On abstruse and accessible poems

david-pascal-sign-on-country-road-reads-fresh-poetry-new-yorker-cartoon_i-g-65-6591-zkv2100z.jpgA friend and I have a spirited disagreement about what kind of poetry is better. He favors abstruse verse, whereas I favor accessible verse. By using the word “favor,” I recognize that each of us makes exceptions. Ted Kooser is one of America’s most notable contemporary poets, who served as the United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004 – 2006 and won the Pulitzer Prize for his book of poems, Delights & Shadows. In The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practice Advice for Beginning Poets, Kooser expresses my sentiments well:

Part of the reason for our country’s lack of interest in poetry is that most of us learned in school that finding the meaning of a poem is way too much work, like cracking a walnut and digging out the meat. Most readers have plenty to do that’s far more interesting than puzzling over poems. I’ll venture that 99 percent of the people who read the New Yorker prefer the cartoons to the poems. 

A lot of this resistance to poetry is to be blamed on poets. Some go out of their way to make their poems difficult if not downright discouraging. That may be because difficult poems are what they think they’re expected to write to advance their careers. They know it’s the professional interpreters of poetry – book reviewers and literary critics – who most often establish a poet’s reputation, and that those interpreters are attracted to poems that offer opportunities to show off their skills at interpretation. A poet who writes poetry that doesn’t require explanation, who writes clear and accessible poems, is of little use to critics building their own careers as interpreters. But a clear and accessible poem can be of use to an everyday reader.

It is possible to nourish a small and appreciative audience for poetry if poets would only think less about the reception of critics and more about the needs of readers. The Poetry Home Repair Manual advocates for poems that can be read and understood without professional interpretation. My teacher and mentor, Karl Shapiro, once pointed out that the poetry of the twentieth century was the first poetry that had to be taught. He might have said that had to be explained. I believe with all my heart that it’s a virtue to show our appreciation for readers by writing with kindness, generosity, and humility toward them. 

As a proud Nebraskan, Kooser writes accessible verse about life in the Great Plains. Here are two lovely examples.

Abandoned Farmhouse

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm—a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.

So This Is Nebraska

The gravel road rides with a slow gallop
over the fields, the telephone lines
streaming behind, its billow of dust
full of the sparks of redwing blackbirds.

On either side, those dear old ladies,
the loosening barns, their little windows
dulled by cataracts of hay and cobwebs
hide broken tractors under their skirts.

So this is Nebraska. A Sunday
afternoon; July. Driving along
with your hand out squeezing the air,
a meadowlark waiting on every post.

Behind a shelterbelt of cedars,
top-deep in hollyhocks, pollen and bees,
a pickup kicks its fenders off
and settles back to read the clouds.

You feel like that; you feel like letting
your tires go flat, like letting the mice
build a nest in your muffler, like being
no more than a truck in the weeds,

clucking with chickens or sticky with honey
or holding a skinny old man in your lap
while he watches the road, waiting
for someone to wave to. You feel like

waving. You feel like stopping the car
and dancing around on the road. You wave
instead and leave your hand out gliding
larklike over the wheat, over the houses.


Why Austen’s prose is like poetry

As a longtime reader of Jane Austen’s fiction, I appreciate this perceptive observation in John Wiltshire’s book, The Hidden Jane Austen:

Austen employs a vocabulary more restricted than many other novelists’, and when she uses metaphoric language it is usually to register its banality. Instead she gets her results, and controls her meanings, largely through the precise exercise of syntax: grammatical construction, punctuation, emphasis and rhythm. Her writing therefore rewards the kind of close consideration that poetry requires: a considering attentiveness, both focused on the immediate words and able, if one is a re-reader, to recall or bring into play memories of other passages or episodes in the novel as one responds to the current page. And as in poetry, the pauses, spaces and silences in the writing contribute essentially to its meaning, and to some extent, as in poetry, make it unparaphrasable. 


Jane Austen could use the standard or formal phrasing and punctuation that she inherited from mostly masculine writers in the eighteenth century to telling and elegant effect, as every reader knows. But when her characters speak she very frequently employs a distinct register of syntactic markers as signals for the informality of conversational utterance . . . Among such mimetic markers were dashes of varying lengths, exclamation marks, incomplete sentences, italics and repetition. One sure sign that the narrator is moving away from the narrator or author and into a character’s inner speech is the presence of dashes in company with repeated words and phrases. ‘He must — yes, he certainly must, as a friend — an anxious friend — give Emma some hint, ask her some question.’ In representing even Mr Knightley’s struggle with his conscience Austen is the beneficiary of the sentimental tradition. Here, as elsewhere in her writing, dashes are among ‘these discursive cracks where emotion lies,’ as Ariane Hudelet puts it. 


