Entry 9: The Self-Unseeing Back in the 1980s, I was teaching at a grammar school in Northern Ireland. The novels of Thomas Hardy were on the curriculum for O and A Levels as they had been when I was at school in the sixties. I was teaching the novels as opposed to learning about them from a teacher droning at the front of the room. Now I was the droner.
In a poll, taken in London at the time, Hardy emerged as the most popular author among senior students. I have a high regard for his novels but a higher regard for his poetry, which covers a wide range of forms and subjects. There can be little argument that he is among the greatest of the English poets of the 20th Century because of his adventurous and insightful exploration of what it is to be human.
His poems about his first wife, Emma, were written after her death and an awkward estrangement of twenty long years. They are searing in their remorse and filled with regret and remembered love.
Although Hardy could, and did, write about the larger themes such as war, belief, the impact of technology, social constraints and class- it is when he examines the minutiae of family life and personal relationships that he comes into his own. His poem, The Self-Unseeing, deals with his remembrance of his mother and father and a scene from his boyhood when he was truly happy:
Here is the ancient floor, /Footworn and hollowed and thin, /Here was the former door/Where the dead feet walked in. //She sat here in her chair,/Smiling into
the fire;/ He who played stood there, /Bowing it higher and higher.//Childlike, I danced in a dream; / Blessings emblazoned that day; / Everything glowed with a gleam; /Yet we were looking away!
It is only after the event that we can truly appreciate how happy we were. Hence the human predilection for rose-tinted glasses, sentimentality and nostalgia. But Hardy avoids the mawkish and the maudlin when he deals with these matters, and this, I suppose, is what makes him a great artist.
Aristotle explored in some detail the question of what it means to lead a fulfilled life. He
rejects the pursuit of a life of sensual gratification and, also, the pursuit of a life solely concerned with honour. He concludes that Eudaimonia or Happiness satisfies his criteria for the best life. But unpacking this term in prose would burst the constraints of this journal entry. I turn, instead, to Carl Sandburg, a 20th Century American poet, for his mischievous take on this question which he sets out in his poem entitled, Happiness
I asked the professors who teach the meaning of life to tell me what is happiness./And I went to famous executives who boss the work of thousands of men./They all shook their heads and gave me
a smile as though I was trying to fool with them/And then one Sunday afternoon I wandered out along the Desplaines river/And I saw a crowd of Hungarians under the trees with their women and children and a keg of beer and an accordion.
This poem strongly resonates with me because it reflects an annual gathering where our family joins family groups of friends and relations for a fish barbecue at a local park. Several generations spend the day celebrating…what? Being alive and in Australia, remembering our culture and those who are absent through geographic separation, work commitments or death.
Shortly before my father died, thirty years ago, I was living and working in Ballymena, which is a market town in the centre of Northern Ireland. It was late December, just before Christmas, and it
was dark and cold. My sister Mary and her husband, John with their two children, Krista and Monika, had driven across Europe from Munich to visit. The fire was blazing and all the Yuletide decorations were on display. With Mum and Dad, there were ten of us and, at one point in the evening, a guitar was produced and we sang Christmas carols.
Then, John taught my kids the verse of Silent Night in German and we listened, entranced, as the four kids sang that sublime song using the original words. At this time, 100 years ago on the Western Front, all went quiet when the strains of this carol drifted across no man’s land and the fighting men on both sides declared a truce and for one day, a minor miracle. This was against the wishes of the superior officers on the British side. On the German side, a young corporal of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry, was also an opponent of the truce. His name: Adolph Hitler.
But on that section of those vast killing fields, peace reigned for a short while. But this being the world we live in, the fighting resumed and we can only mourn the loss of so many lives on both sides of the conflict. That night I recall clearly. In the unmistakeable diction of Hardy’s poem, The Self-Unseeing, blessings emblazoned that day. But I, too, was looking away. Until now.