Thomas Hardy was born in 1840, and he lived for the first 60 years of his life as a Victorian. His novels and poetry are saturated with the arguments and language of that most Victorian of sciences, evolutionary biology: Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), the theories of Thomas Henry Huxley, and the evolutionary philosophy of Herbert Spencer have been widely discussed as important influences on his writing. In the final years of his long career, though, Hardy was preoccupied with a very different kind of science: Albert Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity. In the decade before his death in 1928, Hardy wrote several poems that responded to Einstein’s physics, and his letters and notebooks make numerous references to relativity. In this post I’m going to document those references, and I’m going to make some tentative suggestions about why Hardy was so preoccupied with and perplexed by Einstein’s science.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m currently writing a book about the connections between poetry and the physical sciences in nineteenth-century Britain. I’m hoping that Hardy’s responses to Einstein may form the basis of the book’s final section, because the relation between Einstein’s theories and the Victorian physical sciences is richly ambiguous. On the one hand, it’s possible to identify relativity (together with quantum mechanics) as representing a fundamental break with Victorian physics, which had remained dependent on Newtonian mechanics and on belief in the uniformity of nature. On the other hand, Einstein’s science would have been impossible without (for example) James Clerk Maxwell‘s theories of electromagnetism, which emphasised the interdependence of matter and energy. Maxwell’s arguments were in turn influenced by earlier nineteenth-century theorisations of light and electricity as rarefied and ‘imponderable’ material substances.
Perhaps surprisingly, Hardy doesn’t seem to have read a huge amount of Victorian writing about the physical sciences; there is little evidence that he knew much about the work of Maxwell, or William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), or the prolific populariser of science John Tyndall. My hunch is that Hardy became more interested in physics in his 80s because Einstein’s theories of relativity raised questions that were already central to his poetry: questions about the limited perspective of subjective perception; about the relation between time and memory; and about whether the methods and findings of science were empirical and tangible or abstract and counterintuitive.
Hardy’s responses to Einstein were various. His first recorded mention of him, in a letter to the philosopher J. M. E. McTaggart written on new year’s eve 1919 (Hardy often waxed philosophical, and wrote and published philosophical poems, around the turn of the year), expresses wry bafflement: ‘I have of late been getting out of patience, if not with philosophers, with men of science. You probably, or I should say certainly, have grasped with ease all that Einstein has been telling us, which is more than I have done. Really after what he says the universe seems to be getting too comic for words.’ Despite his initial impatience, Hardy persevered. At some point he bought the English translation of Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and the General Theory, a Popular Exposition, and the pencil marks in Hardy’s copy (now at the Dorset County Museum) suggest that he read the book with a fair amount of care (for details of the copy, see Michael Millgate’s catalogue of Hardy’s library). He paid particular attention to chapter 9, ‘The Relativity of Simultaneity’, in which Einstein explains that time is experienced differently depending on the ‘state of motion’ of the subject. ‘Before the advent of relativity’, Einstein writes, ‘it had always tacitly been assumed in physics that the statement of time had an absolute significance,’ but that is no longer the case.
A diagram in chapter 9 of Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and the General Theory, a Popular Exposition
Hardy was intrigued by Einstein’s account of the incompatibility of observations recorded in different states of motion, possibly because he saw it as analogous to the disjunctions and misalignments between different personal perspectives that are the subject of many of his poems. In one of his notebooks he transcribed some sentences from a review, in The Times Literary Supplement of 9 December 1920, of the philosopher Herbert Wildon Carr’s book The General Principle of Relativity in its Philosophical and Historical Aspect. Carr’s book evidently highlights the point that the distorting effect of motion and perspective applies to space as well as to time: ‘Einstein’s theory, as Prof. Carr sees it, leaves no absolute physical reality which can be contemplated in entire detachment from the position of the contemplator. The work of physical science is to co-ordinate the observations of perceivers for whom there is no common measure.’
Although Hardy read Einstein’s ‘popular exposition’, much of his knowledge of relativity was acquired indirectly, from popularisations by other writers, or from reviews of those popularisations. Also in 1920, he read the British physicist Arthur Eddington‘s Quarterly Review article ‘Einstein on Time and Space’, and in his notebook he made detailed notes on Eddington’s explanation of Einstein’s model of four-dimensional space-time. In his ‘popular exposition’, Einstein had written that ‘the world in which we live is a four-dimensional space-time continuum’, and Eddington notes that this theory appears to undermine the linearity of time and of causation, and to suggest that ‘events do not happen: they are just there, and we come across them in the voyage of life.’ However, Eddington goes on to comment that, although this is true in the terms of physics, relativity makes no difference to the way in which time is experienced in human life and in subjective consciousness: ‘We cannot alter the past; we can to some extent mould the future; that is a feature of time-order which suggests that past and future are not merely arbitrary conventions like right and left. There is no difficulty in fitting this distinction of past and future into the relativity theory; but physics is not interested in it.’
But Hardy largely chose to ignore Eddington’s qualification, and he returned several times to the notion that relativity collapsed the linearity and unidirectionality of time. In June 1921 his second wife Florence wrote in a letter that he ‘ponders over Einstein’s Theory of Relativity in the night’, and one of the things he pondered was the possibility that Einstein’s theories offered support for the philosophical determinism that is evident throughout his writing and that was often characterised (or, in Hardy’s view, mischaracterised) as pessimism by his critics. In The Later Years of Thomas Hardy, the second part of the autobiography that was ghost-written by Florence, Hardy says of himself that ‘his view is shown, in fact, to approximate to Spinoza’s, and later Einstein’s – that neither chance nor purpose governs the universe, but necessity.’
