Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2001
17 Pages, Grade: A+
“What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and in moving how express and admiable; in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals – and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”
Throughout his work, Hardy seems to ask himself this question. Especially many of his late poems are dedicated to the question what the quintessence of dust, man, is in relation to nature, and to the elements he is composed of.
Pressing “against the limits of nineteenth century realist convention,” Hardy’s concept of an essential identity of humanity and the rest of nature enters into a new viewpoint that is incommensurate both to the realist approach to man and nature Hardy took in his novels, and to the Romantic approach that took the form of a “sentimental nature pantheism [which] was often made a surrogate for lost faith.” The purpose of this paper will be an analysis of essential features in two poems by Thomas Hardy, “Voices of Things Growing in a Churchyard” and “Nature’s Questioning” that express Hardy’s concept of nature and its relationship to man, and a short comparison of these features with the concept of nature and human life expressed in Romantic poetry, most notably in Wordsworth’s poetry. The poems chosen here are the five “Lucy” poems written in Germany in 1799, which are fitting because they contain a combination of topics we can also encounter in Hardy’s poems: nature and man, and the unavoidable link of them by death, which indicates an overall equality of “this quintessence of dust” and the nature it derives its existence from.
Though pointing to similarities, the chief concern of this analysis it will be to demonstrate the significant differences between the Romantic view of an animated and therefore essentially “active”, thinking nature that has taken over roles until then reserved exclusively for what earlier poets called divine intervention, or also “fate”, and Hardy’s rather deistic concept of nature as a mechanism that works perfectly and automatically, and greedily incorporates every aspect of life, be it conscious or not, in its overall purpose of ever evolving change.
As Jacques Choron formulates in his book Death and Western Thought, Romantic poets of the early nineteenth century give a totally new answer to the question of nature. Closely connected to the inquiry nature is the question of life and death. Life for the Romantics “was not necessarily bad, nor a ‘wrong,’ it was merely too narrow and empty compared with their vision of a higher or truer existence.” Schelling was one of the first who perceived this higher or truer existence as the “absorption into the Whole,” and identifying the greater whole as ensouled, living, and ruled by orderly interplay of its smaller parts, he concludes that it must be Nature itself.
This conviction of nature as a larger whole that slowly moves into Western thought as a replacement for the concept of a Christian deity is mirrored in the works of many writers of the period. Byron cherishes the thought of being part of a larger entity he identifies with nature: “Are not the mountains, waves, and skies, a part of me as I am of them?” Shelley, who is enthusiastic about the all-embracing power of nature as a whole, composes the following verses on the death of Keats:
He is made one with nature; there is heard
His voice in all her music, from the moan
Of thunder to the song of night’s sweet bird.
Closely connected to thoughts of absorption of man into nature we find the interpretation of natural sounds as utterances of a spirited entity. In early nineteenth century poetry the treatment of sound as language is abundant, accurate, and often very effective, hinting us to a new concept of nature as an independently speaking entity that replaces the earlier concept of nature as a mere means of speaking – as a voice of something. The sensitiveness to sound or music frequently remarked in Wordsworth’s poems is a characteristic of the poetry about nature throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and so also in his verse. The music of nature as a now direct expression of an overall universal harmony, is conceived to be a source of delight as well as legibility. Strictly speaking: Having replaced the concept that nature is a language legible through close observation, and thus hinting to an abstract concept of “whatever” behind it, by the concept that nature now speaks a language, we find that nature, formerly language, has acquired the position of the speaker itself.
This romantic concept of nature as speaking, actively creating sounds legible and significant to an interpreter, leads to its universal omnipresence and thus hints us to interpret it as the entity that has now taken over the position of what poets formerly believed to be behind it.
As “sentimental nature pantheism was often made a surrogate for lost faith,” Wordsworth’s five “Lucy” poems attribute to nature the divine power of creation as well as destruction. Of all the “Lucy” poems, “Three years she grew in sun and shower” (III) is most explicitly about nature’s direct creative influence on human beings, and deals with both Lucy's relationship to the power that created her, and her death in and by it:
Thus Nature spake – The work was done –
How soon my Lucy’s race was run!
She died and left to me
This heath, this calm, and quiet scene; […]
It is not a leap too far to locate the source of the first line in several biblical books. Nature has taken over the place of God as creator, and has also assumed the divine creational power of language. The words that have Lucy “born of murmuring sound” are purely natural, not longer divine, and do not simply define the moment of time of birth, but also of death:
Three years she grew in sun and shower
Then Nature said: “A lovelier flower
On earth was never sown;
This Child I to myself will take;
She shall be mine, and I will make
A Lady of mine own.
Wordsworth here has passed from the simple functionality of nature as an automaton to the purposeful creativity of nature. In his “Lucy” poems, the speaker travels and gives a few external descriptions, and then
penetrates to the inner spirit of the scene. He is like a portrait painter who represents the features with truth and simplicity but makes the face live because he has divined the qualities of soul behind it.
 Hamlet, II,2 327-332.
 Peter Widdowson: Thomas Hardy. Plymouth, 1996.
 James O. Bailey: The Poetry of Thomas Hardy. University of North Carolina Press, 1970. p. 462. (abbreviated as Bailey)
 Edward Wagenknecht: “Art is Long and Time is Fleeting.” In: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Portrait of an American Humanist. NewYork, 1966. p. 119.
 Andrew J. George: Wordsworth. The Cambridge Edition of the Poets. p. 112-113. “Strange fits of passion have I known” (I) “She dwelt among the untrodden ways” (II) “I travelled among unknown men” (III) “Three years she grew in sun and shower” (IV) “A slumber did my spirit seal” (V) (the poems are referred to in the following way: Wordsworth, “Lucy” (number), stanza and verse)
 Jacques Choron: Death and Western Thought. New York, London, 1963. p. 156. (abbreviated as Choron)
 Choron, p. 158.
 The language of nature as legible through its immediate expressions such as natural sounds or sounds by animated beings is a concept newly evolved in romantic poetry, as opposed to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries philosophical concept of a book of nature that was written by a divine entity, and is legible with the help of analytical, scientific observation. In Wordsworth’s, Mallet’s or Cowper’s poetry nature itself suddenly begins to talk, and is not a means of expression for a higher entity any longer. Its legibility – better: the approaches towards understanding it – consequently have to take as a point of departure its immediate “fresh and exact expressions”. Compare: Myra Reynolds: The Treatment of Nature in English Poetry Between Pope and Wordsworth. Chicago, 1909. p. 339. (abbreviated as Treatment of Nature)
 Wordsworth: “Lucy” (IV). Stanza 7, V. 1-4. [emphasis by me]
 Gen 1, 3: “And God said: Let there be light and there was light.”
John 1, 1-3: “In the beginning was the word, […] All things were made by him.”
 Wordsworth: “Lucy” (IV). Stanza 5, V. 5.
 Wordsworth: “Lucy” (IV). Stanza 1. [emphasis by me]
 Treatment of Nature. p. 353.
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