When the hamlet hailed a birth
Judy used to cry:
When she heard our christening mirth
She would kneel and sigh.
She was crazed, we knew, and we
Humoured her infirmity.
When the daughters and the sons
Gathered them to wed,
And we like-intending ones
Danced till dawn was red,
She would rock and mutter, “More
Comers to this stony shore!”
When old Headsman Death laid hands
On a babe or twain,
She would feast, and by her brands
Sing her songs again.
What she liked we let her do,
Judy was insane, we knew.
From the sounds of Thomas Hardy’s Mad Judy, it wasn’t too bad to be born crazy in the countryside in the 19th century. Judy is most likely unknown to the distant authorities of her day, who might otherwise have institutionalised her, and instead left to the care of her fellow villagers, who are disturbed by her behaviour, but have the good sense not to take it personally.
Many people have their own reasons not to like weddings – it is a stand by of much stand up comedy that marriage is hell. Some people will likewise be apathetic at the birth of a new born baby (and I’m quite sure none of us are quite as thrilled at seeing others’ baby photos on Facebook as we have to pretend we are). But Judy isn’t cynical, or world-weary, or even apathetic; her reactions are as strong as anyone else’s, or stronger, they’re just the wrong sort. Rejoicing at the death of a child, puts her beyond the pale of even the weariest of cynicism. It’s not to be argued with, of course, for ‘she was crazed, we knew’…
Among Hardy’s many qualities as a poet is his great wit, and Mad Judy, though disturbing, is a very funny poem. Well, I laughed anyway. The funniest line for me was Judy’s reaction to a new wedding – “More comers to the stony shore!” Why is this line so much funnier than if she had said, say, “more marriages doomed to failure”? It is, I think, because of the powerful and desolate metaphorical language, which even those well used to her perversity may have been startled by. Last post I wondered at the ‘common currency’ of biblical imagery in literature before the modern age; thus I wondered if ‘the stony shore’ was one of those references I missed because of my relatively secular education. But actually, ‘the stony shore’ is from Homer’s Iliad, in these lines (in Pope’s translation):
The monarch spoke; and straight a murmur rose
Loud as the surges where the tempest blows,
That dash’d on broken rocks tumultuous roar
And foam and thunder on the stony shore.
Classical and Homeric literature was certainly part of the common currency of educated discourse in the 19th century, certainly among literary types (though as with biblical knowledge, it has certainly a reduced circulation now), but not among Judy and her fellow villagers, which is what makes her line all the more surprising.
(I must admit the first thing that ‘stony shore’ brought to my mind – Google came up with the same thing too – was Game of Thrones, in which the Stony Shore is one of the areas regularly harassed by the Viking-esque Ironmen. The latest big TV shows are one of our main common cultural reference points these days, but at least Game of Thrones is better than most. It would not surprise me if George R.R Martin was well aware of The Homeric provenance of the name, although he doesn’t seem a likely Hardy fan.)
There is something quite Homeric in the poem even aside from that line. There is its slightly elevated, if not quite epic register – the village ‘hails’ a birth, and dances ’till dawn was red’ and Judy ‘feasts’ when she celebrates. There is its fatalism too, and the use of a pagan personification of death. All this lends a certain dignity to the humble village life and, to an extent, to the sad, sick figure of Mad Judy herself.