Hardy's World

Hardy and Darwin

B. Ashton Nichols, Associate Professor
Dickinson College

Darwin had a profound influence on Hardy's thinking and literary development. Hardy read On the Origin of Species in the year it was first published, 1859. What Hardy seems to have taken almost immediately from Darwin was not just an acceptance of the idea of life as a struggle, but a fascination with the evolutionary branching tree metaphor which is the basis of Darwin's system. Hardy's poetry often assumes that the immediately visible trace is only the evidence of earlier stages in the development of an individual or a circumstance that can no longer be seen. Poems like "Nature's Questioning," "God's Funeral," "By the Earth's Corpse," and "Transformations" all testify to this ability of the ancient biological past to inhere in the complex present.

Hardy was also affected by the Darwinian sense of how much time has passed in order for human life to develop. The span of an individual's life seems unbearably short in many of Hardy's poems, and even the longest life can lead to an eerie feeling of memories that outlive the individual but eventually fade into nothingness. If Darwin is right, the only thing that lasts is the germ plasm, mindlessly reproducing itself from creature to creature, concerned only about preservation of the species, utterly careless of the lives of individuals. Hardy's "Immanent Will" operates in a similar fashion, assuring that accident is the only ordering principle of the universe, and, for the human individual, emotional loss the only guarantee.

Hardy does occasionally present a sense that human love can counter this biological and materialist imperative, in, for example, "Growth in May," "In Time of the Breaking of Nations'" and "To Louisa in the Lane." If Hardy has been rightly faulted for keeping his philosophy too close to the surface of many of his poems, he is also rightly praised for his ability to incorporate the tenor of his times into his writing. Nowhere is this ability clearer than in the ways Hardy makes Darwin's revolution a cause for poetic rethinking of human and nonhuman life.