Anna West, Thomas Hardy’s Sheep

Anna West is an early career researcher in English literature. She recently completed her doctorate at the University of St Andrews, where she was a recipient of a Macpherson scholarship and the Rutherford prize. Her first monograph, Thomas Hardy and Animals, is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press in 2017. Follow her on twitter: @a_west19.

This post accompanies her JVC article ‘“Rot the Genuine”: Moral Responsibility and Far from the Madding Crowd’s Cancelled Fragment’, which can be downloaded here.

           Once, as a child, out in a field of sheep

            Thomas Hardy pretended to be dead

            And lay down flat among their dainty shins.

            In that sniffed-at, bleated-into, grassy space

            He experimented with infinity.[1]

As these lines from Seamus Heaney’s poem sequence ‘Squarings’ remind readers, Thomas Hardy’s sheep were based on the real animals that the Victorian author encountered during his childhood growing up in rural Dorset. Towards the end of Hardy’s ghosted autobiography, Florence Hardy recounts the anecdote that he liked to tell in his later years that inspired Heaney’s verse:

He recalled how, crossing the ewe-leaze when a child, he went on hands and knees and pretended to eat grass in order to see what the sheep would do. Presently he look up and found them gathered around in a close ring, gazing at him with astonished faces.[2]

Figure 1. Sheep in a field near Dorchester
Figure 1. Sheep in a field near Dorchester

The story is paired in The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy with a memory Hardy had of holding a dead fieldfare in his hand: ‘light as a feather, all skin and bone, practically starved’, a haptic memory that continued to ‘haunt’ him throughout his life.[3]

These early, embodied encounters perhaps influenced the adult Hardy’s feeling for animals. His involvement with the humanitarian movement is well known, encapsulated by his 1910 letter to the Humanitarian League (an early twentieth-century humanitarian society founded by Henry Salt). In the letter he argued for a ‘shifted […] centre of altruism’ that extended moral consideration to nonhuman animals, counting them as ‘others’ in the formulation of morality expressed in the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’[4]

Observant readers may notice that the lines of Heaney’s poem quoted above do not quite align with the version of the story in The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy. In the next section of his poem sequence, Heaney’s speaker corrects his story, writing a parenthetical, ‘I misremembered. He went down on all fours, | Florence Emily says, crossing a ewe-leaze.’[5]

Heaney could have edited the earlier section of the poem to match the story, but instead he preserves the two versions of the anecdote, like the end of a game of telephone. In the colloquial tone of the speaker’s aside, he grounds a metaphysical ‘experiment with infinity’ that connects Hardy’s young rambles among the sheep with his habit of ‘imagining himself as a ghost’ during social events as an adult.[6]

Perhaps the two versions question the veracity of Hardy’s own story: did the sheep really gather around him as he crouched in the ewe-leaze as a child? But they also offer the reader the chance to reimagine a scene, to return to an original reading with new information—not unlike the sheep-rot fragment itself, as will be seen in my article.

One might think about the omitted sheep-rot fragment (a draft scene that Hardy did not include in the holograph manuscript of Far from the Madding Crowd but later bound with another rough-draft scene as a gift for his wife Florence) as a deleted scene in the extras reel at the end of a movie or as a study sketch created in preparation for a painting that hangs on a gallery wall next to the finished work: separate from the novel yet preserved by its creator as having some value or offering some insight of its own that rewards closer inspection. While fragments may disrupt one’s sense of narrative continuity and traditional interpretations of a work as a finite whole, they open a space for new possibilities and perspectives, gesturing toward an infinite whole that cannot be apprehended fully—namely, in the examples given, the creative process and artistic vision.[7]

If you should find yourself in Dorset—visiting the Hardy archive at the Dorset County Museum, attending the biennial Thomas Hardy Conference and Festival, or paying homage to the Victorian author at his birthplace cottage or Max Gate—take the time to venture into the fields and pastures surrounding Dorchester and to discover the animals who live and graze there.

Figure 2: Two sheep along the path to Stinsford Church
Figure 2: Two sheep along the path to Stinsford Church

Take a walk to Hardy’s grave at Stinsford Church, crossing over the River Frome on Grey’s Bridge and through a field where sheep on the other side of the split rail fence may raise their heads to gaze at you, or hike up to Maiden Castle and look out over the pastures dotted with the white wool of grazing sheep. 

Figure 3: A flock grazing near Maiden Castle
Figure 3: A flock grazing near Maiden Castle

Imagine, for a moment, the young Hardy on his hands and knees among them. Perhaps he was aware that he could never know what it is to be sheep—to know ‘Earth-secrets’, as he later phrased in it in ‘An August Midnight’.[8]Yet he was curious enough about the perspective of a sheep to place himself physically in their ‘sniffed-at, bleated-into, grassy space’: a curiosity in which his ability to write about these creatures with humour and empathy found provenance.




from ‘Squarings’



Once, as a child, out in a field of sheep,

Thomas Hardy pretended to be dead

And lay down flat among their dainty shins.


In that sniffed-at, bleated-into, grassy space

He experimented with infinity.

His small cool brow was like an anvil waiting


For sky to make it sing the perfect pitch

Of his dumb being, and that stir he caused

In the fleece-hustle was the original


Of a ripple that would travel eighty years

Outward from there, to be the same ripple

Inside him at its last circumference.



(I misremembered. He went down on all fours,

Florence Emily says, crossing a ewe-lease.

Hardy sought the creatures face to face,


Their witless eyes and liability

To panic made him feel less alone,

Made proleptic sorrow stand a moment


Over him, perfectly known and sure.

And then the flock’s dismay went swimming on

Into the blinks and murmurs and deflections


He’d know at parties in renowned old age

When sometimes he imagined himself a ghost

And circulated with that new perspective.)


[1]Seamus Heaney, ‘Squarings’, Seeing Things (London: Faber and Faber, 1991), p. 60.

[2]The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy, ed. by Michael Millgate (London: Macmillan, 1984), p. 479.

[3]Life, p. 479.

[4]Life, p. 376-77.

[5]‘Squarings’, p. 61.

[6]‘Squarings’, p. 61; see also Life, p. 218.

[7]For further readings on critical approaches to the fragment, see Camelia Elias’s The Fragment: Towards a History and Poetics of a Performative Genre (Bern: Peter Lang, 2004), D.F. Rauber’s ‘The Fragment as Romantic Form’, Modern Language Quarterly 30.2 (1969), 212-221, and Arthur Bahr’s Fragments and Assemblages: Forming Compilations of Medieval London (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

[8]The Complete Poems of Thomas Hardy, ed. by James Gibson (London: Macmillan, 1976), pp. 146-47.

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