Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Poetry Selections from Thomas Hardy

Edition: Selected Poems (Penguin Classics)

Hardy's poems, since the author was famous primarily for his novels, have faced a rather unforgiving critical history. Both Hardy's contemporaries and more recent critics have disparaged Hardy's craft as well as his subjects. A recurring claim was that Hardy's poetry was gloomy and pessimistic: Lytton Strachey said, "the gloom is not even relieved by a little elegance of diction." Still, as poet Robert Mezey in his introduction to the Penguin edition of selected poems has pointed out, Hardy remains a favorite amongst a number of important poets including Ezra Pound, W.H. Auden, and Philip Larkin. Hardy's biography bears out poetry's personal importance to him--though he eventually became successful as a result of his fiction, he had tried first to market his poetry.

I have chosen to divide Hardy's poems thematically and not by collections to indicate some of the larger patterns/occupations that I noticed across all of his work.
Human materiality and natural landscape: Hardy's poems frequently explore the continuity between human bodies and nature, especially through imagining what happens after death. "Drummer Hodge" will forever be part of an "unknown plain" and will "Grow to some Southern tree." In a sonnet written to Leslie Stephen, "The Schreckhorn," Hardy links Stephens's personality to the mountain he climbed - they're kind of  fused, both physically in Hardy's imagination and in their both being "aloof" in their personalities: "Upon my nearing vision, less it seems / A looming Alp-height than a guise of him / Who scaled its horn with ventured life and limb, / Drawn on by vague imaginings, maybe, / Of semblance to his personality / In its quaint glooms, keen lights, and rugged trim." In "Rain on a Grave" Hardy imagines that daisies will be showing on Emma's grave soon, and that she will "form part of them--/Ay--the sweet heart of them." Finally, one of the most explicit examples of people growing into natural landscapes is "Transformations": "Portions of this yew / Is a man my grandsire knew, / Bosomed here at its foot: / This branch may be his wife." Despite Hardy's doubts about consciousness after death, the dead rarely stay completely underground in his poetry.
Ghosts, afterlives, and traces: Many of Hardy's poems imagine ghosts, obsess over afterlives--especially in imagining events that have taken place in some now changed or deserted place, and look for traces after people have departed the scenes of life. "Friends Beyond" imagines friends who have died speaking their freedom in death, expressing that they were now free from the desires and concerns which detained them in life. Each goes over some possession or circumstance in life which no longer matters to them, and all end by saying together, "We've no wish to hear the tidings, how the people's / fortunes shift..." "After the Last Breath" is a moving memorial to his mother, Jemima Hardy, which expresses a similar sentiment (though rather unexpectedly because of the enjambment): "Our well-beloved is prisoner in the cell / Of Time no more." The "cell" turns out not to be her coffin, but Time. In "His Immortality" the poet sees "a dead man's finer part, / Shining within each faithful heart / Of those bereft." At first he thinks these memories that remain on earth are immortality, but then as time passes, he notices that this "immortality" shrinks, and eventually, it may merely be "a feeble spark / Dying amid the dark." This poem's view of memory tends to be more pessimistic than others; usually, memory in Hardy's poems is charged with a kind of mystical and magical power akin to Wordsworthian "spots of time." "The House of Hospitalities," for example, describes the house where they spent many Christmases, and the memory remaining: "I see forms of old time talking, / Who smile on me." "Old Furniture" operates similarly, in which the poet describes how relics seem to bear the traces of "the hands of the generations" through his imaginings: "On the clock's dull dial a foggy finger, / Moving to set the minutes right / With tentative touches that lift and linger / In the wont of a moth on a summer night, / Creeps to my sight." At the end of this poem, however, is a rejection of this kind of reminiscing in modern-day life, though coming after the lyrical excess given to memory, this seems unconvincing. "Logs on the Hearth" sweetly imagines the tree which the log comes from and how he and his sister used to climb it. "The Shadow on the Stone" offers an interesting solution to the problem of belief: the poet imagines on a Druid stone a shadow of a "well-known head and shoulders" and instead of doubting or believing, he charts a middle course in deliberately deciding not to turn around (because if he does so, he knows it won't be there): "Nay I'll not unvision / A shape which, somehow, there may be." **Hardy's 1912-1913 Elegies to Emma deserve special mention. "The Going" and "Without Ceremony" focus on how quickly she has gone from him, something that Hardy finds very difficult to come to terms with. "The Haunter" imagines her ghostly consciousness, she would speak to him with love if she could, but is "Always lacking the power to call to him / Near as I reach thereto!" In "After a Journey" the poet follows her ghost to their old haunts, "I see what you are doing: you are leading me on / To the spots we knew when we haunted here together." "The Walk" signals his guilt of how he used to go on a particular walk alone, "and I did not mind / Not thinking of you as left behind" but that now he very much minded. 