Jane Austen . . . displayed the involuntary self-betrayals and traced the intricate, devious and even unconscious ways her characters protect themselves from knowing themselves and their motives. Largely dispensing with the poetic language of feeling, Austen can nevertheless lodge emotion in other discursive gaps besides dashes — in the silences or pauses that the prose dramatizes, in what the narrator understates, and in what she simply elides by shifting the reader’s focus. 

The art of living in time

From Lynn Staley Johnson’s book, The Voice of the Gawain Poet:

Both a vision of history as a series of cycles and a vision of history as a process of dissolution underline the effects of time and thus the theme of mutability. In both cases, man is a prisoner of time, and human history may perhaps teach only certain lessons about the art of living in time. In his efforts to cope with time, man is alone. The universe and the earth undergo a similar process of change, but only man knows he changes and knows his time is limited.


Man, unlike nature, perceives time’s limits and is therefore forced to use time or escape time. An awareness of change need not, however, end with a simple recognition of mutability. . . . Change is a natural process, and man’s insecurity in a universe of change should align him with infinite and changeless principles . . . . Change exists, but it need not threaten man.

The liturgical calendar thus offered another way of ordering time. Like the natural cycle, the liturgical cycle describes a circular motion, but it revolves from spring (March 25) to spring, not from winter to winter. This year begins and ends in new life and has as seasons central events in the life of the Church. The liturgical calendar allows an individual to transcend time by participating in moments that transcend time. He can thus celebrate the eternal truths figured by Church festivals and escape time’s limits by figuratively aligning himself with those truths. 

Although Sir Gawain addresses itself to the ethical lessons of time and history, the poet also provides us with a cycle of regenerative time. The poet’s careful references to certain significant dates in the life of the Church serve to remind his audience of the lessons of another way of reckoning time. While we recognize the lessons of history implicit in Sir Gawain, and the reality of decay, we also see Sir Gawain and Camelot against the framework of another sort of year whose lessons concern spiritual renewal, eternal time, and the duties of the Christian warrior in the battle of life. 


The poem’s liturgical framework suggests a cycle of renewal. The poem begins with reminders of justice and mercy, hints of the choices man must make in time. The poet then focuses on the period from November 1 to January 1, a time that contains central feasts in the life of the Church. The lessons of All Saints’ Day concern issues central to Sir Gawain’s coming adventure – the movement from humility to wisdom suggested by the Beatitudes, a reminder that man should consider himself a Christian warrior, sworn to a spiritual covenant. On the Feast of All Saints, Gawain leaves Camelot. While the court mourns his death, a sign of its superficial spiritual understanding, the Church celebrates the resurrection of the faithful in Christ. Gawain’s journey north embodies the privation of Advent. The week from Christmas to New Year’s, the week Gawain relaxes at Hautdesert, is a sequence that celebrates spiritual heroes who have triumphed over temptation. Gawain’s activities at Hautdesert – eating, sleeping late, talking to his hostess – provide a sharp relief to those of the saints celebrated for their discipline and devotion. The final day of this sequence brings us back to the Feast of the Circumcision, a day of justice for Gawain; for he receives his reward for a broken covenant. However, on this day, he gains both humility through failure and renewal through penance and thus evades spiritual death. 

The poem, like its liturgical frame, describes the movement from worldiness, pride, and thoughtlessness to spiritual knighthood, humility, and self-awareness. The concept of time the poet adumbrates in his references to the liturgical calendar, unlike natural and cyclic time, offers transcendence because it lifts man above the limits of winter, death, and justice. Thus the poet suggests that time can offer man more than worldly fame and more than dissolution; used properly, it can offer him redemption. 

Thomas Hardy, “The Blinded Bird”


Eileen Agar, “The caged bird sings” (1956). Tate. Taken near Puerto de la Cruz, Tenerife. Agar was a British painter and photographer associated with the Surrealist movement.

Where does Thomas Hardy, a would-be Christian, find the divine? The poem below is his answer. While there are any number of his poems that I could isolate for attention, this one is especially dear to me because I share Hardy’s affection for birds. Here, the bird is an emblem of dignified suffering, an analogy to the singing bard, and an apology for tragic artA Christian response to the poem will remember that no bird falls to the ground, let alone endures a cruel surgery, apart from the Father (Matthew 10:29); if He cares for the minutiae of creation, we should as well.

