Tom and Em
The story is well known. After taking to her bed with an indisposition on November 26, 1912, Emma Lavinia Hardy, Thomas Hardy’s wife of thirty-eight years, died the following day. It was then that he fell in love with her. His last words to her, after the maid had hastily summoned him to her sick room, were, “Em, Em – don’t you know me?” She didn’t hear him.
In truth, Thomas Hardy had loved Emma Gifford when, as a journeyman architect assigned a job of church restoration, he had met her forty-two years earlier. She was then living on the coast of Cornwall with her sister and her brother-in-law, an Anglican parson whose country church needed a bit of work and who had contracted him for the job. But that love had long since hardened into an awkward détente and arguably had never been so ardent as now, when a surge of guilt and regret reawakened all his dormant feelings of tenderness and longing. What do you do when the love of your life unexpectedly dies, leaving you no chance to explain, apologize, or redeem your mistakes?
Well, if you’re a poet, you might write poetry. Thomas Hardy set to work. The sequence of twenty-one poems that he wrote to and about Emma, poems that voyaged back and forth between the blighted present and the promise of the past (and published two years later under the heading “Poems of 1912-13” in the volume Satires of Circumstance), is possibly his greatest achievement. Yet to call it that seems oddly cold and formal. Hardy had already established his reputation, and he had more urgent matters on his mind than the world’s opinion when he wrote lines like:
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.
Oscar Wilde said, “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.” Very true, but when you’re able to express your genuine feelings in dactylic hexameter and the other formidable meters that Hardy uses in “Poems of 1912-13,” you’re likely to keep them from getting too genuine. Wilde further said, “To be natural is to be obvious, and to be obvious is to be inartistic.” Nothing could be less obvious than the outward design of this sequence, in which no two poems share the same rhyme scheme or stanzaic arrangement. A draftsman and architect by training, Hardy was a scrupulous craftsman, but the formal variety of his verse was no fin de siècle filigree. Without the rigor imposed by demanding verse forms (dactylic hexameter is the meter of classical Greek epic and does not easily lend itself to English elegy), he might well have composed for the occasion the sort of bad poetry that Wilde was mocking. Instead, he poured his emotions into form.
As if to subdue the emotions that threaten to overwhelm him, Hardy structures his thoughts in “The Going” — the opening poem of the sequence, written within weeks of Emma’s death – into not one but two complex stanzaic forms. All six stanzas consist of seven lines rhymed ABABCCB, which in turn alternate on an ABABAB pattern based on the placement of long and short lines. What might seem rigidly geometrical turns out to be a delicate balancing act of exposition and lyricism. You can almost feel the poem breathing.
I’ve mentioned Hardy’s craftsmanship, but it was the craftsmanship of a self-taught artist. (Like his doomed titular hero in Jude the Obscure, Hardy was strictly working class; he taught himself Latin and Greek because he couldn’t possibly have acquired them at a university.) Notoriously unmusical, Hardy’s verse tends toward a rough-hewn naturalism characterized, as Joseph Brodsky noted, by “clashing consonants, yawning vowels . . . crabby syntax . . . awkward, cumbersome phrasing . . . [and] eye/ear/mind-boggling stanzaic designs unprecedented in their never-repeating patterns.” Elegance isn’t the goal, which is why some of the most heartbreaking lines in “The Going” are the most prosaic: “Why do you make me leave the house?” “Why, then, latterly, did we not speak?” “Well, well! All’s past amend.” The plainness of diction, standing in high relief to the intricacy of form, reflects a similar straightforwardness in Hardy’s thought. Far from concealing or disguising his bafflement, he makes it the central subject of “The Going” and indeed of the whole sequence. The questions that structure the poem aren’t rhetorical; if he knew the answers, he wouldn’t need to ask them:
Why did you give no hint that night
That quickly after the morrow’s dawn,
And calmly, as if indifferent quite,
You would close your term here, up and be gone
Where I could not follow,
With wing of swallow
To gain one glimpse of you ever anon!
