Week 483: Thoughts of Phena at News of Her Death

The ‘Phena’ of this poem’s title refers to a real woman, Hardy’s cousin Tryphena Sparks, with whom he had, in the mid-1860s, a relationship that was at the least flirtatious. ‘Phena’ died on 17 March 1890; Hardy then wrote the poem shortly after ‘news of her death’.

This is not one of my very favourite Hardy poems – I would not rank it with, say, ‘After A Journey’ or ‘At Castle Boterel’ or ‘During Wind And Rain’ – but I find it fascinating for its Shakespearean combination of registers – what other poet but those two could get away with juxtaposing the plain speech of the opening lines with the high-flown ‘aureate nimb’, ‘unsight’, ‘upbrimming’ and ‘disennoble’? It really shouldn’t work, yet there is a stubborn integrity about Hardy that somehow compels assent, even if he does sometimes remind one of an icebreaker crashing through frozen seas of his own creation. And this poem has certainly been ranked high among his canon by Hardy fans. In the preface to his reissued first book of verse, ‘The North Ship’, Philip Larkin recounts how it was instrumental in converting him from an early devotion to Yeats to what was for him the much more suitable mentor Hardy. “In early 1946 I had new digs in which the bedroom faced east, so that the sun woke me inconveniently early. I used to read. One book I had at my bedside was the little blue ‘Chosen Poems of Thomas Hardy’. Hardy I knew as a novelist, but as regards his verse I shared Lytton Strachey’s verdict that ‘the gloom is not even relievd by a little elegance of diction’. This opinion did not last long; if I were asked to date its disappearance I should guess it was the morning I first read ‘Thoughts of Phena At News of Her Death’”.

And in Colin Dexter’s ‘Last Bus To Woodstock’ it is revealed that Morse considers the first two lines of this poem the saddest in English poetry. Much as I respect Morse’s judgment – he appears, for example, to be a devotee of A.E.Housman – I wouldn’t go that far, but it is certainly hard to match the poem for its evocation of a youthful love that was never to be, but was also never to be forgotten.

Thoughts of Phena at News of Her Death

      Not a line of her writing have I,
Not a thread of her hair,
No mark of her late time as dame in her dwelling, whereby
I may picture her there;
      And in vain do I urge my unsight
To conceive my lost prize
At her close, whom I knew when her dreams were upbrimming with light
And with laughter her eyes.

      What scenes spread around her last days,
Sad, shining, or dim?
Did her gifts and compassions enray and enarch her sweet ways
With an aureate nimb?
      Or did life-light decline from her years,
And mischances control
Her full day-star; unease, or regret, or forebodings, or fears
Disennoble her soul?

      Thus I do but the phantom retain
Of the maiden of yore
As my relic; yet haply the best of her—fined in my brain
It may be the more
      That no line of her writing have I,
Nor a thread of her hair,
No mark of her late time as dame in her dwelling, whereby
I may picture her there. 

Thomas Hardy

Week 482: From ‘The Light of Asia’, by Sir Edwin Arnold

‘The Light Of Asia’ is a long narrative poem by Edwin Arnold (1832-1904), which tells the story of the life of Buddha. It has been admired by, among others, T.S.Eliot, which is not of course necessarily a recommendation, though I always find it interesting when poets reveal a perhaps surprising taste for work very different from their own: it offers a new perspective on both admirer and admired. The poem, published in 1890, is very much of its time, with an unfashionably sub-Keatsian opulence of diction, and I believe it has been criticised by Oriental scholars for giving a misleading impression of Buddhist doctrine, but it does have a considerable exotic charm and sometimes rises to real eloquence, as in the extract below.

To set the scene, the Prince Siddhartha has grown up fiercely protected by his father the King, who has kept him from all knowledge of the suffering and death that lie beyond the palace walls. (Not sure how the King managed this: personally by the time I was five I had already lost two goldfish, a tortoise and a pet rabbit, but there you go). Eventually Siddhartha demands to be allowed out into the city. The King gives orders that all distressing sights are to be hidden away and everyone is to be on their best behaviour, much as now when the Queen visits a place, but as luck would have it one rather decrepit old man hasn’t got the message and staggers out into the road just as Siddhartha is passing. The Prince returns home much burdened with his new knowledge of age and the passing of time, and even his beloved wife Yasodhara and a plate of cakes cannot console him.

I like the ‘Nullius in verba’ aspect of Buddhism. ‘Do not, O Kalamas, be satisfied with hearsay or tradition, with legends or what is written in great scriptures, with conjecture or logic, or with saying, “This comes from a great master or teacher.” But look in yourselves. When you know in yourselves what teachings are unprofitable… you should abandon them… when they lead to virtue, honesty, loving-kindness, clarity, and freedom, then you must follow these’. But I struggle with this non-attachment business, which seems a bit too subtle for me. Love, I say, and pay the price.

Note: Yasodhara is stressed on the second syllable.

