Thursday, March 31, 2011

What the starling said

I was slightly mesmerized by Seamus Perry's very good essay on Thomas Hardy for the TLS; I have a secret internal other life as a Hardy critic, I think (I have been meaning to read D. H. Lawrence's Study of Thomas Hardy, but that edition is expensive enough that I will be better off getting it at the library...).

Sterne's starling has been much on my mind recently, so it is not surprising that this is the bit of Perry that especially caught my attention:
The history of a poem such as “The Caged Goldfinch”, not one of the central masterpieces but absolutely pure Hardy, demonstrates all the virtues he discovered in keeping mum:
Within a churchyard, on a recent grave,
I saw a little cage
That jailed a goldfinch. All was silence save
Its hops from stage to stage.

There was inquiry in its wistful eye,
And once it tried to sing;
Of him or her who placed it there, and why,
No one knew anything.
It is a poem all about not knowing what is going on: the poem knows so little about the subject on which it has elected to speak that it hardly exists at all; and, since seeing people out of their depth can always be funny, it is “a little joke” in one way, amused at the thought of bringing the graveyard manners of Thomas Gray and Robert Blair into the sceptical, hesitant voice of modernity. But there is a real perplexity at work in the poem as well, feelings too unassuaged for the spirit of a joke wholly to absorb them. When Shelley (whom Hardy greatly admired as one might regard one’s opposite) addresses a skylark you know he is finding a way of speaking about his own selfhood and song. But the identification in Hardy’s poem between the trapped bird and the clueless figure of the poet, quite unable to perform in the high old Shelleyan style, is left implicit and the poem’s element of self-exposure remains tantalizingly oblique.


  1. I read the Lawrence study of Hardy years ago and remember loving it, it was a very stimulating and intemperate and enjoyable read; he firmly believed that Hardy novels were good or bad insofar as they approached the plot of Lady Chatterley -- the parallels are obvious in Tess and Jude and can be teased out of some others... -- and was amusingly dismissive of Hardy's prose. (I like many of the novels but must confess to the nowadays-heretical view that the poems are in general very dull indeed.)

  2. Amazing thought!!! I loved your post !!!