Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Hap, a poem by Thomas Hardy

( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

“Hap” is a poem by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) that he wrote in 1866, while working as a trainee architect, and for which he could not find a publisher. It did not reach the general public until 1898 when Hardy included it in his first collection, which was entitled “Wessex Poems”, which only appeared after he had concluded his career as a highly successful novelist.

The poem is a sonnet, although it is presented as three stanzas in that the traditional octave is split into two stanzas each of four lines and the sestet is a stanza on its own. The rhyme scheme is ABAB CDCD EFEFFE, which is a variant on the Shakespearean form, although the clean break between octave and sestet is more associated with the Petrarchan sonnet form.

The poem

If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love's loss is my hate's profiting!”

Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.

But not so.   How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
— Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. . . .
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.


The poem can be seen as Hardy’s reaction to the basic thinking that underlies Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” which had been published in 1859. Hardy understood Darwin to imply that the mechanism that drove natural selection was mere accident and chance. Although this is generally held to be a misinterpretation of Darwin’s theory, it was one that was widely held and it was also a reason why many Victorians regarded Darwinism as being a version of atheism and therefore to be condemned.

Hardy had no wish to reject what he understood to be Darwin’s theory, but he wanted to come to terms with it, and “Hap” is one such attempt.

The opening quatrain is headed by “If” and the second by “Then”; thus they can each be regarded as separate clauses of the same sentence that seems to propound a statement of logic. The “If” clause represents a somewhat Old Testament view of “some vengeful god” who delights in causing sorrow to mankind and to the poet in particular. It appears that the poet has had a love affair go wrong: “Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy, / That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”

The “Then” clause states that the poet would have accepted the idea that his misfortune was caused by a supernatural force, or would at least have been “Half-eased” by the knowledge that he was the victim of one who was “Powerfuller than I”. His attitude seems to be similar to that of Gloucester in Shakespeare’s “King Lear” when he says: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport”.

However, the “volta”, or turning-point of this sonnet presents the reality which the poet now appreciates in the post-Darwinian world, namely that human misfortunes are not willed by the gods but happen by chance. Hardy can only blame “Crass Casualty”, and “dicing Time” which act as “purblind Doomsters”. The point he makes is that these forces are not vengeful like the gods in most mythologies but are completely indifferent. This is clear not only from his choice of adjectives (“crass” being used here to mean “insensitive” or “without thought”) but from the poem’s conclusion: “ … had as readily strown / Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain”.

So the question then arises as to which world-view is preferable, that which supposes that the gods are set on destroying man’s happiness, or the cosmos revealed by Darwin in which the forces of nature are mechanical and purposeless and man has as good a chance of happiness as of despair? There is evidence that Hardy stressed to his critics that he was not replacing one source of cosmic oppression with another, and he was in fact quoted as saying that: “The world does not despise us; it only neglects us” (See “The Life of Thomas Hardy”, by Florence Emily Hardy, p. 48). The implication of this is that man has been dealt an even hand and must play it the best way he can. The new order is therefore a bestowal of freedom, but with freedom comes responsibility – there are precursors of Sartrean thinking here.

There is a mystery in this poem as to what Hardy meant by “why unblooms the best hope ever sown?” As mentioned above, the misfortune that prompted Hardy’s thoughts sounds as though it was a blighted love affair, but, although Hardy had several lady friends who came and went at this time in his career, there were none who were, as yet, potential marriage partners. This suggests that “the best hope” had more to do with Hardy’s failure to get his poetry into print.

Hardy believed himself to be a talented poet and was surprised and disappointed that none of the journals to which sent his work were willing to buy it. Perhaps there is a clue to this failure in the line quoted above – an editor who saw “unblooms” instead of “blooms not” might have considered that this was not poetic enough. It was certainly not a word that Tennyson would have chosen, and Tennyson was at that time Poet Laureate and the leader of poetic taste in England. An aspiring poet who did not conform to the standard set by Tennyson would no doubt struggle to find an audience.

“Hap” would probably not strike the modern reader as being anything particularly remarkable. It is well constructed, with a single train of thought that does not depart down any side tracks. The language is well-controlled, with every word making an impact. However, by not being Tennysonian enough, and expressing a view that seemed to side with Darwinism against the religious orthodoxy of the day, Hardy’s surprise at not being able to publish poems such as this should surely not have been as great as it was.

( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

© John Welford