Saturday, June 16, 2012

Quote of the Day (Thomas Hardy, on the ‘Titanic’s’ ‘Gilded Gear’)

“Jewels in joy designed
To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.

“Dim moon-eyed fishes near
Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: 'What does this vaingloriousness down here?'...”—Thomas Hardy, “The Convergence of the Twain” (1912)

Yes, I know, Faithful Reader, that I am given to posting a good deal about the Titanic. But you would, too, if you had a relative on board who was lucky enough to be a survivor.

Now, two months after the centennial of the world’s fabled, doomed luxury liner, another anniversary associated with the event occurs. One hundred years ago this month, the Fortnightly Review published a meditation by poet-novelist Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) on the “Pride of Life” that created the ship—and the inexorable fate awaiting her in icy waters.

In 1898, following a huge controversy over the then-frank sexuality of his novel Jude the Obscure, Hardy had forsaken writing fiction for poetry. Even in this genre that he pursued for the rest of his life, however, his themes remained the same as when he was writing such novels as The Return of the Native and The Mayor of Casterbridge: the tortured relations between men and women, and the implacable workings of Fate.

Hardy doesn’t concentrate on particular passengers so much as create from the ship itself something like a human being. Its arrogance, its ample display of wealth matters nothing to the “dim moon-eyed fishes” now watching the massive vessel that has inexplicably joined them (even sharing their "lightless" quality) beneath the waves.

For Hardy, an agnostic who had lost his faith years ago, God was not the beneficent Savior of history. At best, if He existed at all, He was a punishing, vengeful deity, as here, when the “Immanent Will,” observing all the preening and arrogance related to this huge material thing, decides to present it with a mate. But unlike God’s creation of Eve from Adam, this mate is “sinister”: the iceberg that will sink Titanic “twin halves of one august event.”(Nowadays, we would regard Hardy's "God" as doubly vengeful: one who, in the desire to strike at the few who are rich, disproportionately killed the many who were poor on board.)

Even the key word in the last line of the poem, “consummation,” would normally mean the most intimate relationship between spouses, but here it stands for the massive death that “jars two hemispheres”—the impact of this transatlantic voyage.

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