Never to bid good-bye,
Or lip me the softest call,
Or utter a wish for a word, while I
Saw morning harden upon the wall,
That your great going
Had place that moment, and altered all.
Why do you make me leave the house
And think for a breath it is you I see
At the end of the alley of bending boughs
Where so often at dusk you used to be;
Till in darkening dankness
The yawning blankness
Of the perspective sickens me!
At the end of the sequence he’s no closer to answering those questions than at the beginning, but along the way he reclaims a past that the many years of indifference had seemed to invalidate. Maybe in his life it wouldn’t have hurt Hardy to focus on the present a little more. His second wife, Florence Dugdale, with whom he had fallen in love before Emma died and who was none too pleased with “Poems of 1912-13,” certainly thought so. But what made Hardy a difficult husband for both wives – an inwardness that inclined toward an idealization of the past at the expense of the present – helped to make him a great poet. The conflicts he couldn’t resolve in life play out in the work for the benefit of all his readers.
Or at least for my benefit. I have my own Thomas Hardy problem. The woman much missed, in my case, won’t call to me, and any call from me will go forever unheeded, unacknowledged, and unreciprocated. So it’s nice to know that the right kind of language can counter if not overcome the wrong kind of silence. It certainly did so for Hardy. Although Emma was dead, there was no reason he couldn’t use his poetic gifts to invest her ghost with speech, which he does in the next poem, “Your Last Drive.” The words she speaks to him are remarkably comfortless, but that’s because in the chronology of the sequence she’s not underground just yet. She will be, soon enough. In the fourth stanza Hardy has Emma matter-of-factly foreseeing her imminent demise and their eternal separation. Later, when she’s quite unmistakably dead, she will speak to him more gently, but for now certain bedrock realities must be acknowledged if Hardy (a bedrock atheist) is to have any hope of posthumous reconciliation:
‘I go hence soon to my resting-place;
‘You may miss me then. But I shall not know
How many times you visit me there,
Or what your thoughts are, or if you go
There never at all. And I shall not care.
Should you censure me I shall take no heed,
And even your praises no more shall need.’
True: never you’ll know. And you will not mind.
But shall I then slight you because of such?
Dear ghost, in the past did you ever find
The thought ‘What profit,’ move me much?
Yet abides the fact, indeed the same, –
You are past love, praise, indifference, blame.
Newly in love with Emma, Hardy yet sees her faults as well as his own. It was in some ways an unsuitable match, and as the years went on, their differences exacerbated in Emma a snobbery and orthodoxy antithetical to her husband’s nature. “The Going” slyly suggests that Emma’s abrupt departure could be construed as a final act of willed estrangement, and the coldness of the remarks he puts in her mouth in “Your Last Drive” have a cadence of complaint that he must have often heard. A few months later, while still in the midst of composing “Poems of 1912-13,” he had the shock of discovering her diaries. Their bitterness might have shaken the faith of a less determined man. Instead, according to his biographer Claire Tomalin, he read with equanimity her contemptuous outbursts against him: “Sensibly enough, he decided they were largely the product of a mind subject to delusions and refused to allow them to spoil his renewed vision of her as the love of his life.” Anyway, he knew he was as much to blame as she. Everything went wrong; that’s why he needed to write these poems. Although it would be entirely possible to appreciate them if your life has run along a smooth track of personal fulfillment, professional success, and the world’s esteem, they’re even better if everything has gone wrong for you too.
Since everything did go wrong for the happy couple, the only setting to rights possible would have to take place after the fact, in the poetry. Twenty-one good and great poems, however, could work no miracles. Any resolution would remain partial at best. Nevertheless, the sequence moves towards a mutual forgivingness that allows the bereaved widower to get a purchase on the present through the only means possible: by dwelling obsessively on the past.
