Saturday, January 05, 2008

That little goblin of melancholy

From The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), by Robert Burton
All my griefs to this are jolly,
Naught so damn'd as melancholy.
Yesterday I suggested that we could do worse than to start the new year hoping for the undimmable enthusiasm and lust for life (if not for other things) of Samuel Pepys. Today, therefore, I'll provide an example of one of the ways we could do worse: we could adopt the deep-rooted pessimism of Thomas Hardy.

Though certain scenes from his life and writings remind us that he was capable of taking real joy in life, Hardy as he has come down to us seems more comfortably at home in a fatalistic melancholy. In the following reminiscence, collected in the enthralling Thomas Hardy Remembered (2007), he delivers himself of an account of his pessimism so succinct and epigrammatic as to be almost risible. The memory comes from scientist and writer Sir Bertram Coghill Alan Windle, an acquaintance of Hardy who first mapped the real-life analogues of Hardy's imagined towns of Wessex:
Hardy was a quiet, courteous, somewhat reserved man, but an admirable conversationalist when he was interested, as he was in his beloved Wessex. The first thing anyone says about him is, of course, that he is a pessimist, and no doubt that in a sense is true, and perhaps must be true, of anyone who held—if he really did hold—the horrible philosophy to be met with in his books and summed up once and for all in the end of the account of the death of Tess. But perhaps he summed himself up better than anyone else could when he said to me once, "I am so constituted that, when it begins to rain, I find it impossible to believe it will ever be fine again." That might be a quotation from many of his characters in any of his books, but it came directly from his own lips.
Thomas Hardy Remembered is a bountiful treat for Hardy fans--we owe its editor, Martin Ray, great thanks--and I can't help but share a couple more memories from it. I love the following account of a 1919 meeting with Hardy by Llewelyn Powys, brother of John Cowper Powys; it seems fitting that a story from a Powys brother would introduce an element of the supernatural into a description of Hardy.
[Hardy] came in at last, a little old man (dressed in tweeds after the manner of a country squire) with the same round skull and the same goblin eyebrows, and the same eyes keen and alert. What was it that he reminded me of? A night hawk? A falcon owl? For I tell you, the eyes that looked out of that century-old skull were of the kind that see in the dark.
A note that Ray appends adds to the fun: he explains that Powys's account was published in the Dial in May of 1922, prompting Hardy to comment that
those young interviewers who take notes without one's knowledge are a pest.
I'll leave you with this brief, idiosyncratic description from Hugh Walpole, who met Hardy in 1910:
Tea with Thomas Hardy—a little nutcracker faded man with a wistful smile and a soft voice.
Oh, I won't deny that that little nutcracker faded man is appropriate for some days and some moods, but I'm sticking with my plan: Pepys for the New Year!

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