Hardy’s poem of chance – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Hap is one of Thomas Hardy’s earliest great poems, composed in the 1860s while he was still a young man in his twenties. Its theme is one that would return again and again in both Hardy’s poetry and in his fiction: the seeming randomness of the world, and the ways in which our fortunes (and our misfortunes) are a result of blind chance rather than some greater plan. Here is ‘Hap’, anyway, and a few words of analysis.
If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: ‘Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!’
Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.
But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
—Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. . . .
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.
In summary, then, Thomas Hardy laments in ‘Hap’ (the word ‘hap’ being another word for chance, hence the word ‘perhaps’) that the misfortune he has endured and suffered throughout his life is not the result of some angry and capricious god: he could live with that, he says, since at least then he could attribute his bad luck to some higher power. But no: Hardy could not believe in a god, benevolent or malevolent, and so has no choice but to conclude that the suffering he has endured is a result of blind chance rather than some grand divine plan. Thomas Hardy lost his own religious faith early in life, though he retained a fondness for ‘churchy’ things such as the King James Bible and church architecture, as can be seen in many of his novels (such as A Laodicean or A Pair of Blue Eyes, both of which feature architects or architect’s assistants as characters).
Hardy asks: ‘How arrives it joy lies slain, / And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?’ ‘Unblooms’ is one of Hardy’s negatives which he’s so fond of: hope did once grow and bloom, but now doesn’t simply wither, it unblooms, the word reminding us wryly of the word’s opposite. (Compare the word ‘unhope’ in his poem ‘In Tenebris: I’: how much more piercing is that word than the more straightforward synonym, ‘despair’.) What causes pain and unhappiness in the world? Not some divine power, but ‘Casualty’ and ‘Time’, which are personified in the poem’s concluding stanza, described as ‘purblind doomsters’ – that is, entities which secure Hardy’s ‘doom’ or fate but which, unlike an all-seeing and all-powerful god, do so half-blindly (hence ‘purblind’) rather than with some grand scheme in mind. We aren’t the playthings of the gods; we are at the mercy of random chance, or ‘hap’.
In terms of its form, ‘Hap’ is a sonnet which blends the Italian and English sonnet forms. It is divided into, effectively, an octave or eight-line section and a concluding sestet or six-line section, which follows the model of the Italian sonnet, but the first eight lines rhyme ababcdcd rather than abbaabba (the latter being how Italian sonnets rhyme). This makes the poem a curious hybrid of the English and Italian sonnet forms, lending the poem’s rhyme scheme an air of uncertainty: there is order and structure there, but it is difficult to predict as the poem progresses.
‘Hap’ should be better-known among Thomas Hardy’s poems, but then that goes for quite a few of the many poems he wrote (and he wrote a lot). This analysis is designed, as much as anything, to introduce the poem to a few more readers. If this is the first time you’ve happened upon ‘Hap’, we hope you liked it.
Continue to explore Hardy’s poetry with our thoughts on his early poem ‘Neutral Tones’, our discussion of his short poem about ageing, ‘I Look into My Glass’, and our analysis of his wartime poem, ‘In Time of “The Breaking of Nations”‘. To go in search of all of Hardy’s poetry, we recommend The Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy (Wordsworth Poetry Library), which is excellent value for money and contains nearly 1,000 pages of Hardy’s poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.