Monday, March 21, 2016
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
IN TIME OF ‘THE BREAKING OF NATIONS’
Taste. That wretched thing that can never quite be pinned down and can never be justified rationally. Of course you can recite reasons why you like something, but they are really just pretexts or rationalisations for what you already like. And the obverse is true. You dislike because you dislike and then you rationalise your dislike.
So here I am telling you that I dislike intensely a canonical poem that is often anthologised and that once was regularly fed to schoolchildren. It is Thomas Hardy’s In Time of ‘the Breaking of Nations’ which goes thus:
Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.
Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.
Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by:
War’s annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die.
Of course I know about this poem. Thomas Hardy wrote it for publication midway through the First World War, early in 1916, in response to a conservative newspaper’s request for positive statements about the war. The public were growing weary of the war, so here is a little poem that tells them not to worry. War will fade away before the eternal countryside fades away. Cheer up. One day all will be back to normal. And then (see “Notes and Queries” or some such querulous publication) there are those who argue ingeniously that it is really an anti-war poem. How trivial war is compared with the ongoing human condition displayed in the countryside. Thus a silly – and rather pointless – discussion can be had about a poem that can bear either interpretation. But then people with much time on their hands do like to write verbose articles squeezing as much meaning as they can out of twelve short lines.
Please don’t ask me to discuss the type of things schoolkids used to be told: “See, children, its title comes from the Bible and it’s in three stanzas, it has crossed rhymes A-B-A-B, it uses an archaic vocabulary and it’s in a pastoral tradition deriving from the Romantics and ya diddle-diddle.” Such information is really data and has nothing to do with taste.
So why do I so dislike this poem?
Because its rhymes are forced. Do a slow-moving man and old horse really “stalk”? They do so only because the rhyme demands it.
Because it seems to me complacent and dishonest. Here are all these jokers getting blown up in trenches not too far (as the crow flies) from where Thomas Hardy is writing. And here he is wittering on about an idealised pastoral scene that didn’t really exist.
And because it is unrealistic in terms even of life as it was lived in 1916. Yes there were still some men harrowing clods by means of literal horse power, but even in backwards England agriculture was ceasing to be practised that way, machines were doing more of the work, and Hardy goes as retrograde as he does in his novels when he presents us with totally unrepresentative peasant characters. “This will NOT go onward the same” because Hardy even in 1916 should have had the wit to see that he was simply being nostalgic. The countryside he pictured was not eternal.
But above all because of that pretty-pretty archaic vocabulary. “Wite” forsooth, when you only mean "man". “Maid”. “Ere”. “Yonder”. “Annals”. Yes, I know. Some wittering wiseacres will tell me that the archaism is deliberate, because Hardy wants to link his vision with Elizabethans and the like to underline the concept of eternity and the land which has not changed for hundreds of years. “Bah, humbug!” say I. It is mere prettification.
You will note that I have just served you four very short paragraphs each containing the word “because”. This might have misled you into believing that they give my reasons for disliking this foolish and overpraised squib. They do no such thing. They give you my rationalisations, and they are not the same things.
My real reason for not liking this poem is that it does not appeal to my taste.
You are quite free to like it if you will, but do not pretend that that means you ‘appreciate’ and understand it more than I do. It simply means that we have different tastes.