth.  Its former smoothness and tautness is gone.   The term reminds us of a “wasting disease,” one that gradually consumes the body and its tissues.  So Hardy looks in a mirror and sees in his aging skin and features that he is subject, as  Buddhism would say, to sickness, to old age,  and to death.

By “Would God it came to pass,” he means “I really wish it had happened that….”  People once used expressions like this, and sometimes still do, such as “I wish to God I had studied for that exam!”  But why does he wish his heart had shrunk too?

When Hardy speaks of his heart, he is actually talking about his emotions — about his ability to love and to be hurt.  It was once thought (and we still speak of it that way) that the heart was where the human emotions were centered in the body.  That is why we hear people say, “She was heartbroken when her boyfriend left her.”  So Hardy is saying that he wishes his emotions — his capacity to love and be hurt — had shrunk as thin as his skin — had weakened and lost strength like the skin of his face and neck in the mirror.  But why?  He tells us:

For then, I, undistrest
By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
With equanimity.

He wishes his emotions had weakened so that he, “undistrest,” meaning without distress — without mental suffering — could “lonely wait” his endless rest.  By this he means that he could wait alone for death (“endless rest”) to come, without being hurt so much by the people who formerly seemed to like or love him, but who now ignore him, “by hearts grown cold to me.”  If his ability to “feel” had shrunk like his skin, the coldness of other people would not hurt him as it obviously does.

This is a common complaint of the old.  Not only are their friends and relatives dying, but also the living people around them — often younger — find old people no longer interesting, so they begin to ignore them, to make excuses for why they have not visited or called.  Loneliness is one of the most difficult parts of aging.  And sometimes that is as true for people who have children as for those who do not.

In keeping with this, I recently heard a few clever words that are often all too true.  A man said,

When I was in my teens, I used to worry constantly about what other people were thinking of me.  Then when I got past 40, I began not to worry so much what other people thought of me.  Now that I am in my 60s, I realize that nobody thinks of me at all.”   There is an old song with the line, “Nobody loves you when you’re old and grey.”  Gay people have their own version: “Nobody loves you when you’re old and gay.”

Both mean the same thing.  When youth and good looks or beauty pass — when you are no longer a possibility for romance, which depends so much on youth and appearance — others lose interest.  As people get older, they gradually become first insignificant and then increasingly invisible to the young.  They often simply do not matter any more.

Hardy was obviously very hurt by all of this, and that is why he wrote:

For then, I, undistrest
By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
With equanimity.

He continues:

But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide.

Time, of course, is what ages us and steals our youth.  Hardy sees time as a negative force — a force that to make him miserable,  “part steals, part lets abide.”  The part it steals is of course the freshness and youthfulness of his face and body, which is now looking shrunken and wrinkled; and the part it “lets abide” — allows to remain — is Hardy’s ability to feel strong emotion and to be deeply hurt by the indifference and coldness of other people toward him.

It is precisely this continuing ability to be hurt and made very unhappy by others that “shakes this fragile frame” (meaning his weakening, aging body) “at eve, with throbbings of noontide.”

Hardy is using “eve” (evening) in a dual sense; he means by it both the “evening” of life — old age — which comes before the “night” of death” — and he means, I think, the evening of the day, when one is often alone with one’s thoughts and emotions.  It is at this time — in the evening of life and in the evening of each day — that Hardy’s fragile, aging body shakes with sorrow and weeping, with the “throbbings of noontide,” meaning the emotions of the height of one’s life that do not weaken and shrink as one grows older; so while the skin wrinkles and loses its vigor, the emotions, Hardy says, unfortunately and definitely do not.  That is why he is left hurt and shaking with weeping and alone in the evening of his life, in the evening of the day.

It is a simple poem, but very powerful and representative of the feelings of countless lonely, elderly people.  It is definitely what I call an “old man’s poem,” or an “old woman’s poem.”  And it is brutally honest.

It is hard for young people to grasp the reality of such a poem, because inherently — like Dylan Thomas in Fern Hill — young people feel the world is theirs, that they will live forever.  Intellectually they know that is not true, but they do not yet realize and fully grasp the fact.  That is why aging is such a shock to many people.  And in a culture in which youth and beauty are so glorified, we have the sad picture of people trying to stave off or deny the inevitable — plastic surgeries, hair dyes, and endless other processes or products intended to mask the realities of life and time.

