Friday, March 8, 2013

Centenary of a Poem, a Time, and a Love

If anyone wants to know how fallible the Nobel Prize for Literature can be, he need go no further than Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), who was eligible for consideration for the prize for twenty seven years, but was never awarded one. No other 20th century poet inspired so many other great poets as Hardy did. His influence can be traced, directly or indirectly, through many of the so-called Georgians, like Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon, as well as the generation of poets after them, like Auden and Philip Larkin. He was always best known as a novelist, but he always wrote poetry. His first collection, Wessex Poems, published in 1898, contains poems written as far back as 1865.

He wrote much more poetry after he abandoned novel writing after the reception of Jude the Obscure. When his wife Emma died in 1912, after 38 years of marriage, he wrote a series of poems about her and about how they met. Most of these were published in his collection Satires of Circumstance. But a few others were saved for publication in his massive collections, Moments of Vision (1919) and Late Lyrics (1922).

Two of the poems written in 1913 seem like sisters, "A Night in November" and "Something Tapped". They capture an especially Gothic mood - apt for such an expert as Hardy in Gothic architecture:

A Night in November

I marked when the weather changed,
And the panes began to quake,
And the winds rose up and ranged,
That night, lying half-awake.

Dead leaves blew into my room,
And alighted upon my bed,
And a tree declared to the gloom
Its sorrow that they were shed.

One leaf of them touched my hand,
And I thought that it was you
There stood as you used to stand,
And saying at last you knew!

(?) 1913

"Something Tapped"

Something tapped on the pane of my room
When there was never a trace
Of wind or rain, and I saw in the gloom
My weary Belov├Ęd's face.

"O I am tired of waiting," she said,
"Night, morn, noon, afternoon;
So cold it is in my lonely bed,
And I thought you would join me soon!"

I rose and neared the window-glass,
But vanished thence had she:
Only a pallid moth, alas,
Tapped at the pane for me.

August 1913

The placement of that "alas" in the third stanza captures the depth of Hardy's regret. It's the same feeling evoked by an 18th-century haiku by Boson:

The piercing chill I feel:
my dead wife's comb, in our bedroom,
under my heel . . .

Hardy wrote one of the poems in this same vein a hundred years ago today:

"It Never Looks Like Summer"

"It never looks like summer here
On Beeny by the sea."
But though she saw its look as drear,
Summer it seemed to me.

It never looks like summer now
Whatever weather's there;
But ah, it cannot anyhow,
On Beeny or elsewhere.

March 8, 1913

The following year saw the beginning of the First World War, which merely confirmed Hardy's fatalistic mood. The best young poets who went to war, Graves, Sassoon, Blunden, Owen, who saw the disaster first hand, proudly acknowledged the influence of Hardy.

One hundred years ago. I wonder how the prospect from Beeny Cliff looks today?

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