Hardy didn’t confine his obsessiveness to writing. In March of 1913 he traveled to Cornwall with his brother to revisit the scenes of his courtship – those places that he guiltily felt he had stolen Emma away from. Florence Dugdale, soon to be the second Mrs. Hardy, considered the trip extremely ill advised; she claimed that her future husband profoundly regretted the whole excursion. Maybe he did. But if Hardy the man had second thoughts, Hardy the poet came away from the trip with enough raw material to extend the sequence and to draw on that well in the remaining fifty or sixty poems about Emma he was to write during the rest of his life.
From about the fifth poem in, “I Found Her Out There,” the sequence moves to a double time frame – not just the past and the present, but specifically the past of 1870 and the present of 1912 and 1913. In a way, time – its “derision,” its “unflinching rigour” – is the real protagonist of the whole sequence. Hardy insists again and again that the past is irrecoverable – and then recovers it. At any rate, he lets Emma recover hers in the slightly ghoulish “I Found Her Out There.” Now she really is underground, but it’s the wrong ground – Dorset, Hardy’s home county, where he had brought her to live, rather than Cornwall, where she had been raised in an untrammeled landscape that had imprinted itself on her youthful character. He deprives her of that landscape in death as in life. Where once, as a young woman, “she often would gaze / At Dundagel’s famed head, / While the dipping blaze / Dyed her face fire-red,” she is now laid “to rest / In a noiseless nest / No sea beats near.” Amazingly, in the final stanza Hardy has her shade “creep[ing] underground” back to Cornwall like a mole or like Hamlet’s subterranean ghost of a father (“Well said, old mole, canst work i’ th’ earth so fast?”):
Yet her shade, maybe
Will creep underground
Till it catches the sound
Of that western sea
As it swells and sobs
Where she once domiciled,
And joy in its throbs
With the heart of a child.
It takes a lot – death, in fact – to finally conjoin past and present, but Emma at last returns to the childhood where she had been most truly herself. There Hardy leaves her in a temporary equilibrium. For the time being, death and life, age and youth, Dorset and Cornwall are at peace. It says much for him that he could conceive of Emma’s happiest hours as occurring before he entered her life. Empathy came instinctively to Hardy, but he had also been reading, in addition to her poisonous diaries, Emma’s much happier Recollections of her childhood and early life with him. Some of the details of the poems come from that posthumous book (the writing of which she had kept secret from him), as well as from his own nearly photographic memory. He had reason to feel haunted.
In fact, “The Haunter” is the title of the eighth poem of the sequence, in which Emma speaks to him as a benign yet powerless ghost, “hover[ing] a few feet from him” and “companion[ing] him to places / Only dreamers know, / Where the shy hares print long paces, / Where the night rooks go.” Its poignancy does not disguise the absurdity of a blindness so willful on Hardy’s part that even the shock of Emma’s death can’t quite restore him to vision.
When I could answer [the words] he did not say them:
When I could let him know
How I would like to join in his journeys
Seldom he wished to go.
Now that he goes and wants me with him
More than he used to do,
Never he sees my faithful phantom
Though he speaks thereto.
Again like Hamlet’s father, the ghost is slightly less benign in “After a Journey,” which comes a few poems after “The Haunter.” In the first stanza she leads him on something of a dangerous goose chase, rather as Horatio had feared for Hamlet: “What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord, / Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff / That beetles o’er his base into the sea?” (Not the least of the hauntings in “Poems of 1912-13 are all the echoes of Hamlet.) It turns out that Emma’s ghost is not only harmless but, for once, efficacious. Nevertheless, a delicate implication remains that she is exacting some slight revenge before relenting:
Hereto I come to view a voiceless ghost;
Whither, O whither will its whim now draw me?
Up the cliff, down, till I’m lonely, lost,
And the unseen waters’ ejaculations awe me.
Where you will next be there’s no knowing,
Facing round about me everywhere,
With your nut-coloured hair
And gray eyes, and rose-flush coming and going.
