Friday, October 21, 2016

there are strange strange things in being - Hardy's Moments of Visions

Byron’s poems of 1816 would be the next logical post, but I need to reread them.  It was a big year for him.

So, to something different, something I just read, a book from a century later, Thomas Hardy’s Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (1917).  Maybe I should stick to badly remembered Byron, though, because I do not feel I read Moments of Vision well.  The poems are, in general, too good.  Good poem after good poem, page after page.  The verse forms vary, the subject matter varies, the tone varies.  Yet some bad poems would have helped me see the better ones.

A code contains a bundle of political poems, tossed off for the war effort or refugee relief, with titles like “An Appeal to America on Behalf of the Belgian Destitute.”  These poems are weak enough that when I came to “In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’” I could see it for what it was:

Only a man harrowing clods
  In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
  Half asleep as they stalk.

Only thin smoke without flame
  From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
  Though dynasties pass.

Yonder a maid and her wight
  Come whispering by:
War’s annals will cloud into night
  Ere their story die.

And I call Hardy a pessimist!  This is about the cheeriest thing I have ever seen from him, an “earth abides” sentiment.

The main body of poems include a number about the courtship and early years of Hardy’s first marriage, a look back to the 1870s, but not in a way that creates a narrative, but rather a lot of movement in time.  Plenty of poems could be versified bits of theoretical Hardy novels. “The Head above the Fog,” for example, is exactly the kind of image I most enjoy in his fiction:

    Something I do see
Above the fog that sheets the mead,
A figure like to life indeed,
Moving along with spectre-speed,
    Seen by none but me.

The approaching woman, “[m]ere ghostly head as it skims along,” is either the woman the poet loves or her ghost – with just a head, and “hat and plume above / The evening fog-fleece” it is hard to tell.  Scene, or memory of a scene?

“Midnight on the Great Western” is another vivid poem:

In the band of his hat a journeying boy
        Had a ticket stuck; and a string
Around his neck bore the key of his box,
That twinkled gleams of the lamp’s sad beams
                Like a living thing.

Why it’s Little Father Time from Jude the Obscure!  Run for your life!  No, here he is just a boy taking a train trip by himself, “[b]ewrapt past knowing to what he was going.”

I was struck by “He Prefers Her Earthly” in part because I had just read Shelley’s “Alastor,” where a real woman is rejected for an ideal.  The narrator of this poem knows that is foolishness.  He sees a lost love in a sunset – presumably she is dead:

This after-sunset is a sight for seeing,
Cliff-heads of craggy cloud surrounding it.
    – And dwell you in that glory-show?
You may; for there are strange strange things in being,
                Stranger than I know.

But however beautiful or perfect she may be as a “firmament-riding earthly essence,” he wishes she were here, now, “as the one you were.”

If I were serious about Hardy, I would write a squib about each poem, as my only hope at remembering them.


  1. It's always a pleasure to read Hardy's better moms, and there are so many. Full of clarity, maturity and simplicity. “In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’” reminds me of a riff on the same subject by Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, who learned much from Hardy.
    I have lived in important places, times
    When great events were decided, who owned
    That half a rood of rock, a no-man's land
    Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
    I heard the Duffys shouting "Damn your soul!"
    And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
    Step the plot defying blue cast-steel -
    "Here is the march along these iron stones."
    That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
    Was more important? I inclined
    To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
    Till Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind.
    He said: I made the Iliad from such
    A local row. Gods make their own importance.

  2. Ooh, that's good, thanks. "the year of the Munich bother" - very funny.