The Blinded Bird

So zestfully canst thou sing?
And all this indignity,
With God’s consent, on thee!
Blinded ere yet a-wing
By the red-hot needle thou,
I stand and wonder how
So zestfully thou canst sing!

Resenting not such wrong,
Thy grievous pain forgot,
Eternal dark thy lot,
Groping thy whole life long,
After that stab of fire;
Enjailed in pitiless wire;
Resenting not such wrong!

Who hath charity? This bird.
Who suffereth long and is kind,
Is not provoked, though blind
And alive ensepulchred?
Who hopeth, endureth all things?
Who thinketh no evil, but sings?
Who is divine? This bird.


From Student Companion to Thomas Hardy by Rosemarie Morgan:

“The Blinded Bird” – yet more horrifying – provides an appalling reminder of the eye gouging of caged songbirds so they could not tell night from day and would thus sing continuously. Hardy’s intensely committed, lifelong compassion for nature’s creatures could have made this a poem of ghastly brutality, of unspeakable loathing for humankind’s inhumanity to the innocent and defenseless. Instead, “Blinded ere yet a-wing / By the red-hot needle” (gouged as a fledgling), the poem turns and throws every thinkable Christian tenet back at speaker and reader alike. In a rhetorical monologue, the biblical voice of outrage cries, “Who hath Charity?” “This bird,” comes the rejoinder, in psalmic style. “Who suffereth long and is kind.” “Who hopeth, and endureth all things?” calls the biblical questioner – now unstoppable. “Who thinketh no evil, but sings?” “Who is divine?” And by way of an answer, the antiphonal voice ends the poem with a quiet simplicity wholly befitting to its subject – two small words: “This bird.”

From The Figure of the Singer by Daniel Karlin:

The blinding of birds to encourage them to sing has a long history, including Flemish ‘Vinkensport,’ a singing contest for male chaffinches which dates back to the sixteenth century and is still going; blinding was banned in 1920, two years before this poem was published, following a campaign by blinded war veterans. Hardy told an admirer that the poem was ‘written to a real bird,’ perhaps a canary, perhaps a lark or goldfinch; all suffered in this way, but the poem is not specific. Both the appalling misery of blindness, and the link between blindness and song, lead to Milton: ‘alive ensepulchred’ recalls the blinded Samson in Samson Agonistes: ‘Myself, my sepulchre, a moving grave’; song in the face of suffering is Milton’s own defiant resource, as he invokes his Muse in book VII of Paradise Lost

In darkness, and with dangers compassed round,
And solitude; yet not alone while thou
Visitst my slumbers nightly, or when morn
Purples the east: still govern thou my song,
Urania, and fit audience find, though few.

But Hardy gives the them an added twist by introducing the problem of pleasure: “So zestfully canst thou sing.’ The argument as to whether caged birds ‘resent’ their imprisonment is itself a traditional topos for poetry, and could be applied to the poet’s own fate, as it could to the condition of political prisoners, or women, or all three combined. By now the representation of the bird is so overdetermined that the sense of its being, or having been, ‘real’ has lost all meaning. It has become available for the kind of analogy John Paul Riquelme proposes with the figure of the poet in ‘I Looked up from my Writing,’ one of Hardy’s great wartime poems, in which the moon is imagined as ‘curious to look / Into the blinkered mind / Of one who wants to write a book / In a world of such a kind.’ According to Riquelme, the moon ‘investigates . . . the crime of being “blinkered,” or blinded . . . The blinded mind of the poet, like the blinded bird in Hardy’s contemporaneous poem of that title, is dead in life.’ But ‘blinkered’ and ‘blinded’ are not synonymous, and the ‘crime’ of impercipience is not the same as that of inflicting blindness on a fellow-creature. In this analogy between the singing bird and the writing poet, the latter has utterly subsumed the former. Still we are not done. In the last stanza, the famous phrases of St. Paul’s eulogy to divine love crowd out the bird’s song; the literal creature is forced to assume another burden besides its suffering, that of a forbearance which transcends that preached by Christianity. The truth, pace Maya Angelou, is that we do not know why the caged bird sings. Perhaps it would be unfair to suggest that the bird is ‘alive ensepulchred’ in Hardy’s poem, or that the first and last lines of each stanza are like the framework of a cage, but we can say that the poet’s awe at the bird’s joy, and its lack of resentment and hatred, is a completely human response, directed outward at his human audience. 

