‘A MAN WHO USED TO NOTICE SUCH THINGS’
A Publication of
Catholic Concern for Animals
Selections From The Ark Number 200 - Summer 2005
‘A MAN WHO USED TO NOTICE SUCH THINGS’
by Alma Evers
‘Whether the human and kindred animal races survive till the exhaustion or destruction of the globe … pain to all upon it, tongued or dumb, shall be kept down to a minimum by loving kindness.’ These words of Thomas Hardy sum up his prime intent in his life and in his writing. Far from being wholly negative, as he is so often misrepresented, Hardy believed that progress was possible through the education of the sympathetic imagination. Even The Dynasts, which deals with wholesale slaughter and destruction in the Napoleonic wars, ends on a note of hope for: ‘Consciousness the Will informing, till it fashion all things fair.’
One of Hardy’s highest terms of praise was ‘intuitive’; it could truly be applied to him. In his autobiography, he records the responses of a sensitive child to his non-human fellow creatures. He crawled into a sheep-pen on all fours, trying to imagine how it felt to be a sheep. He was deeply distressed by his father’s casually throwing a stone and killing a fieldfare and by the ill-treatment of livestock at Smithfield. Near the end of his life he registers his pity for cattle in transport-trucks passing by his garden. That he deems such items – trivial details to some – worthy of inclusion in the Life gives a measure of the man.
Hardy’s awareness-raising vocation
He delighted in anecdotes, comic and grotesque as well as sad, noting, for example, the case of a canary who would faint when shown pictures of cats. Hardy was a Monist, making no distinction between species save their capacity for sentience. He wrote poetry on insects, and records, presumably with pleasure, that a snake was once found curled up beside him in his cradle. He welcomed Darwinism as it seemed to confirm what he had felt instinctively, the brotherhood, the ‘bare equality’, of living creatures.
Always unassuming, Hardy resisted attempts to persuade him to head animal welfare charities, insisting he could serve best by raising awareness through his creative writing. He is only very belated receiving anything like his due for his contribution. He did, eventually, agree to become the first honorary member of the Wessex Saddleback Pig Society in the hopes he could encourage the use of a humane killer. He wrote to the press on animal welfare issues, such as the cruelty he had witnessed in circuses at country fairs. The only personal opinions he expressed in his Who’s Who entry concern animals: blood sports, chaining and caging. Like his admirer, Philip Larkin, he left a bequest to the RSPCA. The journal of what became the League Against Cruel Sports gave him a warmly appreciative obituary.
As a pet-owner, Hardy could be indulgent to the point of excess. There is a portrait in the Dorset County Museum by the boy Hardy of his rabbit Juno; and a new model of her, complete with a bunch of fresh carrots, graced the entrance to the venue of the 2004 Hardy Society Conference. To his gardener’s frustration, a young hare was allowed to feed freely in the vegetable patch at Max Gate, the house Hardy had built for himself just outside Dorchester. Wessex, an Edward VII terrier, was brought to this home by Hardy’s second wife, Florence. The dog was totally untrained and extremely aggressive; he had the reputation of having bitten every visitor to Max Gate, except T.E. Lawrence. Hardy used to try to divert Wessex from callers by giving him lumps of wood to chew.
Hardy was, however, like so many artists and intellectuals, above all a cat-lover. In the late nineteenth century, at least eight cats were living at Max Gate; in the afternoon saucers of milk were placed on the lawn for others who just ‘came to tea’. These animals were adored equally by Hardy and his first wife, Emma; this passion was shared by many of his friends. When W.B. Yeats came to give Hardy a literary gold medal, Emma talked to him throughout the whole of lunch about cats. In the last few years of her life, when relations between Emma and her husband had become very strained, their devotion to the cats remained one topic on which they could communicate with enthusiasm. His letters to her include reports of his having reimbursed a maid whose hat one of the cats had ruined and of a servant being instructed to cuddle a cat deprived of her kittens. The most attractive pictures of Hardy show him with cats. One in particular reveals him as an authentic cat-lover: an aged Hardy sits on a hard upright chair, lightly supporting himself against a comfortable armchair where a cat rests. Like Queen Victoria, the Hardys had a pets’ graveyard, complete with headstones, in the garden.
In ‘In Tenebris II’, Hardy writes, ‘ … if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst’. He had to steel himself to take such a look and confessed he shrank from reading the literature Emma distributed at her anti-vivisection meetings. He could not avoid witnessing the abuse of over-driven horses whose eyes seemed to him full of reproach; he seemed to equate them with labourers and the ranks in the army. Always ready to praise what he saw as the fundamental virtue – ‘loving-kindness’ – he commended passengers who got down and walked to lighten animals’ loads. In agnostic old age (to the end, he remained what he called, ‘churchy’), he used to cycle seventeen miles on Sundays to read the lesson at the church of a clergyman whom he admired for his contribution to animal welfare.
The form of cruelty which roused his deepest indignation was hunting. He found the concept of it as a sport incomprehensible. He likened sporting ‘gentlemen’ to the common hangman. He wrote approvingly of some acquaintances who had bought a tract of land to prevent shooting on it. Epitomising much of what is best in the English countryside and living all his life in Dorset, Hardy is the perfect answer to the jibe made against those who argue for a humane attitude: ‘ignorant townee’.
No piece on Hardy and the natural world could omit a mention of the importance to him of songbirds. However, it is impossible to do even slight justice to the topic in a short article; indeed it is so crucial as to merit a whole article - if not a book - to itself. Songbirds are mentioned, sometimes as the ‘voices’, in hundreds of his over 900 poems. They frequently serve as observers of and commentators on human behaviour, especially at times of crisis. He seems, above all, to have associated them with spirituality. When in London, he experienced the lack of Dorset birdsong as a severe deprivation.
Harmony with animals
It is typical of Hardy’s modesty and also his sense of priorities that he should hope to be remembered, not as one of the greatest writers in the language, but as a man aware of and in harmony with animals.
In ‘Afterwards’, he writes,
When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous
If he in the dusk when, like an eyelid’s soundless blink,
If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
In his poem ‘Sunview’, also a kind of own epitaph, Hardy is harsher with himself than he consistently was with others. He felt he had failed:
A fairer, possibly the best, assessment of his love for and close sympathy with his fellow-creatures, especially the most vulnerable, is offered in C.D. Lewis’s ‘Birthday Poem for Thomas Hardy’:
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