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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Hardy’s impetus in writing the poem, surely, was to explore and explain the reasons for his own suffering. The poet asks this question explicitly at the beginning of the third stanza: “How arrives it joy lies slain . . .?” The problem is not merely that joy is slain but also that pain is plentiful on his pilgrimage of life. Hardy takes up the question of God’s existence, or, more to the point, the nature of the relationship between God and humanity.

He variously describes himself, either directly or indirectly, as a “suffering thing”; as one whose “sorrow” gives the gods “ecstasy”; as bearing “it” (life, and suffering in life), clenching, and dying; as shedding tears; as possessing “slain” joy and “unbloomed” hope. At the same time, he sees himself encapsulated by omnipotent cosmic forces described as “some vengeful god,” “Powerfuller than I,” “Crass Casualty,” “dicing Time,” and “purblind Doomsters.”

Hardy denies that humans are as flies to wanton boys. He sees his condition as worse: The gods are deriving no pleasure from the pain of humans. If the gods were inflicting, or even permitting, human suffering with some purpose or purposes of their own (even self-indulgence or sadism), then the poet says that he could “bear it, clench [himself], and die.” He can find, however, no evidence that this is the case; the universe is malign through chance and indifference—through “hap”—not through any purpose, even an evil one.

One quality of Hardy’s poems, also immediately recognizable in his novels, is that they often evidence fatalism. In the classical sense of the word, “fate” would be either good or evil; the gods gave some people one of these, while others received the opposite allotment. Individuals did not always, or even usually, understand how or why, but purpose and design eventually became evident. Hardy’s universe, however, is one in which the gods are merely half-blind “Doomsters,” inflicting pain and suffering through indifference and total neglect. Human pilgrimages are entirely haphazard.

Fate, then, reigns supreme in Hardy’s perception of the universe...

(The entire section is 528 words.)