Thomas Hardy’s Harvest

Vincent van Gogh - De oogst - Google Art Project
It’s that time of year where we begin to transition. School is starting. The days are shorter. And, if you don’t live in the South like me, the weather is starting to cool down.

We’ve also entered into harvest time. Lammas day began the month, bringing us the harvest. In the words of an Anglo-Saxon poem, “The Menologium,” this is a wonderful time of beauty and an over-flowing bounty:

And then afterwards the summer glides away
always about seven nights later, illuminating Weod-month
in the town, bringing everywhere August

to the widespread people, Lammas Day.
So comes the harvest-time, about another month
except for one default, beautiful, burdened with blossoms—
prosperity will be revealed fairly upon the earth.

Eleanor Parker has a wonderful introduction to this poem that you can read here. She describes it as “interlocking cycles of the year, between the seasons and sacred time.”

With the growing cold and the focus on the harvest, this is a good time to read the poems of Thomas Hardy.

Hardy also fills his novels and poems with “interlocking cycles of…the seasons and sacred time.” Following the way he describe’s Tess’s use of liturgical concepts, it seem that Hardy “found at least approximate expression of [his] feelings” in the language of Anglican ritual.

There’s one poem in particular that I think resonates with Lammas Day and harvest time. It’s called “Quid Hic Agis?”

Here, have a look.

I
When I weekly knew
An ancient pew,
And murmured there
The forms of prayer
And thanks and praise
In the ancient ways,
And heard read out
During August drought
That chapter from Kings
Harvest-time brings;
– How the prophet, broken
By griefs unspoken,
Went heavily away
To fast and to pray,
And, while waiting to die,
The Lord passed by,
And a whirlwind and fire
Drew nigher and nigher,
And a small voice anon
Bade him up and be gone, –
I did not apprehend
As I sat to the end
And watched for her smile
Across the sunned aisle,
That this tale of a seer
Which came once a year
Might, when sands were heaping,
Be like a sweat creeping,
Or in any degree
Bear on her or on me!

II
When later, by chance
Of circumstance,
It befel me to read
On a hot afternoon
At the lectern there
The selfsame words
As the lesson decreed,
To the gathered few
From the hamlets near –
Folk of flocks and herds
Sitting half aswoon,
Who listened thereto
As women and men
Not overmuch
Concerned at such –
So, like them then,
I did not see
What drought might be
With me, with her,
As the Kalendar
Moved on, and Time
Devoured our prime.

III
But now, at last,
When our glory has passed,
And there is no smile
From her in the aisle,
But where it once shone
A marble, men say,
With her name thereon
Is discerned to-day;
And spiritless
In the wilderness
I shrink from sight
And desire the night,
(Though, as in old wise,
I might still arise,
Go forth, and stand
And prophesy in the land),
I feel the shake
Of wind and earthquake,
And consuming fire
Nigher and nigher,
And the voice catch clear,
‘What doest thou here?’

In “Quid Hic Agis,” Hardy associates the liturgical cycle with the natural seasons in a way that reminds me of the Anglo-Saxon “Menologium.”

The day is different though than the celebration of Lammas Day on August first. The clue is in the reading that Hardy mentions: : “During August drought / That chapter from Kings / Harvest-time brings.” Hardy associates the reading of 1 Kings XIX during morning prayer with late summer and all that implies about water and harvest.

The liturgical moment he references is the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity Sunday according to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer in use during his lifetime. (The Elizabethan Prayer Book of 1559 would instead have this reading in April for the second lesson of morning prayer.) In the current calendar, that’s today.

Though Hardy often reminds me of the elegiac mode common in Anglo-Saxon poetry and I have this sense that there’s some kinship between this poem and “The Menologium,” the tones are very different. “The Menologium” prepares us for a time of plenty, but Hardy turns us toward Elijah’s theophany of the still, small voice in the transition from deep summer to harvest.

Washington Allston - Elijah in the Desert - Google Art Project
Elijah in the Desert by Washington Allston, 1818

He then returns to that same passage later “as the Kalendar [a VERY liturgical way to spell it] / Moved on, and Time / Devoured our prime.” The Anglo-Saxon poem enables us to “find the holy times that man must hold onto,” but Hardy’s time is a monstrous devourer whose movement is manifested by the liturgical Kalendar like the wind in the leaves.

But still, even in the teeth of Time, the speaker experiences the theophany with the question: “Quid hic agis”–What doest thou here? The speaker, like many of Hardy’s characters, is isolating himself: “I shrink from sight / And desire the night.” Isn’t that the question we’re asked when we isolate and turn from our purpose, when we can’t find the times that we must hold onto?

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