From Thomas Hardy and His God: A Liturgy of Unbelief by Deborah Collins:

While it is unlikely that Hardy would have traded places with an invertebrate, there is a suggestion in his poetry, consistent with his anti-vivisectionist sympathies, that animals might be all the nearer to Divinity because they lack the emotional cognition Nature has witlessly evolved in man. The infant bird ‘Blinded ere yet a-wing,’ is cruelly treated ‘with God’s consent’ in the same way that Browning’s Porphyria is strangled by her lover as God allegedly looks on in mute complicity. The narrator of ‘The Blinded Bird’ is a human whose rational sensibilities cause him to evaluate the creature’s dilemma in terms of mortal happiness: This bird is blind. How can it fly? Why should it sing? How can it avenge its tormentors? A man would shake his fist at the gods and rail against their fiendishness, but the bird, ‘resenting not such wrong,’ is reconciled with its ‘Eternal dark . . . lot,’ knowing neither that it is dark nor eternal. Its zestful singing teaches the poet that true Divinity may be the unconscious acceptance of fate. Of course this recognition does not solve man’s problem, for he can scarcely evolve ‘Back to hours when mind was mud,’ as Meredith frames it. Man is flatly stuck in his undivine lot, supremely conscious that it is dark and eternal, and, unlike the forgiving bird, unable to overlook the trespasses committed against him. Had the bird been human, it might well have been the narrator of ‘Hap,’ Hardy’s first important commentary on Nature’s savage apathy and man’s unfortunate awareness of it. 

From “Literary Allusion: Hardy and Other Poets” by Barbara Hardy in Thomas Hardy Reappraised: Essays in Honor of Michael Millgate, edited by Keith Wilson:

The quotation from 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, used in ‘The Blinded Bird’ is not poetry but the eloquent prose of St. Paul and the King James Bible, which Hardy incorporates in his last stanza, as he modulates the earlier pity and irony (‘With God’s consent’) to anger. He is shocked, wants to shock us, and does. ‘The Blinded Bird’ wrests morality from the moral text to claim virtue for an animal and put down Christian anthropocentrism. It indicts human beings for a terrible failure of charity, in blinding and caging a bird for music. The poem’s painful music most daringly revises St. Paul, as after putting down humanity it goes on to propose that the singing bird suffers more than Christ, because ‘blind and alive’ in its sepulchre, equal to him in forgiveness, and – passionate thought in superb climax – in divinity. Hardy’s most subtly didactic attack on Christianity, and his most subtly didactic pleas for nonhuman animal life, the poem is also an apology for tragic art, though to say so is to abstract and generalize its passionate particulars.  

From Thomas Hardy: The Poet: A Critical Study by Mallikarjun Patil:

Hardy’s love for Nature also includes his love for the lower creatures. His love for the dumb animals is admirable. ‘Shelley’s Skylark,’ ‘An August Midnight,’ ‘The Darkling Thrush’ and ‘The Blinded Bird’ are his notable poems on birds and beasts. . . . . Hardy may or may not be a believer. But he is a great humanist. He is human in every respects of his long and stormy life. He stands for peace, love and co-operation. His humanism is not only for human beings but also for all animate and inanimate objects of the earth. . . [T]he poems ‘The Blinded Bird’ and ‘Compassion’ display Hardy’s concern for the dumb creatures. In the first poem ‘The Blinded Bird,’ Hardy writes that the birds that are disturbed by human activities, still thrive and sing their songs of joys and sorrows. The last stanza of the poem illustrations the point in question. Hardy’s genuine love and compassion for birds is quite clear. F. L. Lucas sums up his vision and virtue in the following words: “He never forgave the world the red streak of cruelty that runs through all its beauty: and the divine he found, not in Heaven, but in the cage of the blinded bird that sings on still with unembittered gaiety though man with a red-hot needle has burnt out both its eyes.” 

Thomas Hardy’s poetry


There are novelists and there are poets; never the twain shall meet—or so it seems. Thomas Hardy (1840-1924) deviates from this truism as “one of the most renowned poets and novelists in English literary history,” according to his profile on the Poetry Foundation website. “Hardy’s long career spanned the Victorian and the modern eras. He described himself in ‘In Tenebris II’ as a poet ‘who holds that if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst’ and during his nearly 88 years he lived through too many upheavals—including World War I—to have become optimistic with age. Nor did he seem by nature to be cheerful. . . . Incredibly prolific, Hardy wrote fourteen novels, three volumes of short stories,” and nearly a thousand poems.

