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Sunday, 11 December 2011

Thomas Hardy: Channel Firing


File:Grand Fleet sails.jpg

The British Grand Fleet sails for Scapa Flow in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I: British naval photograph, 1914; image by Wildsurmise, 7 February 2006

That night your great guns, unawares,
Shook all our coffins as we lay,
And broke the chancel window-squares,
We thought it was the Judgment-day

And sat upright. While drearisome
Arose the howl of wakened hounds:
The mouse let fall the altar-crumb,
The worms drew back into the mounds,

The glebe cow drooled. Till God called, “No;
It’s gunnery practice out at sea
Just as before you went below;
The world is as it used to be:

“All nations striving strong to make
Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters
They do no more for Christés sake
Than you who are helpless in such matters.

“That this is not the judgment-hour
For some of them’s a blessed thing,
For if it were they’d have to scour
Hell’s floor for so much threatening....

“Ha, ha. It will be warmer when
I blow the trumpet (if indeed
I ever do; for you are men,
And rest eternal sorely need).”

So down we lay again. “I wonder,
Will the world ever saner be,”
Said one, “than when He sent us under
In our indifferent century!”

And many a skeleton shook his head.
“Instead of preaching forty year,”
My neighbour Parson Thirdly said,
“I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer.”

Again the guns disturbed the hour,
Roaring their readiness to avenge,
As far inland as Stourton Tower,
And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.

King Alfred's Tower in Brewham, Somerset, near Stourhead, Wiltshire. View of the entrance from the southeast
: photo by Interesting wiki, 7 November 2007

: Gustave Doré, illustration in Lord Alfred Tennyson: Idylls of the King, 1868; image by Holger Thölking, 2 April 2006

File:Stonehenge with farm carts, c. 1885.jpg

Ground view of Stonehenge, Wiltshire, with two farm carts, two horses and men: photographer unknown, c. 1885; image scan by Moonraker, 16 June 2011


10th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force, marches past Stonehenge, winter 1914-1915
: photographer unknown (Library and Archives Canada)

Thomas Hardy: Channel Firing, April 1914, from Satires of Circumstance, 1914


TC said...

Channel Firing is another Hardy poem that begins with an immediate experienced moment: the sound of naval gunfire from the British Grand Fleet, conducting gunnery exercises in the Channel. The poet's home in Dorchester was only a few miles from the coast, and if, in the poem, the big guns' roar is loud enough to wake the dead, the reverberation seems to have also been enough to keep the septuagenarian poet from sleeping. All those ghosts, past and to come. This historically premonitory poem, writ a few months before the outbreak of hostilities, and broadening out in implication, as it goes along, from history to a fantasia of prehistory to myth -- Stourton Tower, Camelot, Stonehenge, increasingly remote realms -- has a way of continuing to echo. (Posit someone living near a Tomahawk Cruise missile practise range.) The awakened graveyard inhabitants would witness the sacrifice of an entire generation of young men, soon coming to join them in their restless place.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

This poem is so rich and broad and deep - stunning in its seeming simplicity - a true master.

“I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer.” Parson Thirdly, indeed, sums it up for us, poet, priest, or no.

Thanks, Tom

TC said...

You said it, Don.

ACravan said...

Well, you both said it and Hardy really said it in every line here. The photo montage you've chosen is stunning. In Tuxedo Park, NY, where we lived for a long time, since 9-11 we became increasingly aware of military exercises. Armament fire frequently reverberates and makes the air shake there. Lately, though, I've been thinking more and more about the US' quieter use of drones -- about soldiers running remote control, video game technology wars in Pakistan and Yemen, for example, from consoles and control rooms in Nebraska. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. Curtis

TC said...

Yes, scary, Curtis, like a vast spooky video game. Perhaps the rumbling of guns, though terrifying, might at least give one some warning.

ACravan said...

I should have mentioned that Tuxedo is about 15 miles or so from West Point which, if you've never been there, is one of the prettiest places you're likely to see. The view of the Hudson River from the campus is extraordinary and it's very easy to cast your mind back a couple of hundred years and imagine how things must have looked during the American Revolution. Things have gotten very tense there over the past decade. Curtis

Anonymous said...

“Instead of preaching forty year,
I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer.”

