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Thomas Hardy: Texts and Contexts by Phillip Mallett (eds.)

By Phillip Mallett (eds.)

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But it is the ‘lustrous gnats’ that take the eye here, not rising and falling passively on the wind, as in Keats’s ‘Ode’, but dancing and wailing. ‘Dance and wail’ is the gnat equivalent of ‘twist and shout’. The gnats dance because they are lustrous, illuminated, irradiated. They wail because they won’t be irradiated for long – or, indeed, alive for long, being but gnats. There is a comparable passage in Tess of the d’Urbervilles: Looking over the damp sod in the direction of the sun a glistening ripple of gossamer-webs was visible to their eyes under the luminary, like the track of moonlight on the sea.

Chiefly, however, he annexes the image to his attempt to answer the basic questions posed by his topic. Why the Napoleonic wars? Why should Europe have been reduced to chaos? Why should thousands have died? These issues are raised directly by the various ‘Spirits’ who survey the cross-continental advances and retreats. In particular the Spirit of the Years makes repeated attempts to explain the root cause of the conflict to the Spirit of the Pities, his most telling device being his power to switch the Immanent Will into visual display mode.

He knows how reputations rise and fall, as Tennyson’s did at the end of the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century. He compares his era with Wordsworth’s, finding them both marked aesthetically by a ‘thirst after outrageous stimulation’ (Hardy is quoting the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads) and hence by an inability to distinguish high art from low. Hardy accepts that he, like Wordsworth, will have to wait for a readership mature enough for his art, and hence, again like Wordsworth and Tennyson, will have to brave out time’s handling of his name.

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