Hardy’s lyric poetry is by far his best known, and most widely read. Incredibly influential for poets such as Robert Frost, W.H. Auden, Philip Larkin, and Donald Hall, Hardy forged a modern style that nonetheless hewed closely to poetic convention and tradition. Innovative in his use of stanza and voice, Hardy’s poetry, like his fiction, is characterized by a pervasive fatalism. In the words of biographer Claire Tomalin, the poems illuminate “the contradictions always present in Hardy, between the vulnerable, doomstruck man and the serene inhabitant of the natural world.” Hardy’s lyrics are intimately and directly connected to his life.

Here are some interesting, though not necessarily compelling, remarks from Hardy on poetry:

The jewelled line is effeminate.

The business of the poet and novelist is to show the sorriness underlying the grandest things, and the grandeur underlying the sorriest things.

The whole secret of a living style and the difference between it and a dead style, lies in not having too much style—being, in fact, a little careless, or rather seeming to be, here and there. It brings wonderful life into the writing. 

Poetry is emotion put into measure. The emotion must come by nature, but the measure can be acquired by art. . . . That the author loved the art of concealing art was undiscerned. 

I hold that the mission of poetry is to record impressions, not convictions. 

Unadjusted impressions have their value, and the road to a true philosophy of life seems to lie in humbly recording diverse readings of its phenomena as they are forced upon us by chance and change. 

For my part, if there is any way of getting a melancholy satisfaction out of life, it lies in dying, so to speak, before one is out of the flesh; by which I mean putting on the manners of ghosts, wandering in their haunts, and taking their views of surrounding things. To think of life as passing away is sadness; to think of it as past is at least tolerable. Hence when I enter into a room to pay a simple morning call I have unconsciously the habit of regarding the scene as if I were a spectre not solid enough to influence my environment; only fit to behold and say, as another spectre said: “Peace be unto you!”

To find beauty in ugliness is the province of the poet. 

The besetting sin of modern literature is its insincerity. 

Since my 2016 travel to Hardy Country, I have read from volumes of selected poems. The following poems are my favorite:


From Wessex Poems and Other Verses

Nature’s Questioning
In a Eweleaze Near Weatherbury
I Look Into My Glass

From Poems of the Past and the Present

The Sleep-Worker
The Bedridden Peasant
By the Earth’s Corpse
To an Unborn Pauper Child
His Immortality
The Last Chrysanthemum
The Darkling Thrush
In Tenebris I

From Time’s Laughingstocks and Other Verses

Shut Out That Moon
The Division

From Pieces Occasional and Various

The Roman Road
God’s Education

From Satires of Circumstance, Lyrics and Reveries

My Spirit Will Not Haunt the Mound
God’s Funeral
Before and After Summer

From Poems of 1912-13

Rain on a Grave
The Haunter
The Voice
After a Journey

From Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses

We Sat at the Window
To the Moon
The Blinded Bird
The Oxen
He Prefers Her Earthly

From Late Lyrics and Earlier

At Lulworth Cove a Century Back
Going and Staying
A Procession of Dead Days

From Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs and Trifles

Snow in the Suburbs

* The Thomas Hardy Society provides copies of his poems and commentaries for students.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, “This Side of Paradise”

25061.jpgIn his introduction to This Side of Paradise (1920), Craig Raine praises the writing style that appeared in this debut novel: “Fitzgerald’s prose is capable of soaring like a violin, and of moving his readers with understated husky notes as well as with notes of piercing purity.” Here are some of my favorite examples:

Often they swam and as Amory floated lazily in the water he shut his mind to all thoughts except those of hazy soap-bubble lands where the sun splattered through wind-drunk trees. How could any one possibly think or worry, or do anything except splash and dive and loll there on the edge of time while the flower months failed. Let the days move over—sadness and memory and pain recurred outside, and here, once more, before he went on to meet them he wanted to drift and be young.

There were days when Amory resented that life had changed from an even progress along a road stretching ever in sight, with the scenery merging and blending, into a succession of quick, unrelated scenes—two years of sweat and blood, that sudden absurd instinct for paternity that Rosalind had stirred; the half-sensual, half-neurotic quality of this autumn with Eleanor. He felt that it would take all time, more than he could ever spare, to glue these strange cumbersome pictures into the scrap-book of his life. It was all like a banquet where he sat for this half-hour of his youth and tried to enjoy brilliant epicurean courses.

