Paul O’Flinn


Them and Us in Literature


6. The Sinking of the Titanic:
Is Britain Going Under Along With It?

Put this book down for five minutes if you can bear to and switch on the TV. The odds are that if there’s a current affairs programme on there’ll be a man in a hundred guinea suit and a haircut, from The Economist, say, or the New Statesman or the CBI, assuring you that the way things are going with the energy crisis, inflation, lack of real leadership at the top and so on, democracy, nay western civilisation as we have known it, is quite possibly doomed in our time for this generation and we shall not look on its like again. Or some such drivel. Profound pessimism seems as fashionable at the moment as existentialism a generation ago. It’s a dreary philosophy but since it’s so widespread we’d better take a look at it.

One way of doing that is to turn to the novels and poems of a man who’s been described as the greatest English pessimist, Thomas Hardy. His books express that philosophy intensely and fully, and by looking at some of them we can trace its roots, appeal and limitations.

Hardy was born at Bockhampton, Dorset, in 1840. His father was a small builder employing half-a-dozen men but his family on his mother’s side were extremely poor. 1840 was a bad time to be born in Dorset. Average farm wages at less than 40p a week were the lowest of any county in England – 40p a week when it cost the labourers 5p a loaf to buy back the bread they made for their masters.

When times are bad there are two things you can do about it: you can try revolution and you can try reforms. Both appeared to have been tried in Dorset in the ten years before Hardy’s birth, and both appeared to have failed. In 1830 there had been the Captain Swing revolts right across the southern counties, a spontaneous eruption of demonstrations, rick burning and machine smashing. This bitter but politically naive protest against high unemployment and low wages met with fierce repression. At Tisbury, 25 miles from Hardy’s birthplace, John Hardy, a farm labourer and just possibly a distant relative, was first to die, shot down by a troop of yeomanry. By the end of 1832, the revolt was smashed. Nearly 2,000 had been arrested. Of these, 19 were executed, 644 sent to prison and 505 transported to Australia and Tasmania. A generation of militants was effectively silenced.

But the people wouldn’t lie down. In 1834, rebellion having failed, they tried reform. At Tolpuddle, six miles from Hardy’s birthplace, farm labourers set about forming a trade union. Again, the same sensitive, enlightened and sympathetic response from the ruling class: arrest and transportation.

So it was into the aftermath of these two terrible defeats for the people of Dorset that Hardy was born in 1840. What he seems to have found around him is a sort of gloomy stoicism, a feeling that life would never be much good, that there was nothing you could do about it, so you’d best grin and bear it. As a child he practised copperplate handwriting and his copybooks still survive. “Passion is a bad counsellor”; “Quit vicious habits”; “Encourage diligence”, he was told to write – standard Victorian morals perhaps, but ones that also speak of the dull resignation of mid-nineteenth century Dorset.

Even at the age of thirty we find him recording in a notebook: “Mother’s notion (and also mine) – that a figure stands in our van with arm uplifted to knock us back from any pleasant prospect we indulge in as probable.” Clearly Hardy’s mother, after the appalling poverty of her youth and the broken hopes of the 1830s, had picked up like many of her class a quiet pessimism as a kind of psychological survival strategy. Don’t expect much so you won’t be disappointed when you don’t get much. If you try for more there’ll be troops to shoot you, the figure with arm uplifted to knock you back, so keep your head down, encourage diligence, quit vicious habits and maybe they’ll leave you alone. This philosophy Hardy absorbed as a child and never really abandoned.

After work in an architect’s office in London, Hardy at the age of 27 turned to literature and wrote a novel he called The Poor Man and the Lady. In his autobiography he says it was a socialist novel. He sent it to Macmillans the publishers who rejected it. A letter from Alexander Macmillan told him, that the attacks it contained on middle-class heartlessness towards the working classes were intolerably overdone. Hardy then sent the book to the publishers Chapman and Hall and it was rejected again. George Meredith, who returned the manuscript, told him that he must avoid being revolutionary at the start of his career or the reviewers would annihilate him. Once again, then, Hardy was faced with the figure with arm uplifted saying “No!”, and this time he gave in. He burnt the manuscript of The Poor Man and the Lady and wrote instead the kind of novel that Meredith cynically urged – a book with, in Meredith’s phrase, a more purely artistic purpose. The result, Desperate Remedies, was published in 1871 and is one of the worst novels in the English language.

In the next twenty years Hardy wrote another dozen novels, steadily building up his own following amongst the reading public. He became a saleable commodity and so publishers were prepared to accept, with certain cuts and reservations, the kind of novel he really wanted to write rather than the high-minded rubbish suggested by Meredith and enjoyed by reviewers. So it was that in 1895 he came to publish his last novel, Jude the Obscure.

Into the character of Jude Hardy poured all the hopes and frustrations of a lifetime. Jude like Hardy is a stonemason, a builder. Like Hardy he dreams of a university education but is “elbowed off the pavement by the millionaires’ sons”. Like Hardy his search for emotional fulfilment ends in the trap of a failed marriage. Hardy through the figure of Jude presents a whole series of human hopes – hopes for meaningful work, for a decent education, for liberated sexuality – and shows them all systematically denied by Victorian narrowness and commercialism. Jude ends defeated and dies of consumption. As he’s laid out for burial, crowds outside celebrate the honorary degrees awarded to “the Duke of Hamptonshire and a lot more illustrious gents of that sort”.

A few people – Havelock Ellis for example – liked the book and said so, and thousands bought it and were moved. But the ruling classes in general responded to this powerful protest with outrage. Bishop How of Wakefield persuaded the local library to ban the book and publicly burnt a copy – “probably in his despair at not being able to burn me”, Hardy wryly commented. In January 1896 Mrs Oliphant, writing in Blackwood’s, a leading journal of Tory opinion, thought the book was “disgusting” and “coarsely indecent”, full of “grossness, indecency and horror”.

