“THE RESPECTABLE BURGHER” by Perry Mann

Julian,
I love Thomas Hardy’s poetry. Here is one full of Biblical characters.
Perry
“THE RESPECTABLE BURGHER”
10-11-05

With time on my hands I often turn to Thomas Hardy’s poetry. On a recent Sunday, I opened a collection of his poetry and reread his “The Respectable Burgher on ‘The Higher Criticism.’” I have read it many times and have always resolved that one day I would acquaint myself with all his Biblical references in it, many of which I am more or less ignorant. So this day, I became for a while a student of the Bible.

Some of the references at the beginning of the poem are more widely known than those near the end of the poem. Sunday schools teach the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden, of David and Goliath, of Solomon and of Esther, although I didn’t realize until my study that there is a Book of Esther, a book if read in the King James version is an interesting and edifying read.

When I came to the reference to Mordecai, I learned from my study that he was the brother of Esther’s uncle and that he had taken it upon himself to look after Esther and to her future. Mordecai helped conceal that Esther was a Jewess and helped her to become the bride of Ahasuerus, a Persian king. Also, Mordecai revealed to the king a plot to murder him and Esther’s intercession on behalf of her people saved them from Haman’s revenge, provoked by Mordecai’s refusal to bow to him.

Most people know about Job and all the plagues he suffered and who yet remained godly and most know about Joshua and his triumphs and probably have heard of Balaam’s ass but are not certain how an ass can have such a prominent place in Biblical literature. It seems that the children of Israel in their wandering pitched tents in the plain of Moab and were so many in number that the king of Moab, Balak, from fear of their numbers and reports of their might called upon Balaam to put a curse upon the Israelites. In spite of the Lord’s admonition to Balaam that he should not curse them because they were blessed, Balaam on his ass, nevertheless, made his way to Moab. This angered the Lord and He sent an angel with sword to stand in the way and allowed only the ass to see the angel. The ass refused to go farther and would go no farther even when induced by Balaam’s smites. Finally, the ass fell under Balaam; and the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes to the angel with the sword and gave the gift of speech to the ass, which chided Balaam for smiting him. And the Lord chided Balaam for going to Moab.

Nebuchadnezzar is the king that ordered Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego to worship his golden image and when they refused in deference to their God, he was full of fury and ordered that they should be punished by being cast into a fiery furnace made especially hot for the occasion. When the fire touched them not and they exited un-burnt, the king was “astonied” by this miracle and saw fit to praise the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego and to promote them.
And we all know of Daniel in the lion’s den, which story follows the fiery-furnace story in the Book of Daniel. Daniel, as was the custom of all faithful Jews, refused to give up praying to his God as was decreed by King Darius; and when Darius’s men discovered Daniel praying to the God of Jews and informed Darius, the king was sore displeased with himself for agreeing to such a statute and he labored to deliver Daniel from the effects of it. But to no avail and Daniel was sentenced to be cast in a lion’s den. He was; but Daniel’s God sent an angel who shut the mouths of the lions. When the king came to the den to learn Daniel’s fate, he found him unhurt.

Nain is a village in Galilee, where Jesus raised a widow’s son from the dead. Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, died and after four days in his tomb was revived by Christ. Piombo, whose real name was Sebastiano Luciani, was a Venetian painter who painted a famous work titled “Raising of Lazarus.” Sheol is the Hebrew abode of the dead or departed, conceived as a subterranean region, clothed in thick darkness, return from which is impossible. Jael’s fiendish snare is related in Judges. She by stealth and wile drove a nail through the temple of Sisera, an enemy of the Jews, and fastened his head to the ground. Pontius Pilate everyone knows and Malchus is he who lost an ear to Peter’s sword.

With the above in mind, now read Hardy’s poem.
Since Reverend Doctors now declare
That clerks and people must prepare
To doubt if Adam ever were;
To hold the flood a local scare,
To argue, though the stolid stare,
That everything had happened ere
The Prophets to its happening sware;
That David was no giant-slayer,
Nor one to call a God-obeyer
In certain details we could spare,
But rather was a debonair
Shrewd bandit, skilled as a banjo-player:
That Solomon sang fleshly Fair,
And gave the church no thought whate’er,
That Esther with her royal wear,
And Mordecai, the son of Jair,
And Joshua’s triumphs, Job’s despair,
And Balaam’s ass’s bitter blare;
Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace flare,
And Daniel and the den affair,
And other stories rich and rare,
Were writ to make old doctrine wear
Something of a romantic air:
That the Nain widow’s only heir,
And Lazarus with cadaverous glare
(As done in oils by Piombo’s care)
Did not return from Shoel’s lair:
That Jael set a fiendish snare,
That Pontius Pilate acted square,
That never a sword cut Malchus’ ear;
And (but for shame I must forebear)
That _______ _______did not reappear!…
__Since thus they hint, nor turn a hair,
All churchgoing will I forswear,
And sit on Sundays in my chair,
And read that moderate man Voltaire.

I have spent a number of hours in furtherance of my resolve to acquaint myself with all of Hardy’s references. I have enjoyed those hours; but I must say that my estimation of those who subscribe to the Biblical inerrancy doctrine is that they either have not read the Bible or have read it with no notion of evaluating its validity, historically or morally. How can one read the story of Balaam and his ass and not laugh aloud at Balaam’s reaction when he sees the angel? He bowed down his head and fell flat on his face. I hope someone can laugh with me.

About Sam's Branch

I joined the Peace Corps in 1961 as West Virginia’s first volunteer. Go to Amazon.com to order my book Imagonna: Peace Corps Memories. I am the eighth generation of my family born in the Big Coal River Valley of West Virginia. My father and grandfather were underground coal miners. I have a chemical engineering degree from West Virginia University (WVU). After training to make sidewinder missiles, I joined the Peace Corps and taught chemistry and coached the track team at a secondary school in Nigeria. Since that time, I was WVU’s first full time foreign student advisor and worked in urban outreach, organic farming, construction labor, and high school teaching. I recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (wvhighlands.org), and recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Kanawha State Forest Foundation (ksff.org). I am still on the board of the Labor History Association and the West Virginia Environmental Education Association and recently joined the board of the West Virginia Civil Liberties Union. I am active in the campaign to stop the destructive practice of mountain top removal strip mining in the Appalachian Mountains. You may contact me at martinjul@aol.com or my blog samsbranch.wordpress.
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