Friday, June 5, 2009

Robert Frost and Thomas Hardy: Design or Hap?

Thomas Hardy was born June 2, 1840, so I began thinking about him and his novels and poetry. One poem that emerged in my reverie was a favorite of mine, "Hap," in which he expresses his reactions to two possible universes, one that might be ruled by "Hap" or chance and one that might be ruled by a plan. This, then, brought up another favorite of mine, Robert Frost's "Design," in which he also brings up the same idea. What I find fascinating is that Hardy is dismayed by a universe in which chance rules while Frost is appalled by design.

HAP by Thomas Hardy

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,
The 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.

Hardy begins by saying that he could bear his sufferings if they were caused by a vengeful god, similar, I suppose, to those frequently preached about on TV or in various pulpits. He could endure and even die more easily, strengthened by his anger over his unjust pains and miseries, especially if all was caused by something more powerful than he.

However, Hardy concludes otherwise--"But not so"--that there is no vengeful god behind it all, for what happens is the result of "Crass Casuality" and "dicing Time," that it all happens by chance. There is no grand design or a plan behind it all, for "These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown/Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain."

by Robert Frost

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth--
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth--
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?--
If design govern in a thing so small.

Frost begins with a common ordinary little incident, one that anyone might come across in a garden or a park, or along a roadside or pathway- a spider with its latest meal. As usual, Frost's poem is rooted in the physical natural world, and it is this that has caused many to misread him as simply a poet of nature, and a regional one at that. What many have missed are the terrifying aspects of this seemingly benign nature that he brings out so calmly and matter-of-factly that they go unnoticed.

In this sonnet to death, Frost first sets the scene--a white spider, a white flower, and a white moth, whose wings are outstretched in death like the wings of a kite, a harmless children's toy. Frost focuses on the color white, which also happens to be suggested by his own name, the whiteness of frost. All three are white: the spider, the moth, and, surprisingly, the flower, which is known as a "heal-all" and which is normally blue. Moreover, one does not usually think of spiders as being white, the color of purity or innocence or joy, except for China and Japan where white is the color of mourning. And, Melville's Moby Dick, a terrifying and enigmatic engine of destruction, is also white.

The narrator asks whether this is by chance or by design:
What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?--
If design govern in a thing so small.

I don't think the narrator answers the question, but he does conclude that, if this was by design, he would be appalled to think that even such minor and inconsequential incidents are part of a plan. This has a Biblical air about it if one considers that Christ tells his Apostles in Matthew 10 that if a sparrow falls to the ground the Father is there and even the hairs on one's head are numbered. If the plan includes even the very small events, then there's little room for freedom of choice. That, I suspect, is what Frost may find so appalling.

It seems, therefore, that while Hardy would prefer a universe ruled by design, he must unhappily conclude that we live in a universe of chance events. Frost, on the other hand, seems to have left the question unanswered, as he does in many of his poems, but he does say at the end that he would be appalled if design were so complete that it would govern in things "so small."

I wonder if it was by design or hap: Thomas Hardy was 88 years old when he died, and Robert Frost was 89. Both lived many years, and both were productive until the end.

And you--do you live in a universe of chance or one by design?


  1. I'll take "chance". A design, particularly a detailed one (down to the hairs on your head), has an implication of predestination which reduces us to observer status.

  2. Soren,

    Agreed. I'd choose "chance" also. I may be only an observer, someone along for the ride without any control, but I sure don't feel like one most of the time.