- Thomas Hardy’s Timing: Poems and Clocks in Late Nineteenth-Century England
I do not know which to prefer, The beauty of inflections Or the beauty of innuendoes, The blackbird whistling Or just after.1
Perception is not blocked, but comes just after, is late. The way to overcome the gap in the search for reality, lies in finding out how to appear to reality early . . . to get to objects before they are given to us, or dictated to us, or before, we might say, the division hardens between objects and subjects, between outside and inside.2
In 1903 Louis Dumur of L’Européen asked Thomas Hardy to respond to the question “Is France Decadent?” Hardy responded that he thought it wasn’t; rather, he said, France’s history was marked by “periods of variation,” high and low, which seem “to take the form of a serrated line” (see figure 1).3 This representation of their country’s history so baffled the editors at L’Européen that they redrew it before publishing the response in Paris (see figure 2).
The difference is crucial. L’Européen’s version illustrates a familiar set of peaks and troughs—a stably and regularly oscillating line—meant to demonstrate a qualitatively experienced historical pattern rather than explain it, giving only an inspecific sense of how France transitioned between peaks, or what peaking and falling meant. Differently, Hardy’s original line robustly tethers France’s fortunes to skewed historical timing: France peaks late, after long lines of building growth, followed by precipitous crashes that do not only descend but actually retrocede to earlier historical states.4
Hardy’s model recalls Auguste Comte’s concept of “looped” history, which he invoked in his “Apology” (an essay that was, aptly, attached to his volume Late [End Page 591] Lyrics and Earlier) to describe a historical cycle of surges into “complete rationality” and backslides into anti-rational “religion”:
But if it be true, as Comte argued, that advance is never in a straight line, but in a looped orbit, we may, in the aforesaid ominous moving backward, be doing it pour mieux sauter, drawing back for a spring. I repeat that I forlornly hope so, notwithstanding the supercilious regard of hope by Schopenhauer, von Hartmann, and other philosophers down to Einstein who have my respect.5
Hardy’s quoting of Comte is itself a “drawing back” or looping in his career; he had used it before in an 1890 submission to the New Review:
Things move in cycles; dormant principles renew themselves, and exhausted principles are thrust by . . . the periodicity which marks the course of taste . . . does not take the form of a true cycle of repetition, but what Comte, in speaking of general progress, happily characterizes as ‘a looped orbit’: not a movement of revolution but—to use the current word—evolution.(Hardy’s Public Voice, pp. 96–97)
By twice publicly invoking this phrase, once at the beginning of his poetic career and once toward the end, Hardy demonstrates his own spring pour mieux sauter, from a historical moment dominated by Darwin’s evolutionary concepts to one newly informed by Einstein’s relativity. He claims in his “Apology” that the engine for this unchanging changeability, this evolution that returns to its own beginnings, different but also the same, is poetry itself. The “interfusing effect” of verse pulls the sharp lines of history toward a center, an “alliance” between the future-oriented progress of science and the backward-looking conservatism of religion, without which “the world is to perish” (Complete Poems, pp. 561–62).
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That poetry can save a world defined by its temporal over- or under-reaching is appropriate given a poem’s microcosmic structuring of time, particularly true of the careful, plotted versification that Marjorie Levinson and others have described as typical of Hardy.6 His use of the tightly constructed, carefully ruled [End Page 592] triolet form is a perfect example; its repetitions also enact something reminiscent of a “looped orbit”; the same language is rehearsed across the poem, each time achieving slightly...