Satires of Circumstance, Thomas Hardy, 1914. A great book. “Channel Firing,” “The Convergence of the Twain,” “God’s Funeral,” “The Workbox.” The “Poems of 1912-13” sequence, for his deceased wife, and many more poems tracing their love affair and marriage from the beginning, decades earlier. Plenty of fun for the reader of Hardy’s novels, too, with lots of moments and characters that look familiar. The first poem, “In Front of the Landscape,” at times sounds like a tribute or farewell to Hardy’s characters:
Later images too did the day unfurl me,
Shadowed and sad,
Clay cadavers of those who had shared in the dramas,
Laid now at ease,
Passions all spent, chiefest the one of the broad brow
Although Hardy as likely meant real people, or a new set of imaginary people to kill off. The poems are full of the dead, full of graves, possibly even too many graves. The last two poems are set at graves. The last poem in the next-to-last section is set at Hardy’s grave, and he was alive.
“The Moth-Signal” is another Wessex poem. Just like in The Return of the Native, a moth (“the pale-winged token”) is used to signal a nighttime rendezvous, this time adulterous. The lovers do not know they are observed:
Then grinned the Ancient Briton
From the tumulus treed with pine:
‘So, hearts are thwartly smitten
In these days as mine!’ (ll. 33-6)
Ancient graves, new graves, graves everywhere. Two poems are about the graves of cats. In one of them, the cat is buried among other graves, ancient Roman ones:
‘Here say you that Caesar’s warriors lie? –
But my little white cat was my only friend!
Could she but live, might the record die
Of Caesar, his legions, his aims, his end!’ (ll. 17-20, “The Roman Gravemounds”)
“The Workbox” follows, with a carpenter making his wife a sewing box out of the scraps from a coffin:
‘The shingled pattern that seems to cease
Against your box’s rim
Continues right on in the piece
That’s underground with him.’ (ll. 13-16)
The wife is freaked out, perhaps by her husband’s placidity in the presence of death, possibly for other reasons. “The Workbox” is much-assigned to youngsters for mangling and explication, so a quick poke at the internet turned up lots of ideas I had never considered. Maybe the carpenter murdered the dead man. Maybe the wife murdered him. One of my favorites, regardless.
Hardly is brilliantly musical in this book, his “fulth of numbers freaked with musical closes” as he says in a tribute to and parody of Swinburne (“A Singer Asleep”), even if I have not given many such examples.
Between the folding sea-downs,
In the gloom
Of a wailful wintry nightfall,
When the boom
Of the ocean, like a hammering in a hollow tomb… (ll. 1-5, “The Re-enactment”)
O the opal and the sapphire of that wandering western sea,
And the woman riding high above with bright hair flapping free –
The woman whom I loved so, and who loyally loved me. (ll. 1-3, “Beeny Cliff,” )
Over the mirrors meant
To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls – grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent. (ll. 7-9, “The Convergence of the Twain”)
Looking ahead, Hardy’s poetry books stay pretty strong, don’t they? Surely not this strong.