From ‘The Light of Asia’

Yasodhara sank to his feet and wept,
Sighing, ‘Hath not my Lord comfort in me?’
‘Ah, Sweet!’ he said, ‘such comfort that my soul
Aches, thinking it must end, for it will end,
And we shall both grow old, Yasodhara!
Loveless, unlovely, weak, and old, and bowed.
Nay, though we locked up love and life with lips
So close that night and day our breaths grew one
Time would thrust in between to filch away
My passion and thy grace, as black Night steals
The rose-gleams from yon peak, which fade to grey
And are not seen to fade.  This have I found,
And all my heart is darkened with its dread,
And all my heart is fixed to think how Love
Might save its sweetness from the slayer, Time,
Who makes men old.’ 

Edwin Arnold

Week 481: The Flower-fed Buffaloes, by Vachel Lindsay

If this poem by the American poet Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931) seems a little naïve, it should be remembered that Lindsay was a performance poet, wandering the country making his living by dramatic recitations, often accompanying himself on the harmonica or other instrument. Never having been part of an oral culture, I must admit that normally I cringe a bit at this sort of thing: for me poetry has always been a matter of mind speaking to mind via the printed page and I feel no great need to have that communication mediated by an actual voice, let alone harmonicas. But I rather like this poem even if I am not hearing it as Lindsay intended, and its message is surely as relevant today as when he wrote it. That ‘flower-fed’, for example, is literally true: there was a time before the settlement of the American West when the great grasslands from April through to September would be ablaze with the likes of prairie rose, Indian Paintbrush, prairie smoke, prairie cinquefoil and goldenrod. So different from today’s nitrate-hungry monocultures. As for the buffalo, more correctly called American bison, it is thought at one time more than fifty million roamed the Great Plains. Now there seem to be three hundred and twenty five wild bison left in North American, though conservation efforts have been increasing the stock.

The Flower-fed Buffaloes

The flower-fed buffaloes of the spring
In the days of long ago,
Ranged where the locomotives sing
And the prairie flowers lie low:-
The tossing, blooming, perfumed grass
Is swept away by the wheat,
Wheels and wheels and wheels spin by
In the spring that still is sweet.
But the flower-fed buffaloes of the spring
Left us, long ago
They gore no more, they bellow no more,
They trundle around the hills no more:-
With the Blackfeet, lying low,
With the Pawnees, lying low,
Lying low.

Vachel Lindsay

Week 480: Danny, by J.M.Synge

This week a poem by the Irish poet and playwright John Millington Synge (1871-1909) about vigilante justice in rural Ireland. I admire it for the way it captures the techniques and spirit of the old ballads, suppressing any authorial comment and leaving the story to speak for itself. And that story is, as so often with the traditional ballad, a grim one. Apparently the poem is based on a real historical incident, the murder of an unpopular rate-collector near the village of Glencastle in County Mayo, and the ‘flat stone’ mentioned in the poem can still be seen today. In the absence of any overt direction from the author, what are we to take as the poem’s message? Well, the eponymous Danny was clearly a social problem that needed addressing, but the trouble is that from a vigilanteism which might be seen as marginally justified it is only a small step to a community ganging up on an old woman suspected of witchcraft and dragging her off to be ducked and drowned in the local pond, as happened near my childhood home as late as 1751 (google Osborn + Tring), or a mob taking it upon themselves to chastise members of a minority group for nothing more than the crime of being different, which of course continues to the present day in many parts of the world.

I think it is fairly clear that despite Synge’s careful avoidance of any explicit moral judgment he in fact considers the episode disturbing and shameful. The clues are in the account of the spirited fight that Danny puts up against the overwhelming odds, the savagery of the assault described in the penultimate verse, the detail of the petty theft that accompanies the murder, and the laconic ‘And some washed off his blood’. So I would say that if the poem has a message it is that much as we may become impatient with the processes of official justice and perturbed at the abuses and failures it is susceptible to, it remains better than the anarchic alternative. To quote the eponymous hero of the old Icelandic saga of Burnt Njal, speaking after the period of anarchy and blood-feuds that followed his country’s settlement in the ninth century, ‘með lögum skal land byggja, en með ólögum eyða’ (‘with laws shall our land be built up, but with lawlessness laid waste’).


One night a score of Erris men,
A score I’m told and nine,
Said, ‘We’ll get shut of Danny’s noise
Of girls and widows dyin’.

‘There’s not his like from Binghamstown
To Boyle and Ballycroy,
At playing hell on decent girls,
At beating man and boy.

He’s left two pairs of female twins
Beyond in Killacreest,
And twice in Crossmolina fair
He’s struck the parish priest.

‘But we’ll come round him in the night
A mile beyond the Mullet;
Ten will quench his bloody eyes,
And ten will choke his gullet.’

It wasn’t long till Danny came,
From Bangor making way,
And he was damning moon and stars
And whistling grand and gay.

Till in a gap of hazel glen –
And not a hare in sight –
Out lepped the nine-and-twenty lads
Along his left and right.

Then Danny smashed the nose on Byrne,
He split the lips on three,
And bit across the right-hand thumb
Of one Red Shawn Magee.

But seven tripped him up behind,
And seven kicked before,
And seven squeezed around his throat
Till Danny kicked no more.

Then some destroyed him with their heels,
Some tramped him in the mud,
Some stole his purse and timber pipe ,
And some washed off his blood.

And when you’re walking out the way
From Banger to Belmullet,
You’ll see a flat cross on a stone
Where men choked Danny’s gullet.

J.M. Synge