The Respectable Burgher on “The Higher Criticism”



See if you can identify the rhyme scheme in this week’s poem:

The Respectable Burgher On “The Higher Criticism”

Since Reverend Doctors now declare
That clerks and people must prepare
To doubt if Adam ever were;
To hold the flood a local scare;
To argue, though with stolid stare,
That everything had happened ere,
The prophets to its happening sware;
That David was no giant-slayer,
Nor one to call a God-obeyer
In certain details we would spare,
But rather was a debonair
Shrewd bandit, skilled as banjo-player:
That Solomon sang the fleshly Fair,
And gave the Church no thought whate’er,
That Esther with her royal wear,
And Mordecai, the son of Jair,
And Joshua’s triumphs, Job’s despair,
And Balaam’s ass’s bitter blare;
Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace-flare,
And Daniel and the den affair,
And other stories rich and rare,
Were writ to make old doctrine wear
Something of a romantic air:
That the Nain widow’s only heir,
And Lazarus with cadaverous glare
(As done in oils by Piombo’s care)
Did not return from Sheol’s lair:
That Jael set a findish snare,
That Pontius Pilate acted square,
That never a sword cut Malchus’ ear;
And (but for shame I must forbear)
That —— —— did not reappear!…
— Since thus they hint, nor turn a hair,
All churchgoing will I forswear,
And sit on Sundays in my chair,
And read that moderate man Voltaire.

Thomas Hardy

That is, at a count, 36 lines that rhyme with each other there. Impressive enough. You could argue that some are not true rhymes, of course. ‘Ear’ should not, properly speaking, rhyme with ‘hair’ though many people pronounce it that way, and there are few dialects that would rhyme ‘player’ with ‘care’, and they are not the same dialects that would rhyme ‘were’ with ‘care’. I suspect that in the accent of turn of the century Wessex, with its country burr, the rhymes might sound less improbable than in contemporary British English, but anyway the slight off-ness of the rhymes fits the character of the poem. It is a humorous poem, and the burgher himself is single-minded and not quite as clever as he thinks he is. Maybe he’s a bit drunk – one imagines him regaling his friends with his pet theories at the country club- and maybe a little tongue-in-cheek, but his atheism is a hand me down from his intellectual superiors – the Evolutionists and geologists and others whose theories cast serious doubts on the Bible as a reliable historical source. He can say these things (and he’s still rather coy about it) because unbelief has become respectable.

Some of the humour in the poem comes with the way the sacred is brought down to a profane level – David as a debonair, shrewd bandit, Solomon singing ‘the fleshly fair (methinks Leonard Cohen would have liked these images, back in his 60s folksy phase), Lazarus with an Addams Family-esque ‘cadaverous glare’. Biblical literalists would not have liked this poem – lucky for them, they probably never read it. But intellectuals, people who sympathised with the burgher’s views, would have read it. And I think a certain amount of the satire is directed their way too.

Hardy was not a Christian, but he was hardly an enthusiastic atheist either, not the kind who glibly thought its loss would be no big matter. What comes through, even in this reduced comic version, is the grandeur and power of the stories in the Bible. This was one of the things Hardy admired in Christianity. Even a merely reasonably educated man in Hardy’s day would have been able to reel off a great number of Bible stories, the way the burgher does here. They were a common currency – even until fairly recently, most people in England, and most other Western countries would have known a core of Bible stories, whether they were educated or not. Well, the burgher has got his wish and Christianity is fading as part of the common culture of England. I recognise perhaps half of the Biblical references here, but I think the generation currently at school would recognise even fewer. I tutored some intelligent 14 year olds last year, who did not pick up poetic references to Samson or Cain and Abel.

Which is a shame, I think, because a decent amount of Biblical knowledge goes a long way in helping you understand some of the best literature written in English (and some of Leonard Cohen’s better songs too!) There are some great stories in it too, and not a little wisdom. And whatever the respectable burgher thinks, that moderate man Voltaire is never going to catch on.



Filed under Literature, Poetry

4 responses to “The Respectable Burgher on “The Higher Criticism”

  1. Ah…Hardy, wonderful Hardy. I think it fair to say he may always “catch on” a bit more than will Voltaire, though that’s just my bias.
    Should we be worrying about the loss of a common cultural currency? I don’t know if we should, but I sometimes do. Then I think: I’m on my way out, so what’s it to me? The trouble with the Higher Criticism (and today’s literary theory) is that it forgets there is more than is dreamt of in our philosophies…Each day when I sit down to play my piano a little, I always begin with Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” No idea why.

  2. Aha – somehow I suspected you were a Leonard Cohen fan. I can spot them a mile off, you know. I do wonder how Cohen’s songs would sound without their biblical illusions, mind (as well as their historical and literary allusions) – less the troubadour and more the pervert, I think!
    I’m with you on Hardy. I will often find a new poem of his to appreciate. At the moment I’m enjoy his character poems like this one, though just as often I like his more personal stuff.

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