Friday, August 5, 2016

Thomas Hardy: "The Subalterns" and "Hap"

Who's in charge here?

The Subalterns

"Poor wanderer," said the leaden sky,
      "I fain would lighten thee,
But there are laws in force on high
       Which say it must not be."

--"I would not freeze thee, shorn one," cried
      The North, "knew I but how
To warm my breath, to slack my stride;
       But I am ruled as thou."

--"To-morrow I attack thee, wight,"
      Said Sickness.  "Yet I swear
I bear thy little ark no spite,
        But am bid enter there."

--"Come hither, Son," I heard Death say:
       "I did not will a grave
Should end thy pilgrimage to-day,
         But I, too, am a slave!"

We smiled upon each other then,
       And life to me had less
Of that fell look it wore ere when
        They owned their passiveness.

-- Thomas Hardy --
from The Works of Thomas Hardy

I had to think of another, later poem by Hardy, "Hap"  in which he seems to express the same feeling but comes to a different conclusion as to the real situation.


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.

From a previous blog post, I wrote the following:

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."


In "Hap,"  an earlier poem,  he states that he would find it more endurable if he thought a more powerful being had caused those ills upon us, but he concludes 

"These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
  Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain."

In other words, pure chance determines that pain and happiness come randomly and not by a plan of some higher power.  Chance rules the universe.

In "The Subalterns," a later poem,  he discovers that, while all the things that bedevil our existence down here come at us not of their own wish,  they are commanded by something far more powerful than they are.  Death insists they are "slaves."  The narrator smiles when he hears this, for they are commanded by a higher power.  "Subalterns" are those who simply follow orders, therefore, there must be something issuing those orders.  Consequently, something must have a plan.
On the other hand, just to confuse the situation a bit, I will place Robert Frost's little poem, "Design" on the table for consideration.


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.

--  Robert Frost --

Does Robert Frost agree with Hardy, and, if so, with which Hardy?  Is Chance or Design in charge here?


  1. interesting; i'm tempted to say that they're asking the wrong question, but i won't because i don't know what the right one is...

    1. Mudpuddle,

      Ignoring the possibility that it may be the wrong question, what question would you ask?

      My own answer to the question Hardy and Frost are asking is the same answer the Taoists give: things happen, (there's a more colorful version, but this is a family site, more or less).

    2. my answer is"mu"... in the 12th c. a wandering monk asked Joshu if a dog had Buddha nature. Joshu said, "mu", meaning nothing, literally... in zen parlance, that addresses the concept that all nature and the universe are one, and being so, are also non-existent(see Indra's net). actually, mu is the japanese form, wu being the chinese... so what Joshu was saying was that the monk, Joshu, and the dog were all the same, being part of everything and indeed, the whole of it simultaneously... this is a difficult idea to understand for westerners, not being in the oriental cultural ambience; it takes a lot of meditation to be able to look at reality in a different way; that, or a stroke of enlightenment... once it happens to you, though, it changes the way you see things... zen is not a religion, just a way of understanding what's going on around us... and when that happens, everything is normal just like it always was; as the zen proverb has it, after satori, chop wood, haul water...

    3. Mudpuddle,

      So, both zen and Taoism would not even contemplate such a question as to whether events are planned or purely by chance, because it is simply accepted as that is just the Way things are.

    4. well, not only that, but whether the events we sense are in any way related to what we think we see, feel, hear, etc. in other words, judgment is looking into a kaleidoscope through a another kaleidoscope... it has to do with the use of reason as applied to what our senses pick up. "they" speak of thinking outside the box, whereas in fact we are all outside the box of reality... there's a well known story about Hui-neng, the fourth patriarch: he was a sweeper at a zen monastery long ago. when crossing the courtyard one day he heard one master say to another, "look, that flag is making the air move". the second responded, "no, that's just an illusion, it's actually the wind moving the flag". Hui neng spoke and said, "you're both wrong, the only thing moving is your minds..." whereupon they immediately appointed him head of the monastery...

    5. in point of fact, any suitable enlightened zen person will tell you that there's nothing in it; that it's all nonsense and not to worry about it, just do what you do everyday...

    6. Mudpuddle,

      Any Taoist would say the material world is the real world and therefore deal with it.

    7. Mudpuddle,

      I think most people do this, even though they aren't zen enlightened. . .

      "just do what you do everyday.."

  2. It's a wonder Bathsheba and Gabriel ever got together at the end of Far From the Madding Crowd.

    1. Shadow Flutter,

      Or Venn, the reddleman, and Thomasin.

  3. Thank you for writing about Hardy and Frost. I like the concept of the Purblind Doomster, but I think that the real culprit always and ever is Crass Casualty.