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

2 thoughts on “Week 483: Thoughts of Phena at News of Her Death

  1. “nimb” [noun] – halo. “fined” [adj] – purified? “That no line of her writing have I …” – because I have no line of her writing … ? I don’t get much sense of Phena the woman – but that’s part of Hardy’s point, he only retains “the phantom” of “the maiden of yore”.

    • Yes, I think the main meaning of ‘fined’ here is indeed ‘refined’ or ‘reduced to essentials’, though there may also be a suggestion of ‘thinning out’, which goes with the phantom idea. Cf. Edward Thomas in his poem ‘It Rains::

      ‘….When I turn away, on its fine stalk
      Twilight has fined to naught, the parsley flower
      Figures, suspended still and ghostly white,
      The past hovering as it revisits the light.’

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