THE CONVERGENCE OF THE TWAIN

(Lines on the loss of the 'Titanic', 1915)


 The deeply rural cottage in Higher Brockhampton, Dorset, where Thomas Hardy was born in 1840.

The deeply rural cottage in Higher Brockhampton, Dorset, where Thomas Hardy was born in 1840.

The world-view of Thomas Hardy, both in his novels and many poems, was decidedly “parochial” in the sense that it is mainly based on his semi-fictional Wessex with elements of Cornwall - where he briefly worked as an architect restoring a church and where he met his first wife. He seems to be a quintessentially English poet, born in the most rural setting imaginable and rarely to leave the countryside of his birth since he finally settled in a large home built with his new wealth, but only a few miles away in Dorchester - or more precisely and appropriately, just outside Dorchester. In a sense it is odd to find him go beyond the love poems of Cornwall to a global news incident. But he does it in his own inimitable fashion.Today, if a poet or novelist were to write on the ‘Titanic’, they might concentrate on how many lives were lost, the grief of the families concerned, and perhaps some technical aspects of the disaster. Newspapers would have a photo of a leftover doll, and an interview with someone who missed the departure (as they did on the fatal crash of the Concorde, a similar symbol of new technology, for example). What we might call the DeCaprio/Winslet view. But Hardy does none of this. On a first reading, therefore, there is no compassion for the victims.

 The Titanic in Southampton just before departing for New York (Photo: Wikipedia Commons).

The Titanic in Southampton just before departing for New York (Photo: Wikipedia Commons).

Yet, looking closer, there is a powerful and tragic understanding of destiny, of the broader view of this single event in the context of human history. Phrases such as the “Immanent Will”, the “Spinner of the Years” drive a powerful sense of destiny. The poem becomes prophetical in its antithesis of nature and technology: could there be a more moving statement of this than the wonderful evocation of astonished fish at the sight of the wreck: then he explains, as if to answer their question, that while the ship was being built by Harland and Wolff in the Belfast shipyards the iceberg was being prepared by nature in the north Atlantic. They grow, and no human could imagine their violent destiny until, as in the last line:

               … consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

Thus, paradoxically, the “parochial” view can co-exist in the same author with a “universal” view derived from human destiny in the widest possible sense. This is clearest in the magnificent lines:

               And as the smart ship grew

               In stature, grace and hue

               In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.

That is the god-like novelist observing, not the villages of Wessex but the “two hemispheres”. Far more powerful than the lives of a thousand men and women - without demeaning the tragic loss for families involved.

    Max Gate, the house Hardy - also an architect - built for himself in Dorchester, and where he died in 1928.

   Max Gate, the house Hardy - also an architect - built for himself in Dorchester, and where he died in 1928.