“God’s Funeral”: A Poem by Thomas Hardy

Christopher Hitchens has often said he’s glad to see the Old Nobodaddy go—but Thomas Hardy was more sanguine.

There’s no Schadenfreude in this poem of Hardy’s, and a fair amount of regret. Stanzas VI-IX are especially apt and sad and beautiful—and I think true.

I saw a slowly-stepping train —
Lined on the brows, scoop-eyed and bent and hoar —
Following in files across a twilit plain
A strange and mystic form the foremost bore.

And by contagious throbs of thought
Or latent knowledge that within me lay
And had already stirred me, I was wrought
To consciousness of sorrow even as they.

The fore-borne shape, to my blurred eyes,
At first seemed man-like, and anon to change
To an amorphous cloud of marvellous size,
At times endowed with wings of glorious range.

And this phantasmal variousness
Ever possessed it as they drew along:
Yet throughout all it symboled none the less
Potency vast and loving-kindness strong.

Almost before I knew I bent
Towards the moving columns without a word;
They, growing in bulk and numbers as they went,
Struck out sick thoughts that could be overheard: —

‘O man-projected Figure, of late
Imaged as we, thy knell who shall survive?
Whence came it we were tempted to create
One whom we can no longer keep alive?

‘Framing him jealous, fierce, at first,
We gave him justice as the ages rolled,
Will to bless those by circumstance accurst,
And longsuffering, and mercies manifold.

‘And, tricked by our own early dream
And need of solace, we grew self-deceived,
Our making soon our maker did we deem,
And what we had imagined we believed,

‘Till, in Time’s stayless stealthy swing,
Uncompromising rude reality
Mangled the Monarch of our fashioning,
Who quavered, sank; and now has ceased to be.

‘So, toward our myth’s oblivion,
Darkling, and languid-lipped, we creep and grope
Sadlier than those who wept in Babylon,
Whose Zion was a still abiding hope.

‘How sweet it was in years far hied
To start the wheels of day with trustful prayer,
To lie down liegely at the eventide
And feel a blest assurance he was there!

‘And who or what shall fill his place?
Whither will wanderers turn distracted eyes
For some fixed star to stimulate their pace
Towards the goal of their enterprise?’…

Some in the background then I saw,
Sweet women, youths, men, all incredulous,
Who chimed as one: ‘This figure is of straw,
This requiem mockery! Still he lives to us!’

I could not prop their faith: and yet
Many I had known: with all I sympathized;
And though struck speechless, I did not forget
That what was mourned for, I, too, once had prized.

Still, how to bear such loss I deemed
The insistent question for each animate mind,
And gazing, to my growing sight there seemed
A pale yet positive gleam low down behind,

Whereof, to lift the general night,
A certain few who stood aloof had said,
‘See you upon the horizon that small light —
Swelling somewhat?’ Each mourner shook his head.

And they composed a crowd of whom
Some were right good, and many nigh the best….
Thus dazed and puzzled ‘twixt the gleam and gloom
Mechanically I followed with the rest.

The two most jarring lines of the poem (for me) are these (from stanza VI):

Whence came it we were tempted to create
One whom we can no longer keep alive?

This strikes me as humanity’s (thoroughly understandable) original sin with regard to divinity. We could not bear appearances (that an anthropomorphic Monarch-God is absent, or at least silent, in relation to the universe), and so sacrificed our intellectual integrity to bolster—through rationalization, obfuscation, and sophistic apologetics—a weak theory. It was never a house that could be kept up.

And yet Hardy does not give himself, at the end of this poem, completely over to God’s funeral. He notes that some detect a “small light” on the horizon—though he does not, nor do many others. Still, maybe this procession is not, at last, the final word, for one can continue to imagine hints of something upon the horizon, and agnostically stand “dazed and puzzled ‘twixt the gleam and gloom . . .”

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to “God’s Funeral”: A Poem by Thomas Hardy

  1. rodney says:

    the poem is in a thick English,

    it needs a translation so that it can be read easier.

    it is too good to have to suffer through…

    one can harddly recommend it to your eighteen year old..

    they are creating there own English, why do they want to burden through Hard’s?


  2. Thorn says:

    I like your thoughts and the guid lines placed here. I don’t really have a belief, but I saw this a bit rough to understand. I know that it’s hardy’s poem, and seeing as he is dead; we can’t truely fully translate his meaning except to perhaps analysis and take to heart what we think it could be.

    -Thorn Craig, 18 year old student.

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