Monday, June 02, 2014

On meeting Thomas Hardy at King Alfred's Tower

On Saturday Sarah and I headed for King Alfred's Tower, which stands tall in the Stourhead estate. Not for the first time we climbed the 205 steps to the top. The vantage point affords wonderful views of the Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire countryside. Once we'd got our breath back and taken in the scenery we made our way back down the spiral staircase to the bottom of the tower. We lingered in the entrance hall to read the information displays. The tower was built in the late 1700's by Henry Hoare II, owner of Stourhead. Amongst other things the folly was erected to commemorate the achievements of King Alfred the Great. In that sense it serves as a memorial to 'Christian England'. A stone tablet above the door on the east face of the tower reads,

AD 879 on this Summit
Erected his Standard
Against Danish Invaders
To him We owe The Origin of Juries
The Establishment of a Militia
The Creation of a Naval Force
ALFRED The Light of a Benighted Age
Was a Philosopher and a Christian
The Father of his People
The Founder of the English

One of the information boards mentions that Thomas Hardy referenced the tower in one of his poems, Channel Firing. Written in 1914, at the outbreak of the Great War, it recalls the firing of heavy guns in the Channel. Such was the force of the gunfire that the poet reckons that some may have mistaken the racket for Judgement-day,

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

What Hardy calls 'Stourton Tower' gets a mention in the final verse,

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

Hardy lost his Christian faith as a young man. Nevertheless in the poem he imagines God reassuring anyone who might have been alarmed that it was not Judgement-day after all. In his verse the poet gently mocks the idea of divine judgement. He suggests that even with the madness and horror of the Great War, that what he calls 'our indifferent century' was better off without a belief in the Day of Reckoning. Wishful thinking, I wonder. 

And so we met with Thomas Hardy at King Alfred's Tower. In one way it was fitting that the structure that looms over Wessex should be associated with the king of that ancient domain and the novelist whose stories were set in the Wessex of his imagining. Far from the Madding Crowd, and all that. 

On the other hand, that Stourton Tower is haunted by the memory of both Christian monarch and sceptical poet seems somewhat incongruous. Hardy was one of a select band of authors who were determined to undermine Christian faith and morality in the late Victorian era (see here). The critic Edmund Gosse wondered, 'What has Providence done to Mr. Hardy that he should rise up in the arable land of Wessex and shake his fist at his Creator?' 

Hardy's last words were to his nurse, Eva Dugdale, 'Eva, what is this?' Was it his Maker, whose existence the writer had long denied and whose judgement he derided, Hebrews 9:27? 

In an earlier post Juxtaposition: Herman Bavinck on God's fatherly providence and Thomas Hardy's blighted star (here), I contrast Thomas Hardy's bleak fatalism with Herman Bavinck's teaching on the providence of God. 

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