Though I don't see this as an either-or, actually. Nevertheless, a great piece of work, especially when combined with the montage, as Curtis said. Interesting that Stonehenge is propped up along one side as the army marches past, no doubt against the vibrations caused by the army boots. I suppose someone figured it would be just too exciting for the Germans if Stonehenge collapsed.


TC said...


Rumours of war always seem to reawaken past rumours and shadows of wars, and rumours of the shadows, and...

Silhouettes in Shade.

Hardy was said to have later expressed surprise that the war came so close on the heels of his quite prophetic poem.

But seeing the Grand Fleet arrayed in line on course for Scapa Flow, one can't help recalling that of course a war of that dimension could not have been "produced" without a good deal of rehearsal, all round the great opposed political, imperial, diplomatic, industrial and military
ring of various and sundry mad hatters.

TC said...

Artur, yes, plainly the Wiltshire constabulary had been fortifying the ancient druidic pile against the potential depredations of... no not the dread Hun but the more present and immediate threat of the lumbering Canadians.

In the earlier 1885 photo, it's odd how the scale of the place at that time -- all tumbledown and almost as local-yokelish as the extremely Hardyesque passersby -- seems so much more intimate and (dare one say it) "real" than in the present va-va-voom son et lumiere presentation (somewhere between Lord of the Rings Village and Disney Medieval World).

TC said...

By the by, as to King Alfred's Tower at Stourton, there were those who (obviously only when the King's back was turned) referred to it as "King Alfred's Folly".

But as Artur's delightful presence here reminds me, "Folly" could simply be a bit of straightforward architectural nomenclature.

Though that might have presented a somewhat risky limb upon which to crawl in noble fealty before the King.

"Sire, the vassals have been ooh-ing and aah-ing over your wonderful new Folly!"

"In that case... off with their bloody heads!"

TC said...

Not to go so far as to suggest that so advanced a sculptor as Thomas Hardy (well, he DID design Stonehenge, didn't he?) would ever engage in anything so retro as representation, but if one tilts one's head at a raking angle to the left, and perhaps pours a little beer into one's pipes, one can just about make out the curious beyond-the-grave grimace of belated awareness upon the monolithic stone visage of Parson Thirdly here.

ACravan said...

I see what you mean (even without applying beer -- yet). Curtis

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Oh, yes ... the Well-Beloved portrait! Something stonemason Jude might have been proud.

Lifting a cup of tea to Parson Thirdly.


Anonymous said...

Oh, but do I love especially the stanza that reads “All nations striving strong to make / Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters / They do no more for Christés sake / Than you who are helpless in such matters." Speaks to an often unsaid but certain truth that the "nations" & their inhabitants are less identical to one another than they are in outright opposition (see "they" vs. "you"). Rarely is this more stark than during war, I suppose.



Another great Hardy poem -- you're on a roll here, just went out to get my copy of The Collected Poems of T, these opening lines from "In Tenebris" penned in my youthful hand:

Wintertime nighs
But my breavement pain
It cannot bring again:
Twice noone dies.

The poem goes on (how it moved me then, how little I knew of what spake) --

Flower-petals flee;
But, since it once hath ben
No more that severing scene
Can harrow me.

Birds faint in dread:
I shall not lose old strength
In the long frost's black length:
Strength long since fled!

Meanwhile, as the "great guns shook" (and still do shake it seems), life continues, as Hardy notices -- "The mouse let fall the alter-crumb, The worms drew back into the mounds,/ The glebe cow drooled. . ."


light coming into sky above still black
ridge, white circle of moon in branches
in foreground, wave sounding in channel

and which is in such, sense
of that is to be from

this, think of stage center,
compare leafless tree

silver line of sun reflected in channel,
white cloud in pale blue sky on horizon

Anonymous said...

It's pretty clearly Parson Thirdly. How did he come up with that name? I sometimes try to move rocks around here, and I've found that I can't shift anything larger than about the size of a labrador without lots of ingenuity and levers & fulcrums etc., so that enormous Parson did they move it? In contrast, the crenelation at the top of King Alfred's Tower and/or Folly is so paper-thin it looks like the dotted line someone has torn around.

I love those horses & carts. I agree, it looked much better in those days. I've never liked the mown grass or the chain-link fence or the road.


Elmo St. Rose said...

I wonder if ACravan has read the
book by Jennet Conant about
Tuxedo Park and it's significant
covert role in World War II.

