“Life’s Little Ironies.”
Selected Poems by Hardy
Project Gutenberg: Works by Thomas Hardy
The Thomas Hardy Society
Thomas Hardy Resource Library
Thomas Hardy (2 June 1840 – 11 January 1928) is an English novelist, short story writer, and poet of the naturalist movement. The bulk of his work, set mainly in the semi-imaginary county of Wessex, delineates characters struggling against their passions and circumstances. Hardy's poetry, first published in his fifties, has come to be as well regarded as his novels, especially after the 1960s Movement.
Thomas Hardy was born at Higher Bockhampton, a hamlet in the parish of Stinsford to the east of Dorchester in Dorset, England. His father worked as a stonemason and local builder. His mother was ambitious and well-read, supplementing his formal education, which ended at the age of 16 when he became apprenticed to John Hicks, a local architect. Hardy trained as an architect in Dorchester before moving to London in 1862. Five years later he returned to Dorset to work as Hicks' assistant. He won prizes from the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Architectural Association.
In 1870, Hardy met Emma Lavinia Gifford, whom he married in 1874. Although he later became estranged from his wife, her death in 1912 had a traumatic effect on him. He made a trip to Cornwall to revisit places linked with their courtship; his Poems 1912-13 explore his grief. In 1914, Hardy married his secretary Florence Dugdale, 40 years his junior, whom he had met in 1905. However, Hardy remained preoccupied with Emma's sudden death, and tried to overcome his remorse by writing poetry.
Hardy fell ill with pleurisy in December 1927 and died in January 1928, having dictated his final poem to his wife on his deathbed. His funeral, on 16 January at Westminster Abbey, proved a controversial occasion: Hardy, his family and friends had wished him to be buried at Stinsford in the same grave as his first wife, Emma. However, his executor, Sir Sydney Carlyle Cockerell, insisted he be placed in the abbey's Poets' Corner. A compromise was reached whereby his heart was buried at Stinsford with Emma, and his ashes in Poets' Corner.
Shortly after Hardy's death, the executors of his estate burnt his letters and notebooks. Twelve records survived, one of them containing notes and extracts of newspaper stories from the 1820s. Research into these provided insight into how Hardy kept track of them and how he used them in his later work.
Hardy's work was admired by many authors, amongst them D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. The writer Robert Graves, in his autobiography Goodbye to All That, recalls meeting Hardy in Dorset in the early 1920s. Hardy received Graves and his newly married wife warmly, and was encouraging about the younger author's work.
In 1910, Hardy was awarded the Order of Merit.
Hardy's cottage at Bockhampton and Max Gate in Dorchester are owned by the National Trust.
Hardy's religious life seems to have mixed agnosticism and spiritism. Once, when asked in correspondence by a clergyman about the question of reconciling the horrors of pain with the goodness of a loving God, Hardy replied,
"Mr. Hardy regrets that he is unable to offer any hypothesis which would reconcile the existence of such evils as Dr. Grosart describes with the idea of omnipotent goodness. Perhaps Dr. Grosart might be helped to a provisional view of the universe by the recently published Life of Darwin, and the works of Herbert Spencer, and other agnostics."
Nevertheless, Hardy frequently conceived of and wrote about supernatural forces that control the universe, more through indifference or caprice than any firm will. Also, Hardy showed in his writing some degree of fascination with ghosts and spirits. Despite these sentiments, Hardy retained a strong emotional attachment to the Christian liturgy and church rituals, particularly as manifested in rural communities, that had been such a formative influence in his early years. Some attributed the bleak outlook of many of his novels as reflecting his view of the absence of God.
In 1898 Hardy published his first volume of poetry, Wessex Poems, a collection of poems written over 30 years. Hardy claimed poetry as his first love, and published collections until his death in 1928. Although not as well received by his contemporaries as his novels, Hardy's poetry has been applauded considerably in recent years, in part because of the influence on Philip Larkin. However, critically it is still not regarded as highly as his prose.
Most of his poems deal with themes of disappointment in love and life, and mankind's long struggle against indifference to human suffering. Some, like The Darkling Thrush and An August Midnight, appear as poems about writing poetry, because the nature mentioned in them gives Hardy the inspiration to write those. A vein of regret tinges his often seemingly banal themes. His compositions range in style from the three-volume epic closet drama The Dynasts to smaller, and often hopeful or even cheerful ballads of the moment such as the little-known The Children and Sir Nameless, a comic poem inspired by the tombs of the Martyns, builders of Athelhampton.
Composer Lee Hoiby's setting of "The Darkling Thrush" became the basis of the multimedia opera Darkling. Other composers who set Hardy's text to music include Gerald Finzi, who produced six song-cycles for poems by Hardy, and Benjamin Britten, who based his song-cycle Winter Words on Hardy's poetry. Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst also set texts by Hardy; Holst also based one of his last orchestral works, Egdon Heath, on Hardy's work. It is said to be Holst's masterpiece. The poem was also set to music by Timothy Takach for a capella choir in 2005.
