Two things caught my eye this week. One is that 1932 was the date on which Thomas Hardy’s collected poems were published—I spent a whole quarter reading Hardy for a seminar as an English major, and this brought to mind many poems I recall. The other is an exceptionally brief poem by my poet-friend, Katherine Grace Bond, whose work appeared on this blog several weeks ago—the poem is so brief, I think it might be the briefest I’ve ever included on these Friday posts (maybe even including the haiku Friday). I am interested in the juxtaposition of these two brief poems, and will say more after you’ve seen them. First, Hardy’s entry, a sonnet entitled “Hap”:
If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”
Then would I bear, and clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased, too, that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.
But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
—Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan…
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.
And now the rejoinder, an untitled poem from Katherine:
That wolf is fierce
Is not a lapse in the conscience
What interests me on both counts is that Hardy and Katherine take the apparent cruelty of the universe to be a comment on God, but they take it in remarkably different directions. Hardy’s “Hap” (as in “chance”) is the bold, angry poem of a bold, angry young man—he wishes that the savagery and death of the world around him really was associated with God, chosen by that God specifically because it pleases God to harm someone like Hardy. Then, he feels, he could get really righteously indignant at how unfair it is to be crushed by someone he is powerless to resist: heck, it would be a bit of a relief, actually, to realize that there’s a malevolent entity responsible for his pain. He laments, then, that there is no such being. That, instead, his pains are impersonal, foisted upon him mindlessly by chance and chaos and the laws of probability. Because, he thinks, somewhere (according to probability) people should be having a fine time of it—it’s not clear to me if he thinks there are such fortunates (and he’s sad not to be one of them) or if all human beings seem to have drawn a bad hand. Regardless, it’s a pretty depressing view of the world, though plenty of folks would call it “grimly realistic”.
Katherine, on the other hand, is showing us faith in about as pure a form as it can exist. She acknowledges the existence of danger and potential harm, and notes serenely that it is within some larger plan—in effect, that pain is no argument against the goodness of God. I call this “pure” faith, meaning that it is about as concentrated and direct a form as I can envision, because the poem gives no indication that there is an explanation about to be given. The faithful might argue that this is because no such explanation is needed. The cynical (Hardy among them) might claim it’s because the claim is indefensible.
I’m going to admit that I’m personally a bit disappointed by Katherine’s poem. I like the idea that art can explore questions like this. Poems can be particularly good for this—we can live with a level of philosophy and abstraction in verse that I think is really hard to sustain in prose without becoming dry. I remember how strange and sad “Hap” was for me as a teenager…how I could understand Hardy’s sentiment that pain is easier to take when you can identify it with an enemy, but how I felt abandoned by the poet in the last stanza. The sonnet accepts the void, but I couldn’t see why he did. Why not, at least, believe in the angry God? It’s a question to pose to any existentialist, I suppose. Hardy certainly wasn’t the thinker that Kierkegaard or Sartre were, but I think he’s grappling with the same issues.
That’s why I wanted Katherine’s poem to take them on a bit more forcefully. It’s too calm for me—the problem of pain is too large to be encapsulated in that abbreviated form. I can understand (and even share) the confidence that pain and death do not, by themselves, constitute an argument that God is not good. But I think it’s so human a problem, and so difficult a topic, that a poet needs, like an algebra student, to “show her work”, and not just provide the answer. I think the poem must have arisen from a larger context for Katherine—maybe it’s a response to other things she’s written, or to experiences she’s had, or to a question or a comment from a friend. Wherever that context is, I want to see it peeping into the poem. I’m glad she wrote this poem, since it sparked me to look at it and at Hardy, and to think on both a bit. But I don’t think it did for me what Katherine wanted it to. At the least, I can say that it didn’t do for me what I think I wanted it to. Perhaps the audience is partly to blame for this, but what can he do, other than report his honest reaction? Well, I hope this gives rise to some thoughts, and perhaps a comment or two from you all out there. In the meantime, enjoy a wonderful autumn weekend—bundle up, it’s getting chilly out there.