In 1987 I was on holiday with my family in Cornwall and on the way back from a drive with my wife, youngest son (a football-obsessed thirteen year old) and new baby daughter happened upon a sign to St Juliot’s Church and dived down a narrow lane, just as Hardy must have come more than a century before to find his Emma, the girl with the corn-coloured ringlets who once and later was all to him.
A grey and silver evening, wind in the sycamores; the square-towered battlemented church empty except for a woman arranging flowers, who cooed over the baby while I slipped outside and went down the path to a stile made of a thin slab of slate upright like the blade of a guillotine, and stood there looking at what to him must have been a familiar sight: a field of rough grass, sloping down to a line of trees, and beyond that the land rising again, long-shadowed and suddenly golden as the sun dropped below the cloud line, then turned back to see the churchyard with its silent headstones and nettles and an ivy-covered stump, that perhaps to him had been a sapling. My son came up and seeing my mood was very understanding: ‘I know what it means to you, I’d feel like that if we went somewhere Bryan Robson and the Man. United team had trained together.’
I’m not sure that it’s proper to equate a mere poet with the mighty Captain Marvel, but yes, that was the general idea. Anyway, here Hardy looks back wistfully on that first time together in a poem of 1913 in which he is drawn to the place and that remembered first happiness despite the doubts and pain that it now occasions in him.
A Dream Or No
Why go to Saint-Juliot? What’s Juliot to me?
Some strange necromancy
But charmed me to fancy
That much of my life claims the spot as its key.
Yes. I have had dreams of that place in the West,
And a maiden abiding
Thereat as in hiding;
Fair-eyed and white-shouldered, broad-browed and brown-tressed.
And of how, coastward bound on a night long ago,
There lonely I found her,
The sea-birds around her,
And other than nigh things uncaring to know.
So sweet her life there (in my thought has it seemed)
That quickly she drew me
To take her unto me,
And lodge her long years with me. Such have I dreamed.
But nought of that maid from Saint-Juliot I see;
Can she ever have been here,
And shed her life’s sheen here,
The woman I thought a long housemate with me?
Does there even a place like Saint-Juliot exist?
Or a Vallency Valley
With stream and leafed alley,
Or Beeny, or Bos with its flounce flinging mist?