An Atheist Writes a Poem: Thomas Hardy’s “God’s Education”

I love this poem, not just for its power as language, but also for its Job-like evocation of the problem of suffering. Hardy recounts the death of a loved one, and his subsequent argument with God over her death. In content and world-weary tone, Hardy’s poem recalls Shakespeare’s, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.”:

.

I saw him steal the light away

That haunted in her eye:

It went so gently none could say

More than that it was there one day

And missing by-and-by.

.

I watched her longer, and he stole

Her lily tincts and rose;

All her young sprightliness of soul

Next fell beneath his cold control,

And disappeared like those.

.

I asked: ‘Why do you serve her so?

Do you, for some glad day,

Hoard these her sweets—?’ He said, ‘O no,

They charm not me; I bid Time throw

Them carelessly away.’

Said I: ‘We call that cruelty—

We, your poor mortal kind.’

He mused. ‘The thought is new to me.

Forsooth, though I men’s master be,

Theirs is the teaching mind!’

__________

The last three lines could be read in two ways, couldn’t they? Is God acknowledging Hardy’s accusation of divine moral callousness, or is He being ironic?

And is Hardy?

The poem appeared, afterall, in Hardy’s 1909 collection of poems that he titled, Time’s Laughingstocks. Who are time’s laughingstocks? In this instance, is the joke on Hardy’s loved one? On Hardy? On God? Who or what, exactly, are the layered ironies in Hardy’s poem properly directed?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to An Atheist Writes a Poem: Thomas Hardy’s “God’s Education”

  1. i believe Hardy is too much of a pessimist he criticises god and his poems are all depressing and sad. he has too much sad stories . here he is poking fun at god claiming that this is not the loving god we grew up learning about instead this is a god who takes the lives of people for no reason

    • Cece says:

      Is Hardy really an atheist though? because Atheisets do not beleive that a God exists. in this poem however, Hardly must have acknowledged the existence of a God because he was taking to him. He also speaks to God’s “cold control” giving the impression that he admitts the existence og a God but is in disagreement with the things he does. this can also be explain in the line “we your mortal kind” which shows that hardy acknowledges some sensse of inferiority to God.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Cece:

        Remember that a poem is an enactment; it may be in a persona other than the author’s. An old man can write a poem, for example, in the voice of a young man (or woman).

        —Santi

  2. rwstracy says:

    I love it for the poetry, but yearn for the longer view..

    To be left to our own devices, in a cruelly random world,
    Oh what a price we pay, for the luxury of free will.

  3. ashley says:

    well…being bipolar i can definately relate to hardy and i love writing and poetry and shakesphere and everything literature and im glad that i got the privledge to study his works….EXCELLENT!

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