Dimly he promised himself a time where all should be welded together. For months it seemed that he had alternated between being borne along a stream of love or fascination, or left in an eddy, and in the eddies he had not desired to think, rather to be picked up on a wave’s top and swept along again (215-216).


He was in an eddy again, a deep, lethargic gulf, without desire to work or write, love or dissipate. For the first time in his life he rather longed for death to roll over his generation, obliterating their petty fevers and struggles and exultations. His youth seemed never so vanished as now in the contrast between the utter loneliness of this visit and that riotous, joyful party of four years before. Things that had been the merest commonplaces of his life then, deep sleep, the sense of beauty around him, all desire, had flown away and the gaps they left were filled only with the great listlessness of his disillusion.

“To hold a man a woman has to appeal to the worst in him.” This sentence was the thesis of most of his bad nights, of which he felt this was to be one. His mind had already started to play variations on the subject. Tireless passion, fierce jealousy, longing to possess and crush—these alone were left of all his love for Rosalind; these remained to him as payment for the loss of his youth—bitter calomel under the thin sugar of love’s exaltation (227).


He walked over to Fifth Avenue, dodging the blind, black menace of umbrellas, and standing in front of Delmonico’s hailed an auto-bus. Buttoning his coat closely around him he climbed to the roof, where he rode in solitary state through the thin, persistent rain, stung into alertness by the cool moisture perpetually reborn on his cheek. Somewhere in his mind a conversation began, rather resumed its place in his attention. It was composed not of two voices, but of one, which acted alike as questioner and answerer:

Q. — Well—what’s the situation?
A. — That I have about twenty-four dollars to my name.
Q. — You have the Lake Geneva estate.
A. — But I intend to keep it.
Q. — Can you live?
A. — I can’t imagine not being able to. People make money in books and I’ve found that I can always do the things that people do in books. Really they are the only things I can do.
Q. — Be definite.
A. — I don’t know what I’ll do—nor have I much curiosity. Tomorrow I’m going to leave New York for good. It’s a bad town unless you’re on top of it.
Q. — Do you want a lot of money?
A. — No. I am merely afraid of being poor.
Q. — Very afraid?
A. — Just passively afraid.
Q. — Where are you drifting?
A. — Don’t ask me!
Q. — Don’t you care?
A. — Rather. I don’t want to commit moral suicide.
Q. — Have you no interests left?
A. — None. I’ve no more virtue to lose. Just as a cooling pot gives off heat, so all through youth and adolescence we give off calories of virtue. That’s what’s called ingenuousness.
Q. — An interesting idea.
A. — That’s why a “good man going wrong” attracts people. They stand around and literally warm themselves at the calories of virtue he gives off. Sarah makes an unsophisticated remark and the faces simper in delight—“How innocent the poor child is!” They’re warming themselves at her virtue. But Sarah sees the simper and never makes that remark again. Only she feels a little colder after that.
Q. — All your calories gone?
A. — All of them. I’m beginning to warm myself at other people’s virtue.
Q. — Are you corrupt?
A. — I think so. I’m not sure. I’m not sure about good and evil at all any more.
Q. — Is that a bad sign in itself?
A. — Not necessarily.
Q. — What would be the test of corruption?
A. — Becoming really insincere—calling myself “not such a bad fellow,” thinking I regretted my lost youth when I only envy the delights of losing it. Youth is like having a big plate of candy. Sentimentalists think they want to be in the pure, simple state they were in before they ate the candy. They don’t. They just want the fun of eating it all over again. The matron doesn’t want to repeat her girlhood—she wants to repeat her honeymoon. I don’t want to repeat my innocence. I want the pleasure of losing it again.
Q. — Where are you drifting?

This dialogue merged grotesquely into his mind’s most familiar state—a grotesque blending of desires, worries, exterior impressions and physical reactions. (239-240).


“I am selfish,” he thought.

“This is not a quality that will change when I ‘see human suffering’ or ‘lose my parents’ or ‘help others.’

“This selfishness is not only part of me. It is the most living part.

“It is by somehow transcending rather than by avoiding that selfishness that I can bring poise and balance into my life.

“There is no virtue of unselfishness that I cannot use. I can make sacrifices, be charitable, give to a friend, endure for a friend, lay down my life for a friend—all because these things may be the best possible expression of myself; yet I have not one drop of the milk of human kindness.”

