He could no longer believe, but he cherished the memory of belief... From CLAIRE TOMALIN's biography Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man.
Hardy's novels were ahead of their time in the way they introduced subjects such as class inequality, sexual passion, and strong, independent women. Because of this he shocked and angered many of the more traditional critics and reviewers. His attacks on institutions like marriage and the Church resulted in the expurgation of his novels (which first came out in serial form) by his publishers - to Hardy's disgust. But he bowed to this, as he was modest and quiet-mannered in character; and, after all, he did want to make a living. Subsequent editions of his works were textually restored in their entirety.
As is the case with many imaginative novelists and artists, Hardy was ambivalent about many things, including religion. But there was no going back to the old certainties of Christian faith after the publication of Darwin's On The Origin Of Species in 1859 (Hardy was 19 years old when this earth-shattering, God-shattering book came out). He did of course know the book, and he had also read Matthew Arnold's poem Dover Beach - a pivotal poem of the 19th century about the melancholy induced by loss of Faith.
Here is the desolate but beautiful last verse of Matthew Arnold's famous poem (Arnold, poet, critic, essayist and school inspector - his father was Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby School - was very much a bridge between Romanticism and Modernism, as Hardy was himself in some ways):Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
The adjective "darkling" purposefully recalls the Romantic use of the same word in Ode To A Nightingale by Keats; and Hardy himself chooses this word in his celebrated poem The Darkling Thrush, which I posted previously.
I remember very well the effect that Dover Beach had on me the 1st time I read it in my teenage years. For me it was a kind of rite of passage poem. Somehow it marked a setting aside of childish things and the beginning of adulthood. One can see quite clearly how this poem points the way to the Existentialist ideas of the next century.