A little over a year ago in this blog, I posted about Prof. Jane Vogel’s view of Thomas Hardy. In short, she says that Hardy’s relationship with Christianity was that of a man who loved and longed for a religion he thought was not true. And in reading several of his poems last year, I found traces of that sentiment everywhere I looked. Hardy packed those lyrics with melancholy regret that the values and ideas of the Christian religion were (as far as he could see) not true, that the beauties and sentiments of the faith didn’t ultimately point to anything. Hardy, it seemed to me, pined for a home he believed nonexistent.
His novel The Mayor of Casterbridge picks up right where the poems left off. I’ve read about a third of it now, and I’ve already encountered the word “melancholy” several times. People are melancholy. Locations are melancholy. Melodies are melancholy. One of the main characters (and in my mind the most interesting character to this point), the Scotsman Daniel Farfrae, carries melancholy with him everywhere he goes in the form of his name. “Frae” is Scots dialect for “from,” and in the southern region of Wessex, where the novel takes place, Daniel finds himself far frae Scotland indeed.
In an early scene, he stops at one of the town’s inns and sings a song about his homeland that enraptures all the Englishmen present. They’ve never heard anyone sing about longing for home before, says one, and the beautiful effect surprises them. Another says that he wishes southern England had flowers and lasses so bonnie that he could sing about his own home in the same way. That arresting idea first made me wonder if Daniel’s song and memory hadn’t slightly exaggerated the winsomeness of Scottish girls and their bouquets. But I ended up thinking that that second listener’s view encapsulates Hardy’s entire doleful outlook: the fictional character can’t help but respond to the powerful images and emotions of the song, just as Hardy must admit to the aesthetic charms of the Church, yet they both lament over the futile emptiness of the message.
But that character has in fact (well, in the facts of the imaginary world of the novel, anyway) seen lovely young women and fair vistas: Hardy explicitly describes them. In presenting his melancholy philosophy by symbol and allusion, Hardy, it seems, can’t help using analogies in which desires have actual objects. The melancholy song works because Scotland truly does have beautiful girls and beautiful flowers. The novel’s melancholy scene at a ruined Roman amphitheater works because an empire based on the banks of the Tiber really did reach to the isle of Albion. Why did Hardy suppose – and why should his readers suppose – that the melancholy scenes at churches are any different, that they don’t have any foundation in reality? As C. S. Lewis argued, the existence of hunger reliably indicates the existence of bread, even if it makes no promise that any given hungry person will receive any.
I don’t mean to condemn either Hardy or his writing because of all this, though. Quite to the contrary, his (in my experience) unique position makes for stirring stories and powerful poetry. And, as C. S. Lewis once again argued, this time in reference to his beloved heroes of Nordic myth, one has to admire the virtues of anyone who will continue to champion truth, goodness, and beauty even in the belief that these excellencies won’t win out against chaos in the end.