Week 346: A Thunderstorm in Town, by Thomas Hardy

I must confess that until I came to investigate it for this posting, I had always misread this poem, assuming it to be Hardy in age recalling some encounter from his youth, before he met his first wife Emma Gifford. I saw him as reflecting on an opportunity lost, a road not taken, and wondering how differently his life and marriage might have turned out had the rain not stopped, or had he been more forward. But actually it seems that it is about a shared cab-ride in later life with his second wife-to-be Florence Dugdale, while he was still married to Emma, so my assumption of a gauche youthful innocence and a never-to-be-fulfilled desire is way off the mark. It’s still a poignant, bittersweet little poem in its way, but I rather wish I’d stayed ignorant…

A Thunderstorm in Town
(A Reminiscence)

She wore a new ‘terra-cotta’ dress,
And we stayed, because of the pelting storm,
Within the hansom’s dry recess,
Though the horse had stopped; yea, motionless
We sat on, snug and warm.

Then the downpour ceased, to my sharp sad pain,
And the glass that had screened our forms before
Flew up, and out she sprang to her door:
I should have kissed her if the rain
Had lasted a minute more.

Thomas Hardy

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Week 322: From ‘The Woodlanders’, by Thomas Hardy

‘Now there is clarity. There is the harvest of having written twenty novels first’, said Ezra Pound in praise of Thomas Hardy’s poetry when it first appeared. Certainly it is tempting to find in the novels passages that with their mastery of cadence and rhythm seem to be moving in the direction of poetry, like the following from ‘The Woodlanders’. To set the context: the woodsman Giles Winterborne is loved by the peasant girl Marty South, but has eyes only for his childhood sweetheart Grace Melbury, who has however become better educated and at her father’s urging makes a match instead with the handsome young doctor Edred Fitzpiers. Fitzpiers proves unfaithful and the marriage does not turn out well; he goes off to the Continent with another woman but quarrels with her and returns to resume his marriage. The distraught Grace flees to Giles for help. On a foul night of storm, he gives her refuge in his woodland cottage but mindful of her reputation insists on staying outside all night in a very inadequate shelter made of a few branches. He is already unwell, and the exposure finishes him off. Grace returns to Fitzpiers and only Marty is left to mourn Giles: her touching elegy for him closes the book.

‘Now, my own, own love’, she whispered, ‘you are mine, and only mine; for she has forgot ’ee at last, although for her you died! But I – whenever I get up I’ll think of ’ee, and whenever I lie down I’ll think of ’ee again. Whenever I plant the young larches I’ll think that none can plant as you planted; and whenever I split a gad, and whenever I turn the cider wring, I’ll say that none could do it like you. If ever I forget your name let me forget home and heaven!… But no, no, my love, I never can forget ’ee; for you was a good man, and did good things.’

Thomas Hardy

Week 295: During Wind and Rain, by Thomas Hardy

The theme and mood of this poem, an aching nostalgia for the past, are very similar to those of last week’s piece by Trumbull Stickney. Not being didactically involved with poetry, I feel no great urge to make critical judgments: the spirit of this blog is simply one of I like this, you might too. But I am mildly interested as to exactly why I should feel instinctively that the Stickney poem is good, but this Hardy poem, despite a certain quaintness of diction, is better; indeed, I would say it is touched with greatness. Something to do with the individuality of it, the feeling that no other poet could have written anything like it? Something to do with power and prowess, with the electric charge of lines like ‘Down their carved names the raindrop ploughs’? I come to no sure conclusion, but then, I don’t have to. I like this, you might too…

During Wind and Rain

They sing their dearest songs —
He, she, all of them — yea,
Treble and tenor and bass,
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face….
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

They clear the creeping moss —
Elders and juniors — aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat….
Ah, no; the years, the years;
See, the white storm-birds wing across!

They are blithely breakfasting all —
Men and maidens — yea,
Under the summer tree,
With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to the knee….
Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.

They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them — aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs….
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.

Thomas Hardy

Week 280: In The Small Hours, by Thomas Hardy

Philip Larkin said he would not have wanted Hardy’s ‘Collected Poems’ one page shorter. I wouldn’t go that far, but I could happily fill a couple of years of this blog simply with Hardy poems. Here’s another, that captures with aching precision one of those wistful moments between dream and waking that seem to become more frequent as one goes older.

In The Small Hours

I lay in my bed and fiddled
With a dreamland viol and bow,
And the tunes flew back to my fingers
I had melodied years ago
It was two or three in the morning
When I fancy-fiddled so
Long reels and country-dances,
And hornpipes swift and slow.

