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Thomas Hardy’s “In Tenebris”: The Problem of Relativity

Click here (and scroll to the bottom of the page) to read the poem sequence.

I’d like to start by making a claim that I have recently asserted elsewhere: The lyric poem is fundamentally elegiac. That is, the lyric constitutes both the inscription of a moment’s utterance and a memento mori—an object that cannot help but bear the mark and warning of loss. Even in its rarer moments of celebration, lyric draws attention to the literal absence of its subject: Neither blighted sky nor dappled things can be found in the poem itself. Instead, they are banished the very same moment they are inscribed, each transformed into the epitaph that will stand—with the hope of greater permanence—in its stead. This being the case, it is unsurprising that time and the anxiety of its passing make such frequent appearance in poetry, as the poetic act is an acknowledgement or registering of that passing away. If the lyric is, pace Mill, an overheard utterance, it is also a sort of copy or trans-scription of said utterance. The lyric keeps an outward appearance of spontaneity, but it is inevitably inflected with an awareness of its impermanence—that is, its immediate recession (as written word) into the past. Thus, the perpetuation of a lyric depends upon the reader’s voicing of it in what Jonathan Culler refers to as “a present of articulation” (from “The Language of Lyric,” a lecture given 24 July 2012).

In this way, the lyric anticipates its future even in its obsessions with time’s slippage toward the past.

Thomas Hardy is, perhaps, modernity’s original poster child for temporal anxiety in lyric, as well as its inevitable intersection with the elegiac. In this vein, I find it useful to think of Hardy’s poems in relationship to the idea of time deixis, or the linguistic phenomenon where reference to time is relative to a temporal reference point. (Typically, this reference point is the moment of utterance. Some common examples of time deixis are context-dependent distinctions such as “now/then,” “yesterday/today/tomorrow,” and distinctions in tense.) In this way, language reveals itself as incomplete in the sense that geographic and temporal reference points not present in the language itself are often indispensible to the communication of meaning. Thus, in addition to the lexical self-referentiality of language, there is also the problem of its reliance on extralinguistic cues. This bears on theories of the lyric in that the intelligibility of the utterance is complicated by its inscription as poem, as the reader is, of course, not present for the [imaginary] original moment of utterance. As I hope to illustrate here, for Hardy, one essential complication of this sort is the impossibility of capturing and apprehending the passage of time in lyric poetry. As a type of fragment, lyric gropes toward a lack—and elegizes the passing moment in necessarily incomplete language. In the tripartite lyric, “In Tenebris,” Hardy’s consistently deictic language dislocates the reader by exposing the lyric’s inability to fully capture a moment in time. Because of the deictic language, much is left external to the poem, which lends weight to the grief it attempts to articulate.

“In Tenebris: I” begins with the rather unassuming observation that “Wintertime nighs.” But this outwardly simple statement (admittedly couched in strange, Hardyesque language) is curious in that it expresses winter’s approach in the language of perpetuity—specifically, the simple present tense. For the speaker of “In Tenebris,” winter is always imminent. However, on the heels of this grim statement comes another of equal certainty: “But my bereavement-pain / It cannot bring again: / Twice no one dies.” Here, the anticipatory dread of winter’s perpetual imminence is partially dissipated by the recognition that “bereavement-pain” comes only once. In other words, there is assurance built into the knowledge that, “Twice no one dies.”  Thus, this first stanza mingles the language of perpetuity and singularity of experience, as well as of hopelessness and assurance.

The following stanzas (in part I) maintain a similar structure, and express largely similar sentiments. The final stanza, for instance, also begins with a statement of perpetuity—that “Black is night’s cope.” However, Hardy quickly qualifies this temporally indeterminate statement with another: “But death will not appal/ One who, past doubtings all,/ Waits in unhope.” What is the nature of the speaker’s waiting? Because we are given few clues as to what he waits for, or for how long, the act takes on an elliptical quality. Thus, with the perpetual imminence of the first line of the poem and the perpetual act of waiting in the last line, “In Tenebris: I” exists between bookends of temporal uncertainty. The speaker’s grief is, in a way, outside of time. It is the reader who instantiates the condition of grief by saying the poem. In “The Language of Lyric,” Culler suggests that “lyric seems constructed for reperformance…with an always iterable now.” In other words, one rub from the reader calls up the intransigent jinn of the lyric present.

“In Tenebris II” begins with a series of dependent clauses whose uncertainty is the result of the deictic cue, “When…” Here are the opening lines in full:

When the clouds’ swoln bosoms echo back the shouts of the many and strong
That things are all as they best may be, save a few to be right ere long,
And my eyes have not the vision in them to discern what to these is so clear,
The blot seems straightway in me alone; one better he were not here.