Consciousness: Related to Hardy's obsession with ghosts, afterlives, and traces is his fascination with what happens to consciousness after death. Does consciousness of their still-living loved ones matter if the dead are no longer conscious? Hardy's poem seem to go back and forth on this. "Lament" imagines all of the parties, dinners, that Emma would have loved, "But / She is shut, she is shut / From the cheer of them, dead / To all done and said / In her yew-arched bed." "The Photograph" gives a more open answer, when pondering whether the subject of a burning photograph, either dead or alive, would feel the burning: "Well; she knew nothing thereof did she survive, / And suffered nothing if numbered among the dead; Yet--yet--if on earth alive, / Did she feel a smart, and with vague strange anguish strive? / If in heaven, did she smile at me sadly and shake her head?" In "Choirmaster's Burial," a Choirmaster asked that "Mount Ephraim" be sung at his memorial. The vicar says that they need a quicker service because of the weather, "But 'twas said that, when / At the dead of next night / The vicar looked out, / There struck on his ken / Thronged roundabout" saints singing the psalm by the choirmaster's grave. This last poem exemplifies Hardy's frequent harking back to folkloric, village settings as locales for spiritual connection and the possibility of consciousnesses beyond earthly, human consciousness.
Secret lives of things (objects, animals): Again, relatedly, Hardy seems obsessed with the otherness (and more specifically, the potential other-consciousness) of things--objects, particularly in nature, and animals, frequently. "Nature's Questioning" imagines "field, flock, and lonely tree" thinking human thoughts, wondering at their place in an industrializing landscape; in a reversal of what usually happens, where nature doesn't answer the poet, the poet says, "No answerer I." This is, however, a fantastic projection from the mind of the poet, and poems like "An August Midnight," which imagines a longlegs, a moth, a dumbledore, and a fly in the room where he writes, concludes with wonder at the inaccessible lives of these seemingly humble creatures: "They know Earth-secrets that know not I." "The Last Chrysanthemum" dramatizes the poet's curiosity as to why this flower continues budding soon after the rest have folded, ascribing to it person-like traits like reason, taking no heed, and loneliness. At the end he realizes this as folly: "I talk as if the thing were born / With sense to work its mind; / Yet it is but one mask of many worn / By the Great Face behind." The same notion is expressed in "The Darkling Thrush" who had sung out against frosty gloom "Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew / And I was unaware." Despite the gap between human knowing and other-knowing, the fascination remains, and itself becomes the subject of many of Hardy's poems. In "The Convergence of the Twain," the poet imagines the iceberg as a "sinister mate" for Titanic, linking them in some mystical realm that isn't accessible to human knowledge: "And as the smart ship grew / In stature, grace, and hue, / In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too." Often, the poet imagines nature in an outright rejection of the human world. In "Ah Are You Digging on My Grave" the dog isn't thinking of being faithful to his mistress when he digs on her grave but has merely happened to bury a bone there. "To the Moon" is a poet's imagined interview with the moon, asking questions like: "What have you looked at, Moon, / In your time, / Now long past your prime?" The final reply of moon is kind of rude, in regards to human life: "O, I think of it, often think of it / As a show / God ought surely to shut up soon, / As I go." Indeed, "things" are sometimes downright sinister-seeming (though still fascinating), as in "Near Lanivet, 1872," in which the poet and Emma share a haunting vision of her being crucified as she leaned against a handpole. Though the "secret lives of things" remains inaccessible to the poet, very rarely does Hardy express that the secret lives simply do not exist. A possible exception is "My Father's Violin" in which the poet tells of how the violin's glory days are over and that it is nothing without its human player: "here alone I sadly con / Your present dumbness, shape your olden story."
