For all my having spoken of T.H. Meyer’s book (a series of posts on my private blog), I speak of my own reading less even than I do my gardening. I read for pleasure, I read frequently and passionately, absorbing books as though they were conversations. There are a few that I read for the details, boring books that tell me things I could not know, this is where a different world to my own is unveiled for me. But in such cases, that is all they bring: facts.
A book like ‘Dirty Old London’ by … was as much a pleasure to read as were the facts it brought me. It was all a reference book could be: factual, but also well written. A book written by someone who loves their topic and wishes, as all book writers do, to share and disseminate that love. The topic and the content of the book is far from charming, but rubbish, soot and poor roads are not the stuff to inspire charm. It was, nevertheless well written and a good read, and it is certainly one that I will read again – and as with all the better class of book, will on the second reading reveal something new to me. In revealing something new, it implies that I myself have changed, my own viewpoints broader or my insights the subtler. Oh, and another reminder that my conscious memory is limited in capacity.
In contrast, Thomas Hardy’s book ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’ is a charming book in the fullest sense of the word. This is now my fourth reading of the story, and as with all the best stories, it matters not a jot if you know what will happen: it is the manner of its telling that gives the pleasure. In this, Hardy follows the great traditions of storytelling that stretch back into the darkest periods of pre-history that Homer brought to life with such genius.
What I want to explore in this initial post in a short series that will deal with Hardy’s masterpiece – it was his first successful book – is not just to look at the profound beauty of some of his passages, but what it requires of a person in order that they be able to write in such a way.
The first step is to become aware of that which dwells within us all: that primordial spark that set our lives in train. It is to recognize such a quality within oneself that is the essence here. It will of course bear witness to that primordial spark – but in the course of our incarnation here on earth, will through the acceptance of our challenges, develop something fresh and new. It will speak of that initial spark, it will be new – and that is the point of the spiritual worlds: they are never the same twice. Only those on earth who can accept newness in their lives will fine it even possible to live there.
It was Hardy’s choice of story and its setting that are so commonplace. This is the archetypal “I could write this kind of book”. So why don’t you? But this is where the pen falters, the mind becomes as blank as the paper that lies in front of you and nothing gets written. The story is there in your mind, what lacks is the ability to express it. Hardy’s novel is the more profound because of its pathos. It says nothing, has nothing to say, but in saying nothing, says everything.
I spoke of how it is a story to be read and enjoyed: and that is its secret. It is a deep and wonderful experience to read this book, for it is not the commonplace that is important here. It is the way in which it is described. There is a passage in which he describes the rising of the winter sun:
Then the dawn drew on. The full power of the clear heaven was not equal to that of a cloudy sky at noon, when Boldwood arose and dressed himself. He descended the stairs and went out towards the gate of a field to the east, leaning over which he paused and looked around.
It was one of the usual slow sunrises of this time of the year, and the sky, pure violet in the zenith, was leaden to the nortliward, and murky to the east, where, over the shadowy down or ewe-lease on Weatherbury Upper Farm, and apparently resting upon the ridge, the only half of the sun yet visible burnt incandescent and rayless, like a red and flameless fire shining over a white hearthstone.
It is not just the simplicity of the statements Hardy makes, it is their veracity. The truth is simple, but it is the mark of a man to be able to put it in words – that are, in and of themselves, poetry in the form of prose. The key here is that Hardy forms an image in the mind of the reader, an image that is the same for all who read it, and becomes the more alive to those who have experienced a similar circumstance. This is the key to engagement that I discussed in my posts about Thomas Gainsborough.
Hardy was the son of a local builder, and he himself became that most modern of builders, a builder on paper only. That is to say, an architect. Actually, he will have supervised the building of his paper creations – and the best architects always arise from the artisan, for they understand the materials they work with in a way that cannot even be hinted at through the intellectual process. It is like explaining the softness and character of a 6B pencil to someone who can only think in numbers and abstract terms.
The British craft tradition was one that expressed itself through its own knowledge – a primordial form of the comfort zone. A cooper will speak of the things they make: casks, barrels, buckets, tubs, butter churns, hogsheads, firkins, tierces, rundlets, puncheons, pipes, tuns, butts, pins and breakers. A cooper will indulge himself in the knowledge of how to create each one – a knowledge that he literally cannot share with anyone who has not been through the rigours of a craft apprenticeship. But here we speak of the appropriate use of the ‘comfort zone’ where the person’s ability is as much an expression of it as it is to be hidden from those who cannot share it. Of this I speak in the next part. The point here is that Hardy not only knew the terms he employed, but knew them in a way that is both personal and thorough. Add a little of Hardy’s magical creativity and we have the following scene:
Whether the barn had ever formed one of a group of conventual buildings nobody seemed to be aware; no trace of such surroundings remained. The vast porches at the sides, lofty enough to admit a wagon laden to its highest with corn in the sheaf, were spanned by heavy, pointed arches of stone, broadly and boldly cut, whose very simplicity was the origin of a grandeur not apparent in erections where more ornament has been attempted. The dusky, filmed, chestnut roof, braced and tied in by huge collars, curves, and diagonals, was far nobler in design, because more wealthy in material, than nine tenths of those in our modern churches. Along each side wall was a range of striding buttresses, throwing deep shadows, on the spaces between them, which were perforated by lancet openings, combining in their proportions the precise requirements both of beauty and ventilation.
One could say about this barn, what could hardly be said either the church or the castle, its kindred in age aged style, that the purpose which had dictated its original erection was the same with that to which it was still applied. Unlike and superior to either of those two typical remnants of mediaevalism, the old barn embodied practices which had suffered no mutilation at the hands of time. Here at least the spirit of the builders then was at one with the spirit of the beholder now. Standing before this abraded pile, the eye regarded its present usage; the mind dwelt upon its vast history with a satisfied sense of functional continuity throughout — a feeling almost of gratitude, and quite of pride, at the permanence of the idea which had heaped it up. The fact that four centuries had neither proved it to be founded on a mistake, inspired any hatred of its purpose, nor given rise to any reaction that had battered it down, invested this simple grey effort of old minds with a repose, if not a grandeur, which a too curious reflection was apt to disturb in its ecclesiastical and military compeers. For once mediaevalism and modernism had a common standpoint. The lanceolate windows, the time-eaten arch-stones and chamfers, the orientation of the axis, the misty chestnut work of the rafters, referred to no exploded fortifying art or worn-out religious creed. The defence and salvation of the body by daily bread is still a study, a religion, and a desire.
Hardy speaks of the buildings with the love that few architects possess today. With a father for a builder, his evocation of buildings speak to me in a way that no other author can. For it is here that we have the immediacy of Hardy’s new incarnation, the karma that he had created in the past that he would be born into. The result of the challenges he had willingly and freely met in his previous lives – he could not have improved on a past life had he not already discovered his eternal self.
Inherent in the eternal is the free action: it is the result of his own insights that a person like Hardy could pour out the richness of his soul into his writing. It is because he had a soul tempered by both circumstance and challenge that he found the impulse to express it freely. He chose of his own free will to create something so utterly sublime as ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’ – when like so many others, he could just have remained a jobbing architect.