The problem for the young in understanding this poem, then, is not so much in understanding it intellectually, which can be easily aided by explanations such as I have given here.  The problem lies, rather, in their difficulty in feeling how deeply true it is, because it expresses one of the fundamental realities of life — that everything is transient, that ultimately there is nothing to hold onto, neither person nor object, that there is no material,  unchanging island in a sea of change.  A young person who realizes that is mature beyond his or her years.  But generally it is something the young do not wish to think about.

David

DRUMMER HODGE: STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND

Boer War drummer boy writing his mum

Thomas Hardy — yes, the same man who wrote Jude the Obscure, Tess of the d’Urbervilles and those other famous novels of Britain — wrote a very meaningful poem about the Boer War (1899-1902).  In that war the British (and men from British possessions) fought against the people of Dutch ancestry in parts of what is now South Africa — against the people called the Boers (boer is Dutch for “farmer”).

Hardy had news of a drummer killed in that war, a young fellow — probably a boy, really — who was from Dorchester, in the region of south England that Hardy wrote about in his novels under its old name, Wessex (“West-Saxony”).  Drummers in that war might be as young as 13 or 14, getting into the military by lying about their age.

Here is the poem:

They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
  Uncoffined – just as found:
His landmark is a kopje-crest
  That breaks the veldt around;
And foreign constellations west
  Each night above his mound.

Young Hodge the Drummer never knew –
  Fresh from his Wessex home –
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
  The Bush, the dusty loam,
And why uprose to nightly view
  Strange stars amid the gloam.

Yet portion of that unknown plain
  Will Hodge forever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
  Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
  His stars eternally.

It is a very sad and lonely poem, bringing to mind the useless suffering and futility of war.  Let’s look more closely, part by part:

They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
  Uncoffined – just as found:
His landmark is a kopje-crest
  That breaks the veldt around;
And foreign constellations west
  Each night above his mound.

It is, of course, a rough and hasty military burial — not even, we may say, respectful; just throwing the young body into a hole dug in the ground, with no coffin at all — the body just as it was found in the field.

His landmark — that is, the physical feature of the landscape by which one might roughly identify where the grave lies — is just a kopje-crest, meaning one of those hillocks, often consisting of or surmounted by large, bare rocks and stones, that rise here and there above the veldt, the level fields that stretch into the distance.  A kopje (pronounced “cop-yuh”) means literally a “little head,” but it is just one of those often stony, isolated hillocks one sees in movies of Africa, with a lion lounging atop one of its big boulders.  “That breaks the veldt around” means the the kopje rises up above and interrupts the flatness of the surrounding land.

We know already that this “Drummer Hodge” is, as we would say, still “just a kid,” likely no more than 17 and possibly not even that.  And we really do not know what his name was.  Yes, Hodge is a genuine family surname, but in the England of Hardy’s time it was also used as a nickname for any country boy or man — “that farm kid.”  When the newspapers asked “what Hodge was saying” on a particular matter, they meant the views of the average British man from the agricultural countryside.

So really Drummer Hodge is anonymous, just one of those farm boys who enlisted for the illusion of military glory.  It is paradoxical that in the film The History Boys,  an enthusiastic teacher — “Mr. Hector” — says of Hodge in this poem, “the important thing is that he has a name,” and he proceeds to tell his student how it was at this period of history that ordinary soldiers began to be remembered by name, commemorated on war monuments.  It is a poignant and effective scene in the film, but the part about Hodge having a name is an error, which writer Alan Bennet later recognized and acknowledged.  Hodge actually is, in this poem, an “unknown soldier,” though of course we know he was a Wessex country boy.

Hardy emphasizes, partly by his use of Afrikaans (South African Dutch dialect) terms such as kopje, veldt, and so on, the “foreignness” of the resting place of Drummer Hodge, how alien it all was to him.

Above the mound of his grave, “foreign” constellations west each night.  Here west is a verb meaning “to move toward the West, to set in the West.”  So Hardy is really saying that strange constellations (star patterns) unfamiliar to Hodge would move and set each night in the wide sky above the little mound where his grave lay in the vast veldt.

