Monday, September 5, 2016

Under the Greenwood Tree Part 2 - Word Weaving the Elements

Where the trees are separated from the water-meadow by the River Frome
in Lower Bockhampton, Dorset, UK. Photo by Mike Faherty.
Thomas Hardy's initial focus in Under the Greenwood Tree is, as his subtitle suggests, on the Mellstock Quire - a band of musicians and singers who perform weekly at church services as well as at social gatherings such as weddings and dances. At the ensemble's core is three generations of the Dewy family; the elder William, the patriarch Reuben and the young Dick. The novel opens with the quire meeting up at Reuben's house for a bit of cider before discharging one of its annual obligations - travelling house to house all throughout the night to carol for the people of the parish.

From this introduction, Hardy reveals the three principal threads from which the tapestry he intends to hang behind the plot is woven; specifically, location, language and convention. In this piece, we look at the first, location.

Unlike Desperate Remedies, which merely borrows from known places in order to make its setting believable, Under the Greenwood tree is a novel about a particular place, Mellstock, as well as the people who inhabit it. Mellstock is, in reality, Hardy's ground-zero, Stinsford and the associated communities at Lower and Higher Bockhampton, the latter of which being his birthplace. The geographic scope of the novel is limited to this area with only a brief foray south into Budmouth (the port city of Weymouth) and a few times to the north and east at Geoffrey Day's house in Yalbury Wood on the road to Weatherbury (Puddletown).

Hardy's captures its essence in winter in this description of the surrounding landscape, gliding adroitly between physical details and a poetic rendering of the sum effect of seeing it in this early passage.

The lonely lane...connected one of the hamlets of Mellstock parish with Upper Mellstock and Lewgate, and to his eyes, casually glancing upward, the silver and black-stemmed birches with their characteristic tufts, the pale grey boughs of beech, the dark-creviced elm, all appeared now as black and flat outlines upon the sky, wherein the white stars twinkled so vehemently that their flickering seemed like the flapping of wings. Within the woody pass, at a level anything lower than the horizon, all was dark as the grave. The copse-wood forming the sides of the bower interlaced its branches so densely, even at this season of the year, that the draught from the north-east flew along the channel with scarcely an interruption from lateral breezes.

Hardy manages to work in at least one such word painting per season, around the changing of which the novel is structured. As Dick Dewy makes his way from Mellstock to Yalbury Wood in springtime to engage Fancy Day in her father's house for the first time, Hardy paints the scene. Notice again how light is used to frame the scenery.

[H]e was journeying along with Smart the mare and the light spring-cart, watching the damp slopes of the hill-sides as they streamed in the warmth of the sun, which at this unsettled season shone on the grass with the freshness of an occasional inspector rather than as an accustomed proprietor...The distant view was darkly shaded with clouds; but the nearer parts of the landscape were whitely illumined by the visible rays to the sun streaming down across the heavy gray shade behind...

Later that summer, after Dick and Fancy have undertaken a secret engagement, Hardy places more emphasis on the interplay between water and the flora fed by it.

It was a morning...of lingering dews, when grass is never dry in the shade. Fuchsias and dahlias were laden till eleven o'clock with small drops and dashes of water, changing the colour of their sparkle at every movement of the air; and elsewhere hanging on twigs like small silver fruit.

In the autumn, as the certainty of Fancy and Dick's shared future begins to waver under pressure from multiple fronts, the sun and its associated effects take center stage again.

The landscape being concave, at the going down of the sun everything suddenly assumed a uniform robe of shade. The evening advanced from sunset to dusk long before Dick's arrival, and his progress during the latter portion of his walk through the trees was indicated by the flutter of terrified birds that had been roosting over the path. And in crossing the glades, masses of hot dry air, that had been formed on the hills during the day, greeted his cheeks alternately with clouds of damp night air from the valleys.

Returning to the tree imagery of the opening passage, Hardy blends it with his water theme from the summer as well as an interest in kinetic motion from the wind to stirring effect in this dramatic scene as Fancy travels to meet with the witch of Mellstock, Elizabeth Endorfield.

A single vast gray cloud covered the country, from which the small rain and mist had just begun to blow down in wavy sheets, alternately thick and thin. The trees of the fields and plantations writhed like miserable men as the air wound its way swiftly among them: the lowest portions of their trunks, that had hardly ever been known to move, were visibly rocked by the fiercer gusts, distressing the mind by its painful unwontedness, as when a strong man is seen to shed tears. Low-hanging boughs went up and down; high and erect boughs went to and fro; the blasts being so irregular, and divided into so many cross-currents, that neighbouring branches of the same tree swept the skies in independent motions, crossed each other or became entangled. Across the open spaces flew flocks of green and and yellowish leaves, which, after travelling a long distances from their parent trees, reaches the ground, and lay there with under-sides upward.

The autumnal section is closed as the final threats to the Dewys' future happiness are removed one after another and Hardy narrows his eye to the interplay of water and the landscape surrounding.

It was a foggy morning, and the trees shed in noisy water-drops the moisture they had collected from the thick air, an acorn occasionally falling from its cup to the ground, in company with the drippings. In the meads, sheets of spiders'-web, almost opaque with wet, hung in folds over the fences, and the falling leaves appeared in every variety of brown, green, and yellow hue.

The story ends with a spring wedding celebration that takes place, as we might suspect, under the titular greenwood tree. Hardy describes the march to the church in a curiously oblique fashion, as if it were happening to someone who was merely an observer and not a true participant, with this beautiful image while the actual wedding takes places off-stage, so to speak.

Now among dark perpendicular firs, like the shafted columns of a cathedral; now through a hazel copse, matted with primroses and wild hyacinths; now under broad beeches in bright young leaves they threaded their way into the high road over Yalbury Hill, which dipped at that point directly into the village of Geoffrey Day's parish.

By isolating particular elements (trees, wind, light and moisture) and manipulating our awareness of them across four seasons, Hardy makes the landscape in his tightly-framed story come alive. He uses these word-paintings to heighten the drama of certain scenes, perhaps to a tenor beyond what the sometimes flimsy story demands. It is a skill that would serve him well as the complexity and consequences of his socially driven plots grew with his skill as a writer of fiction.

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