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?