Week 205: An Ancient To Ancients, by Thomas Hardy

At first sight one is tempted by its sprightly tone and dancing measure to take this as one of Hardy’s lighter poems, like the morbidly cheerful ‘Voices From Things Growing In A Churchyard’. Yet really it has such a blend of pathos, nostalgia and defiance that it can well stand as a valediction not just to the poet’s own life but to the life of a whole age. And I wonder if this was the last time when our society had a sufficient cultural unity to make such a poem possible – it is hard to imagine an equivalent leave-taking being written now.

An Ancient to Ancients 

Where once we danced, where once we sang,
Gentlemen,
The floors are sunken, cobwebs hang,
And cracks creep; worms have fed upon
The doors. Yea, sprightlier times were then
Than now, with harps and tabrets gone,
Gentlemen!

Where once we rowed, where once we sailed,
Gentlemen,
And damsels took the tiller, veiled
Against too strong a stare (God wot
Their fancy, then or anywhen!)
Upon that shore we are clean forgot,
Gentlemen!

We have lost somewhat of that, afar and near,
Gentlemen,
The thinning of our ranks each year
Affords a hint we are nigh undone,
That shall not be ever again
The marked of many, loved of one,
Gentlemen.

In dance the polka hit our wish,
Gentlemen,
The paced quadrille, the spry schottische,
‘Sir Roger’–And in opera spheres
The ‘Girl’ (the famed ‘Bohemian’),
And ‘Trovatore’ held the ears,
Gentlemen.

This season’s paintings do not please,
Gentlemen
Like Etty, Mulready, Maclise;
Throbbing romance had waned and wanned;
No wizard wields the witching pen
Of Bulwer, Scott, Dumas, and Sand,
Gentlemen.

The bower we shrined to Tennyson,
Gentlemen,
Is roof-wrecked; damps there drip upon
Sagged seats, the creeper-nails are rust,
The spider is sole denizen;
Even she who voiced those rhymes is dust,
Gentlemen!

We who met sunrise sanguine-souled,
Gentlemen,
Are wearing weary. We are old;
These younger press; we feel our rout
Is imminent to Aides’ den,–
That evening shades are stretching out,
Gentlemen!

And yet, though ours be failing frames,
Gentlemen,
So were some others’ history names,
Who trod their track light-limbered and fast
As these youth, and not alien
From enterprise, to their long last,
Gentlemen.

Sophocles, Plato, Socrates,
Gentlemen,
Pythagoras, Thucydides,
Herodotus, and Homer, –yea,
Clement, Augustin, Origen,
Burnt brightlier towards their setting-day,
Gentlemen.

And ye, red-lipped and smooth-browed; list,
Gentlemen;
Much is there waits you we have missed;
Much lore we leave you worth the knowing,
Much, much has lain outside our ken;
Nay, rush not: time serves: we are going,
Gentlemen

Thomas Hardy

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