Week 94: At Castle Boterel, by Thomas Hardy

I once tried to make a list of my ten favourite Hardy poems, but ended up with nearer to a hundred and a great reluctance to discard any of them. But I think in any shortlist I made ‘Castle Boterel’ would have to figure high, with its honest solipsism, its vision of human love pitted against the vastness of geological time, and its achingly sad last stanza.

At Castle Boterel

As I drive to the junction of lane and highway,
And the drizzle bedrenches the waggonette,
I look behind at the fading byway,
And see on its slope, now glistening wet,
Distinctly yet

Myself and a girlish form benighted
In dry March weather. We climb the road
Beside a chaise. We had just alighted
To ease the sturdy pony’s load
When he sighed and slowed.

What we did as we climbed, and what we talked of
Matters not much, nor to what it led, —
Something that life will not be balked of
Without rude reason till hope is dead,
And feeling fled.

It filled but a minute. But was there ever
A time of such quality, since or before,
In that hill’s story? To one mind never,
Though it has been climbed, foot-swift, foot-sore,
By thousands more.

Primaeval rocks form the road’s steep border,
And much have they faced there, first and last,
Of the transitory in Earth’s long order;
But what they record in colour and cast
Is — that we two passed.

And to me, though Time’s unflinching rigour,
In mindless rote, has ruled from sight
The substance now, one phantom figure
Remains on the slope, as when that night
Saw us alight.

I look and see it there, shrinking, shrinking,
I look back at it amid the rain
For the very last time; for my sand is sinking,
And I shall traverse old love’s domain
Never again.

Thomas Hardy, March 1913

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Week 12: A Church Romance, by Thomas Hardy

A Church Romance
(Mellstock: circa 1835)

She turned in the high pew, until her sight
Swept the west gallery, and caught its row
Of music-men with viol, book and bow
Against the sinking sad tower-window light.

She turned again; and in her pride’s despite
One strenuous viol’s inspirer seemed to throw
A message from his string to her below,
Which said: ‘I claim thee as my own forthright!’

Thus their hearts’ bond began, in due time signed.
And long years thence, when Age had scared Romance,
At some old attitude of his or glance
That gallery-scene would break upon her mind,
With him as minstrel, ardent, young, and trim,
Bowing ‘New Sabbath’ or ‘Mount Ephraim’.

Thomas Hardy

You can see why Philip Larkin admired Hardy so much: could there be a more perfect example than this poem of those ‘long perspectives’ that Larkin speaks of in ‘Reference Back’, that ‘link us to our losses’. Yet somehow ‘A Church Romance’ for all its regret for time past seems more committed to the possibility of real human love than Larkin’s own cautious almost-true almost-instinct: this bond was signed, and endured.