Tuesday, December 21, 2010

At a Lunar Eclipse by Thomas Hardy

In honor of the lunar eclipse, I thought I'd share with you this lovely sonnet by Thomas Hardy. While he thought of himself as a poet who also wrote novels, he is mostly thought of as a novelist who also wrote some poems. Novels of his with which you might be familiar include Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Far From the Madding Crowd. I can tell you that I detested read Jude the Obscure when I was in college and I've never forgiven him for it. If I recall correctly, Mr. Hardy struggled mightily with the Industrial Revolution and Victorian ideas of proper conduct. But this lovely sonnet almost makes me rethink my position on Mr. Hardy.

At a Lunar Eclipse
by Thomas Hardy

Thy shadow, Earth, from Pole to Central Sea,
Now steals along upon the Moon's meek shine
In even monochrome and curving line
Of imperturbable serenity.

How shall I link such sun-cast symmetry
With the torn troubled form I know as thine,
That profile, placid as a brow divine,
With continents of moil and misery?

And can immense Mortality but throw
So small a shade, and Heaven's high human scheme
Be hemmed within the coasts yon arc implies?

Is such the stellar gauge of earthly show,
Nation at war with nation, brains that teem,
Heroes, and women fairer than the skies?

Form: The poem is an Italianate sonnet. It's written in iambic pentameter (five poetic feet per line, each of which is an iamb - a two-syllable "foot" composed of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one: taDUM. A line of iambic pentameter goes "taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM"). The rhyme scheme is ABBA ABBA CDE CDE.

Discussion: Notice how he starts the poem with a simple observation of the eclipse: The earth's shadow creeps across the face of the moon, and it's all very calm and orderly. The second stanza compares the calm, orderly shadow with the reality of life on earth, including its "continents of moil and misery". "Moil" means hard labor - essentially the same as toil. In the third stanza, he's asking a Big Question about the human soul: Is this life all there is? Is our mortality limited to the boundaries of the planet on which we dwell? And in the final stanza, he basically moves to what I consider the Peggy Lee "Is that all there is?" standpoint: "Is that shadow cast out there in the universe all that we are, really? Is that all the representation we get for nations at war and people who think, heroes and gorgeous women?"

Big questions, Mr. Hardy. And lovely images. And so very much to think about.

It is now 1:00 a.m. here in New Jersey, and the moon has started to be erased. I don't know that I'll see it go dark and then return, but I shall try.

Happy solstice and a good Yule to those of you who are celebrating! I hope the rest of you take a moment today to mark the turning of the year. I know I am looking forward to those extra moments of sunlight that will soon be coming our way.

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