In a Waiting Room

clock, pickering

Thomas Hardy is sitting in a waiting room at a train station somewhere in England about a hundred years ago. The train is late and, to fill the time, he looks through the Bible that has been left for waiting passengers to read.

For modern British readers, this scene has both familiar and unfamiliar elements. Many train stations in Britain are still based on the same Victorian or early 20th Century buildings of the kind that Hardy is waiting in. Most still have waiting rooms – though some larger train stations have separate, warmer, more comfortable waiting rooms for first class ticket holders (this in the supposedly more egalitarian 21st century). Trains, as in Hardy’s time, often run on time, but are fairly often late too. And passengers, when they are bored, don’t usually talk to each other, but reach for something to read.

Modern train stations will not proffer reading material, for fear that vandals or petty thieves will do off with it, but if they did it would be something like the reading material left in dentists’ waiting rooms: free newspapers, promotional brochures and gossip magazines. Anyway, most people, if they want to read something – or play, watch or browse something – will bring it themselves. Not many will bring Bibles. But in turn of the century England, the natural book to be left in a public place was a Bible.

Hardy lived in a country that was still a Christian country, quite different from our own, much more secularized Britain. Certainties had been shaken by the discoveries of the Victorian age, and the Church was not quite as pre-eminent as it had been, but Christianity remained central to British thought and life, and a majority of the population were sincere believers. Even sceptics – and Hardy himself was a sceptic – lived in a world surrounded by Christian imagery, whose people spoke Christian thoughts using Biblical figures of speech, educated – if they were educated – to be Christians, whose ideals, whether or not they were lived up to, were Christian ideals. To describe a glum morning, Hardy uses a phrase straight out of Proverbs – ‘sick as the day of doom’.

Hardy, not himself a Christian, had a deep admiration for Christianity. When he leafs through the Bible, you can be sure it is not with a sneer, but in a hope or expectation of wisdom or revelation, or something to lift the gloom and tedium of the scene. He is appalled as would be a practising protestant or catholic when he sees that someone has used its pages as notepaper, to tot up costs, and he wonders:

if there could have been

Any particle of a soul     

In that poor man at all,  

To cypher rates of wage  

Upon that printed page

It’s an arresting image – money over religion, materialism over spirituality. It is a grey day, without hope, and here is evidence of a people without true faith. Hardy has painted, in this inconspicuous building a landscape of spiritual abandonment. He has looked for solace in the good book, and failed. Where next?

Here is the full poem:

 

On a morning sick as the day of doom

With the drizzling gray  

Of an English May,

There were few in the railway waiting-room.

About its walls were framed and varnished

Pictures of liners, fly-blown, tarnished.

The table bore a Testament

For travellers’ reading, if suchwise bent.

 

I read it on and on,

And, thronging the Gospel of Saint John,  

Were figures–additions, multiplications –

By some one scrawled, with sundry emendations; 

    Not scoffingly designed,  

   But with an absent mind, –

Plainly a bagman’s counts of cost,  

What he had profited, what lost;

And whilst I wondered if there could have been

   Any particle of a soul  

   In that poor man at all, 

 To cypher rates of wage 

 Upon that printed page,

 There joined in the charmless scene

And stood over me and the scribbled book

  (To lend the hour’s mean hue

  A smear of tragedy too)

A soldier and wife, with haggard look

Subdued to stone by strong endeavour;  

And then I heard  

From a casual word

They were parting as they believed for ever.

 

But next there came

Like the eastern flame

Of some high altar, children–a pair –

Who laughed at the fly-blown pictures there.

‘Here are the lovely ships that we,

Mother, are by and by going to see!

When we get there it’s ‘most sure to be fine,

And the band will play, and the sun will shine!’

It rained on the skylight with a din

As we waited and still no train came in;

But the words of the child in the squalid room

Had spread a glory through the gloom.

 

I’ll give you a moment to compose yourself there… Me? No, er – there’s something in my eye.

Ahem. So where were we?

Ah yes – spiritual abandonment and hope. The poem becomes more forlorn with the entrance of the couple, whom we find out are ‘parting as they believed forever’ – the man is a soldier and is presumably going to war. Now, this ‘day of doom’ takes on a more immediate meaning, for the soldier and his wife really are on the edge of death and despair.

And then, in overtly religious imagery, ‘Like the eastern flame / Of some high alter’ two children enter the scene. And we – like Hardy – are surprised by the joy their innocent imagining and playing and questioning brings. On the surface nothing has changed, the train is still lte, and the couple’s situation is no different, but it is as if, as that last couplet suggests, the children’s innocence itself – and their hope – has brought light to the scene; it is as if they provide the inspiration that couldn’t – that can’t – be found in the written word:

           But the words of the child in the squalid room

           Had spread a glory through the gloom.

In the joy of the moment, we forget the despair of the situation; tellingly, however, the reaction of the father and mother is not recorded. Are they ignorant of their parents’ plight? Are they then ignorant of their own plight? Are joy and hope and even ‘glory’ made possible only through innocence, and does that, ultimately, render them illusory?

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under Poetry

4 responses to “In a Waiting Room

  1. I read Tess of the D’urbervilles by Hardy. It wasn’t my favorite book; I found it quite drawn-out and depressing. This poem, my second run-in with Hardy, was much more favorable. Thanks for bringing it to light.

    Best wishes,

    -M.M.

  2. I’m not a graet fan of Hardy’s fiction either, but I count him one of my favourite poets. He thought of himself as first and foremost a poet, and wrote novels to make a living (!) Glad you enjoyed this anyway.

  3. Peter

    Hi Andy,
    I came across you blog when I was looking for this Hardy poem. Well done for putting it up on your blog. It is an amazing, amazing poem. The whole conundrum of the human experience seems to be distilled into its few short lines.
    In no way just because I am Irish, am I an absolute devotee of Louis MacNeice. I don’t know if you have read much of him? As you know, when you really really labour to get at what a “good” poet is about one discovers a treasure. In my calm and humble opinion, I think MacNeice is/was the greatest 20th Century poet writing in English. In 2013, the 50th anniversary of his death, I wanted to do some readings of his poetry but his publisher would n’t have it. So instead of there being fanfare more cobwebs were merely let fail on his name/reputation.
    Peter S
    Dublin, Ireland

  4. Thanks for the comment, Peter. I do like Macneice where I have come across him in anthologies, particularly the Penguin book of 1930s poetry, though I have never sat and read through one of his poetry books. You’re right he deserves to be more popular. Ireland has a lot of great poets to choose from – my personal favourites are Kavanagh and Mangan – which is one reason he may be overlooked in his own country, but Macneice also wrote in the age of Yeats, an undeniable genius! To me, Macneice’s poetry seems to bring a very strong savour of the thirties – I get a similar feeling to when I read Orwell’s narrative stuff, Down and Out and Wigan Pier and so on – that same glumness, and downbeat humour – and the foreboding… A good poet for our own age too, maybe!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s