So, with the deictic/dependent clause beginning “When,” the speaker projects himself into a future whose distance from the present is uncertain. To complicate matters more, this imagined future has before it another future, namely that time “ere long” when the last errors of the universe are corrected—when “things are all as they best may be.” In this imagined—perfected—future, the speaker will finally gain a clarity of vision, or proof, that he is correct in his current suspicion that “The blot seems straightaway in me alone.” This projection into the future compounds the speaker’s “unhope.” His final realization is a paraphrase of Corinthians 15:8: The speaker endures the sickening positivity of the “potent” and the “stout upstanders” just long enough, “…Till I think I am one born out of due time, who has no calling here.” The supreme irony of such an admission is that it inscribes the speaker in precisely that temporal context which seemingly does not befit him. (The deictic “here” in this case refers to a temporal rather than a physical space.) This statement registers not only the speaker’s discontent with his current lot, but also the impossibility of betterment. The speaker soon reiterates his previous statement of guilt: “Then what is the matter is I, I say. Why should such an one be here?. . .” (The deictic “here” now seems to indicate a geographic rather than a physical space.) Thus, the speaker’s dislocation from his universe is both temporal and geographic. Interestingly, the language used to describe these distinct forms of dislocation is the same (i.e. the word “here”). Ironically, while the word “here” offers immediacy to others in witness of a real-life speech act (“I love coming here with you…”), it creates added distance in the context of the lyric (“Wish you were here…”). A reader’s vocalization of the lyric cannot resurrect such immediacy, but rather it serves to highlight the lyric’s grief—and the essential impossibility of its communication.

The speaker’s admission/realization that he does not belong is ultimately emboldening, and the focus of the final stanza turns wholly to himself:

Let him in whose ears the low-voiced Best is killed by the clash of the First,
Who holds that if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst,
Who feels that delight is a delicate growth cramped by crookedness, custom, and fear,
Get him up and be gone as one shaped awry; he disturbs the order here.

This embittered sentiment levels its criticism—in sarcastic tones—presumably against those who live unexamined lives. Oddly, the speaker’s newfound confidence is qualified by the shift from the first person “I” to the self-referential third person. Though the speaker is clearly referring to himself as the one who is unwelcome, he states that “he disturbs the order here.” Again, the deictic “here” rears its ambiguous head, demanding the inevitable question: “Where?” The answer is that the speaker inhabits a temporal and geographic limbo, a neither-here-nor-there whose uncertainty, I would argue, is apt subject matter for lyric. The lyric utterance of “In Tenebris: II” is both a universalized “everywhere,” and yet it is no place that can be discerned. It is both momentary and perpetual.

“In Tenebris: III” picks up this paradox straightaway in its first line, which functions as a refrain throughout the poem: “There have been times when I well might have passed and the ending have come.” Oddly, this seemingly suicidal impulse pertains only to times “Ere I had learnt that the world was a welter of futile doing.” The speaker, who no longer attends to “the world wheeling on,” has seemingly achieved cold comfort in his retrospective view. In this third and final section, the speaker—who finally allows some geographic specificity with his mention of Egdon—reveals that he has traded raw grief for numbing knowledge. Ironically, he makes this assertion in a language more obsessed with the past than content with the present. The poem ends with a sort of chant that invokes the past while attempting to stave it off:

Even then! While unweeting that vision could vex or that knowledge could numb,
That sweets to the mouth in the belly are bitter, and tart, and untoward,
Then, on some dim-coloured scene should my briefly raised curtain have lowered,
Then might the Voice that is law have said ‘Cease!’ and the ending have come.

The repetition of the deictic “then” performs a sort of temporal finger-pointing toward a time that has past and yet remains effectively present in the speaker’s mind, despite his efforts to put that time to bed. The poem’s utterance belongs to an eternal present that elegizes both a still-operative past and the moment of utterance as it passes. Hardy examines the resultant tension in deictic language, which tells us only as much as a hand pointing toward that which lies outside the frame. “In Tenebris” describes the unbearable expectancy of time’s passing with an expression that seems to say, Look! Winter is coming.

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- who has written 1 posts on Contemporary Poetry Review.

Nicholas Friedman lives in Ithaca, New York, where he works as a lecturer for the English Department at Cornell University.

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  1. [...] be counted on for clever comments, as a rule.  If you see something along the lines of, “The lyric keeps an outward appearance of spontaneity, but it is inevitably inflected with an awarene…,” you’ll know it ain’t me.  My comment is more likely to be something like [...]


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