Wednesday, 16 January 2019

God's Funeral, by Thomas Hardy

“God’s Funeral” was written by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) between 1908 and 1910 and first published in “The Fortnightly Review” for March 1912. It was later included in the “Lyrics and Reveries” section of his November 1914 collection entitled “Satires of Circumstance, Lyrics and Reveries”, where it followed his poem “A Plaint to Man” which deals with a similar theme, namely Hardy’s contention that God is a mad-made concept which mankind would be best advised to abandon.

The poem

I saw a slowly-stepping train --
Lined on the brows, scoop-eyed and bent and hoar --
Following in files across a twilit plain
A strange and mystic form the foremost bore.
And by contagious throbs of thought
Or latent knowledge that within me lay
And had already stirred me, I was wrought
To consciousness of sorrow even as they.
The fore-borne shape, to my blurred eyes,
At first seemed man-like, and anon to change
To an amorphous cloud of marvellous size,
At times endowed with wings of glorious range.
And this phantasmal variousness
Ever possessed it as they drew along:
Yet throughout all it symboled none the less
Potency vast and loving-kindness strong.

Almost before I knew I bent
Towards the moving columns without a word;
They, growing in bulk and numbers as they went,
Struck out sick thoughts that could be overheard: --

'O man-projected Figure, of late
Imaged as we, thy knell who shall survive?
Whence came it we were tempted to create
One whom we can no longer keep alive?
'Framing him jealous, fierce, at first,
We gave him justice as the ages rolled,
Will to bless those by circumstance accurst,
And longsuffering, and mercies manifold.

'And, tricked by our own early dream
And need of solace, we grew self-deceived,
Our making soon our maker did we deem,
And what we had imagined we believed,
'Till, in Time's stayless stealthy swing,
Uncompromising rude reality
Mangled the Monarch of our fashioning,
Who quavered, sank; and now has ceased to be.

'So, toward our myth's oblivion,
Darkling, and languid-lipped, we creep and grope
Sadlier than those who wept in Babylon,
Whose Zion was a still abiding hope.
'How sweet it was in years far hied
To start the wheels of day with trustful prayer,
To lie down liegely at the eventide
And feel a blest assurance he was there!

'And who or what shall fill his place?
Whither will wanderers turn distracted eyes
For some fixed star to stimulate their pace
Towards the goal of their enterprise?'...
Some in the background then I saw,
Sweet women, youths, men, all incredulous,
Who chimed as one: 'This is figure is of straw,
This requiem mockery! Still he lives to us!'
I could not prop their faith: and yet
Many I had known: with all I sympathized;
And though struck speechless, I did not forget
That what was mourned for, I, too, once had prized.
Still, how to bear such loss I deemed
The insistent question for each animate mind,
And gazing, to my growing sight there seemed
A pale yet positive gleam low down behind,

Whereof, to lift the general night,
A certain few who stood aloof had said,
'See you upon the horizon that small light --
Swelling somewhat?' Each mourner shook his head.
And they composed a crowd of whom
Some were right good, and many nigh the best....
Thus dazed and puzzled 'twixt the gleam and gloom
Mechanically I followed with the rest.

The poem comprises 17 four-line stanzas with an ABAB rhyme scheme. It is slow-paced, as befits its subject matter of a funeral procession, but it is not repetitive and it introduces a number of separate but related themes that are dealt with in turn.

When first published, the poem had a subtitle, which was “An Allegorical Conception of the Present State of Theology”. This is scarcely catchy, but it does at least offer a clue to what the poem is about. 
Although the phrase “God is dead” is usually associated with the liberal theology of the 1960s it had a much earlier birth in the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, specifically his 1882 work “The Gay Science”. It is known that Hardy was familiar with Nietzsche’s philosophy and, although he was not a supporter of it, he would surely have been aware of the latter’s views on theology, and the “God is dead” idea would have been one that appealed to him. It was, in any case, hardly a novel or obscure idea by the time that Hardy was writing his poem.
The narrator of the poem (who can be assumed to be Hardy himself) describes the sighting of a slow-moving procession “across a twilit plain”. The body being borne along “at first seemed man-like” but could also change “to an amorphous cloud of marvellous size” and sometimes be “endowed with wings of glorious range”. The point being made here is that God has been viewed by theologians in many different ways, with little agreement between them as to which is correct, thus supporting Hardy’s view of God as a “man-projected Figure”.
In the fourth stanza Hardy says that, despite all the forms that God, as viewed by Man, could take, at the core was “Potency vast and loving-kindness strong”. These are clearly concepts that Hardy admires, but his problem was with assigning them to an “out there” figure as opposed to the humanity that created it.
The narrator decides to follow the procession and he is thus able to overhear the comments of some of the mourners. They lament that they are no longer able to keep alive their creation on which they have come to depend. They describe how they changed their conception of God down the years, beginning with the Old Testament deity who was “jealous, fierce” and later assigning to him the qualities of justice, willingness to bless, and the supplier of “mercies manifold”.
However, they then went too far (“tricked by our own early dream / And need of solace”) and “grew self-deceived”, so that “what we had imagined we believed”. As a result they “Mangled the Monarch of our fashioning” who “now has ceased to be”. 
They lament the loss of their comfort blanket and wonder what can take God’s place. Hardy expresses this neatly as a desire for another Bethlehem birth:

“Whither will wanderers turn distracted eyes
For some fixed star to stimulate their pace
Towards the goal of their enterprise?”

Some of the mourners refuse to belief that God is actually dead, saying “Still he lives to us!” Hardy’s response is that he can give them no comfort, but he also admits that he was once of their number: “I did not forget / That what was mourned for, I, too, long had prized”.
He takes the view that everyone must answer the question of what to put in God’s place in their own way, and that there is no catch-all solution. However, he also says that he can see “a pale yet positive gleam low down behind”. Some of those present (“a certain few who stood aloof”) agree that they can see, on the horizon, a “small light -- / Swelling somewhat”, but most of the mourners shake their heads.
The final stanza declares that the people present contain some who are “right good, and many nigh the best”. Clearly there is no consensus about the future course, and Hardy admits to being “dazed and puzzled ‘twixt the gleam and gloom”. He sees no option but to follow the procession with the rest.
Hardy does not indicate what the “gleam” might be, which is probably why it is a good idea to read “God’s Funeral” alongside “A Plaint to Man”, because that poem does furnish a few clues. Basically, Hardy sees the solution for a world without a personal God as lying within the individual and with people working together in brotherhood.
Hardy was disappointed by the reaction to his poem, which was widely interpreted as an attack upon religion. He judged that many reviewers did not read any further than the title, and that, had they done so, they might have gathered that Hardy’s plea was not for the abandonment of religion but for the creation of a form of religion that was suitable for the 20th century and beyond. Above all he wanted to divorce religion from dogma and find a way of bringing rationalism and religion together. He saw poetry as having an important part to play in this.
As a poem, “God’s Funeral” seems to leave something to be desired. It is not as pithy as “A Plaint to Man” and is in places verbose. The slow pace, although suitable for accompanying a funeral procession, is not particularly attractive and reminds the reader of poetry from a much earlier age. One would not be surprised to learn that Hardy had been reading Milton’s “Paradise Lost” shortly before starting on “God’s Funeral”!
© John Welford


  1. Very interesting, poem and commentary -thank you for making this available!

  2. This man Thomas Hardy is devil incarnate

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