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Books

Discovering Poetry: Thomas Hardy’s religion

9 April 2012

9:30 AM

9 April 2012

9:30 AM

‘A Drizzling Easter Morning’

And he is risen? Well, be it so. . . .
And still the pensive lands complain,
And dead men wait as long ago,
As if, much doubting, they would
know
What they are ransomed from, before
They pass again their sheltering door.

I stand amid them in the rain,
While blusters vex the yew and vane;
And on the road the weary wain
Plods forward, laden heavily;
And toilers with
their aches are fain
For endless rest—though risen is he.

Historically, most poems about Easter have been written by Christians. They are normally celebrations of faith. Thomas Hardy, however, was very self-consciously not a believer. But people’s
need to understand the world in broadly religious terms is an enduring theme of his novels and poetry. They seem driven by an unshakable feeling that the world should make sense – that the
good should live happily and the bad unhappily. That the universe obstinately refuses to organise itself like that becomes a source of constant bafflement and is the root of his tragic vision.

‘A Drizzling Easter Morning’ is an accusing finger pointed at both the world itself for failing to live up to our myths and at us for continuing to believe them. It deliberately breaks
the usual conventions of Easter poems to show how badly they match up with reality. Many Easter poems feature the risen sun as a symbol of the risen Son (the hardest working pun in the history of
English poetry) and the natural rebirths of spring as a concrete expression of the myth of Christ’s resurrection. Hardy points out what most of us know all too well – Easter weekend can
be as cold and wet as any other bank-holiday. Nature won’t join in our stories. And the poem’s speaker is stood in a churchyard where,  whilst the Easter story is being celebrated
inside the church, the skeletons ‘wait as long ago’. As has been the case for two thousand years they stubbornly refuse to burst out of their graves even as (we imagine) the parson
inside proclaims total victory over Death.

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The weather and the dead (who are almost, but not quite, endowed with agency when said to be ‘as if much doubting’) become sorts of sullen antagonists to the community’s shared
beliefs. And the community itself begins to crack under the pressure of that antagonism. We can only guess why the speaker choses to mope outside in the rain. Maybe he can’t bring himself to
join in when nature itself scorns what is being celebrated. The fact that he doesn’t capitalise ‘he’ (as is normally done when referring to Christ) is probably a sign that he is
not a believer – the repeated ‘And…And…And’ in the first three lines certainly suggest an unimpressed scepticism. But we know why ‘on the road the weary wain plods forward,
laden heavily’. There’s work to be done, and at least someone is out doing it rather than joining the rest of the congregation in the church. The earth continues do demand labour,
whether it’s Easter or not.

Why then, do we continue to believe our myths? Because life is hard and we need comfort. Hardy  was no sentimentalist about rural life. He knew it was one of constant, menial, physically
ruinous work. A life of  ‘aches’, of weary plodding, of being one more animal out in the rain. Over his career as a writer he made his honest documentation of rural drudgery a
symbol of the struggles all people face trying to live happily in a universe so indifferent to us that it seems malevolent. Hardy may have had no faith in the stories others draw comfort from, but
he understands their hunger for them. And he is tormented by their failures. They aren’t even strong enough to bind us all together in life and they certainly can’t provide us with
enduring comfort. For his tired and aching toilers the only available consolation is a death which is an ‘endless rest’, not an eternal life. The last half line – ‘though
risen is he’ – is empty, mocking, and sad.

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