Monday, 31 December 2018

A Plaint to Man, by Thomas Hardy

“A Plaint to Man” was written by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) over a period of time in 1909-10 and published in his collection entitled “Satires of Circumstances, Lyrics and Reveries” (in the “Lyrics and Reveries” section) in November 1914. Given that it is one of Hardy’s “atheist” poems, he might have felt constrained from publishing it during his wife Emma’s lifetime (she died in November 1912) out of respect for her very different religious views. This is not a poem that she would have understood or felt at all comfortable with.

 The poem

 When you slowly emerged from the den of Time,
And gained percipience as you grew,
And fleshed you fair out of shapeless slime,
Wherefore, O Man, did there come to you
The unhappy need of creating me -
A form like your own for praying to?

My virtue, power, utility,
Within my maker must all abide,
Since none in myself can ever be,
One thin as a phasm on a lantern-slide
Shown forth in the dark upon some dim sheet,
And by none but its showman vivified.

"Such a forced device," you may say, "is meet
For easing a loaded heart at whiles:
Man needs to conceive of a mercy-seat
Somewhere above the gloomy aisles
Of this wailful world, or he could not bear
The irk no local hope beguiles."

- But since I was framed in your first despair
The doing without me has had no play
In the minds of men when shadows scare;
And now that I dwindle day by day
Beneath the deicide eyes of seers
In a light that will not let me stay,

And to-morrow the whole of me disappears,
The truth should be told, and the fact be faced
That had best been faced in earlier years:
The fact of life with dependence placed
On the human heart's resource alone,
In brotherhood bonded close and graced

With loving-kindness fully blown,
And visioned help unsought, unknown.

“A Plaint to Man” comprises eleven stanzas, with all but the final couplet being of three lines apiece. The rhyme scheme is an interesting one, in that each stanza appears at first sight to rhyme ABA, but it soon becomes apparent that the “B” of each stanza is the “A” of the succeeding one, and that, once used, a rhyme is not used again throughout the poem. It looks as though Hardy is playing a sort of game with the reader, or challenging himself to work through the poem with this pattern much as a crossword-setter might try to ensure that every answer contains a letter “G” or repeats a letter, just for the fun of it. 

However, the reader might think that the subject-matter of the poem has little to do with puzzles and games, given that it concerns the relationship between Man and God. It is up to the reader to decide whether the tone and format of the poem are appropriate, and that might depend on whether his/her religious views are in line with Hardy’s or not.
The poem starts from the premise, previously outlined by Shelley, Swinburne and others, that God is a human construct and that Man has created God in his own image. Far from mankind being puppets dancing to God’s tune, it is the other way round, and the voice in Hardy’s poem is that of God, asking Man why he was created, much as Pinocchio might have spoken to Geppetto. 
This is stated very clearly in the opening stanzas, with God asking whence came “the unhappy need of creating me -- / A form like your own – for praying to?” The point is made that, having been made by Man, God can have no powers that are not already inherent in Man. 
In the fourth stanza, the concept that God is a projection of Man is stated literally in that God is a “phasm on a lantern-slide / Shown forth in the dark upon some dim sheet, / And by none but its showman vivified”. In other words, God is no more real than the image on the screen, and has only been accorded life by the man behind the projector (who represents the Church) who is confusing his audience into believing that the image is real. This concept is not far removed from Plato’s famous demonstration of shadows on the cave wall that people rely upon as reality whereas they are only pale reflections of the genuine article. The difference is that Hardy is saying that, as far as God is concerned, there is no reality but only the image.
In the eighth stanza, reference is made to the decline of religious belief in England in the 19th and early 20th centuries, occasioned by the influence of rationalism and Darwinism, in the lines: “ … now that I dwindle day by day / Beneath the deicide eyes of seers”. This is taken further in the ninth stanza, where God foresees that “… tomorrow the whole of me disappears”. God’s advice to Man is to welcome this event, to throw away the crutch of manmade religion and ensure the: “ … the fact be faced / That had best been faced in earlier years”.
This is that, since there is nothing outside mankind in spiritual terms, as shown by the fact that God is an invention of Man, the best course of action is to look inwards rather than outwards (“dependence placed / On the human heart’s resource alone”) and for men and women to rely on each other for support when times get tough (“In brotherhood bonded close”). This is summarised in the closing couplet:
“With loving-kindness fully blown,
And visioned help unsought, unknown.”
In this poem, Hardy does not sneer at traditional religious beliefs, and he accepts that Mankind needed God at an earlier stage of his development (“For easing a loaded heart at whiles”), but that stage has now passed and reliance on an external deity is counter-productive in the modern world. Some might see “A Plaint to Man” as a message of despair, with its implication that Man can forget all notions of life after death and eternal salvation, but for others this is a supremely optimistic and positive testament to the power of Man to move forward without supernatural help but also without fear of the being that he has created.

Whatever one’s view of the message conveyed in this poem, most would surely agree that the case is made cogently and succinctly, and in an appealing way that works well as a poem. For most readers “A Plaint to Man” is probably more successful than the more long-winded “God’s Funeral”, of which it is a companion piece.

© John Welford


  1. Do you think it is significant--ironic perhaps--that the poem uses terza rima,the rhyme scheme used most famously by Dante in the Divine Comedy?

  2. Yes - I missed this point! However, I wonder if Hardy is not more likely to be following Chaucer rather than Dante, given that Chaucer used terza rima for his poem "A Complaynt to my Lady", and this use by Hardy in "A Plaint to Man" could be a hidden pun?

  3. Interesting idea! I'll have to get out my Chaucer and read that. I don't recall reading it before.