Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk
Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass
Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by:
War’s annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die.
This poem by Thomas Hardy came into my mind when I read my friend Anna’s blog about history in the making, which I shared earlier this week. So I thought it deserved a post of its own. “In Time of the Breaking of Nations” is 100 years old this year – Hardy apparently wrote it to boost flagging morale when the public were growing weary of the war. It seems particularly appropriate to be reflecting on it this week, as the UK tries to put aside its Brexit related turmoil and remember the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.
It’s a beautiful poem. It’s always reminded me of this painting, Jean François Millet’s “L’Angelus” – both evoke unchanging rural traditions, the cycle of seasonal farming work continuing from generation to generation. Hardy spent most of his life in rural Dorset, at a time when most people lived in the same houses, doing the same kind of work, as their parents and grandparents. The Industrial Revolution was bringing dramatic change to the cities, but his fiction and poetry are rooted in the countryside with which he was most familiar. His images of the horse-drawn plough, the young couple whispering together, the smouldering of ‘thin smoke without flame’ – all conjure up a timeless scene, suggesting that whatever events rock the outside world, life will mostly go on unchanged.
It seems odd to share a poem and then announce that for all its merits I’m not entirely sure I agree with it. I’ve always felt that Hardy wants to believe, rather than actually believes that this peaceful rural world will endure forever. The rest of his poetry is riddled with ‘the worm that bored the viol’, the pain of regret, the ‘feeble spark’ of dying memories. He was 76 when he wrote this poem. The world outside his quiet Dorset village was changing fast, and the horrors of the Somme were utterly beyond his imagination. Beautiful though this poem is, I can’t help feeling that he was trying to kid either himself or his readers that everything was all right, it wasn’t really all about to change forever.
And I’m sorry to say, he’s been proved… well, pretty much completely wrong. That same war which he reassured his readers would soon fade from memory is still talked about a century later. Meanwhile the timeless farming scenes which he thought would outlive the passing of dynasties are long forgotten. Were “the maid and her wight” reunited when the young man came home from the trenches? Probably not.
In the same way, I wonder if we’re kidding ourselves about the implication of last week’s vote to leave the EU? Yes, we got up and went to work and school as normal, and the sun still rose and set. But for those of us who speak with a foreign accent, or have a different skin colour, who have been affected by the 500% increase in reported racial abuse in the last week, I would imagine that the impact has felt pretty huge. The little boy on the BBC news who had a card saying “Polish vermin go home” shoved through his family’s letter box is going to remember that for the rest of his life. The people of Northern Ireland, for whom the open border with Eire was an essential part of the peace process, are going to have change foisted on them which they didn’t vote for. For many of us, leaving the EU will affect our job security, the value of our pensions, the ability of local governments and charities to provide many of the services which central government don’t fund. We don’t live in Hardy’s little village any more. What happens in the rest of the outside world – in particular, how we negotiate our exit from the EU (and thanks, Nigel, for getting that off to such a good start) – is going to affect us all. As the song says, ‘there may be trouble ahead‘.