One of my favourite novels is Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd. Gabriel Oak is Hardy’s most attractive hero, a farmer who works hard through several disasters & is always constant in his love for Bathsheba Everdene, the wilful heroine. I love the scene when he first proposes to Bathsheba & describes his perfect evening after they’re married. After promising her such inducements as a piano, a 10 pound gig & a cucumber frame, he says “And at home by the fire, whenever you look up there I shall be – and whenever I look up there will be you“. Unfortunately this seems to be the last straw for Bathsheba (or maybe it was his indelicate promise to announce the births of all their children in the newspaper) & she refuses him.
The title of the novel comes from the poem by Thomas Gray, Elegy in a Country Churchyard. Published in 1751, it is regarded as Gray’s masterpiece & is still his best-known work. It is thought that he began writing it in the graveyard of St Giles church in Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire.
It’s a long poem (the full text is here) but I’ve just chosen these few stanzas that will give an idea of the gentle melancholy & quiet charm of the poem. It exemplifies that calm, stoic spirit of the Age of Reason. I can see why it would appeal to Hardy for one of his most rural novels with a calm, stoic hero in the solidly-named Gabriel Oak.
Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
Yet ev’n these bones from insult to protect
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck’d,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.
Their name, their years, spelt by th’ unletter’d muse,
The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
That teach the rustic moralist to die.
For who, to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing anxious being e’er resign’d,
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
Nor cast one longing ling’ring look behind?
On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
Ev’n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
Ev’n in our Ashes live their wonted Fires.