World War I in the rear view mirror
appears an immense insanity over
not very much.

World War II was a inferno produced
by insanity and as the Bible might
say, strange religions.

A comment on Hardy's poem in a
post modern comment
on it with another poem, by
Robinson Jeffers
where he is in his tower looking
out to a magnificent sunset over
the Pacific and can see from this
vantage point and some distance
a woman flogging a horse about the
head and neck. The finale is provided by a voice from afar:
"I create good and I create evil.
I am the Lord."

Locally there has been a case
where a young rodeo star jilted
a student on his college rodeo
team. She stole his horse named
"Credit Card" had him shot and

As a prescription: Poetry can help
you make it through.

ACravan said...

Elmo: Ms. Conant's book was big news and widely read and owned in Tuxedo Park, which is a very small place that normally receives very little attention. I believe she's a New Yorker, so she was a natural to give a lecture at the village's small historical society, whose main attraction is an exhibit devoted to the 1886 introduction of the "tuxedo" dinner jacket at the Autumn Ball marking the opening of the community. Curtis

TC said...

After dwelling upon Channel Firing a while, as on a cold winter's night it is wont to do, the mind inevitably hobbles back to the bewildering and lonely scenes upon the veldt -- the forlorn Bush, the wild Karoo, the foreign constellations, and the mound of dusty loam from which drifts up the lost wandering soul (animula blandula vagula) of poor Drummer Hodge.

Thomas Hardy: Drummer Hodge


Those striving nations, mad as hatters -- will they never leave off?

Steve, yes this is so precise -- oddly, I thought of The Eve of St Agnes --

"The mouse let fall the alter-crumb,/ The worms drew back into the mounds,/ The glebe cow drooled. . ."


My speculation: they moved it by astral fork lift.

My other speculation: that Hardy had endured innumerable interminable sermons inflicted by the "real" Parson Thirdly, who had a habit of expounding his homilies in measured stages, as "...and secondly... and thirdly..." ad infinitum (or ad nauseam, whichever came first).

Don reminds us Hardy had been a stonemason. And of course he had been trained in architecture, and done quite well at it, before giving it over for the old scribble, scribble business. Much as he would later give over novels for lyric poetry. What an odd succession of moves, when you think of it.


A direct hit on the g-spot of my Inner L'il Abner, with that one.

Some of Jennet Conant's extremely interesting book may be found here.

"Tuxedo Park, a guarded enclave of money and privilege nestled in the foothills of the Ramapo Mountains, forty miles northeast of New York City, had originally been developed by Pierre Lorillard, the tobacco magnate, as a private resort where his wealthy friends could summer every year. The rustic retreat became the prime meeting ground of American society, what Ward McAllister famously called 'The Four Hundred'..."

Just folks, in other words. Yet nary a Hodge in the mix.

And Emily Post too, yet.

One had not known that American blood could run so blue.


"...widely read and owned in Tuxedo Park..."

Yegads. And I had imagined a Fahrenheit 451-style bonfire. Or the Night They Burned Disco (in Comiskey Park)... but I suppose that latter conflagration would have been more pinkish-purple than blue... vinyl.

ACravan said...

Hi again, Tom and Elmo. Tuxedo Park is quite a bit different now than it used to be in Alfred Loomis's (or especially Pierre Lorillard and Bruce Price's -- original TP architect and father of Emily Post) time, although the place is still largely populated by weekend homeowners who work in Manhattan's financial sector. I would say the airs and graces have largely vanished. Last year we had our first murder, an intra-family crime not unrelated to the ongoing fiscal crisis, I think. The original church, St. Mary's-in-Tuxedo, which opened along with the park, is still very beautiful, as is its cemetary. It's a great place to go for a long walk in silence and has a really wonderful large lake. Curtis

TC said...

By the way, to return briefly to "topic", there are some excellent shots of the great monoliths at dawn, in the extremely pathetic conclusion of the actually quite good BBC Classics version of Tess of the D'Urbervilles (2008).

Anonymous said...

Tom, of course that's the reason of the name Parson Thirdly. Thank you for that.

Curtis, the development of Tuxedo Park and some of the individual houses were much discussed when I was an architecture student at Columbia in the late 1970s. We all loved it. Someone in my class even wanted to buy a house there, but I think even then they were very expensive and he couldn't manage it.