One of the most appealing things about Hardy’s poetry is its plainspoken rectitude. For all his sophistication, it’s as if he never learned to dodge or equivocate or hide behind masks. He simply takes stock of a situation – whether the horrors of the Boer War or his own loneliness – and reports on it without breast-beating or sensationalism. (Some of his narrative poems do get slightly overwrought; plot was always his undoing.) The distinguished author of a dozen acclaimed if controversial novels, the eminent Edwardian sought out by the Prince of Wales, the boy from nowhere who had made the dons at Oxford and Cambridge take notice – such a man might be expected to conceal his domestic sorrow. Not Hardy. He treats it in the second stanza of “After a Journey” with the same evenhandedness that characterizes his poems about a drummer boy killed in the Boer War and dumped in an anonymous grave (“Drummer Hodge”), or an itinerant peddler couple trudging through town with their load of useless merchandise (“No One Buys”), or the prospect of his personal extinction (“When Dead”). If any readers in 1914 assumed that Hardy was too grand a figure to suffer the banal unhappiness of a marriage gone sour, they found out otherwise:
Yes: I have re-entered your olden haunts at last;
Through the years, through the dead scenes I have tracked you;
What have you now found to say of our past –
Scanned across the dark space wherein I have lacked you?
Summer gave us sweets, but autumn wrought division?
Things were not lastly as firstly well
With us twain, you tell?
But all’s closed now, despite Time’s derision.
I see what you are doing; you are leading me on
To the spots we knew when we haunted here together,
The waterfall, above which the mist-bow shone
At the then fair hour in the then fair weather,
And the cave just under, with a voice still so hollow
That it seems to call out to me from forty years ago,
When you were all aglow,
And not the thin ghost that I now frailly follow!
“After a Journey” works up to a vision of time recaptured that is the nearest approach to ecstasy in the sequence. Its joy does not last and is not expected to. What though life lours, or as we would say today, so what? The moment of union that the vision represents casts its influence forward as well as backward. Through all the grief and guilt the remaining poems will chart, Hardy has crossed a threshold that will enable him (partly) to face that grief and guilt:
Ignorant of what there is flitting here to see,
The waked birds preen and the seals flop lazily;
Soon you will have, Dear, to vanish from me,
For the stars close their shutters and the dawn whitens hazily.
Trust me, I mind not, though Life lours,
The bringing me here; nay, bring me here again!
I am just the same as when
Our days were a joy, and our paths through flowers.
The path to the future is emphatically not through flowers; much haunting and loneliness are still to come in “Beeny Cliff” and “At Castle Boterel” and “St. Launce’s Revisited.” Yet if a muted, mitigated, compromised attainment of a partial spiritual reintegration can be a triumph, “After a Journey” is that triumph. Consider what Hardy is up against: the need to “reconstruct a self that will meet the demands of a vision of what was once possible, to redirect fate by cultivating an obsession one fears may be at the pitch of madness, and to hold the new stasis fast while absolutely alert to the dead emptiness in which one is actually trapped,” according to M. L. Rosenthal and Sally M. Gall in The Modern Poetic Sequence. Ultimately, the triumph is not that Hardy reached some point of permanent understanding and acceptance. The triumph is that he wrote the poems.
For those of us incapable of writing magnificent elegies, much psychic work may be accomplished by reading them. As always, the pleasure we take in seeing inchoate realities translated into form – for instance, the five-line stanzas of “At Castle Boterel,” with their falling “feminine” rhymes and two-beat half-lines closing each strophe with devastating finality – is more than aesthetic. If not for rhymes or stories or pictures or songs or all the other representations of thought and emotion that we call art, our inner lives might appear to us as the incomprehensible jumble of warring impulses that they pretty much are. In “At Castle Boterel” Hardy makes no claim to comprehend the incomprehensible, but he does offer what Robert Frost called a temporary stay against confusion – his, yours, mine, or that of anyone who has ever looked back and wondered how the hell things could possibly have turned out the way they did.
Still, it’s not an idle fantasy to look back on the glory of young love if it really happened. What could be more perverse than not looking back on a reality like that? Seen from the outside, youthful passion is a banality so commonplace as almost to beggar description. That’s why, as Hardy writes, “what we talked of / Matters not much, nor to what it led.” But poets don’t see things from the outside, and with its double time frame of the seventy-three-year-old widower retracing the steps of the thirty-year-old lover, “At Castle Boterel” gets at love and loss from the inside:
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,
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.