Time and aging: The ravages of time are a subject of repeated anxiety for Hardy. In "I Look into My Glass," the poet's expresses his inability to reconcile this physical aging with the continuing fullness of his heart. Aging is particularly problematic in marriages for Hardy. In "In the Night She Came," the male speaker tells of his fault in breaking his vow to his older wife when he recoiled at her aging face as she came to him in the night. He tries to make amends but fails: "And when next day I paid / My due caress, we seemed to be / Divided by some shade." Memory might help against the ravages of time, as suggested in "Former Beauties" which talks about "market dames, mid-aged, with lips thin-drawn / And tissues sere," whom the poets conclude would still be beautiful if they themselves had not forgotten that they had been former beauties: "They cannot know / What once they were, / Or memory would transfigure them, and show / Them always fair." Memory helps Hardy's mother in "Church Romance," in which he describes how in "long years thence, when Age had scared Romance" she would recall "[a]t some old attitude of his or glance / That gallery-scene would break upon her mind."
The futility of war: Hardy's engagement with the subject of war is almost always to critique its warping of human values. "Souls of the Slain" imagines those dead from war returning to ask if their loved ones dwell on their heroic deeds; instead, they learn the lesson that "it seems that our glory / Weighs less in their thought / Than our old homely acts, / And the long-ago commonplace facts / Of our lives." In "The Man He Killed," the speaker describes how if he had met his enemy "[b]y some old ancient inn" they would have stopped to drink together. But the theater of war warps things in such a way that he must kill the man. "Channel Firing" is an eery description of ghosts rising out of the thinking that World War I was judgment day.
Social conduct, women, and marriage: Writing at the end of the Victorian era, Hardy's views on social conduct, women, and marriage often express discontent with conventions. His many poems on the subject (and Tess, of course) testify to his antagonism to conventions. In "The Ruined Maid," the speaker meets a formerly poor maid and berates her for her ascent to wealth and not attending to her former peers. In response, she keeps replying that she is "ruined" by her wealth but the speaker doesn't listen, he associates "ruin" only with poverty-stricken women. In "After the Club-Dance," a young woman leaving the dance asks herself, "Why do I sink with shame/ When the birds a-perch there eye me? / They, too, have done the same," a logic (conventions are unnatural) which Tess herself frequently returns to. Hardy ventriloquizes oppressive male voices as well, but in doing so revealing their oppressiveness and wrong: "The Homecoming" is a chilling account of man in dialogue with new young wife, who would like to go back to her "daddee" because he could have provided better for her. In this dialogue, nature (violent and windy) interrupts intermittently in italicized text while the woman is spoken to patronizingly and pretty much forced into the marriage: "So don't ye tap your shoe so pettish-like; but smile at me, / And ye'll soon forget to sock and sigh for dear daddee!" "One Ralph Blossom Soliloquizes" is a dramatic monologue which reveals a caddish man who gives an account of most of his women basically saying they wanted him (that they want him even in heaven while he's in hell).
Folkloric, lighter poems: The poems I have thus discussed above are fairly serious in tone and tenor. There are, however, in Hardy's repertoire a number of lighter poems. "The Respectable Burgher" playfully satirizes Higher Criticism's erudite rejections and also the bourgeois speaker who reads "that moderate man Voltaire" (the reader knows, Voltaire was no moderate). Many of Hardy's lighter poems are in folkloric modes. In "The Trampwoman's Tragedy," in a ballad-like song, the "trampwoman" tells of how she teases her lover, of how he kills his competition, and her remorse: "From Wynard's Gap the livelong day, / The livelong day, / We beat afoot the northward way / We had travelled times before." Other poems in this category rival Chaucerian bawdiness: for example, note these lines from "Timing Her," apparently referring to a fifteen-year-old daughter of a curator in Dorset: "Lalage's coming: / Where is she now, O? / Turning to bow, O, / And smile, is she, / Just at parting, / Parting, parting, / As she is starting / To come to me?"

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