Bonfire night

On a grey afternoon, with high winds coming in off the snow, this from Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native.

It seemed as if the bonfire-makers were standing in some radiant upper story of the world, detached from and independent of the dark stretches below. The heath down there was now a vast abyss, and no longer a continuation of what they stood on; for their eyes, adapted to the blaze, could see nothing of the deeps beyond its influence. Occasionally, it is true, a more vigorous flare than usual from their faggots sent darting lights like aides-de-camp down the inclines to some distant bush, pool, or patch of white sand, kindling these to replies of the same colour, till all was lost in darkness again... [T]o light a fire is the instinctive and resistant act of man when, at the winter ingress, the curfew is sounded throughout Nature. It indicates a spontaneous, Promethean rebelliousness against that fiat that this recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness, misery and death. Black chaos comes, and the fettered gods of the earth say, Let there be light.

Upon the moon's meek shine

I did manage to get up this morning at about 5:20am, put on my glasses and my uggboots and stumble blearily down the stairs to watch the moon turning from white to red. Like all things lunar, it was slow and beautiful and mysterious. A web search for “eclipse” turns up a deal of guff about vampires, but it also turns up this splendid poem by Thomas Hardy. How indeed shall we link such sun-cast symmetry with the torn troubled form of Earth?

Thy shadow, Earth, from Pole to Central Sea,
Now steals along upon the Moon's meek shine
In even monochrome and curving line
Of imperturbable serenity.

How shall I link such sun-cast symmetry
With the torn troubled form I know as thine,
That profile, placid as a brow divine,
With continents of moil and misery?

And can immense Mortality but throw
So small a shade, and Heaven's high human scheme
Be hemmed within the coasts yon arc implies?

Is such the stellar gauge of earthly show,
Nation at war with nation, brains that teem,
Heroes, and women fairer than the skies?

Hardy New Year

A slight departure from the nativity, but I think if you want to you can hear its echo in this, one of Thomas Hardy's most famous poems, “The Darkling Thrush,” which he composed as the year 1900 drew to a close.

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

Such have I dreamed

Friday poetry this week is inspired by a strange dream I had last night.  I dreamed I was sitting an exam about Thomas Hardy. I had to write an essay about him, and for some reason (in the dream it seemed like a stroke of genius), I’d called the essay “Too Big to Fail.” The pressure of the ticking clock and the muscles in my hand cramping around my ballpoint pen were vivid, but I was enthused about my subject, and preposterous analogies came thick and fast. When my alarm went off at 6:15am, I was just in the middle of a cunning allusion to Hopkins’ “Windhover”; somehow the gold gash in that poem was linked to the financial crisis and the fall of the dollar, which was in turn somehow linked to Thomas Hardy. I’ll never know whether my essay was as brilliant as it seemed in the dream (very unlikely), and as I never finished it I don’t know what the marker (whoever they might have been) would have given me. Nor do I know what a dream like this says about my state of mind (probably nothing complimentary), but I thought a Thomas Hardy poem about a dream would be apt today. I like this one because of the very odd meter.

A Dream or No

Why go to Saint-Juliot? What's Juliot to me?
I was but made fancy
By some necromancy
That much of my life claims the spot as its key.

Yes. I have had dreams of that place in the West,
And a maiden abiding
Thereat as in hiding;
Fair-eyed and white-shouldered, broad-browed and brown-tressed.

And of how, coastward bound on a night long ago,
There lonely I found her,
The sea-birds around her,
And other than nigh things uncaring to know.

So sweet her life there (in my thought has it seemed)
That quickly she drew me
To take her unto me,
And lodge her long years with me.  Such have I dreamed.

But nought of that maid from Saint-Juliot I see;
Can she ever have been here,
And shed her life's sheen here,
The woman I thought a long housemate with me?

Does there even a place like Saint-Juliot exist?
Or a Vallency Valley
With stream and leafed alley,
Or Beeny, or Bos with its flounce flinging mist?

February 1913.

Meditations on work

I have to apologise for not having posted for a couple of weeks. I've been reflecting on the many benefits of voluntary unemployment (note: these do not include so-called unemployment benefits, as it seems the G-men don't take kindly to the 'voluntary' part). More broadly I've been thinking about work and whether this temporary hiatus could be used to realise some of my creative ambitions. I've always suspected that real creativity might be a convenient way out of work; though of course I realise that realising it involves a lot of work. Nevertheless a lot of writers see themselves at odds with the world and values of conventional employment. Not least Philip Larkin (again), whose poem 'Toads' articulates my latent suspicions:

Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can't I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?

Why can't I? Lots of other people seem to. Indeed corporate gurus argue that creativity is the capital of the twenty-first century (like it wasn't in every other one.)

Then there's Thomas Hardy, Larkin's antecedent, whose philosophical approach I used to justify  frequent bouts of inertia when studying:

"It is no new thing for a man to fathom profundities by indulging humours: the active, the rapid, the people of such splendid momentum that before they can see where they are they have got elsewhere,  have been surprised to behold what results attend the lives of those whose usual plan for discharging their active labours has been that of postponing them indefinitely."

Although the older I get the more I have to admit that indefinite postponement might yield profundities, but rarely results.

Then there's Hilaire Belloc, who said he "never put pen to paper without wishing that I had inherited an enormous fortune, in which case you may be very certain that I should never have put pen to paper."

So is writing a way of working, or of not working? If I didn't have to work (a euphemistic way of describing my current status), would I want to write? Or is the dream of writing only one of the humours I indulge while reluctantly pursuing my more active labours?

I'll keep you posted.