Sunday, March 25, 2012

"When Oats Were Reaped"

The delights of Thomas Hardy's poetry are inexhaustible.  First, given that he wrote so many poems (the 1976 Macmillan edition of his complete poems contains 947), one is likely to encounter a previously unread poem when opening a volume of his poems at random.  Second, one is also likely to discover something fresh when returning to a poem one knows.  This may be due to having failed to pay sufficient attention the first time around, and/or to reading the poem after the passage of time, which may change the way you look at it.

I have read the following poem a few times over the years, but I fear that I let much of it pass me by in the past.  On the surface, it may be viewed as a sly commentary on the proverbial phrase "sowing one's wild oats."  To wit: we usually reap what we sow.  It is just the sort of irony that Hardy was wont to fasten upon.  But beneath the ostensibly simple surface a great deal of artifice is at work.

                James McIntosh Patrick, "Stobo Kirk, Peeblesshire" (1936)

                         When Oats Were Reaped

That day when oats were reaped, and wheat was ripe, and barley ripening,
     The road-dust hot, and the bleaching grasses dry,
          I walked along and said,
While looking just ahead to where some silent people lie:

'I wounded one who's there, and now know well I wounded her;
     But, ah, she does not know that she wounded me!'
          And not an air stirred,
Nor a bill of any bird; and no response accorded she.

Thomas Hardy, Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs and Trifles (1925).

Of course, there is the sound.  In line 1: "reaped . . . ripe . . . ripening."  In line 5: "wounded one . . . well . . . wounded."  The rhyming of "said" at the end of line 3 with "ahead" in the middle of line 4.  And a repeat of that rhyming technique with "stirred" at the end of line 7 and "bird" in the middle of line 8.

Then there are the fine phrases.  In line 4, Hardy refers to a place up ahead "where some silent people lie."  Why did he not simply call it a "cemetery" or a "graveyard"?  (Assuming that a rhyme could be found.)  First, because, for Hardy (both in his life and in his art), the dead are never really dead, but are always with us.  Second, because the silence of these people -- and of this person in particular -- is crucial to the poem: "no response accorded she."

I love the "ah" in line 6: "But, ah, she does not know that she wounded me!" Read the line without the "ah" and see if it makes a difference.  I also like the ambiguity of the line (and, thus, of the poem as a whole).  (Although perhaps it is just me being slow on the uptake that makes it seem ambiguous.)  Is the speaker relieved that the dead woman never had to suffer guilt or grief for having wounded him, and now sleeps in peace? Or, is the speaker perturbed because the dead woman never had to suffer guilt or grief for having wounded him, and now sleeps in peace?

                       James McIntosh Patrick, "Autumn, Kinnordy" (1936)

6 comments:

William A. Sigler said...

Ah, yes, and I think there is even more artful ambiguity than you suggest. “Looking just ahead” may not just be a physical view, but a mental idea, and “where silent people lie” may not be a graveyard, but an uncommunicative state-of-mind (also note the pun on lie). In the second stanza, “no response accorded she” is an odd phrasing; it seems more to mean the speaker did not respond to the woman than the woman did not respond to the speaker. Maybe the speaker is upset because he did not have the last word, or didn’t clarify things, or just let her fly the coop. The gap between people widens on both sides in this lovely little poem.

Fred said...

Stephen,

That first line is intriguing, isn't it? The three verbs convey a sense of time passing or is it time stationary with past, present, and future brought together.

were reaped--past
was ripe--ready for reaping now
ripening--future

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Sigler: thanks for stopping by, and for your thoughts. I understand your interpretation, but I am also mindful of the fact that Hardy wrote the poem in 1913, after the death of his first wife, Emma.

Although "When Oats Were Reaped" was not included in his "Poems of 1912-1913," which were his response to her death, I think that the person addressed in the poem is Emma. I cannot claim to have arrived at this conclusion on my own: J. O. Bailey relates the poem to Emma, and, more particularly, to a visit Hardy made to Stinsford Churchyard, where she is buried. Some think that Bailey's factual certainty may lack sufficient evidence, but I do think that Emma is the "wounded" woman.

This does not, of course, invalidate your take on things. But it is something to bear in mind.

With respect to "no response accorded she": the OED includes "to give, bestow, award" as a possible meaning of "accord." This makes sense to me. It may also be consistent with a certain stubbornness in Emma's character. (Not that Hardy did not possess his own share of stubbornness, of course.)

Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: yes, that is a wonderful progression, isn't it? Given Hardy's preoccupation with time/Time, what you say makes perfect sense. (And what he writes sounds beautiful in the bargain!)

As always, thank you very much for visiting.

Rick's wife said...

I've just been reading Auden's "Making, Knowing, Judging," in The Dyer's Hand, in which he mentions that Thomas Hardy was his "first Master."

Stephen Pentz said...

Rick's wife: thank you very much for the reference to Auden and Hardy -- I wasn't aware of Auden's comment, and it is nice to know. As you are probably aware, Larkin attributed his escape from the spell of Yeats to his discovery of Hardy. Edward Thomas was likewise quite fond of Hardy. For all of its eccentricities, Hardy's poetry is, I think, still essential reading.

Thank you for visiting again. Your new blog is lovely -- I was happy to see it arrive, given Goethe Etc's "vacation."