Ignorant about Innocence:
Hardy's Characters' Revelation Through Experience
In "The Last Chrysanthemum," Thomas Hardy asks, "Why should
this flower delay so long / To show its tremulous plumes?" He
might have well have been posing this question to himself. The
British poet wrote most of his greatest verse after the age of
sixty. Hardy proves, that through life's journey, a metamorphosis
can take place in one's perspective. Through time and experience,
innocence is lost, only realized after a death or startling
event. Hardy takes three approaches at this theme in "The
Darkling Thrush," "The Man He Killed," and "Channel Firing."
In "The Darkling Thrush," the speaker is despondent in the
first two stanzas, brooding about the atmosphere. Hardy wrote
this poem at the turn of the century, so it is probable that
these views are reflective of his feelings. Spirituality and the
vivacity of life have recoiled "like strings of broken lyres,"
giving this moment in time a feeling of apathy. The speaker is
tired and suffocated by his circumstances: the desolation of
Winter, the weariness of the last Century, and the pessimism of
change being a long ways away. Yet, he finds his faith redeemed
through "an aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small." The bird's
passionate song affects the "growing gloom," and its faith gives
it the courage to "fling his soul," paralleling Jesus or the
Kamikaze pilots of World War II who were willing to sacrifice for
the greater good.
"Was out of work" is the best excuse that the speaker of
"The Man He Killed" could find for his sin. With his choice to
enter war and to bear arms, he lost good judgement, morals, and
the ability to feel pain. He is the victim of the war's society,
where minds have devolved into narrow-mindedness and tunnel
vision. Immediate needs dictate lives, not virtue and reason.
After he kills this man who he might have given "half a crown" in
another life, his actions have caught up to him. The speaker's
mind whirls with hypothetical situations and guilt. He knows that
he had the same chance of being killed, and that he had changed
the course of the world in someway. But in the end, he concedes
that his wrongdoing can't be reversed.
"Channel Firing" deals with the aspects of innocence beyond
our life on earth. The soldiers of World War I, who are
supposedly fighting for a good cause, only help make "red war yet
redder." They are blind to see that their convictions are wrong,
and that the effect of their guns on nature is much harsher,
shaking the earth with as much terror as Judgement Day. Again,
indifference is a key factor in losing innocence and purity.
Along with their lack of compassion for life, the soldiers take
religion half-heartedly, doing nothing "for Christes sake." It
is through this omniscient role that the dead learn the
consequences of man's free will and man's abuse of it. God
reveals to them that the soldiers will "have to scour / Hell's
floor," hinting that the dead have followed the same pattern of
mistakes, and it is already too late for them to repent.
Hardy incorporates the theme of innocence lost into the
poems, but explores them in three distinct ways. "The Darkling
Thrush" displays a change in perspective through nature and the
power of one. "The Man He Killed" shows a transformation after
fighting an internal war with a split-second decision that the
speaker could not reverse. In "Channel Firing," the epiphany for
the speakers is through life after death. All of these speakers
were oblivious that they were swept away by the coldness and
triviality, and superficiality of the early 20th Century. The
central message is much like the poetry of William Blake. Only a
state of innocence opens us to a deeper level, and being
receptive and open to nature will lend one divine inspiration. In
the situation of Hardy's poems, the revelation of innocence is
gathered from one profound incident or a "rude awakening."