And soon anon came crossing
The chamber in the gray
Figures of jigging fieldfolk –
Saviours of corn and hay –
To the air of ‘Haste to the Wedding.’
As after a wedding-day;
Yea, up and down the middle
In windless whirls went they!

There danced the bride and bridegroom,
And couples in a train,
Gay partners time and travail
Had longwhiles stilled amain!….
It seemed a thing for weeping
To find, at slumber’s wane
And morning’s sly increeping,
That Now, not Then, held reign.

Thomas Hardy

Week 253: The Ruined Maid, by Thomas Hardy

To those who think of Thomas Hardy as predominantly a purveyor of doom and gloom, it may come as a surprise to find that he could also be rather funny, as in this encounter between a working girl who has stayed on the farm and a friend who has chosen a somewhat different path in life. Of course, it is possible to read the poem in a morally earnest way: to wonder if Amelia is not whistling in the dark, as it were, and whether the life of a ‘ruined maid’ back then was really that much fun or if it was not simply exchanging one kind of servitude for another, less honest one. It would certainly be typical of Hardy to present the choices of human existence in such a lose-lose way, but I think that really he was just getting a bit of his own back by poking fun at the moral conventions of his times that had led to so much censure of his work.

The Ruined Maid

‘O ‘Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?’ —
‘O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?’ said she.

— ‘You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,
Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks;
And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers three!’ —
‘Yes: that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,’ said she.

— ‘At home in the barton you said ‘thee’ and ‘thou,’
And ‘thik oon,’ and ‘theäs oon,’ and ‘t’other’; but now
Your talking quite fits ‘ee for high compa-ny!’ —
‘Some polish is gained with one’s ruin,’ said she.

— ‘Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak
But now I’m bewitched by your delicate cheek,
And your little gloves fit as on any la-dy!’ —
‘We never do work when we’re ruined,’ said she.

— ‘You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream,
And you’d sigh, and you’d sock; but at present you seem
To know not of megrims or melancho-ly!’ —
‘True. One’s pretty lively when ruined,’ said she.

— ‘I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!’ —
‘My dear — a raw country girl, such as you be,
Cannot quite expect that. You ain’t ruined,’ said she.

Thomas Hardy

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

Week 166: Old Furniture, by Thomas Hardy

166

I like this poem very much, even though it inspires in me considerable pangs of guilt concerning my father’s writing-desk. This was made of some dark wood, with a flap that let down on brass lopers, and many pigeonholes at the top where he kept his papers; these were of no interest to me, but below the flap were two shelves behind leaded lights which held the books from his own childhood, and tucked away behind them was a full set of Arthur Mee’s ‘The Children’s Encyclopaedia’. So it was that I cut my reading teeth on a combination of sturdy Victorian fare – Captain Marryat, G.A.Henty, R.M.Ballantyne, Rider Haggard, Thomas Hughes, Charles Kingsley, Talbot Baines Reed – together with a science that had no notion of relativity, DNA and continental drift, a history innocent of the Second World War and a geography in which most of the world was still coloured red. I am still trying to catch up.

The desk could have been mine when my mother died, but we had little room, and even I, not known for my sensitivity in matters of décor, could see that it did not ‘go with’ our other furniture, so I passed on it, and consequently don’t see as often as I might the man who spent so many hours seated there and the small boy sprawled on his stomach on the carpet nearby. We don’t have much time for ghosts in our lives these days; fortunately for us, Hardy did.

Old Furniture

I know not how it may be with others
Who sit amid relics of householdry
That date from the days of their mothers’ mothers.
But well I know how it is with me
Continually.

I see the hands of the generations
That owned each shiny familiar thing
In play on its knobs and indentations,
And with its ancient fashioning
Still dallying:

Hands behind hands, growing paler and paler,
As in a mirror a candle-flame
Shows images of itself, each frailer
As it recedes, though the eye may frame
Its shape the same.

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 moth on a summer night,
Creeps to my sight.

On this old viol, too, fingers are dancing –
As whilom – just over the strings by the nut,
The tip of a bow receding, advancing
In airy quivers, as if it would cut
The plaintive gut.

And I see a face by that box for tinder,
Glowing forth in fits from the dark,
And fading again, as the linten cinder
Kindles to red at the flinty spark,
Or goes out stark.

Well, well. It is best to be up and doing,
The world has no use for one today
Who eyes things thus – no aim pursuing!
He should not continue in this stay,
But sink away.

Thomas Hardy