Monday, March 26, 2012

Jane Vogel, Thomas Hardy, and Regret

A dozen years ago, in looking for academic writing on Christian allegory in Dickens, I came across a strange, wonderful book on the subject by Ithaca professor Jane Vogel. For Prof. Vogel, every word in our language bears rich treasures of history, connotation, implication, and hidden meaning. She sees a page of Dickens as a magic forest, with spirits and powers hiding behind every leaf and under every rock. The prose with which she reveals this complex world she sees beneath the surface is necessarily dense and reminded me when I read it of a movieworld conspiracy theorist’s room, full of red string crisscrossing the space to connect details from a thousand newspaper clippings. I wish I could offer a sample, but I’m writing this post in Italy and don’t have access to her book, and I could never recreate any part of it from memory. But I learned a lot from it, and it enriched the way I’ve read Dickens ever since.

Through some correspondence with Prof. Vogel, I also became acquainted with Thomas Hardy, whom she highly recommended to me. In one of her letters, Prof. Vogel included copies of some of Hardy’s poetry, which, I’m sorry to say, I didn’t read until just a few days ago. And now I regret the delay. I brought those few pages with me to Italy, and I’ve read them over several times now. I know that if I have the chutzpah to write a blog on classic literature, I should have a clever, eloquent way to describe these poems, but I have to admit that my first reaction to them was simply saying “Wow” over and over.

According to Prof. Vogel, Hardy filled his works with Christian allegory, too, but unlike Dickens didn’t believe the Christianity he alluded to. As she told me, Hardy cried for help through his works, “but there was none to save.” And indeed these poems are filled with regret and an anxiety for, if not life after death, at least reputation after death. For instance, three of the four stanzas of “Overlooking the River Stour” describe a lovely rural afternoon, and then the reader discovers in the last stanza that the poem’s persona remembers the scene from his viewpoint inside a house looking out a window and regrets not turning around to see the unnamed, greater wonder behind him. Is it a woman? A child? In “Afterwards” the poem’s speaker ponders whether after his death his acquaintances will know that he enjoyed the sights of the neighboring countryside. Why doesn’t he just tell them while he’s alive? Or didn’t he in fact tell them by writing a poem that questions whether they will know? Did they read the poem? Melancholy mysteries upon mysteries. “Had You Wept” regretfully blames a woman for not shedding the tears that would have caused the persona to render some needed sympathy. “During Wind and Rain” depicts merry young singers and then envisions the raindrops that will one day slowly slide down over the names carved in their tombstones. And “In Tenebris” declares that death has no power to frighten one who has utterly lost all hope. Yes, the tenebrae of these poems are as pitch dark as the deepest cave. And yet they know they are dark, a knowledge that implies a light. Hardy seems to be saying that nature, music, beauty, and human sympathy mean nothing. And yet by singling them out, he’s also saying that their meaninglessness is meaningful. Wow.

I owe a lot to Jane Vogel. She introduced me to Hardy. She enriched Dickens for me. I shared with her some of my ideas about allegory in A Tale of Two Cities (about which, according to The List, I’ll reread and no doubt blog extensively in 2014), and she encouraged me to write them up and propose a presentation at a particular literature conference she had in mind. I did it and got accepted. In turn, my interest in Prof. Vogel’s work encouraged her to propose a talk for the same conference, and she, too, was accepted. We met and, since our papers both had to do with religion and so got placed together by the programming committee, read our papers on the same session (along with a woman who gave a beautiful talk on Shakespeare’s All’s Well that Ends Well).

Allegory in Dickens has two reviews on Amazon. Neither reviewer likes it. They both say Prof. Vogel can’t write, and one (identified as “Henry Green, M.D.”) says she’s a little crazy, although he says it in these words: “She is know around the campus as the one with a lose screw.” So I’m not sure that Dr. Green is the best judge of writing skill. I agree that the book is dense and difficult to read, but I learned a great deal from it, so rather than call Jane Vogel screwy, I’d rather credit her with a little mad brilliance.

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