On the suggestion of a friend, I was going to explore the poetry of Thomas Hardy this week. But I don’t want to.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the writer of Tess of the d’Ubervilles and Jude the Obscure didn’t produce light and fluffy verse and I certainly don’t expect all poetry to be dancing daffodils and ending sidewalks. But however skillfully Hardy evokes emotion and explores important and worthwhile themes, the man never lets up.
My friend, bless her, is one of those bright, bubbly, kind people who bring sunshine to everyone they meet and actually make you like them for it, which is the perfect audience for Thomas Hardy, as they have an excess of cheerful that evens everything out, but the rest of us might have to take care. The titles alone make me wonder if I should ask my doctor if Prozac is right for me:*
“Ah, are you digging on my Grave?”
“The Dead Man Walking”
“She, at his Funeral”
“The Man he Killed”
“He never Expected Much”
They actually are lovely poems— the ones he wrote after his beloved wife’s death are particularly moving—but in the way that medieval songs are lovely, even after you realize how many of them—particularly the German ones—are about the singers loving someone so much that they sit down under trees** and die.***
The few poems of Hardy’s that aren’t outright depressing are just a tad too cynical, even for me:
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.
Well, la-di-dah, deary. Enjoy it while it lasts.^
Lest you think I’m a prude, this next one, which comes as close to a favorite as I’m likely to get with Thomas Hardy,^^ irritates me for the opposite reason.
The Dance At The Phoenix
To Jenny came a gentle youth
From inland leazes lone;
His love was fresh as apple-blooth
By Parrett, Yeo, or Tone.
And duly he entreated her
To be his tender minister,
And call him aye her own.
Fair Jenny’s life had hardly been
A life of modesty;
At Casterbridge experience keen
Of many loves had she
From scarcely sixteen years above:
Among them sundry troopers of
The King’s-Own Cavalry.
But each with charger, sword, and gun,
Had bluffed the Biscay wave;
And Jenny prized her gentle one
For all the love he gave.
She vowed to be, if they were wed,
His honest wife in heart and head
From bride-ale hour to grave.
Wedded they were. Her husband’s trust
In Jenny knew no bound,
And Jenny kept her pure and just,
Till even malice found
No sin or sign of ill to be
In one who walked so decently
The duteous helpmate’s round.
Two sons were born, and bloomed to men,
And roamed, and were as not:
Alone was Jenny left again
As ere her mind had sought
A solace in domestic joys,
And ere the vanished pair of boys
Were sent to sun her cot.
She numbered near on sixty years,
And passed as elderly,
When, in the street, with flush of fears,
On day discovered she,
From shine of swords and thump of drum,
Her early loves from war had come,
The King’s Own Cavalry.
She turned aside, and bowed her head
Anigh Saint Peter’s door;
“Alas for chastened thoughts!” she said;
“I’m faded now, and hoar,
And yet those notes–they thrill me through,
And those gay forms move me anew
As in the years of yore!”…
–‘Twas Christmas, and the Phoenix Inn
Was lit with tapers tall,
For thirty of the trooper men
Had vowed to give a ball
As “Theirs” had done (fame handed down)
When lying in the self-same town
Ere Buonaparté’s fall.
That night the throbbing “Soldier’s Joy,”
The measured tread and sway
Of “Fancy-Lad” and “Maiden Coy,”
Reached Jenny as she lay
Beside her spouse; till springtide blood
Seemed scouring through her like a flood
That whisked the years away.
She rose, and rayed, and decked her head
To hide her ringlets thin;
Upon her cap two bows of red
She fixed with hasty pin;
Unheard descending to the street,
She trod the flags with tune-led feet,
And stood before the Inn.
Save for the dancers’, not a sound
Disturbed the icy air;
No watchman on his midnight round
Or traveller was there;
But over All-Saints’, high and bright,
Pulsed to the music Sirius white,
The Wain by Bullstake Square.
She knocked, but found her further stride
Checked by a sergeant tall:
“Gay Granny, whence come you?” he cried;
“This is a private ball.”
–“No one has more right here than me!
Ere you were born, man,” answered she,
“I knew the regiment all!”
“Take not the lady’s visit ill!”
Upspoke the steward free;
“We lack sufficient partners still,
So, prithee let her be!”
They seized and whirled her ‘mid the maze,
And Jenny felt as in the days
Of her immodesty.
Hour chased each hour, and night advanced;
She sped as shod with wings;
Each time and every time she danced–
Reels, jigs, poussettes, and flings:
They cheered her as she soared and swooped
(She’d learnt ere art in dancing drooped
From hops to slothful swings).
