After discussing a number of poets who might be considered idiosyncratic, I return now to a writer of a more orthodox nature. Yet even he is better known for his other writing, namely a string of novels about an area of England which is now identified with him.
This is what Thomas Hardy called Wessex, the south west of England, in which he also included Oxford, which is not so far west of London. The city of dreaming spires was however needed for Hardy’s last novel, Jude the Obscure, which is about the efforts of a village lad to gather learning there. His ambitions end in tragedy, and excessively so, which led to such criticism of the novel that Hardy forswore fiction after that.
Hence his poetry, for which we must be thankful.What he saw as his main poetic achievement was a drama in verse about the Napoleonic Wars, entitled The Dynasts. This is too bulky to be popular, but it does contain passages of great interest, including one of the simplest and most powerful of anti-war poems, The Man He Killed –
Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have set us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!
But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.
I shot him dead because–
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That’s clear enough; although
He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,
Off-hand like–just as I–
Was out of work–had sold his traps–
No other reason why.
Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat, if met where any bar is,
Or help to half a crown.
The reflections of the narrator, the ‘he’ of the title, about what he had done, culminate in the repetitions of the third verse that suggests his uncertainty about why one man should kill another even in war. The hesitant second ‘because’ is followed by the reassertion of ‘my foe’ before the narrator registers that the man he killed was simply a man like himself.
The Dynasts is obviously a political work, with Hardy’s accounts of leading political figures seeking to perpetuate their own dynasties. That strengthens his account of the impact of war on ordinary people, the cannon fodder for the ambitions of the great. This is in accordance with his own profoundly democratic outlook, his concern for simple lives.
As important though in Hardy’s poetry was his grief for his first wife, who died in 1912. Though there was little communion between them towards the end of the marriage, Hardy felt her absence deeply, and recorded this movingly, as in The Walk
You did not walk with me
Of late to the hill-top tree
As in earlier days,
By the gated ways:
You were weak and lame,
So you never came,
And I went alone, and I did not mind,
Not thinking of you as left behind.
I walked up there to-day
Just in the former way:
The familiar ground
By myself again:
What difference, then?
Only that underlying sense
Of the look of a room on returning thence.
Even more powerful, for it deals also with the period of estrangement, is The Voice
Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.
Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!
Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?
Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.
The songlike effect of the earlier repeated dactyls (‘Call to me, call to me’, strong-weak-weak, even more soothing in the three syllable words of the third verse) is abruptly changed in the shorter lines of the last verse. The dactyls there are interspersed with shorter and sharper rhythms, culminating in the three unusual trochees, strong-weak, of the last line.
In addition to these elegies, Hardy also wrote much about nature, as was to be expected from someone who had so evocatively celebrated the Wessex countryside. One might have expected, given Hardy’s sombre view of the world, that the impression he creates would not be joyous. This is the initial impact of perhaps the most famous of his poems, and one of the best, The Darkling Thrush
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
But, after the hard, hard tone of the first two verses, with the imagery of death, the poem turns to renewed life, the ‘joy illimted’ of the song overcoming the frailty of the singer and the growing gloom. And Hardy takes the contrast head on, in confessing the bleakness of the scene, so that the Hope he evokes seems beyond easy dismissal.
Hardy’s affinity with nature comes out too in Weathers, where the contrast between the two types of weather seems irrelevant, given the enthusiasm with which both are described.
This is the weather the cuckoo likes,
And so do I;
When showers betumble the chestnut spikes,
And nestlings fly;
And the little brown nightingale bills his best,
And they sit outside at ‘The Traveller’s Rest,’
And maids come forth sprig-muslin drest,
And citizens dream of the south and west,
And so do I.
This is the weather the shepherd shuns,
And so do I;
When beeches drip in browns and duns,
And thresh and ply;
And hill-hid tides throb, throe on throe,
And meadow rivulets overflow,
And drops on gate bars hang in a row,
And rooks in families homeward go,
And so do I.
The form is fitting for the mood, the contrast between long and short lines suggesting involvement and contentment. This is heightened in the second part of each verse, where the long rhyming lines build up a sense of vibrant life, in which the last line confirms the poet’s participation.
I will conclude with Waiting Both, a little gem, which combines Hardy’s affection for nature and his sense of a massive world of which we form a negligible part –
A star looks down at me,
And says: “Here I and you
Stand each in our degree:
What do you mean to do,—
Mean to do?”
I say: “For all I know,
Wait, and let Time go by,
Till my change come.”—”Just so,”
The star says: “So mean I:—
So mean I.”