Tuesday, December 9, 2014

I Looked Up from My Writing - Thomas Hardy

I looked up from my writing,
   And gave a start to see,
As if rapt in my inditing,
   The moon's full gaze on me.

Her meditative misty head
   Was spectral in its air,
And I involuntarily said,
   'What are you doing there?'

'Oh, I've been scanning pond and hole
   And waterway hereabout
For the body of one with a sunken soul
   Who has put his life-light out.

'Did you hear his frenzied tattle?
   It was sorrow for his son
Who is slain in brutish battle,
   Though he has injured none.

'And now I am curious to look
   Into the blinkered mind
Of one who wants to write a book
   In a world of such a kind.'

Her temper overwrought me,
   And I edged to shun her view,
For I felt assured she thought me
   One who should drown him too.

Upon viewing the moon by chance while writing at night, Hardy imagines a conversation in which he wonders about why he writes.  He struggles to reconcile the bleak, depressingly unjust nature of the world at war with the act of writing.

A bit of context.  Hardy wrote this in 1917, at the height of the Great War (World War 1).  It comes at the end of a volume in which he wrote a wide variety of war poetry, some patriotic and joyful, some despairing, but none as self-aware and self-condemning as this.  The title alone, "I Looked Up from My Writing" seems to speak directly to the reader.  Hardy reflects on why he has been writing in the first place.

In terms of events of the poem, the moon is "searching" for a man who has killed himself in the depths of his despair, having lost his son in the poem.  Hardy, in his shame, tries to get out of the moon's view, believing the moon, his accuser, his conscience.  "For I felt assured she thought me one who should drown him too."  He feels as if he should drown, or as if he is the one who drowned the despondent suicidal man.  Hardy feels a degree of responsibility for the death and conflict, for his writing, in an indirect way, contributes to the war effort.

I have to wonder, though, if Hardy is not the one who gets the last laugh, so to speak.  Despite his guilt, he has seized it, recorded it, vilified himself, and ended up with a poem.  The poem is beautiful, and if we are to believe Hardy, that can only make him more culpable.  While I personally don't think Hardy has much cause to feel this incredible guilt, I think it's always important to "look up" from our writing.

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