I AM ONE OF THE IMPERCIPIENTS
Thomas Hardy, 1840-1928, one of the great English novelists and poets, is a favorite person of mine, a mentor, who helped me think and believe as he did. I did so vaguely before I discovered him but I have a clearer view and am the better person for having read him. Better because he helped me to believe in myself and entertained and informed me beyond measure in doing so.
Hardy loved words and so do I. Hardy loved nature and so do I. He loved the common people and the peasantry, and he had a consuming interest in the land they worked, the labor they did, the games they played, the way they talked, the animals they tended and their loves and hates and births and deaths. And so do I.
Further, Hardy was a religious skeptic and a philosophical fatalist. He could not accept Christian orthodoxy and he did not believe that man was the captain of his destiny and the master of his fate. Nor can I, nor do I. And Hardy articulated his love of earth and the people near it and his skepticism and determinism in prose and poetry with a feeling and fineness second to few.
I have had a correspondence with a minister and in his latest letter he says that he senses that I would like to believe in the Bible account and the resurrection but that something keeps me from accepting it. I can think of no better answer to him than Hardy’s poem “The Impercipient.”
The setting of the poem is in a cathedral, in which Hardy is a congregant. In the first stanza, he says that it is a strange destiny “That with this bright band I have no claim to be, / That faiths by which my comrades stand seem fantasies to me.”
In the second stanza, it abides a mystery to him why his soul should be consigned to infelicity, why he should always be blind to sights his brethren see and why joys they’ve found he cannot find.
In the third, Hardy ponders that perhaps, since his heart knows not the ease of the bright believing band and since God breathes all’s well to them and no all’s well to him, his lack of ease might “move their sympathies and Christian charity.”
He is like a gazer seeing an inland company standing upfingered pointing to a glorious distant sea and finding that in his sight of the sea is nothing more than a dark and wind-swept pine.
“Yet I would bear my shortcomings / With meet tranquility, / But for the charge that blessed things / I’d liefer have not be. O, doth a bird deprived of wings / Go earth-bound willfully?”
Does a person deprived of the ability to believe become a non-believer willfully? His answer and mine is that certainly no one would be a non-believer and forfeit thereby the Shining Land and glorious distant sea if he had the wings to believe. But some go earthbound because they have no wings, not because they willfully do so.
I have tried to be honest with myself and with others all my life and with God, if, in fact, he is tuned into my heart. I became a skeptic early and I had no prompting to be one. On the contrary, I was prompted from all sides to be a believer. Where the seed of skepticism came from I have no notion. I have read the skeptics and the believers. I have read the Old and New Testaments. I have conversed with Mormons and Witnesses. I have read H. L. Mencken and C. S Lewis. I have listened to all the voices from all religious quarters and I am still earthbound with Thomas Hardy, but not willfully.
I admit that I do not want to believe that there is a god that will suspend his laws, that will direct rain to the saints and direct drought to the sinners. I do not want to believe that nature’s laws are subject to some superhuman who is susceptible to a cry to temper his laws. I believe with Hardy that “Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain, / And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan….” Perhaps, not for gladness, but it casts a moan, nevertheless. And as well casts joys indiscriminately.
(At A CATHEDRAL SERVICE)
That with this bright believing band
I have no claim to be,
That faiths by which my comrades stand
Seem fantasies to me,
And mirage-mists their Shining Land,
Is a strange destiny.
Why thus my soul should be consigned
Why always I must feel as blind
To sights my brethren see,
Why joys they’ve found I cannot find,
Abides a mystery.
Since heart of mine knows not that ease
Which they know; since it be
That he who breathes All’s Well to these
Breathes no All’s Well to me,
My lack might move their sympathies
And Christian charity!
I am like a gazer who should mark
An inland company
Standing upfingered, with “Hark! Hark!
The glorious distant sea!”
And feel “Alas, ‘tis but yon dark
And wind-swept pine to me!”
Yet I would bear my shortcomings
With meet tranquility,
But for the charge that blessed things
I’d liefer not have be.
O, doth a bird deprived of wings
Go earth-bound willfully!