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MANN TALK: Crystallized Opinion

Posted by kinchendavid on December 29, 2006

By Perry Mann

Hinton, WV  – Life for me would be immeasurably more lonely were it not for the companionship of Thomas Hardy, the English novelist and poet, whose sojourn here was from 1840 to 1928 and whose abode was his beloved Wessex.

“Hardy’s death in his eighty-eighth year on January 11, 1928, deprived contemporary England of its most honored author. Although his ashes were placed in Westminster Abbey, his heart (as requested in his will) was buried in the churchyard of his own village, in the soil he loved so faithfully.” His testamentary request is a poignant manifestation of the deep respect that Hardy had for nature and the peasants that had to cope with its beauty, bounty, indifference, and cruelties.

Hardy was an agnostic, who lived most of his life during the reign of Queen Victoria and thus lived during an era of the belief that God was in His heaven and all was right with the world, a concept so simplistic and sentimental that it undoubtedly tormented Hardy’s entire being, mind and heart.

From Hardy’s Notebooks, one can read the following judgment with regard to the Christian Coalition and the conservative establishment of his day: “Poetry. Perhaps I can express more fully in verse ideas and emotions which run counter to the inert crystallized opinion—hard as a rock—which the vast body of men have vested interests in supporting. To cry out in a passionate poem that (for instance) the Supreme Mover or Movers, the Prime Force of Forces, must be either limited in power, unknowing, or cruel—-which is obvious enough, and has been for centuries—-will cause them merely a shake of the head; but to put it in argumentative prose will make them sneer , or foam, and set all the literary contortionists jumping upon me, a harmless agnostic, as if I were a clamorous atheist, which in their crass illiteracy they seem to think is the same thing …. If Galileo had said in verse that the world moved, the Inquisition might have let him alone.”

And Hardy did just that: He put into many poems his view of the indifference, cruelty, logiclessness and senselessness of God. Following is the first stanza of a poem titled “New Year’s Eve,” which is a colloquy between Hardy, the poet and agnostic, and God, the “sense-sealed,” omnipotent Supreme Mover:

“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.”

That is, God on this last day has lowered the sun and is looking back on the year with some satisfaction with what He has done: Made grey the sky, grown the grass, whitened the hills and vales, turned leaves to brown, strewn them upon the land and put the worm to bed. But now Hardy interrupts God’s smug reflections:

“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 naught 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 never known!”

Good question: What are God’s reasons for forming this earth from out of void when there are 99 reasons why there should be nothing at all? And good observation: Why, Lord, did you shape us to groan in this Lost Eden? What joys there are here, if man had never known about them, he would have no reason to work to gain them.

Then he: “My labors—-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!”

God replies that his labors have no logic, that man not God must explain them. He says that without sense he has created, not knowing so, a Consciousness that questions his creation.

It is strange, says God, that this short-lived species that I have wrought should note how short sighted I have been and apply a morality that I never knew or provided 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.

So, God opened the New Year; and absorbed as always in His rote operations, went back to work evermore in his unknowing, senseless and logicless way.

I surmise that “crystallized opinion” is as ready to sneer and foam at this verse, if it is read and understood, as it was in Hardy’s day. But the poem makes more sense to me than all the license plates that assure me that God loves me.

* * * *

Perry Mann is a former teacher, a lawyer, a former prosecuting attorney of Summers County and a regular columnist for the Nicholas Chronicle in Summersville and Huntington News Network.

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