Turning the Century With Thomas Hardy

by James K. Chandler

t the turn of the last century, Thomas Hardy was still stinging from the public reception of Jude the Obscure (1895), which told the story of a young working-class man thwarted in his quest for a university education. Hostile critical response led Hardy to swear off the writing of fiction altogether, thus cutting short the marvelous series of Wessex novels he began in the 1860s. From then on (Hardy died long after the Chicago Cubs won their last World Series), he wrote only poems, and one of his best, "The Darkling Thrush," carries the portentous date December 31, 1900.

On that day (we are to imagine), Hardy took a walk in the countryside, heard a bird sing, and wrote a short lyric about the experience. What made this poem different from dozens of its nineteenth-century predecessors was that it offered a meditation on the century itself, partly by assuming the century's long preoccupation with just such everyday creatures--Keats's nightingale or Shelley's skylark--as its framing device. How might such a poem, so very much of its moment, speak to us now in ours? What can it help us to recognize about the century that now stretches between Hardy and ourselves, or about how poetry might speak to us in the future? Could it help us to think about what kind of place poetry might have in humanities, the humanities in our universities?

Hardy structured his poem into two equal parts, marking this symmetry with the "voice" that suddenly arises midway along. The first part lacks any such "event," defined as it is in the static field between the poet's "leaning" on the world and the world's "leaning out" from him. The action here is in the language, and "the Century's corpse outleant" stands out as an especially stunning metaphor, one that looks forward to T.S Eliot's even more insistently modern figure of an evening as "a patient etherized upon a table." But the metaphor also looks back to the nineteenth-century literary "corpus," the vast extent of printed matter to which Hardy had himself made such voluminous contributions. Indeed, the sense of the century's corpse as a literary corpus is confirmed when the poet attempts to understand what motivates the voice, what prompts the ecstatic "carolings" of the thrush mid-poem. These, he says, cannot be explained by what is "written on terrestrial things." The landscape becomes the body of an era, which in turn becomes a text to read. And yet this legible body of history offers no grounds for hope. The hope that prompts the caroling must have found its cause elsewhere, on some other terms, in some other medium. But where, and how?

For "The Darkling Thrush," Hardy chose a form that, exactly a century earlier, Wordsworth and his Romantic contemporaries had bequeathed to the nineteenth century: the literary ballad. It is a form developed to bridge the transition between oral cultures, such as that of Wordsworth's native Lake District, and the new highly developed commercial print cultures in cities where Wordsworth resided during the French Revolution's "age of paper" (London and Paris). In the year 1800, Wordsworth announced that he wrote his ballads in order to counter the effects of "a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor." The key issues were historical acceleration, demographic dislocation and media transformation: "The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies." The literary medium was overheated, thought Wordsworth, caught up in an escalating syndrome of overstimulation--"frantic" gothic novels and "sickly and stupid" plays of the Sturm und Drang. The literary ballad was Wordsworth's solution, a deliberate imitation of an archaic medium. Hardy's poem thus becomes doubly archaic, as its quaint diction insists ("outleant," "nigh," "coppice gate").

Although the poet of "The Darkling Thrush" avows no known cause for the ecstatic carolings he suddenly hears, we might do well to look for one in the distinction between the hopelessness on the ground--what is "written on terrestrial things"--and what the poet punningly calls the bird's "happy good-night air." The bird's melody is literally groundless, suspended above the lettered land. Indeed, the voice is said to come from the "bleak twigs overhead." This sense of the bird's place above the world of written matter returns us, with renewed interest, to that opening figure of the sky "scored" with the bine-stems, "like strings of broken lyres." The score of the carols that are said to be uncaused by what is written in terrestrial things is thus somehow "in the air." Wordsworth found his reasons for hope in regrounding literature in oral forms.

But Hardy's scoring of the air, in the air, implies a different orientation. Hardy's archaic style masks the fact that "The Darkling Thrush" was written more than 50 years after the invention of photography, nearly a quarter century after the invention of the typewriter, phonograph and lightbulb, and even after the invention of cinema. These are the innovations that would shape the twentieth century, much as Wordsworth's list of new eighteenth-century developments would shape his. Are these the things that are "in the air" above the written landscape in Hardy's turn-of-century moment, the media in which the "scoring" of Hardy's air is to be found? Certainly, the increasing self-consciousness about the media of communication fostered in the ensuing decades helps us now to see the way in which Hardy, and Wordsworth before him, were engaged in cultural struggles over issues of cultural mediation--including what Wordsworth called "the rapid communication of intelligence"--even when their archaisms suggested retreat or disengagement from such modern matters.

And, in today's humanities, what of our own intellectual instruments for looking back upon the twentieth century to find hope for the next? How do we best metaphorize this past century, and how should our metaphors square with our practice? Elite universities like Jude Fawley's elusive Christ Church (or like the University of Chicago, taking shape in the early 1890s while Hardy was at work on Jude) adapted their curricula to the great body of printed matter in the nineteenth-century corpus. It was to cultivate the literacy of the Jude Fawleys and Arabella Donns that they did so. This kind of literacy was needed to understand the nineteenth century, and subsequent efforts in the humanities have been shaped by a similar belief in the printed word. What will or should happen to English and other humanities departments in the coming years?

One view, held by many, is that they will pretty much remain as they are, that the skills one learns in an English department to read a poem by Thomas Hardy (say) will evolve toward other skills within our familiar departmental structures. But another view is that they will change radically, and as part of a larger change in how knowledge is organized. In Humanities, so this argument goes, this change is already more advanced and will accelerate with the further development of interactive media and a cultural agenda conditioned by them. Inevitably, we will be forced to rethink the match between disciplines and departments. This will lead to the second phase, in which we try to predict the future disciplinary configuration and anticipate it with appropriate institutional structures. (It is in this phase that we would want to consider how the rounding off of the twentieth century as a period will leave us with a massive and proximate historical field in which interactions with and of media are crucial to just about anything we wish to say about it.)

Perhaps, finding this exercise of predicting the match of discipline and department self-defeating, we will enter a third phase: the search for a new mode of institutional structure, one in which the need for stability is balanced by de facto changes in our topics and practices of inquiry. Such a new kind of structure might stand in relation to our older structures much as an electronic hypertext edition of Hardy's works--multiply linked and layered, open to repeated revision--stands in relation to the kind of printed collections made so popular in his time.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR | James K. Chandler

ChandlerJames K. Chandler is George M. Pullman Professor in the Department of English Language & Literature, and in the Committee on the History of Culture, at the University of Chicago, from which he earned his Ph.D. in 1978. Chandler is interested in subjects such as the Romantic movement in England, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature, the historical novel, relations between film and literature, and history and criticism. He is the author of England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism (1998) and Wordsworth's Second Nature: A Study of the Poetry and Politics (1984). He is presently editing The New Cambridge History of English Romantic Literature, projected for publication with Cambridge University Press in 2002.

Chandler is the editor, with Arnold Davidson and Harry Harootunian, of Questions of Evidence (1994). He is also the general editor (with Marilyn Butler) of Cambridge Studies in Romanticism and (with David Bromwich and Lionel Gossman) of Literature in History, a book series for Princeton University Press, begun in 1991. Works in progress include Romantic Metropolis: Cultural Productions of the City, 1780-1850, co-edited with Kevin Gilmartin, and A Sympathetic Eye: Capra, Commerce, and the History of Sentiment.

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