Thomas Hardy: Poems

Hardy (1840-1928)  grasps the old, pastoral England, not as a prophet, but a eulogist. Many of his poems focus on loss, regret, bitter irony, and unfortunate coincidence (as opposed to the more emotional, less skeptical forms of the Victorian period). He is a key figure in the transition from Victorian to modern poetry. Hardy constantly mined his own older writings, including and reworking old material in new collections. His poems have a rough-hewn quality partly because he “wanted to avoid the jewelled line,” in his own words. His efforts to displace syntax and form predate the “dislocations of poetic form” characteristic of modernism.

WESSEX POEMS & OTHER VERSES

“HAP,” 1898

If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”
Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.
But not so.   How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
—Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. . . .
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.
Typical of Hardy in tone, “Hap” emphasizes random chance, rather than malicious intent, as the source of pain and loss in his life, depriving him even of the righteous anger faith would provide. There is a sort of desire to surrender to a lack of free will here, but it is impossible.

“NEUTRAL TONES,” 1898

We stood by a pond that winter day,
And the sun was white, as though chidden of God,
And a few leaves lay on the starving sod;
         – They had fallen from an ash, and were gray.
Your eyes on me were as eyes that rove
Over tedious riddles of years ago;
And some words played between us to and fro
         On which lost the more by our love.
The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing
Alive enough to have strength to die;
And a grin of bitterness swept thereby
         Like an ominous bird a-wing….
Since then, keen lessons that love deceives,
And wrings with wrong, have shaped to me
Your face, and the God curst sun, and a tree,
         And a pond edged with grayish leaves
The poem itself forms a sort of mirror – like the reflection of the water, moving from the clear image of the event of the first stanza to the wavering and distorted memory of the last. In between, Hardy uses “as though” and “like” to give the feeling that it is not the event at hand, but some abstract and inarticulable feeling, that matters here.

“I LOOK INTO MY GLASS,” 1898

I look into my glass,
And view my wasting skin,
And say, “Would God it came to pass
My heart had shrunk as thin!”

For then, I, undistrest
By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
With equanimity.

But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide.

The body fades and rots, but the soul continues to throb and desire and experience as if it were young.

POEMS OF THE PAST & PRESENT

“THE DARKLING THRUSH,” 1900, 1901

I leant upon a coppice gate,
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The first stanza looks back to a memory in the dead of winter (reiterated as Frost, gray, Winter, dregs, desolate). The view of the sky “like strings of broken lyres” reminds me of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” as if the promise of aesthetic preservation were snapped.

The land’s sharp features seemed to me
The Century’s corpse outleant,
Its crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind its death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervorless as I.

Evident here, Hardy sees the new century not as a beginning, but as a death. Hardy participates in the British tradition (Shakespeare, Hopkins, etc.) of returning to old forms of words and twisting them to make them feel new. The term “outleant” could mean lain out or leaning out – one suggests peaceful rest, the other is resurrectory, zombielike. To lean, too, is to be between two places and moments. Hardy reads the natural world around him as sad and fervourless like himself (in “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats envies and wonders at the bird as a symbol beyond time, carrying on happy song while he, the poet wishes for death. He calls the nightingale “darkling”).

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead,
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited.
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small,
With blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

The bird is old, frail, and dying, almost like the speaker of “I Look into My Glass.” The little thing is a far cry from Keats’ free-soaring nightingale, but it still trills joyfully, if pathetically.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew,
And I was unaware.

The poem is forward-dated to 1900, but written in 1899 (according to Kent Puckett). Apparently the Victorians disagreed about which of these two years signified the end of the century. As opposed to Keats, where the bird is blissfully ignorant and the poet is burdened by knowledge, here the bird seems to know of a happiness the narrator does not.

“A BROKEN APPOINTMENT,” 1901

 You did not come,
And marching Time drew on, and wore me numb,—
Yet less for loss of your dear presence there
Than that I thus found lacking in your make
That high compassion which can overbear
Reluctance for pure lovingkindness’ sake
Grieved I, when, as the hope-hour stroked its sum,
         You did not come.
         You love not me,
And love alone can lend you loyalty;
–I know and knew it. But, unto the store
Of human deeds divine in all but name,
Was it not worth a little hour or more
To add yet this: Once you, a woman, came
To soothe a time-torn man; even though it be
         You love not me?

