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New Years Eve: No Party for Hardy December 29, 2009

Posted by jeffclef in Uncategorized.
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Of the three poems which Thomas Hardy penned for the occasion of the New Year (“The Darkling Thrush” [1900]  and “At the Entering of the New Year” [1918] are the other two), “New Years Eve” is the one poem that the Academy of American Poets does not want you reading this holiday season, so unseasonal is its agnosticism:

New Years Eve (1906)

"I have finished another year,' said God,
    'In grey, green, white, and brown;
I have strewn the leaf upon the sod,
Sealed up the worm within the clod,
    And let the last sun down.'

'And what's the good of it?' I said,
    'What reasons made you call
From formless void this earth we tread,
When nine-and-ninety can be read
    Why nought should be at all?

'Yea, Sire: why shaped you us, "who in
    This tabernacle groan"—
If ever a joy be found herein,
Such joy no man had wished to win
    If he had ever known!'

Then he: 'My labours—logicless—
    You may explain; not I:
Sense-sealed I have wrought, without a guess
That I evolved a Consciousness
    To ask for reasons why.

'Strange that ephemeral creatures who
    By my own ordering are,
Should see the shortness of my view,
Use ethic tests I never knew,
    Or made provisions for!'

He sank to raptness as of yore,
    And opening New Year's Day
Wove it by rote as theretofore,
And went on working evermore
    In his *unweeting way.

            — Thomas Hardy

*unweeting: unknowing

Was Hardy a killjoy? Perhaps. As a young boy, he would lie outdoors, a straw hat over his face, wondering why all the other children were so eager to become adults. Like the star characters of his novels, Hardy long suspected that the odds were stacked against his favor, that human existence was a cruel game played by higher-ups. He found little satisfaction in both his personal and professional life—his wife had some choice words to say about him in her diary, before passing away—and when charges of obscenity were too much to bear, he quietly turned to verse.

These blows to his character might be less devastating if, as Hardy confessed in an early poem, “some vengeful god” would own up to his cruelty: “Then I would bear it….half eased in that a Powerfuller than I / Had willed and meted me the tears I shed” (“Hap”). Yet in the absence of such candor, Hardy increasingly leaned towards the view that the universe was in the hands of powerful yet capricious and indifferent demiurges. Like many Victorian writers, Hardy was profoundly shaken by the prospect of a godless world, as recently brought to light by Darwin’s theory of evolution. In poems like “Hap” and “New Years Eve,” the poet comes to grips with the epistemological uncertainties raised by conceding the sway of “Crass Casualty.”

Despite possessing absolute powers, the God of “New Years Eve” barely breaks a sweat using them. He creates the year by “rote,” unaware of the suffering his impersonal powers visit upon sentient beings. “Sense-sealed,” Hardy’s God is “without a guess / that [he has] evolved a consciousness,” but his lack of a consciousness is not a lack per se, but rather the sign of a more perfect agency. Consciousness is only unshakable for ephemeral creatures who feel compelled to rationalize their existence. But a God beyond good and evil has no need for it just as he has no need to develop ethic tests for his own sake.

So what is the poem suggesting? Is it that the supreme view has its own “shortness” or shortsightedness; is absolute power the limiting condition of compassion? Hardy’s idiosyncratic coinages, his use of syntactic traps and ellipses point also to a question of aesthetics: if total mastery results in creation by rote, can imperfect expression allow the poet to graze some ineffable truth?

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