Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 430

In a poem with so many images from nature and biblical references, it may seem ironic to find no suggestion that nature or religion offers comfort to one as lonely and dejected as the speaker of “In Tenebris.” Although the indifference of God or nature is not discussed as explicitly as it is in many other poems by Hardy, this speaker’s view that he is isolated from the cycles of nature, from society, and from the entire world of darkness and chaos shows that he rejects all conventional sources of support. Nevertheless, this poem demonstrates that Hardy never stopped seeing in the Bible and in nature powerful sources of inspiration and reflections of the human condition.

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Hardy’s vision of human life in this poem seems to be one of unrelieved gloom and hopelessness. He asserts that life is not worth living once childhood innocence is replaced by the disillusionment that comes from experiencing pain and futility. It is important to recognize, however, that this despair is just one of many moods expressed in Hardy’s poetry. He stated in his preface to Poems of the Past and the Present (1901) that this collection “comprises a series of feelings and fancies written down in widely differing moods and circumstances, and at various dates.the road to a true philosophy of life seems to lie in humbly recording diverse readings of its phenomena as they are forced upon us by chance and change.”

Twenty-five years later, in the “Apology” that prefaced his new volume, Late Lyrics and Earlier (1922), Hardy again stressed the mixed character of his collections of poems. He responded to criticisms that he was too pessimistic by quoting a line from “In Tenebris,” reminding his readers that facing “the Worst” was a necessary preliminary to seeking a “way to the Better.” In spite of the predominance of negative statements in this poem and its preoccupation with death, it contains implicit revelations of much that Hardy did value in life. His isolation from the cycles of nature in poem I is overshadowed by the strength of his own independence and assertion of individual will. His alienation from society is balanced by his skill at satirizing its smug optimism with wit and irony in poem II. His questioning of his own fate in poem III is accompanied by reminders of the value of memory and individual life. Although he is unable to see any fulfilling order in society or the world, the poem itself demonstrates that he is able to create a meaningful artistic order out of his frustration and despair.

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