The next segment of the poem repeats and emphasizes some of the elements of the first part:

Young Hodge the Drummer never knew –
  Fresh from his Wessex home –
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
  The Bush, the dusty loam,
And why uprose to nightly view
  Strange stars amid the gloam.

Hardy tells us that young “Hodge,” fresh from the Wessex countryside, never even had the time get to know and understand his alien surroundings in Africa — the Karoo (broad, dry plateau land), the Bush (the wild, uncultivated lands away from the towns) — and the dusty loam, the dry soil of southern Africa.  And Hodge never had the time, before he was killed, to learn why strange stars — stars he did not recognize — rose in the sky each night “amid the gloam,” meaning in the time after the sun had set, when the stars come out.

Now all of this is significant in Hardy’s transmission to the reader of just how alien his African surroundings were to this Wessex boy, who, being a farm lad, would have been well familiar with the soil, the trees, the hedgerows, and the constellations above southern England.  He was sent off to die in an alien land quite “foreign” to him, from soil to sky.

Paradoxically, Hardy tells us…

Yet portion of that unknown plain
  Will Hodge forever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
  Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
  His stars eternally.

Hodge, buried in the dry, alien soil of Africa, now becomes part of that soil.  His “homely” breast and brain will be absorbed by the roots of some strange African tree.  And “strange-eyed” constellations reign his stars eternally,” means that the unfamiliar (“strange-eyed”) stars overhead that dominate the sky in patterns unknown to Wessex will be those over Hodge’s grave forever.  He will never again see England, but will become part of the soil and growth of Africa, lost forever in that alien land.

There is something remarkably like this near the end of My Mother’s Castle, the autobiographical account of the French author Marcel Pagnol, who talks about the sad death of his young country friend Lili des Bellons, who knew every leaf and bird and trail of his home hills, yet who similarly was killed in land that was foreign to him, a dark northern forest in the First World War:

“In 1917, a bullet striking full on cut short his young life, and he fell in the rain upon tufts of cold plants whose names he did not know.”

Again, in the film The History Boys, the student discussing Hardy’s poem remarks that there is a parallel between

Yet portion of that unknown plain
  Will Hodge forever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
  Grow to some Southern tree…

and “golden boy” Rupert Brooke’s poem The Soldier:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

Brooke (1887 – 1915) — who joined the British navy, died of the effects of a sequence of illnesses that ended with blood poisoning, and was buried on the island of Skyros, in Greece, not living to see his third decade of life.

In the previously-mentioned film, “Mr. Hector” replies perceptively to the student, saying of the two poems that “It is the same thought,” but adds that Hardy’s is the better, because it is “more down to earth…quite literally, down to earth.”  And it is, though both poems are very good.  In Brooke, the young man buried remains something alien in that foreign soil — “a richer dust concealed.” But Hardy is more the realist:

Yet portion of that unknown plain
  Will Hodge forever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
  Grow to some Southern tree…

Drummer Hodge becomes absorbed into that alien environment, becomes as much a part of it as the kopje and the “Southern tree” that grows from his remains.  Quite literally, as Mr. Hector says, “down to earth.”

We should note the use of the word “homely” here.  It does not mean “plain and unattractive in appearance,” but it does mean unsophisticated and we may say, “as one would find him at his home.”  It is not negative, but just reflects his “country boy” nature — open and simple, direct and unpolished.

It really is a very striking poem, not filled with the reflected glory of Brooke, but with the acceptance of hard things as they are that we find in Hardy’s novels, which is one of the reasons why he is one of the few novelists I can read and take seriously, along with John Steinbeck.

The “aftereffect” of Drummer Hodge is somewhat like that of these lines from William Wordsworth’s A Slumber did my Spirit Seal:

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks and stones and trees.

But with “Hodge” they are alien rocks, alien trees, alien earth and sky — and he gradually becomes one with them, as the days, months, and years pass ceaselessly on.

There is a very telling comment about the Boer War in the film Dean Spanley.  An elderly British father of two sons, one of whom died in the conflict, asks the surviving son, “Did we win the Boer War?”  The reply is, “I believe we lost more slowly than the other side.


David