Page 45 - catalogue 230117
P. 45
8. Before Life and After.
From Time's Laughingstocks – published 1909

A time there was – as one may guess
And as, indeed, earth's testimonies tell -

Before the birth of consciousness,
When all went well.

None suffered sickness, love, or loss,
None knew regret, starved hope, or heart-burnings;

None cared whatever crash or cross
Brought wrack to things.

If something ceased, no tongue bewailed,
If something winced or waned, no heart was wrung;

If brightness dimmed, and dark prevailed,
No sense was stung.

But the disease of feeling germed,
And primal rightness took the tinct of wrong;

Ere nescience shall be reaffirmed
How long, how long?

By the time this poem was published Hardy had become a keen cyclist. He is
seen pausing as he pushes his bike up over the heath. He always believed that the
heath should not be planted with trees, because in its original form it was bare and
treeless. In this form, as Egdon Heath, it became a theatre for human dramas and
tragedies in several of his novels. It is represented in this form in the foreground,
and the tragic element is emphasised by the crown of thorns borrowed from
Millet's painting “Man with a Hoe”. Hardy tries to look back through the mists of
time to when human consciousness had not yet made tragedies out of the forces of
nature. What he cannot see, but we now know, is that originally the heath was
covered with small trees, and that it was man, in the bronze age, who cleared it. So
we see it as it was. Though darkness threatens and lightening strikes down a tree,
the rainbow symbolizes that loss and rebirth were not causes of sadness or joy
before the birth of consciousness.

So to the last little picture, a frail figure on the beach at Aldeburgh, watching
the tide go out. This last song must have stayed with Britten all his life. Some
twenty years after it was composed, when he returned to composition after his
serious heart operation, he used the opening words “A time there was....”, as the
subtitle of his last purely orchestral work, “A Suite of English Folk Tunes.”
Possibly he saw the folk songs as belonging to a more innocent age, like that
described in the poem. However, he must have wondered for how much longer her
would have strength, or even life, to go on composing. Maybe he was pointing us
towards the end of the song, to the words which Peter Pears sang so memorably,
“How long, how long?”
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