Adam’s Notebook
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Adam’s Notebook

Poemata Mendacia

‘Horse and plough’, print by Johannes Mock (1824)

Mendacious probably overstates my point. Still: I want to try and explain what I’m on about with a couple of examples from Thomas Hardy.

No question but that Hardy was a superb poet, in many ways better as a writer of verse than he was as a novelist (and he was a remarkable novelist). My point is not about the power or beauty of the poetry he wrote; not about its eloquence, memorability, or sublimity. My point is about its veracity.

Does it make sense to judge poetry according to criteria of truthfulness? Perhaps it’s a kind of category error. ‘My love is like a red red rose’ is not true in the sense that 2 + 2 = 4 is true, after all. Or perhaps such poetic statements are true in a way that is different to simple correspondence, or coherence, or whatever theory of truthfulness the metaphysicians propose. I remember younger me, far enough into teenage snark to respond to Lennon singing ‘all you need is love’ by sneering ‘I think you’ll find, Mr Beatle, that we need a few other things actually, like food and trousers and medicine etc etc’. Then I read Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in The Head, a book that goes track-by-track through the Beatles’ discography, and was struck, as if by a slap to the head, by MacDonald’s assessment of that song:

All You Need Is Love. During the materialistic Eighties, this song’s title was the butt of cynics, there being, obviously, any number of additional things needed to sustain life on earth. It should, perhaps, be pointed out that this record was not conceived as a blueprint for a successful career. “All you need is love” is a transcendental statement, as true on its level as the principle of investment on the level of the stock exchange. In the idealistic perspective of 1967 — the polar opposite of 1987 — its title makes perfect sense.

Woh, I thought. I hadn’t thought of it like that before. That makes me sound blinkered, I’m sure; but even the cleverest of us (and I’m of course aware I’m not the cleverest of us) have our blindspots.

So perhaps we need to think of the ‘truth’ of poetry in those terms: aesthetic or transcendentals statements, true on their level as the principle of investment on the level of the stock exchange. But I’m not so sure. I see, I think, why some people say so, but it seems to me to entail risks — it flirts with that gesture that abstracts art from life, a sundering that drains said art of all but formal beauties.

At any rate, I have the highest admiration for Hardy’s ‘In Time of “The Breaking of Nations’” (first published in the Saturday Review, 19th January 1916):

I

Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.

II

Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.

III

Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by:
War’s annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die.

‘The breaking of nations’ is a phrase Hardy recalled from his youth: all the way back in August 1870, down Cornwall way, he’d been courting his wife-to-be Emma Lavinia Gifford by the excellent strategy of reading her poetry and bits of the Bible (I mean, what woman could resist?). The news of the day was full of reports from the Franco-Prussian war, and Hardy, noticing a horse-drawn plough breaking the soil in the field below, happened to be reading the Book of Jeremiah 51:20–22, where God declares: ‘thou art my battle axe and weapons of war: for with thee will I break in pieces the nations, and with thee will I destroy kingdoms; And with thee will I break in pieces the horse and his rider; and with thee will I break in pieces the chariot and his rider; With thee also will I break in pieces man and woman.’ That phrase, breaking into pieces the nations, came back to Hardy as he sat down to write this 1916 poem.

The result is a particular kind of war-poem, one that says: wars come and go, but there is a bedrock to human experience that endures. That level is agricultural and romantic: we grow food, we pair off and make more people, this is the core human experience. War is a digression, an occasional distraction from the fundamental. In a way it’s a deeply pastoral poem — you’ll remember how Vergil’s Eclogues opens with two farmers, one lamenting that war has dispossessed him of his land, the other rejoicing in a rather self-satisfied way that he still had his farm.

My issue with the poem is not this ‘broader’ message, but its specificity as a First World War poem. Reading through the unforgiving eyeglasses of hindsight reveals a poem badly wrong about its central claim. Farming is no longer a ploughman walking behind a clod-harrowing horse; it’s a massively mechanised large-scale undertaking. The scene Hardy describes not only didn’t last ‘onward the same’ for millennia, it barely lasted another decade. The point is that the mechanisation of farming, which is the Big Story of twentieth-century human history (a bigger deal, really, than any of the conventional Big History narratives people tell of that century) is bound-up with World War One — the first massively mechanised large-scale war — in intimate ways. To write a poem about the First World War that says ‘wars schmors, the old-world human-scale pedestrian logic of life will endure’ looks peculiarly myopic.

Perhaps this strikes you as pedantic, or perhaps simply as point-missing. I do, I repeat, love the poem. It does that distinctly Hardyesque focus-pull thing, the elegant shift, reinforced by rhyme, from the small and local (smoke rising from the heaped couch-grass) to the grandiose and global (those falling dynasties). He does the same thing in ‘The Convergence of the Twain’, moving gracefully from the (larger than a heap of couch-grass, but still human-comprehensible) big boat and big iceberg to their collision ‘jarring’ the entire globe.

I
In a solitude of the sea
Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.

II
Steel chambers, late the pyres
Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.

III
Over the mirrors meant
To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls — grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.

IV
Jewels in joy designed
To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.

V
Dim moon-eyed fishes near
Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: “What does this vaingloriousness down here?”

VI
Well: while was fashioning
This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything

VII
Prepared a sinister mate
For her — so gaily great —
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.

VIII
And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.

IX
Alien they seemed to be;
No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,

X
Or sign that they were bent
By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,

XI
Till the Spinner of the Years
Said “Now!” And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

This, honestly, is one of my all-time favourite short poems. But that doesn’t mean it’s true. In point of fact it’s not true. There is no ‘Immanent Will’; no arachnoid ‘Spinner Of The Years’ broods in the dark-dark-darkling vacant interstellar spaces pre-determining that this particular ship and this specific hunk of ice shall in the after years collide to the loss of these several hundred human lives. This isn’t how shit happens in this world of ours. The Titanic disaster was a combination of bad-luck and sloppy-seamanship, and dressing it up in these vatic cosmic-deterministic robes is a fundamentally mendacious shift. We might as well insist upon the truth-claim of ‘Santa Claus Is Coming to Town’ as accede to Hardy’s Immanent Will flapdoodle.

In a way, by gussying-up the human-scale tragedies of the Titanic’s sinking with all this grandiose metaphysical superstructure of Doomy Fatalism, ‘Convergence’ strays further into mendacity than does ‘In Time of …’ It doesn’t diminish the beauty and power of either poem. But: still.

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Various jottings and thoughts.

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Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts

Writer and academic. London-adjacent.

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