"War's Apology Wholly Stultified": The Influence of Positivism on Thomas Hardy's War Poetry Public Deposited

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  • February 26, 2019
  • Bondurant, Samuel L.
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature
  • Despite never fighting in a war, Thomas Hardy wrote extensively on the moral and social implications of the two major conflicts that he lived through: the Boer War and World War I. His views on the subject were influenced by the Positivist movement and its affiliated doctrine, the Religion of Humanity. Initiated by Auguste Comte in his System of Positive Polity, or Treatise on Sociology (1851-1854), the Religion of Humanity distills Positivism into an explicit expression of the essential unity of humanity such that universal Love could be extended from “the love of the tribe or community to the widest patriotism, or to sympathy with all beings who can be brought to share a common life”(Claeys 49). This “internationalist” sense of patriotism, in which love of one’s country is not predicated on the fundamental opposition to every other nation in a jingoistic fashion, was unpopular, but revolutionary in terms of its effect on Hardy’s view on war. To attempt to make an overarching, ubiquitous summation of the themes expressed throughout Hardy’s poetry is seductively tempting, but any thesis claiming to universally apply to a theme in Hardy’s work is immediately suspicious. Donald Davie asserts that the challenge of finding a consistent theme throughout Hardy’s work has left “one honest critic after another…retired, baffled, and defeated”(13). Hardy himself remarks that his work “will probably be found…to possess little cohesion of thought…[as] the road to a true philosophy of life seems to lie in humbly recording diverse readings of its phenomena as they are forced upon use by chance and change” (Complete Poems 84). World War I shifted the manner in which Hardy looked at war, as despite his work portending its outbreak numerous times, it still blindsided him, as “nobody was more amazed than he at the German incursion into Belgium” (F.E. Hardy 162). This essay will analyze Hardy’s war poetry under the lens of Positivism, illustrating the manner in which Positive ideology influenced a number of war poems and following the evolution of these influences through the Boer War, World War I, and beyond. It is apparent that Hardy, like many British thinkers of the 19th century, was substantively affected by Positivism. However, this essay will argue that Hardy’s war poetry becomes progressively less Positivist over the course of World War I, which parallels the general wane of the popularity of Positivist ideas. His pre-World War I poems are distinctly Positivist. They critique the jingoist view of patriotism, denounce the longevity of glory earned in war, and highlight the divorcing effect of war on family relationships. His World War I poems still contain Positivist themes, especially Hardy’s proposition that the citizens of England and Germany are linked in some underlying unity despite superficial tensions between the two nations. Hardy also develops the theory during this era that a militaristic class of elites are culpable for the outbreak of the war. Thus, he creates a certain segment of people who are closely unified with each other—rural inhabitants—and a group who actively contribute to divisions in society, i.e. militaristic, jingo elites. His World War I poetry, through the technique of doubling perspectives, evinces a superficial consolation juxtaposed with an underlying disillusionment towards the optimistic aspects of Positivism, especially towards the prospects of “internationalism.” By the time of the publication of his final war poem in 1928, Hardy’s poetry had lost the Positivist belief in human progress and improvement, as World War I delivered the “coup de grace to any conception he may have nourished of a fundamental ultimate Wisdom at the back of things” (F.E. Hardy 164).
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  • In Copyright
  • Funding: None
  • Armitage, Christopher M.
  • Bachelor of Arts
Honors level
  • Highest Honors
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • 63 p.

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