A message from Father Nick 91

Hoping it might be so

The writer Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) is famous for creating a world from his experience of rural life. We speak of Wessex as “Hardy Country”, its towns and landmarks renamed by him and its people made actors in a great universal drama. Yet, despite his sympathy, Hardy’s themes can be grim. His Tess of the D’Urbervilles reaches its climax in the night-time darkness of Stonehenge, and Tess will be hanged for murder. But even that bleak end is not as pessimistic as the deaths and seeming nihilism of Jude the Obscure. Such was public reaction to Jude that Hardy never wrote another novel.

He was, in fact, for all his compassion a deeply pessimistic man, something he seems to have inherited from his mother. It is summed up in a comment from his notebook, “Mother’s notion & also mine: that a figure stands in our van with arm uplifted, to knock us back from any pleasant prospect we indulge in as probable.”

Apart from his work, Hardy has left us a personal trail in Dorset. We can see the cottage where he was born, the houses where he lived and worked, the church where he was baptised and the churchyard where his heart is buried, in Stinsford, or “Mellstock” in his writings. (His other remains have been interred in Westminster Abbey.)

Hardy was deeply compassionate, with an awareness of suffering that went beyond concern for human beings. His verse beautifully shows us his innate sympathy for all living things. In the poem, Afterwards, he combines that sympathy with a sad sense of his own impermanence:

If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,

When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,

One may say, ‘He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,

But he could do little for them; and now he is gone.’

Animals can even become for him a channel of the missing Sacred. In his Darkling Thrush, a winter landscape is transformed by a single bird singing out against the surrounding desolation and leading the poet to infer a “blessed hope” so far denied him.

But at this time, we might find particular poignancy in his poem, The Oxen. Its Christmas context, sympathy and deep sense of yearning speak to us all. However much we grow, and however much times change, the real mystery of Christmas somehow remains lodged in our very hearts.

CHRISTMAS EVE, and twelve of the clock.
   ‘Now they are all on their knees,’
An elder said as we sat in a flock
   By the embers in hearthside ease.
 
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
   They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
   To doubt they were kneeling then.
 
So fair a fancy few would weave
    In these years! Yet I feel
 If someone said on Christmas Eve
  ‘Come; see the oxen kneel
 
‘In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
   Our childhood used to know,’
 I should go with him in the gloom,
   Hoping it might be so.