“THE SELF-UNSEEING,” 1901

Here is the ancient floor,
Footworn and hollowed and thin,
Here was the former door
Where the dead feet walked in.
She sat here in her chair,
Smiling into the fire;
He who played stood there,
Bowing it higher and higher.
Childlike, I danced in a dream;
Blessings emblazoned that day;
Everything glowed with a gleam;
Yet we were looking away!
The loss of time – the memory reenlivens details, but cannot compensate for wasted moments (think about Terada, looking away?)

SATIRES OF CIRCUMSTANCE, LYRICS & REVERIES

“CHANNEL FIRING,” 1914

That night your great guns, unawares,
Shook all our coffins as we lay,
And broke the chancel window-squares,
We thought it was the Judgment-day
And sat upright. While drearisome
Arose the howl of wakened hounds:
The mouse let fall the altar-crumb,
The worms drew back into the mounds,
The glebe cow drooled. Till God called, “No;
It’s gunnery practice out at sea
Just as before you went below;
The world is as it used to be:
“All nations striving strong to make
Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters
They do no more for Christés sake
Than you who are helpless in such matters.
“That this is not the judgment-hour
For some of them’s a blessed thing,
For if it were they’d have to scour
Hell’s floor for so much threatening….
“Ha, ha. It will be warmer when
I blow the trumpet (if indeed
I ever do; for you are men,
And rest eternal sorely need).”
So down we lay again. “I wonder,
Will the world ever saner be,”
Said one, “than when He sent us under
In our indifferent century!”
And many a skeleton shook his head.
“Instead of preaching forty year,”
My neighbour Parson Thirdly said,
“I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer.”
Again the guns disturbed the hour,
Roaring their readiness to avenge,
As far inland as Stourton Tower,
And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.
Written at the very stirrings of WWI, this snide, almost sarcastic treatment of skeletons sitting up at the sounds of war (only practice) seems bent on imagining the counterfactual, on defending the territory of the imagination, as its ending in Camelot and Stonehenge suggests. It is an act of playing dead in the “indifferent century.”

“THE CONVERGENCE OF THE TWAIN,” 1912, 1914

(Lines on the loss of the “Titanic”)

I
            In a solitude of the sea
            Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.
II
            Steel chambers, late the pyres
            Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.
III
            Over the mirrors meant
            To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls — grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.
IV
            Jewels in joy designed
            To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.
V
            Dim moon-eyed fishes near
            Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: “What does this vaingloriousness down here?” …
VI
            Well: while was fashioning
            This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything
VII
            Prepared a sinister mate
            For her — so gaily great —
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.
VIII
            And as the smart ship grew
            In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.
IX
            Alien they seemed to be;
            No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,
X
            Or sign that they were bent
            By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,
XI
            Till the Spinner of the Years
            Said “Now!” And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.
Hardy here is interested in the contrast of surface (jewels, mirrors, and sparkling opulence) and depth (the literal depths of the ocean, with ‘dim moon-eyed fishes’ and slugs inhabiting the finery. He mentions Immanent Will, which is, in his philosophy, a blind force slowly gaining consciousness as it moves through the centuries (why, then, is it seemingly more indifferent than ever?)

“THE WORKBOX,” 1914

See, here’s the workbox, little wife,
That I made of polished oak.’
He was a joiner, of village life;
She came of borough folk.

He holds the present up to her
As with a smile she nears
And answers to the profferer,
”Twill last all my sewing years!’

‘I warrant it will. And longer too.
‘Tis a scantling that I got
Off poor John Wayward’s coffin, who
Died of they knew not what.

‘The shingled pattern that seems to cease
Against your box’s rim
Continues right on in the piece
That’s underground with him.

‘And while I worked it made me think
Of timber’s varied doom;
One inch where people eat and drink,
The next inch in a tomb.

‘But why do you look so white, my dear,
And turn aside your face?
You knew not that good lad, I fear,
Though he came from your native place?’

‘How could I know that good young man,
Though he came from my native town,
When he must have left there earlier than
I was a woman grown?’

‘Ah, no. I should have understood!
It shocked you that I gave
To you one end of a piece of wood
Whose other is in a grave?’

‘Don’t, dear, despise my intellect,
Mere accidental things
Of that sort never have effect
On my imaginings.’

Yet still her lips were limp and wan,
Her face still held aside,
As if she had known not only John,
But known of what he died.

The eerie juxtaposition (or continuity?) of the shingled surface provides an eerie, material meeting of the living and the dead here. The box that will last all her years and more has a strange resonance with the idea of the coffin, even before we know the connection exists. Finally, is there perhaps a pun on shingles as the cause of the boy’s death? Or is it more mysterious?

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