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel
"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
At Lulworth Cove a Century Back
Had I but lived a hundred years ago
I might have gone, as I have gone this year,
By Warmwell Cross on to a Cove I know,
And Time have placed his finger on me there:
"You see that man?" — I might have looked, and said,
"O yes: I see him. One that boat has brought
Which dropped down Channel round Saint Alban's Head.
So commonplace a youth calls not my thought."
"You see that man?" — "Why yes; I told you; yes:
Of an idling town-sort; thin; hair brown in hue;
And as the evening light scants less and less
He looks up at a star, as many do."
"You see that man?" — "Nay, leave me!" then I plead,
"I have fifteen miles to vamp across the lea,
And it grows dark, and I am weary-kneed:
I have said the third time; yes, that man I see!"
"Good. That man goes to Rome — to death, despair;
And no one notes him now but you and I:
A hundred years, and the world will follow him there,
And bend with reverence where his ashes lie."
That night your great guns, unawares,
Shook all our coffins as we lay,
And broke the chancel window-squares,
We thought it was the Judgment-day
And sat upright. While drearisome
Arose the howl of wakened hounds;
The mouse let fall the altar-crumb,
The worms drew back into the mounds,
The glebe cow drooled. Till God called, “No;
It’s gunnery practice out at sea
Just as before you went below;
The world is as it used to be;
“All nations striving strong to make
Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters
They do no more for Christés sake
Than you who are helpless in such matters.
“That this is not the judgment-hour
For some of them’s a blessed thing,
For if it were they’d have to scour
Hell’s floor for so much threatening. . . .
“Ha, ha. It will be warmer when
I blow the trumpet (if indeed
I ever do; for you are men,
And rest eternal sorely need).”
So down we lay again. “I wonder,
Will the world ever saner be,”
Said one, “than when He sent us under
In our indifferent century!”
And many a skeleton shook his head.
“Instead of preaching forty year,”
My neighbour Parson Thirdly said,
“I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer.”
Again the guns disturbed the hour,
Roaring their readiness to avenge,
As far inland as Stourton Tower,
And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.
At last I entered a long dark gallery,
Catacomb-lined; and ranged at the side
Were the bodies of men from far and wide
Who, motion past, were nevertheless not dead.
"The sense of waiting here strikes strong;
Everyone's waiting, waiting, it seems to me;
What are you waiting for so long? —
What is to happen?" I said.
"O we are waiting for one called God," said they,
"(Though by some the Will, or Force, or Laws;
And, vaguely, by some, the Ultimate Cause;)
Waiting for him to see us before we are clay.
Yes; waiting, waiting, for God to know it." ...
"To know what?" questioned I.
"To know how things have been going on earth and below it:
It is clear he must know some day."
I thereon asked them why.
"Since he made us humble pioneers
Of himself in consciousness of Life's tears,
It needs no mighty prophecy
To tell that what he could mindlessly show
His creatures, he himself will know.
"By some still close-cowled mystery
We have reached feeling faster than he,
But he will overtake us anon,
If the world goes on."
If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: "Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love's loss is my hate's profiting!"
Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.
But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
—Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. . . .
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.
How She Went to Ireland
Dora’s gone to Ireland
Through the sleet and snow;
Promptly she has gone there
In a ship, although
Why she’s gone to Ireland
Dora does not know.
That was where, yea, Ireland,
Dora wished to be:
When she felt, in lone times,
Shoots of misery,
Often there, in Ireland,
Dora wished to be.
Hence she’s gone to Ireland,
Since she meant to go,
Through the drift and darkness
Onward labouring, though
That she’s gone to Ireland
Dora does not know.
“Percussus sum sicut foenum, et aruit cor meum.” —Ps. ci.
But my bereavement-pain
It cannot bring again:
Twice no one dies.
But, since it once hath been,
No more that severing scene
Can harrow me.
Birds faint in dread:
I shall not lose old strength
In the lone frost's black length:
Strength long since fled!
Leaves freeze to dun;
But friends can not turn cold
This season as of old
For him with none.
Tempests may scath;
But love can not make smart
Again this year his heart
Who no heart hath.
Black is night's cope;
But death will not appal
One who, past doubtings all,
Waits in unhope.
A Load of brushes and baskets and cradles and chairs
Labours along the street in the rain:
With it a man, a woman, a pony with whiteybrown hairs. —
The man foots in front of the horse with a shambling sway
At a slower tread than a funeral train,
While to a dirge-like tune he chants his wares,
Swinging a Turk's-head brush (in a drum-major's way
When the bandsmen march and play).
A yard from the back of the man is the whiteybrown pony's nose:
He mirrors his master in every item of pace and pose:
He stops when the man stops, without being told,
And seems to be eased by a pause; too plainly he's old,
Indeed, not strength enough shows
To steer the disjointed waggon straight,
Which wriggles left and right in a rambling line,
Deflected thus by its own warp and weight,
And pushing the pony with it in each incline.