Even in this visionary conflation of past and present, there’s a dogged literal-mindedness that anchors the poem in earthly circumstances. When in the last stanza Hardy looks back “amid the rain / For the very last time” and concludes, “for my sand is sinking, / And I shall traverse old love’s domain / Never again,” he’s not poeticizing. Anyone who knows Hardy knows that if he says it was raining on the day forty-three years later when he retraced his and Emma’s steps on that steep road in the seaside village of Bostcastle, it really was raining; and “love’s domain” is not some generic allusion to the romantic past but a specific reference to a specific place that he is now revisiting and has no intention of visiting again. There’s no going back.
Except that there is. “Poems of 1912-13” ends somewhat inconclusively with “Where the Picnic Was,” a mournful memory of a recent event not bearing directly on the main lines of the Hardy/Emma relationship. Four poems before the end, however, “The Phantom Horsewoman” returns to the crucial years of their courtship, and by fixing an image from the past, invests it with an aura of timelessness. That may be an illusion, but here we are, after all, reading the poem a century after its composition. Emma Hardy lives! Although the figure she casts is “ghostly” and phantom-like, there is nothing unreal about the power of the imagination to meliorate the sickening losses of time. Thomas Hardy’s vision of Emma Gifford as a young, daring horsewoman untouched by time is not a sentimental evasion; it’s a psychological necessity:
Queer are the ways of a man I know:
He comes and stands
In a careworn craze,
And looks at the sands
And the seaward haze
With moveless hands
And faceless gaze,
Then turns to go . . .
And what does he see when he gazes so?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
A ghost-girl-rider. And though, toil-tried,
He withers daily,
Time touches her not,
But she still rides gaily
In his rapt thought
On that shagged and shaly
And as when first eyed
Draws rein and sings to the swing of the tide.
Emma was an accomplished equestrian; her husband never quite got the hang of it, though that last line certainly gallops away. And if the horsewoman galloping away is a “phantom,” she’s nonetheless a “warm, real, and keen” one. Brute reality and emotional need: line by line and poem by poem, Hardy conjoins these two imperatives. His poetry, like all great poetry, is the place where either/or doesn’t exist.
Which is exactly what’s wrong with his fiction. For all its splendors of characterization, imagery, and observation, it seems to me fatally one-sided. An unyielding Schopenhauerian pessimism drives the author no less than his characters to forgone conclusions, none of them happy. Hart Crane said, “Not one of his characters is for one moment allowed to express a single joyous passion without a forenote of Hardian doom entering the immediate description.” I still haven’t read all of the major novels; maybe I’ve just never recovered from the murder by suicide he inflicts on the three young children in Jude the Obscure.
By contrast, his poetry is as melancholic as the man himself yet escapes the iron determinism that makes his fiction so truly and profoundly depressing. Hardy, famously, could write a poem about anything – a few insects visiting him at his nightly writing desk (“An August Midnight”), a suit in a pawn shop with a little powder on the sleeve that might be the trace of a long-ago courtship (“A Gentleman’s Second-Hand Suit”), the furniture and household objects he grew up with, which he remembered down to the nut on the bridge of the violin that his father played at country dances (“Old Furniture”). No Immanent Will dictates life and death in these small delightful poems or even in the long disquieting ones in “Poems of 1912-13.” What he gives us is not quite life itself – no artist, not even Thomas Hardy, has ever delivered that much – but a sensibility uncommonly responsive to it.
Any writer who can welcome as “guests” to his writing desk “A longlegs, a moth, and a dumbledore” as well as “A sleepy fly, that rubs its hands” is probably going to treat his readers with equal generosity. Restless, brooding, and a bit old-fashioned, Thomas Hardy the poet bestows on his readers the flattering assumption that they too are as searching, honest, intelligent, and human as the author of these poems.
Stephen Akey is the author of College, Library, and A Guide to My Record Collection. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.