Hardy’s sensitivity to the cadences of actual speech is matched by his insistence throughout his work on what is authentically visible. Like Leslie Stephen and Frederic Harrison — both positivists and friends of his — he followed Comte in accepting that all real knowledge is based on observed facts, and this ruled out religious faith almost automatically: the ‘quick, glittering, empirical eye’ is ‘sharp for the surfaces of things’ but for nothing beneath them. It can never penetrate beyond surfaces and know things in themselves. For Ruskin this keen sight is essentially religious, and in a passage in Modern Painters which Hardy knew (he copied it into one of his commonplace books) he resembles any agnostic positivist when he insists that we must observe things closely:
the greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way…To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion, — all in one.
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© Tom Paulin 1986