Sunday, March 19, 2017

The grimful glee of Hardy's Later Lyrics

Late Lyrics and Earlier, with Many Other Verses (1922) by Thomas Hardy, his sixth book of lyric poems.  Hardy was something like eighty-two years old.  “Late lyrics” means written since his last book, Moments of Vision from 1917; “earlier” means written before that, mostly in the 1910s; “many other” seems logically redundant and means I know not what.

For context, 1922 is the year of The Waste-Land and Trilce and just a bit before Spring and All, Tulips and Chimneys, and The Duino Elegies.  Hardy has nothing to do with that stuff.  This book has two basic modes, one purely lyric, one narrative – maybe those are the “others.”  All Hardy poems, much like earlier Hardy poems.

The lyric mode is at this point as song-like as Hardy has ever been.  Many poems seem intended to lend themselves to music, perhaps existing hymns or folksongs.  Many are in some way about music, a theme that runs through the book:

from “The Curtains Now Are Drawn”

    I stand here in the rain,
    With its smite upon her stone,
    And the grasses that have grown
    Over women, children, men,
    And their texts that ‘Life is vain’;
    But I hear the notes as when
        Once she sang to me:
‘O the dream that thou art my Love, be it thine,
And the dream that I am thy Love, be it mine,
And death may come, but loving is divine.’

That is the second stanza; the woman is of course alive in the first.  Hardy poems are full of graves.  These have more singing and playing.  Benjamin Britten picked out “At the Railway Station, Upway” for his Winter Words song settings(1953), in which a boy fiddler at a train station plays a tune that causes a funny reaction in another man on the platform:

    The man in the handcuffs smiled;
The constable looked, and he smiled, too,
    As the fiddle began to twang;
And the man in handcuffs suddenly sang
                With grimful glee:
                ‘This life so free
                Is the thing for me!’
And the constable smiles and said no word
As if unconscious of what he heard;
And so they went on till the train came in
The convict, and boy with the violin.

Again, that is the second stanza.  The first is entirely about the boy.  The convict and constable are introduced as we see here, and a little story pops out, the music mixing with the narrative.

“Grimful glee” is a good description of a number of Hardy stories, including many in this book, narrative poems with plots that could easily have found their way into a theoretical Hardy novel, if he had not given up prose fiction twenty-five years earlier.  “The Chapel-Organist,” for example, in which a sexually promiscuous woman finally offends the church elders to the point that she won’t be allowed to play the organ anymore; she poisons herself and dies at the climax of her final performance.  Ludicrous but Hardy has a way of making the ludicrous tragic.

Another hilarious one, where I almost wish there were a novel, is “A Woman’s Fancy.”  A woman visiting a spa town is mistaken for the runaway wife of a man who just died.  They think she has returned out of guilt.  Because no one will believe her denials, and everyone talks to her about nothing but how pitiful her husband was, she falls in love with him – the dead man – and begins visiting his grave with “a bereaved wife’s sorrow.”  At the end of the poem, she is buried with him – “’Call me by his name on the stone!’”

The last poem in the book, “Surview,” has the poet hearing his own voice in a fire.  The fire chides him for betraying his ideals, and then dies:

    And the sticks burnt low, and the fire went out,
        And my voice ceased talking to me.

Those are the last lines of the book.  I suppose every book had to be thought of as the last one, the dying of the fire.  Hardy would publish one more book of poems and have another ready when he died.