IN TIME OF THE BREAKING OF NATIONS Only a man harrowing clods In a slow silent walk With an old horse that stumbles and nods Half-asleep as they stalk. Only thin smoke without flame From the heaps of couch-grass; Yet they will go onward the same Though Dynasties pass. Yonder a maid and her wight Come whispering by: War's annals will cloud into night Ere their story die. 1915
Written during the First World War “In Time of Breaking of Nations” is clearly meant to be reassuring. Images of rural normality are used to give a feeling of a kind of permanence and constancy of occupation that will outlast any conceivable disruption of any war. Within that rural pattern human coupling will inevitably continue and give hope.
Yet there is a sadness about the poem for those living in so-called technically advanced nations throughout the world today. For that kind of immemorial rural world Hardy celebrates has become increasingly distanced by advances in mechanised farms which have become high-speed food-producing units within the agricultural industry. Farming is a business, no longer “a way of life” So the sense of continuity offered by the poem’s “maid and her wight” tends to lack the reassurance it might give in a rooted rural world in which continuity can be assumed .
Yet perhaps there is still hope. The work and popularity of contemporary writers like James Rebanks of English Pastoral and the American Wendell Berry (Stand By Me) remind us of the value of agriculture and rural community but also of what needs to be done to salvage an inheritance that has been nearly lost. For those of us in the West that will continue for long to be an urgent priority.