Poetry and Lent: During Wind and Rain (Thomas Hardy)
Fr Richard Frith’s is the last entry to our Poetry and Lent series, on Thomas Hardy’s poem During Wind and Rain. In reflecting on this poem, Fr Richard considers what Christians believe about mortality and transcendence: it is not in our own transcendence that we put our faith, but in the transcendent God who made us from dust.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.
They sing their dearest songs—
He, she, all of them—yea
Treble and tenor and bass,
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!
They clear the creeping moss—
Elders and juniors—aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat. . . .
Ah, no; the years, the years,
See, the white storm-birds wing across.
They are blithely breakfasting all—
Men and maidens—yea,
Under the summer tree,
With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to the knee. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.
They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them—aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs. . . .
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.
I first came across this poem many years ago. I’ve never been a devotee of Hardy. As an undergraduate I tackled Tess of the d’Urbervilles; I found it utterly compulsive, emotionally exhausting, but slightly mechanical—at every key moment in the story, Tess has a decision to make, and after a while you get the idea that she’s not going to make the right one. A few years later I tried Jude the Obscure; after about a hundred pages I figured out that things were going the same way, and decided to quit while I was marginally ahead. But what can be wearing about Hardy’s novels can sometimes be astonishingly powerful in his poems. In fact, Hardy always thought of himself primarily as a poet, even though he only took up poetry in earnest in later life, after abandoning the novel in the late 1890s, partly in response to negative and (Hardy felt) unjust reviews of both Tess and Jude. The best of the poems give us Hardy at his most quintessential, most characteristic. And there is none better than “During wind and rain”.
The poem consists of four stanzas, each contrasting an idyllic domestic scene from the past with a present in which the human figures have vanished, and only the forces of nature, the “wind and rain”, remain. We are given four vignettes of remembered family life, each centred around house or garden, and then a sudden shift to the present— “Ah, no; the years O!” —in which the elements seem to be destructively, even maliciously tearing apart the dwellings and gardens in which these happy scenes have taken place. The unforgettable final line, with its tortuous series of long, slow, syllables, drives home the message: “Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.” Not only are all the actors in these little scene dead, but as each raindrop contributes to the erosion of the names on the family tombstone, it is as though nature is actively working to erase these beloved names from recorded history. The natural world is not benign—as it seemed in happier days, when it spared the valued possessions left out “on the lawn all day” during a house-move, or when “the pet fowl” add to the delight of a picnic breakfast—but rather aggressively hostile. The past does not “live on in memory”, as we often comfort one anotherby saying, because the forces of nature and of time itself are inexorably at work destroying those memories despite all our efforts to preserve them. The only thing that is changeless is the inevitability of change.
“During wind and rain” has some of the features of a memento mori (Latin: “remember that you will die”), and this is probably the reason that it often comes into my mind at this time of year. We begin each Lent by being reminded of the fact of our own mortality. In the Liturgy of Ash Wednesday, we are invited to come forward and receive the sign of ashes, as a symbol of penitence (an association rooted in the Old Testament) and as a recognition of our own finitude: none of us knows when we will die and face judgement, so repentance is a serious and urgent matter. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”, we are told; “Turn away from sin, and be faithful to Christ” (or, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel”). The memento mori motif has been an important element of western Christian piety since the Middle Ages. I remember a remarkable eighteenth-century headstone in the churchyard of the church in South Yorkshire where I grew up; beneath a skull and crossbones, there were a few lines of verse reminding the reader that “as I am now, so must you be”. As young choristers, we convinced ourselves that it was the grave of a witch. It wasn’t, of course—just that of a Christian woman devoutly reminding all us all for centuries ever since of the universal human fate.
But by the time Hardy was writing (“During wind and rain” was published in 1917), the most compelling expressions of the memento mori theme had ceased to be Christian. For centuries, the Christian emphasis on death had been the flip-side of a belief in transcendence—a conviction that humanity was not limited by death, but rather that death would be followed by a resurrection, either to eternal life or else (as the memento mori implicitly warned) to everlasting damnation. Even when cultural adherence to Christianity began to wane from the later eighteenth century, the belief in transcendence remained remarkably tenacious; Romantic writers such as Wordsworth and Shelley continued to believe that human beings could overcome the temporal, even if their victory was now thought of as one of imagination rather than of faith. By the Victorian period, though, things had changed. As the new sciences of geology and evolutionary biology developed, vast chasms of time opened up behind humanity; men and women were no longer the centre of the cosmos, but merely a tiny, insignificant function of it. The idea that time and death could be transcended seemed delusionary, even laughable. Among the poets, some (such as Tennyson) agonised over this collapse in belief in the transcendent. Others (like Swinburne) delighted in a new, purely naturalistic vision of the universe. Hardy’s reaction was neither of these: he accepted the new, naturalistic view of things, but it was for him emphatically a tragic view. It is this sense of the collapse of the possibility of transcendence—and, with it, of meaning in human life—that gives his novels and his poems their sometimes mechanically pessimistic outlook.
For sceptics like Hardy and Swinburne, Christianity was very much the agent of the delusion of transcendence, and was discredited as a result. It is fair to say that Christianity, and in particular Catholic Christianity, has not always helped itself in this regard: the popular fascination with corporeally incorrupt saints, for example, can suggest a religion trying somewhat desperately to shore itself up against the inevitability of change and decay. And yet, as Lent reminds us, things have always been more complicated than this. When we are told on Ash Wednesday to remember that we are dust, it is an admonition, but it is also a beautiful expression of hope; because behind it is always the recollection that the truth of the gospel in which we are adjured to believe is that God himself has embraced our flesh, our ‘dustiness’, in the person of Jesus; and that in doing so has redeemed it. It is OK for us to remember that we are but dust, because even our dust has been carried by Christ into the Godhead. We are therefore freed from anxiety about our mortality. We can embrace the world of change and decay, because it is precisely in them that the transcendent God comes to find us.
Probably not much of this would have made sense to Hardy as he wrote “During wind and rain”—an old man watching the shells of World War One smash European civilisation to pieces much more brutally than the ploughing of a raindrop on a tombstone. Yet for us, it means that we can enjoy this poem—in my view, one of the great poems of the early twentieth century—without needing to share in Hardy’s unrelenting cosmic pessimism. Yes, there is death, and time will eventually see off houses and gardens, people, names, and even memories. And yet even the wind and the rain are hallowed, because in Christ God himself has come and let himself be buffeted by them.