The woman walks on the pavement verge,
Parallel to the man:
She wears an apron white and wide in span,
And carries a like Turk's-head, but more in nursing-wise:
Now and then she joins in his dirge,
But as if her thoughts were on distant things,
The rain clams her apron till it clings. —
So, step by step, they move with their merchandize,
And nobody buys.
Satires of Circumstance in Fifteen Glimpses VIII: In the Study
He enters, and mute on the edge of a chair
Sits a thin-faced lady, a stranger there,
A type of decayed gentility;
And by some small signs he well can guess
That she comes to him almost breakfastless.
"I have called — I hope I do not err —
I am looking for a purchaser
Of some score volumes of the works
Of eminent divines I own, —
Left by my father — though it irks
My patience to offer them." And she smiles
As if necessity were unknown;
"But the truth of it is that oftenwhiles
I have wished, as I am fond of art,
To make my rooms a little smart,
And these old books are so in the way."
And lightly still she laughs to him,
As if to sell were a mere gay whim,
And that, to be frank, Life were indeed
To her not vinegar and gall,
But fresh and honey-like; and Need
No household skeleton at all.
The Convergence of the Twain
(Lines on the loss of the "Titanic")
In a solitude of the sea
Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.
Steel chambers, late the pyres
Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.
Over the mirrors meant
To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls — grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.
Jewels in joy designed
To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.
Dim moon-eyed fishes near
Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: "What does this vaingloriousness down here?" ...
Well: while was fashioning
This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything
Prepared a sinister mate
For her — so gaily great —
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.
And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.
Alien they seemed to be;
No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,
Or sign that they were bent
By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,
Till the Spinner of the Years
Said "Now!" And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.
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.
The Dead Man Walking
They hail me as one living,
But don't they know
That I have died of late years,
I am but a shape that stands here,
A pulseless mould,
A pale past picture, screening
Ashes gone cold.
Not at a minute's warning,
Not in a loud hour,
For me ceased Time's enchantments
In hall and bower.
There was no tragic transit,
No catch of breath,
When silent seasons inched me
On to this death ....
— A Troubadour-youth I rambled
With Life for lyre,
The beats of being raging
In me like fire.
But when I practised eyeing
The goal of men,
It iced me, and I perished
A little then.
When passed my friend, my kinsfolk,
Through the Last Door,
And left me standing bleakly,
I died yet more;
And when my Love's heart kindled
In hate of me,
Wherefore I knew not, died I
One more degree.
And if when I died fully
I cannot say,
And changed into the corpse-thing
I am to-day,
Yet is it that, though whiling
The time somehow
In walking, talking, smiling,
I live not now.
The Man He Killed
"Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat 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 Masked Face
I found me in a great surging space,
At either end a door,
And I said: "What is this giddying place,
With no firm-fixéd floor,
That I knew not of before?"
"It is Life," said a mask-clad face.
I asked: "But how do I come here,
Who never wished to come;
Can the light and air be made more clear,
The floor more quietsome,
And the doors set wide? They numb
Fast-locked, and fill with fear."
The mask put on a bleak smile then,
And said, "O vassal-wight,
There once complained a goosequill pen
To the scribe of the Infinite
Of the words it had to write
Because they were past its ken."
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.
The Shadow on the Stone
I went by the Druid stone
That broods in the garden white and lone,
And I stopped and looked at the shifting shadows
That at some moments fall thereon
From the tree hard by with a rhythmic swing,
And they shaped in my imagining
To the shade that a well-known head and shoulders
Threw there when she was gardening.
I thought her behind my back,
Yea, her I long had learned to lack,
And I said: ‘I am sure you are standing behind me,
Though how do you get into this old track?’
And there was no sound but the fall of a leaf
As a sad response; and to keep down grief
I would not turn my head to discover
That there was nothing in my belief.
Yet I wanted to look and see
That nobody stood at the back of me;
But I thought once more: ‘Nay, I’ll not unvision
A shape which, somehow, there may be.’
So I went on softly from the glade,
And left her behind me throwing her shade,
As she were indeed an apparition—
My head unturned lest my dream should fade.
I heard a small sad sound,
And stood awhile among the tombs around:
"Wherefore, old friends," said I, "are you distrest,
Now, screened from life's unrest?"
—"O not at being here;
But that our future second death is near;
When, with the living, memory of us numbs,
And blank oblivion comes!
"These, our sped ancestry,
Lie here embraced by deeper death than we;
Nor shape nor thought of theirs can you descry
With keenest backward eye.
"They count as quite forgot;
They are as men who have existed not;
Theirs is a loss past loss of fitful breath;
It is the second death.
"We here, as yet, each day
Are blest with dear recall; as yet, can say
We hold in some soul loved continuance
Of shape and voice and glance.
"But what has been will be —
First memory, then oblivion's swallowing sea;
Like men foregone, shall we merge into those
Whose story no one knows.
"For which of us could hope
To show in life that world-awakening scope
Granted the few whose memory none lets die,
But all men magnify?
"We were but Fortune's sport;
Things true, things lovely, things of good report
We neither shunned nor sought ... We see our bourne,
And seeing it we mourn."