Plate 5 for the May 1874 installment of the Cornhill Magazine serialization of Hardy's novel.
No matter what the print text seems to suggest about the likelihood of Gabriel's leaving Bathsheba's employ, Paterson's fifth plate establishes that he will be present at an agricultural supper at which she plays the host, and at which Gabriel plays his flute as after-dinner entertainment. The vignette does not allude to the most exciting episode in this instalment, Gabriel's emergency surgery upon the "bloated" sheep, a scene which might have been beyond the Helen Allingham's technical competence. Rather, it concerns Gabriel's shearing the sheep in the great barn (indicated by the shadow in the background), during which process he carelessly nicks one in the groin because he loses concentration when trying to comprehend Boldwood's manner towards Bathsheba.
Most of those who will be seated at the supper table on p. 525 Hardy lists at the start of the shearing (p. 518). The abundantly flowering rosebush, not mentioned by Hardy, may be Paterson's emblem of the purity and disinterestedness of Gabriel's devotion towards his mistress -- how appropriate it would be if these were either dog roses, indicative of Gabriel's pleasure mixed with pain, or musk roses, symbols of capricious beauty appropriate to Bathsheba. Immediately beside the rose bush and at Bathsheba's right hand, Gabriel Oak is playing his flute; to her left, in the parlour stands Boldwood, arms crossed as he listens to the music and studies Bathsheba in profile; in the plate, he does not appear to be singing, but rather watching and listening. The rather timid youth nearest the parlour window is probably Cainy Ball (termed "assistant shearer" on p. 518). The other six men, all clad in smock-frocks, including "Mr. Jan Coggan, the master-shearer," cannot be distinguished, even when one compares their faces to those in other illustrations, but then Hardy himself fails to discriminate between them in the letter-press. Had she been of a more architectural frame of mind, the Helen Allingham might well have shown the group at work in the Shearing Barn (which stands to this day as the mediaeval "Tithe Barn" at Glastonbury), but only in the November plate does Paterson depict with accuracy one of the sites of Hardy's Wessex as anything but a generalized backdrop.
In the vignette, Gabriel, back towards us, deftly shears away the sheep's woollen coat while we, from Bathsheba's perspective, watch him separate "the tresses about its head, . . . neck and collar" (p. 520) from its body. This vignette offers more than mere local colour or minor incident, for it demonstrates Gabriel's absolute knowledge of all aspects of sheep-raising that has kept him at Upper Weatherbury Farm when Bathsheba's pride would have compelled him to leave. In the vignette, we have the illusion that we are looking at a single action and a single moment, but, as Bathsheba remarks, the whole procedure takes the shearer 23 minutes. The month in which this instalment is set is specifically "May" (p. 522), the date of the issue of The Cornhill Magazine containing the incidents described, so that the reader seems to be invited to conceive of the action as occurring in the present (as he is again, momentarily, at Boldwood's tragic Christmas party in the December instalment). The interview between Boldwood and Bathsheba near the barn, in Chapter 22, suggests a repetition of that depicted in the April plate, especially since in the same frame of mind she again rebuffs his advances, and afterward changes into the very same riding-habit.
The time of the year is warm enough for the sheep-shearers' supper to be held outdoors, at a table improvised outside the parlour-window. Boldwood has moved from his earlier place, at the bottom of the table, and should now be "sitting" (p. 527) rather than standing beside Bathsheba inside. In addition to the workers already mentioned, Hardy indicates that the ex-bailiff, Pennyways, and Jan Coggan's son, Bob, are seated at the table, making the number at least nine rather than the seven Paterson has depicted. As Bathsheba, standing rather than "enthroned," sings "Allan Water," the old ballad about the soldier with the "winning tongue" (surely intended by the author as a foreshadowing the arrival of Boldwood's rival, Troy), Gabriel accompanies her on his instrument while Boldwood sings "bass in his customary profound voice" (p. 528).
The sacramental nature of the moment is subtly reinforced by workers' hats having been left under the bench. Long-stemmed pipe, pitcher, jugs and drinking cups are all plausible, though not actually mentioned by Hardy; while the candles that Liddy has brought, though not shown cast a bright light on the table and the faces of the workers but leave Gabriel in the shadows. Only the two men in front appear to be reclining against each other, although Hardy describes all those seated at the table as doing so. There is, as in the letter-press, a perfect stillness, an enchanted harmony, and a social unity that accord well with the edenic backdrop, still partially illuminated by the setting sun. The arcadian flautist enchants his peasant auditors, but for the viewer- reader Gabriel, like the piper in Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn," plays "Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared, . . . ditties of no tone" (lines 13-14). If this plate commemorates the kind of fragile, ephemeral perfection that Giorgione painted, a brief Golden Age for Boldwood-Adam and Bathsheba-Eve, it also implies the impending entrance into this bucolic paradise of the Satanic Sergeant Troy, who will blight Boldwood's prospects and threaten the economic security of the farm and its employees by his expensive tastes and dissolute habits. Her farm guarded by the ever-watchful Gabriel as God's throne is guarded by the archangel Gabriel ("Strong Man of God," mentor of hopes and dreams, in the Bible the router of Sennacherib's invading armies, and in Milton's Paradise Lost, IV, 549, chief of the angelic wardens of Eden), Bathsheba is spared the calamity that befalls her neighbour, whom she had promised to wed then rejects in favour of the dark, fascinating, eloquent (and partly foreign) Sergeant Frank Troy. Made careless by the preference of the fickle Bathsheba (ironically meaning "Daughter of the Oath") for the soldier with the winning tongue, a despondent Boldwood lets his own property go to ruin as he fails to protect his ricks as Bathsheba nearly fails (through Frank's getting the men drunk) to protect hers.
Last modified 12 December 2001