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89 HARDY AND "THE LONELY BURDEN OF CONSCIOUSNESS": THE POET'S FLIRTATION WITH THE VOID By Robert McCarthy (Rutgers University) Despite the sometimes old-fashioned, "Victorian" superficies of the verse (the occasionally melodramatic circumstances recounted in the poems, and also what Donald Davie has referred to as the clang of Victorian "heavy engineering" discernible in some of the more rigorous stanzaic forms), Hardy's poetry nonetheless exhibits an undeniable modernity. Part of this flavor of modernity undoubtedly results from the poetry's concern with the isolation and forlornness of human consciousness as it confronts not only the non-sentient universe, but also the never fully-comprehended situation of the human Other. This seems a peculiarly modern preoccupation: not only a theme for poets and novelists but, in addition, the seminal proposition of important contemporary philosophies. Here, one thinks of Heidegger's "Dasein," apprehending its abandonment in a world wherein it is "not-at-home'\ and where its "ownmost possibility" for being is death, and attempting to flee the anxiety produced by these irreparable conditions by "dissolving" Self into the routines and trivialities of the "Being of everydayness"; or of Sartrean "consciousness ," a fissure in the plentitude of undifferentiated Being, attempting to disguise its "nothingness" and its vertiginous freedom by falsely appropriating (mauvais foi) some of the solidity and impassivity characteristic of the non-conscious universe; or of Camus's "absurdist reasoner," who teeters between the choices of "humiliated reason," which fabricates and embraces a reality in consonance with human nostaliga, and the chilling recognition that the world is utterly alien and utterly indifferent to all human projects. Hopefully, this is not merely to update the critical overstatement which attempts to locate Hardy's poetry in a privileged nexus with certain highly esoteric philosophical systems. More precise means of location, which both place Hardy in relation to the "tradition" as well as emphasize his especial modernity, were suggested almost twenty years ago by David Perkins, who discerned in Hardy a poet that explored the Romantic and post-Romantic theme of the isolation of personal consciousness as one bereft of confidence in the "visionary imagination" - that faculty at least intermittently available to the great Romantics which effects an ecstatic synthesis of human consciousness and cosmos. More recently, Robert Pinsky has attempted to trace a thematic continuity through nineteenth-century post-Romantic poetry and modern and contemporary poetry in terms of a shared concern with the conflict between conscious and unconscious forces in the mind - "the lonely burden of consciousness" as opposed by a "nostalgia for unconsciousness"-and the ways in which poets have tried to deal with the compelling operations of these forces« It seems that every poet writing in English inherits these broad conflicts along with his language and other cultural goods. The poet also inherits responses to and assumptions about these conflicts, and I suspect that when a contemporary poem is a good one, then one can describe the poem's 90 success by showing how the poet understood his received ideas, recovering them from the area of mere mannerism, or else worked away from them altogether.3 Hardy, I would argue, occupies a place in this thematic continuum, and attaches with particular relevance to literary modernity through the variations he works upon his "received ideas." For much of Hardy's poetry is a highly personal and intense exploration of these central themes« man's necessary assumption of the lonely burden of consciousness in a universe wherein apparently no provision for conscious entities has been made, and, on the other hand, man's nostalgia for unconsciousness, for a merciful numbing of the pain of awareness , for the disengagement of consciousness from the world which so inexorably impinges. An investigation of some of the ways in which Hardy handles this received thematic may provide part of the explanation of how it is that "Hardy speaks to us today, as Shakespeare does and as Beckett does,"4, whereas so many of his contemporaries have ceased to speak to us at all. As nearly all his critics and biographers have indicated, Hardy experiences the lonely burden of consciousness as an extreme sensitivity to the frustrations and anguish of human existence.5 This sensitivity...


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