The problem of evil had solidified for Amory into the problem of sex. He was beginning to identify evil with the strong phallic worship in Brooke and the early Wells. Inseparably linked with evil was beauty—beauty, still a constant rising tumult; soft in Eleanor’s voice, in an old song at night, rioting deliriously through life like superimposed waterfalls, half rhythm, half darkness. Amory knew that every time he had reached toward it longingly it had leered out at him with the grotesque face of evil. Beauty of great art, beauty of all joy, most of all the beauty of women.

After all, it had too many associations with license and indulgence. Weak things were often beautiful, weak things were never good. And in this new loneness of his that had been selected for what greatness he might achieve, beauty must be relative or, itself a harmony, it would make only a discord.

In a sense this gradual renunciation of beauty was the second step after his disillusion had been made complete. He felt that he was leaving behind him his chance of being a certain type of artist. It seemed so much more important to be a certain sort of man (261-262).


Long after midnight the towers and spires of Princeton were visible, with here and there a late-burning light—and suddenly out of the clear darkness the sound of bells. As an endless dream it went on; the spirit of the past brooding over a new generation, the chosen youth from the muddled, unchastened world, still fed romantically on the mistakes and half-forgotten dreams of dead statesmen and poets. Here was a new generation, shouting the old cries, learning the old creeds, through a revery of long days and nights; destined finally to go out into that dirty gray turmoil to follow love and pride; a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken. . . .

Amory, sorry for them, was still not sorry for himself—art, politics, religion, whatever his medium should be, he knew he was safe now, free from all hysteria—he could accept what was acceptable, roam, grow, rebel, sleep deep through many nights. . . .

There was no God in his heart, he knew; his ideas were still in riot; there was ever the pain of memory; the regret for his lost youth—yet the waters of disillusion had left a deposit on his soul, responsibility and a love of life, the faint stirring of old ambitions and unrealized dreams. But—oh, Rosalind! Rosalind! . . .

“It’s all a poor substitute at best,” he said sadly.

And he could not tell why the struggle was worth while, why he had determined to use to the utmost himself and his heritage from the personalities he had passed….

He stretched out his arms to the crystalline, radiant sky.

“I know myself,” he cried, “but that is all.” (263-264).

The Christian skepticism of Thomas Hardy


“Thomas Hardy” by William Strang (1893)

Was Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), a writer whose career spanned the Victorian and modern periods, an atheist? Having read his selected poems and his novel, The Return of the Native (1878), I regard Hardy as a Christian skeptic. The placement of adjectives and nouns is important here. A Christian skeptic is one whose skepticism has a Christian coloration, owing to upbringing and sympathy, whereas a skeptical Christian is one who remains in the faith but with considerable doubts. Hardy’s outlook coincides with Emily 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.”

In his New Yorker Essay, “God’s Undertaker,” Adam Gopnik writes:

Hardy knew his countrymen’s capacity for respectable self-delusion, for the kind of mendacity that considers God’s foe “essentially Christian.” Indeed, he was not so much interested in persuading honest believers to abandon their beliefs as in shaming an already agnostic century into admitting the depths of its uncertainty. His novels, and especially his poems, describe a world from which God has already absconded, and for good. Because this is still the world we inhabit today, he remains one of the most vital and relevant of English writers — more modern, in some ways, than the modernists who succeeded and disdained him.

In his introduction to Thomas Hardy: Selected Poems, Robert Mezey writes:

Hardy considered himself and has generally been considered an agnostic, but what he really is is a Christian who is simply no longer able to believe in Christian doctrine and mythology. His piety goes far beyond being “churchy,” as he once described himself. Even his so-called pessimism is not so very different from the Christian vision of this world as seen through a glass darkly, a vale of tears from which death is an escape, a liberation, a victory. What he believed, or sometimes believed, or thought he believed, is that it is our tragedy to be burdened by consciousness — “Thought is a disease of the flesh,” he wrote once — and by a seemingly infinite capacity for suffering in a universe utterly indifferent to our desires, to our existence: “The world does not despise us; it only neglects us.” He was one of those men who never get over the discovery of how much pain there is in the world, not merely their own pain but that of other creatures, which they seem to feel as keenly as their own; he remained all his life at the mercy of what James Wright calls his “defenseless compassion.” No wonder he often thought of death as a friend and was more than half in love with it. How happy some of his ghosts are! If they are not in a state of bliss, they are certainly at peace: they murmur contentedly, they dance, they fervently hope there will be no resurrection. 

