Sunday, May 14, 2017

All with a sense of the ridiculous, keen yet charitable - Thomas Hardy's Human Shows

Thomas Hardy’s Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs, and Trifles (1925) is the second of the three books Hardy wrote and assembled in his eighties.  It is almost exactly like the first one, Late Lyrics and Earlier, with Many Other Verses (1922).  There are a few poems, polished up, I assume, originating in the 1860s, a few from later in the 19th century, a few about Hardy’s first wife, a few about the war.  Mostly, though, the poems were written since the last book.  (These last two sentences describe both collections, and I bet will work for Hardy’s last book, Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres (1928) as well.

The verse is all formal, and in a variety of forms, with lots of surprising line breaks and line lengths, lots for the eye and ear to do.  The subjects are failed love affairs, graces, and music.  Some Wessex, some London.  Two poems are narrated by dogs, which I believe is a new touch:

‘Why She Moved House’

          (The Dog Muses)

Why she moved house, without a word,
    I cannot understand;
She’d mirrors, flowers, she’d book and bird,
    And callers in a band.

And where she is she gets no sun,
    No flowers, no book, no glass;
Of callers I am the only one,
    And I but pause and pass.

In his “Introductory Note” to his next book, Hardy complains about critics missing the “flippant, not to say farcical pieces in this collection [meaning Human Shows],” although he will not say they had “wilfully misrepresented the book… knowing well that they could not have read it,” which seems like a wise guess about a lot of criticism.

Anyway, there is a lot of humor in Human Shows, of the human folly type:

All with a sense of the ridiculous, keen yet charitable;
In brief, a rich, profuse attractiveness unnarratable.

This is from “A Watering-place Lady Inventoried,” which as the title suggests is satirical, although of whom, I wonder, given these lines:

Till a cynic would find her amiability provoking,
Tempting him to indulge in mean and wicked joking.

A six-poem sequence of winter poems was a highlight for me, winters from the 1920s, winters from the past:

    The steps are a blanched slope,
    Up which, with feeble hope,
A black cat comes, wide-eyed and thin;
        And we take him in.  (from “Snow in the Suburbs”)

Come to think of it, there is more love of animals in this collection than usual, including a poem written to support the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  Here’s more snow:

The snow-feathers so gently swoop that though
            But half an hour ago
The road was brown, and now is starkly white,
A watcher would have failed defining quite
            When it was transformed so.  (from “A Light Snow-fall after Frost”)

And how about one that ends, to remind me that this is Hardy, with a long-ago death:

While she who grieved
At the sad lot
Of her pretty plants –
Cold, iced, forgot –
Herself is colder,
And knows it not.  (from “The Frozen Greenhouse”)

If I were assembling a long selection of Hardy’s poems, I would include lots from Human Shows; if a short selection, possibly none, since I would have already picked plenty of similar poems from earlier books.  Here, said Hardy, have more, which from a man his age was a gift.


  1. I have to say, "callers in a band" seems an odd phrase, though maybe it's perfectly natural to Brits. And my inner twelve-year-old wanted to change "And I but pause and pass" to make it an off-rhyme (though that would probably just be spelling out Hardy's naughty implication in "pause").

  2. "Callers in a band" - the Beatles would occasionally drop by.

    I was a little surprised by the dog leaving his mark. But even Victorian Hardy was among the more earthy Victorians.

  3. Being a big fan of maudlin and corny things, I once planned an anthology of poetic epitaphs to be culled from the Greek Anthology, Hardy, Housman, Lee Masters, Victor Hugo, Heine, Silvina Ocampo...
    Silvina Ocampo? Yes, Silvina Ocampo:

    Epitaph of a shipwrecked man.

    I haven't dreamed of shipwrecks in ages,
    I'll never have to forget this one. Dark
    Is the water of dreams, cold and hard.
    Tomorrow I will be afraid of presages.

    Epitafio de un náufrago.

    Este es mi primer sueño con naufragios,
    no tendré que olvidarlo nunca. Oscura
    es el agua de los sueños, fría y dura.
    Mañana tendré miedo de presagios

  4. That's good stuff. That's a good idea for a book.