During our family’s tour of Thomas Hardy Country, I asked the guide these questions: “How would you characterize Hardy’s relationship to Christianity? Was he a man of faith or a skeptic?” He answered by reciting this short poem that left me aghast with its piercing truth.
‘Peace upon earth!’ was said. We sing it,
And pay a million priests to bring it.
After two thousand years of mass
We’ve got as far as poison-gas.
Along with Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and W.H. Auden, Thomas Hardy belongs to those “artists who lived somewhere on the margins of belief even though they may have longed to rest at its center,” as literary critic Roger Lundin wrote in his book Believing Again. Note the date of Hardy’s poem. Knowing that he endured the horrors of the Boer War (1899-1902) and World War I (1914-1918), we can better understand the writer’s agnosticism about whether a Prince of Peace reigns in the modern world. With such meaningless carnage, anyone might question if Isaiah was mistaken when he prophesied that “of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end” (Isaiah 9:6-7). Judging by the poem above, I imagine Hardy’s outlook was not much different than Dickinson, who wrote near the end of her life: “On subjects of which we know nothing, or should I say Beings — we both believe, and disbelieve a hundred times an Hour, which keeps Believing nimble.”