The Nature, History and Context of Egdon Heath.
The Pagan elements of the heath
The heath nourishes the vitality and mirth of the community. Rituals such as the bonfires, the wedding rejoicings, the mumming, the gypsying fair, Maypole-day (451), and Susan’s effigy (422) all celebrate the heath. In the mumming, ‘the agents seemed moved by an inner compulsion’ (178). The heath, dark and fecund, is both the source of the community and the thread of its way of life. In the gypsying dancing ‘Paganism was revived in their hearts, the pride of life was all in all,, and they adored none other than themselves.’ (321). The pagan remedy of adder fat used on Mrs Yeobright (358). Shadwater weir is described in pagan terms: ‘he leapt into the boiling cauldron’ (437) and the people themselves have to be pagan ‘for in what other state than heathen could people, rich or poor, exist who were doomed to abide in such a world’s end as Egdon?’ (469)
George Woodcock, Editor of ‘Canadian Literature’, wrote, with anodyne aplomb, that in ‘The Return of the Native’, Hardy ‘combined a basic appreciation of rural life and its attendant rustic personalities.’ The Saturday Review in 1879 was, however, more scathing of the lack of realism: ‘Egdon Heath is one of the wildest spots in all England. … The people seem to know nothing of high-roads or stage coaches. … There is hardly even a hamlet. … We hear nothing of a squire.’ Hardy wished, of course, to to have the backdrop of an unchanging way of life ‘grand in its simplicity’, which has a synecdochal face which ‘saddens’ a personified ‘noon’ and ‘on which time makes little impression’ (53). It is however, also beset by its attendant conflicts with the outside modern world: indeed, ‘Civilisation was its enemy’ (56) to the extent that it seems ‘it was an obsolete thing’ (232)
Furthermore, Hardy writes: ‘the people changed but Egdon remained’ and that it it is ‘the heath of that traditionary King of Wessex – Lear’ (Preface 49). D H Lawrence takes the idea of ‘the heath persists’ and observes that this is ‘the constant revelation in Hardy; that there exists a background that matters more than the people who move in it.’
The Heath’s History
The history of Egdon is unknown: the forgotten Celtic tribes (449) are symbolised by ‘an aged highway, and a still more aged barrow’ (56). ‘The people changed but Egdon remained’ … ‘grand in its simplicity’ and timelessness. It has a oppressive ‘Titanic form’ (54) and enormous power, which is intimated in the repetition of ‘the obscurity in the air and the obscurity in the land [that] closed together in a black fraternisation’ (54). Eustacia, for instance, is overwhelmed by the heath (416); ‘tis my cross, my shame, and will be my death’ (I ix)
× ‘sadden noon’ (53)
× ‘it could only be imagined to await one last crisis – the final overthrow’ (54)
× ‘like man, slighted and enduring’ (55)
× ‘it had a lonely face suggesting tragically possibilities’ (55)
× ‘everything around and beneath had been from historic times as unaltered as the stars overhead’ (56)
× ‘The sea changed, the fields changed…the people changed yet Egdon remained’ (56)
× ‘On Egdon there was no absolute hour of the day’ (186)
× ‘Not a plough had ever disturbed a grain of that stubborn soil’ (66)
× the vastness of the heath: ‘the deep-dyed upward stretch of heath stood awaiting them, an amplitude of darkness reigning from their feet almost to the zenith’ (102)
× ‘Tartarean situation’ (86)
× ‘The front of the house was towards the heath and Rainbarrow, whose dark shape seemed to threaten it from the sky’ (92)
× All attempts at ‘reclamation from the waste’ fail (232)
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