At times, Hardy used this necessitarian reading of Einstein to present an unusually cheerful view of the relation between time and memory. Einstein’s four-dimensional space-time becomes a way of resisting the seemingly inexorable motion of time: if the future is fixed and permanent, then so is the past, and everything which has been consigned to fallible memory might, in some form, continue to exist in reality. In 1923 Hardy wrote the following note: ‘June 10. Relativity. That things and events always were, are, and will be (e.g. Emma [his first wife], Mother and Father are living still in the past).’ This interpretation of relativity is set out more fully in two poems published in 1925. ‘The Absolute Explains’ belongs to one of Hardy’s favourite poetic genres: the dialogue with a god or other omnific entity, in which the poet typically harangues his interlocutor for its incomprehension or disregard of the painfulness of human life. In this poem, however, the Absolute (which has been reading its Einstein) offers some cheer:
'O no,' said It: 'her lifedoings Time's touch hath not destroyed: They lie their length, with the throbbing things Akin them, down the Void, Live, unalloyed. (ll. 1-5)
There is a kind of consolation here, as the Absolute confirms the speculation in Hardy’s 1923 note that the dead survive not just in subjective memory but in objective reality. The phrase ‘down the Void’, however – its use prompted, perhaps, by the demands of rhyme – qualifies this optimism, suggesting (with Eddington) that the past still cannot be altered or even retrieved: the dead may live according to the theories of physical science, but they remain cut off from and inaccessible to the living. Hardy tries, though, to reaffirm his optimistic reading of relativity in the second poem, ‘So, Time (the same thought resumed)’, asserting unambiguously that time is ‘nought / But a thought / Without reality’ (ll. 9-11).
Hardy’s last word on Einstein, however, returns to the incredulity that characterised his first response to him. In one of his notebooks Hardy wrote a list of books that he intended to read; one of the titles was the English translation of Charles Nordmann’s Einstein and the Universe: A Popular Exposition of the Famous Theory (1922). It’s not clear that Hardy actually got round to reading this book, but if he did, he would have read a two-pronged interpretation of relativity that was present in several early popularisations of Einstein (it can be found, too, in Eddington’s article). On the one hand, Nordmann insists that Einstein’s theory is, like any valid scientific hypothesis, verifiable by empirical observations of nature (such as Eddington’s observations of the bending of starlight by the sun’s gravity during a solar eclipse in 1919). ‘Theories have no value except as functions of facts. Those which, like so many in metaphysics, have no real criterion by which we may test them, are all of the same value.’ ‘Experience, the sole source of truth,’ he asserts, ‘is going to judge Einstein’s system for us.’ On the other hand, Nordmann makes the point that the findings of relativity are contrary to the data of sensory experience. Einstein’s conclusion that matter and energy can be converted into one another, according to Nordmann, destroys ‘the fallacious belief in the existence of this substantial and massive something which hundreds of generations have been wont to call “matter.”‘ ‘There is nothing but energy in the external universe. A strange – in a sense, an almost spiritual – turn for modern physics to take!’
Nordmann’s claim for the spirituality of relativity is probably tongue-in-cheek, but other scientists took this kind of argument seriously. In 1924 Hardy read and took notes from an essay by the physicist Oliver Lodge, ‘Outlook on the Universe’, in The Nineteenth Century and After. Lodge agrees with Nordmann in emphasising relativity’s dematerialisation of the universe: ‘Matter is turning out to be one of the forms of energy, – a newly discovered form, discovered largely through the genius of Einstein.’ As well as being one of the most visible and prolific scientific researchers in Britain, Lodge was also a zealous spiritualist, and the bulk of his article is devoted to the speculation that, if matter is one form of energy, then the mind and the soul might be other forms, and therefore might survive after death.
Although Hardy himself used relativity as a source of consolation in response to death, he was consistently sceptical, throughout his life, about the kind of matter/spirit dualism championed by Lodge, and he would have been highly dubious of Lodge’s claim that relativity supports Christian notions of immortality and of humanity’s central place in the universe. Hardy’s final statement about relativity argues precisely the opposite. In ‘Drinking Song’, first published in The Daily Telegraph on 14 June 1928 (several months after Hardy’s death) and then collected in his posthumous final volume Winter Words, Hardy’s speaker toasts those thinkers (Copernicus, Hume, Darwin) whose theories have questioned religious dogmas and relegated humanity to a marginal and ephemeral place within theories of nature. The final name on his list is Einstein’s:
And now comes Einstein with a notion - Not yet quite clear To many here - That there's no time, no space, no motion, Nor rathe nor late, Nor square nor straight, But just a sort of bending-ocean. (ll. 64-70)
Relativity is presented here as an overturning of basic sensory experiences and cognitive assumptions. According to Hardy’s Einstein, there is no such thing as linear and regular time (‘nor rathe [early] nor late’) or unvarying spatial dimensions (‘nor square nor straight’). These certainties have been replaced not by any model of spiritual energy, as put forward by Lodge, but by the amorphous and impossible-to-fathom ‘bending-ocean’ of space-time.
This view of physics as abstract and counterintuitive was not unique to Hardy, and nor was it new. As I hope to show in my book, throughout the long nineteenth century poets had argued that, while poetry and the physical sciences shared a focus on the material and tangible things of the natural world, the sciences used the observation and analysis of matter to develop esoteric conclusions that were divorced from the everyday sensory experience of nature. Some poets were anxious about this; others were admiring of science’s speculative audacity. By casting his response to relativity in the form of a ‘Drinking Song’, Hardy indicates that his view of theoretical physics was one of resigned amusement (and bemusement). In discussing one of the most radical developments in twentieth-century physics, Hardy offers a sardonic take on some peculiarly nineteenth-century concerns.