Saturday, 24 October 2015

Thomas Hardy - An Evening in Galilee

‘An Evening in Galilee’ is a poem by Thomas Hardy which exhibits his depth of insight into women’s inner thoughts and emotions. It examines the anxiety of Mary, mother of Jesus. It could equally reflect the thoughts of any mother mulling over a son 'going off the rails' or 'to the dogs'. She is wrestling with the impression that her son, with infinite capabilities, may, in fact, be mad or worse, even bad.

Sandro Botticelli's "Virgin and Child" (The Madonna of the Book) Google Art Project Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

Like any mother, she focuses on his shabby clothes, wild claims, incoherence and lowly companions - fishermen and prostitutes. She is horrified by Jesus attacking the highest religious authorities - which could end in death. She is shocked by his mature, man-of-fifty-life wisdom and by his asking her “What has she to do with me?”. She recalls the secret of his conception, which no one will know, save Joseph. Is the implication that his father was a Roman soldier? Is she contemplating whether her son has inherited a madness gene from his father? Hardy is far too canny, and ambiguous, to tell us and he cannot be trusted on this point, being a lapsed Christian.

Either Joseph is still alive, or Mary has married again. Even so, Mary cannot share her inner fears with her husband, so she makes up excuses why his evening meal is not on the stove. The truth is that she is too worried and preoccupied about her son to think about daily chores. Theirs is not exactly a good relationship - or is this just a reflection of the lowly status of married women, in those times?

What does this remind one of? Surely Gertrude, the mother of Hamlet, totally terrified and confused by his apparent madness. It gets inside a woman who is wrong in her assessment - partly though snobbishness, and through bitter disappointment that her genes and maternal influence has come to nothing but this incomprehensible outcome. Yet, through it all, she is driven by maternal love, intensely worried about her son and, in spite of all these fears and emotions, she recognises the greatness of his preaching and teaching.

Essentially, it is about having too narrow a vision, when faced with something 'outside the box' of our limited experience and our main preconceptions. Hardy's own mother, Gemima, was a strong character, self-educated and slightly snobbish, who, in some senses did not understand her son (yet they were very close).

As a mother, Mary has succumbed to womanly emotions of concern (and shame) about her children - the product of her life - at a time when she, of all people, should have been seeing the wider picture and trusting. She did, of course - but later.

An Evening in Galilee by Thomas Hardy

She looks far west towards Carmel, shading her eyes with her hand,
And she then looks east to the Jordan, and the smooth Tiberias' strand.
"Is my son mad?" she asks; and never an answer has she,
Save from herself, aghast at the possibility.
"He professes as his firm faiths things far too grotesque to be true,
And his vesture is odd — too careless for one of his fair young hue! . . .

"He lays down doctrines as if he were old — aye, fifty at least:
In the Temple he terrified me, opposing the very High-Priest!
Why did he say to me, " Woman, what have I to do with thee? "
O it cuts to the heart that a child of mine thus spoke to me!
And he said, too, " Who is my mother? " — when he knows so very well.
He might have said, " Who is my father? " — and I'd found it hard to tell!
That no one knows but Joseph and — one other, nor ever will;
One who'll not see me again. . . . How it chanced! — I dreaming no ill! . . .

"Would he'd not mix with the lowest folk — like those fishermen —
The while so capable, culling new knowledge, beyond our ken! . . .
That woman of no good character, ever following him,
Adores him if I mistake not: his wish of her is but a whim
Of his madness, it may be, outmarking his lack of coherency;
After his " Keep the Commandments! " to smile upon such as she!
It is just what all those do who are wandering in their wit.
I don't know — dare not say — what harm may grow from it.

O a mad son is a terrible thing; it even may lead
To arrest, and death! . . . And how he can preach, expound, and read!
"Here comes my husband. Shall I unveil him this tragedy-brink?
No. He has nightmares enough. I'll pray, and think, and think." . . .
She remembers she's never put on any pot for his evening meal,
And pondering a plea looks vaguely to south of her — towards Jezreel.

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