I will share four poems that reveal Hardy’s Christian skepticism.

In “God-Forgotten,” God does not remember the world he created, nor does he incline his ear to the trouble of its inhabitants.


I towered far, and lo! I stood within
The presence of the Lord Most High,
Sent thither by the sons of Earth, to win
Some answer to their cry.

– ‘The Earth, sayest thou? The Human race?
By Me created? Sad its lot?
Nay: I have no remembrance of such place:
Such world I fashioned not.’ –

– ‘O Lord, forgive me when I say
Thou spakest the word that made it all.’ –
‘The Earth of men – let me bethink me. . . . Yea!
I dimly do recall

‘Some tiny sphere I built long back
(Mid millions of such shapes of mine)
So named . . . It perished, surely – not a wrack
Remaining, or a sign?

‘It lost my interest from the first,
My aims therefor succeeding ill;
Haply it died of doing as it durst?’ –
‘Lord, it existeth still.’ –

‘Dark, then, its life! For not a cry
Of aught it bears do I now hear;
Of its own act the threads were snapt whereby
Its plaints had reached mine ear.

‘It used to ask for gifts of good,
Till came its severance, self-entailed,
When sudden silence on that side ensued,
And has till now prevailed.

‘All other orbs have kept in touch;
Their voicings reach me speedily:
Thy people took upon them overmuch
In sundering them from me!

‘And it is strange – though sad enough –
Earth’s race should think that one whose call
Frames, daily, shining spheres of flawless stuff
Must heed their tainted ball! . . .

‘But sayest it is by pangs distraught,
And strife, and silent suffering? –
Sore grieved am I that injury should be wrought
Even on so poor a thing!

‘Thou shouldst have learnt that Not to Mend
For Me could mean but Not to Know:
Hence, Messengers! and straightway put an end
To what men undergo.’ . . .

Homing at dawn, I thought to see
One of the Messengers standing by.
– Oh, childish thought! . . . Yet often it comes to me
When trouble hovers nigh.

In “By the Earth’s Corpse,” God regrets making the world because even he cannot undo the suffering people endure.

By the Earth’s Corpse


‘O Lord, why grievest Thou? –
Since Life has ceased to be
Upon this globe, now cold
As lunar land and sea,
And humankind, and fowl, and fur
Are gone eternally,
All is the same to Thee as ere
They knew mortality.’


‘O Time,’ replied the Lord,
‘Thou readest me ill, I ween;
Were all the same, I should not grieve
At that late earthly scene,
Now blestly past – though planned by me
With interest close and keen! –
Nay, nay: things now are not the same
As they have earlier been.


‘Written indelibly
On my eternal mind
Are all the wrongs endured
By Earth’s poor patient kind,
Which my too oft unconscious hand
Let enter undesigned.
No god can cancel deeds foredone,
Or thy old coils unwind!


‘As when, in Noë’s days,
I whelmed the plains with sea,
So at this last, when flesh
And herb but fossils be,
And, all extinct, their piteous dust
Revolves obliviously,
That I made Earth, and life, and man,
It still repenteth me!’

In “The Bedridden Peasant,” the narrator struggles with the problem of evil and the existence of an all-powerful, benevolent God.

The Bedridden Peasant

To an Unknowing God

Much wonder I – here long low-laid –
That this dead wall should be
Betwixt the Maker and the made,
Between Thyself and me!

For, say one puts a child to nurse,
He eyes it now and then
To know if better it is, or worse,
And if it mourn, and when.

But Thou, Lord, giv’st us men our day
In helpless bondage thus
To Time and Chance, and seem’st straightway
To think no more of us!

That some disaster cleft Thy scheme
And tore us wide apart,
So that no cry can cross, I deem;
For Thou art mild of heart,

And wouldst not shape and shut us in
Where voice can not be heard:
Plainly Thou meant’st that we should win
Thy succour by a word.

Might but Thy sense flash down the skies
Like man’s from clime to clime,
Thou wouldst not let me agonize
Through my remaining time;

But, seeing how much Thy creatures bear –
Lame, starved, or maimed, or blind –
Wouldst heal the ills with quickest care
Of me and all my kind.

Then, since Thou mak’st not these things be,
But these things dost not know,
I’ll praise Thee as were shown to me
The mercies Thou wouldst show!

In “The Oxen,” the narrator yearns for his childlike adoration of God in the manger.

The Oxen

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.