Hardy was hurt by this. Four years earlier, after a bitter attack on him in the liberal Saturday Review, he had written in a notebook: “If this sort of thing continues, no more novel-writing for me. A man must be a fool to deliberately stand up to be shot at.” In 1830 John Hardy from Wiltshire stood up in protest and was literally shot down. In 1895 Thomas Hardy from Dorset stood up in protest and was metaphorically shot down. He retired into a thirty year career as a poet, a career that began with radical hopes, hopes that he could say more in verse and get away with it, but these hopes never materialised.

We can see what happened to Hardy the poet if we look at one of his beet known poems. It’s called The Convergence of the Twain: Lines on the loss of the Titanic arid it was first printed in the programme of a charity concert in aid of the Titanic Disaster Fund given at Covent Garden on May 14, 1912. Here’s the poem in full. It opens with a vision of the liner, sunk after hitting an iceberg and lying on the bottom of the Atlantic:


                           In a solitude of the sea
                           Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.


                           Steel chambers, late the pyres
                           Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.


                           Over the mirrors meant
                           To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls – grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.


                           Jewels in joy designed
                           To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.


                           Dim moon-eyed fishes near
                           Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: “What does this vaingloriousness down here?”


                           Well: while was fashioning
                           This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything


                           Prepared a sinister mate
                           For her – so gaily great –
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.


                           And as the smart ship grew
                           In stature, grace and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.


                           Alien they seemed to be:
                           No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,


                           Or sign that they were bent
                           By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event.


                           Till the Spinner of the Years
                           Said “Now!” And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

We know quite a lot about the sinking of the Titanic. We know, for example, that 1,513 lives were lost when it went down. We know that there were lifeboats for first-class passengers only, so that while 63 per cent of them were saved, 75 per cent of the third-class passengers died.

Turn to Hardy’s poem in the light of those facts and the limitations of stoic pessimism are at once clear. True, there’s a vague radical unease about the vaingloriousness and opulence of it all, but in the end the fault seems to lie with the Immanent Will and the Spinner of the Years, whoever they might be. We know they had nothing to do with it. The Titanic sank because of commercial greed in the pursuit of the Blue Riband – the ship was travelling too fast and too far north. It sank with heavy losses because third- class lifeboats were left out to boost profits. But blame it all on the Spinner of the Years and any real analysis of the event is paralysed. Others made that analysis, learnt from it and got the laws changed. They have prevented the same sort of disaster happening again because they recognised that its origins lay in human decisions which could and must be altered, But say the Immanent Will did it and all you can do is fall on your knees and hope He (She? It?) doesn’t do it again, please.

You may say in Hardy’s defence that this is a 33-line poem, not a 4-volume Government report on the disaster. Okay. Sit down yourself and write a 33-line poem on, say, the Isle Of Man Summerland fire in 1973 or the Flixborougb factory explosion in 1974. What are you going to talk about? On the one hand, are you for example going to say anything about cost cutting on safety in the interests of higher productivity and profits? Are you going to note small details like the fact, that the architects who were responsible for the use of the lethal acrylic sheeting at Summerland got off scot free at the enquiry? Are you at least going to mention that lots of people were killed and you’re sad and angry about it? If you write that sort of poem you just might move some readers and you might help them towards understanding and mastering their lives and the conditions that govern them.

Or, on the other hand, are you going to slide past the very mention of dead bodies and muse instead about the disappearance of a fun palace or a factory? Are you going to blame it all on Fate or Chance and claim that “no mortal eye could see” that this might happen? Are you going to betray the fact that you’re not really looking at what went on with lots of tired verbiage about “paths coincident”, “salamandrine fires” and “august event”? If you write that sort of poem it stands a good chance of being printed, like Hardy’s, in the programme of a charity concert organised for the victims dependents by the people who killed them. Write lots more poems like that and, like Hardy, you too in your old age might get the Order of Merit, be offered a knighthood and have the Prince of Wales drop in for tea.

In short there’s nothing a port-sodden blimp loves more than a good old stoic pessimist. He puts his heed down, takes what’s coming to him and doesn’t complain. If the Tories say what you need is two million unemployed or the Labour Party claims that a cut in your standard of living will do instead, then so be it, you take it’ bravely and encourage others to do the same. Your pessimism and stoicism mean you can do nothing else. What began, as we saw earlier, as a sort of survival strategy in 1840s Dorset in the wake of terrible defeats had become for Hardy by the twentieth century a lame belief, ruling out all action for change or self-defence.

Thomas flardy did act on occasion, like John Hardy before him, but both were shot down because either they were politically inarticulate or because they acted alone. The way out of this bind is to act together and act politically armed. Hardy moved in that direction with his lost novel The Poor Man and the Lady, and moved towards it again in Jude the Obscure with its sense of the social, collective solutions to the problems that break individuals like Jude and his hopes for education. But in the end he backed away and in old age was left with the ironic consolations of honorary degrees from the universities of Aberdeen, Cambridge, Oxford, St.Andrew’s and Bristol.

Hardy was no fool. He knew and wrote in Jude that capitalist society was no way for human beings to live. Great writers and great contemporaries of Hardy like William Morris and Robert Tressell came to the same conclusion. So did millions of other men and women around the world. It drove them to work for the socialist alternative. Hardy didn’t take this step. Cut off from any sense of an alternative, he was left to face the future with deep pessimism. Cut off from any sense of alternatives, it’s about all you’ve got. Switch on that TV discussion and watch the pundits snuffling gloomily over their brandies and see for yourself.


Last updated on 28.7.2001