The favorite Quick-step “Speed the Plough”–
(Cross hands, cast off, and wheel)–
“The Triumph,” “Sylph,” “The Row-dow dow,”
Famed “Major Malley’s Reel,”
“The Duke of York’s,” “The Fairy Dance,”
“The Bridge of Lodi” (brought from France),
She beat out, toe and heel.
The “Fall of Paris” clanged its close,
And Peter’s chime told four,
When Jenny, bosom-beating, rose
To seek her silent door.
They tiptoed in escorting her,
Lest stroke of heel or chink of spur
Should break her goodman’s snore.
The fire that late had burnt fell slack
When lone at last stood she;
Her nine-and-fifty years came back;
She sank upon her knee
Beside the durn, and like a dart
A something arrowed through her heart
In shoots of agony.
Their footsteps died as she leant there,
Lit by the morning star
Hanging above the moorland, where
The aged elm-rows are;
And, as o’ernight, from Pummery Ridge
To Maembury Ring and Standfast Bridge
No life stirred, near or far.
Though inner mischief worked amain,
She reached her husband’s side;
Where, toil-weary, as he had lain
Beneath the patchwork pied
When yestereve she’d forthward crept,
And as unwitting, still he slept
Who did in her confide.
A tear sprang as she turned and viewed
His features free from guile;
She kissed him long, as when, just wooed.
She chose his domicile.
Death menaced now; yet less for life
She wished than that she were the wife
That she had been erstwhile.
Time wore to six. Her husband rose
And struck the steel and stone;
He glanced at Jenny, whose repose
Seemed deeper than his own.
With dumb dismay, on closer sight,
He gathered sense that in the night,
Or morn, her soul had flown.
When told that some too mighty strain
For one so many-yeared
Had burst her bosom’s master-vein,
His doubts remained unstirred.
His Jenny had not left his side
Betwixt the eve and morning-tide:
–The King’s said not a word.
Well! times are not as times were then,
Nor fair ones half so free;
And truly they were martial men,
The King’s-Own Cavalry.
And when they went from Casterbridge
And vanished over Mellstock Ridge,
‘Twas saddest morn to see.
I love the reformation of Jenny for the sake of her quiet, true husband, her older self’s longing for the music, and especially the courtesy of the soldiers, who could have laughed at the old woman with the red bows, and instead let her join the dancing and took her safely and silently home. I even like the name of the tavern!
But, man, that fourth verse from the end almost ruins it for me. Hardy just couldn’t let it go, could he?
I do understand the questionable morality involved, the folly of temptation unresisted, the narrative of the times . . . but for mercy’s sake. She might have been the sweetheart of the entire regiment over forty years ago, but it’s clear that dancing is the only thing going on at this point, and to have her enjoyment marred by regret before she dies—supposing that heart attack isn’t her punishment for straying—is mean.
That single verse makes it a mean poem, and I’m absolutely positive Jenny goes to heaven anyway, wearing those red bows of hers, and dances with the same calvarymen she knew as a girl, with the angels clapping and stamping along, so there.
So I’m sorry, but I just can’t bear to tackle Thomas Hardy today. Instead, I’m going to go find something cheerful and suggest you do the same.
*Even though I already suspect I know the answer.
**My husband: “Are they pine trees?”
***I may be exaggerating a little—see what Hardy does to me? Trees aren’t always required—moors will do in a pinch. No, seriously, most medieval songs are religious, and those that aren’t are often about the longing for love to be requited (note the title) or love that is requited but doomed. Or drinking. Or, you, know, just plain death.
^ I know I’m in a mood today, but . . . Anyone remember that one idiotic Bennett sister in Pride and Prejudice—Lydia—who keeps sniffing around soldiers and eventually runs away with Wickham, who is not only a lying fortune-hunter but had previously ruined the sister of Mr. Darcy—who pays Wickham to marry Lydia so her reputation as a slut wouldn’t affect the Bennett family, for Elizabeth’s sake? And how Lydia still lorded it over her sisters because she was the first one to be married, and you wanted to shake her until her eyes crossed because she just didn’t get it? Yeah. That.
^^”Oh, come on,” says my friend. “He’s a naturalist! He wrote lots of poems defending nature.” True, and I do appreciate Hardy’s anti-vivisectionist views. . . but in my opinion, nature may be red, in tooth and claw (thank you , Lord Tennyson), but it’s rarely clinically depressed. I’m just saying.
^^^Just as I scheduled this post, the doorbell rang, and I discovered a package from MacDougal Street Baby, with an ARC of Mary Jane Clark’s The Look of Love in it and one of her beautiful photograph cards. Thanks, MSB—that did the trick!