Monday, December 2, 2013


Poetry can help us to appreciate the homely and the commonplace.  This is as it should be:  the homely and the commonplace World -- where we spend our days -- is also a miraculous and a wondrous World.  "Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is."  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Proposition 6.44 (translated by C. K. Ogden) (1922).

And thus we move from swedes and mangels to furniture, and to the poet laureate of furniture, Thomas Hardy.  William Blake sees the World in a Grain of Sand.  Hardy sees the World in aging furniture.

Dod Procter, "Kitchen at Myrtle Cottage" (c. 1930-1935)

Ghosts are matter-of-fact presences in Hardy's poetry.  They are seldom frightening or ominous, and they are often quite willing to carry on a casual conversation, or to simply linger about, minding their own business.

             The Garden Seat

Its former green is blue and thin,
And its once firm legs sink in and in;
Soon it will break down unaware,
Soon it will break down unaware.

At night when reddest flowers are black
Those who once sat thereon come back;
Quite a row of them sitting there,
Quite a row of them sitting there.

With them the seat does not break down,
Nor winter freeze them, nor floods drown,
For they are as light as upper air,
They are as light as upper air!

Thomas Hardy, Late Lyrics and Earlier, with Many Other Verses (1922).

"Quite a row of them sitting there" is very nice:  a bit of humor (perhaps), coupled with a gentle reminder.

Duncan Grant, "Girl at the Piano" (1940)

Though a piece of furniture may not be haunted, it may still carry revenants with it.  Memories tend to attach themselves to things, don't they?  The emotions aroused by bric-a-brac can be surprising.

     The Little Old Table

Creak, little wood thing, creak,
When I touch you with elbow or knee;
That is the way you speak
Of one who gave you to me!

You, little table, she brought --
Brought me with her own hand,
As she looked at me with a thought
That I did not understand.

-- Whoever owns it anon,
And hears it, will never know
What a history hangs upon
This creak from long ago.

Thomas Hardy, Ibid.

Harriet Backer, "By Lamplight" (1890)

The following poem brings to mind something a contemporary reviewer wrote of another poem by Hardy:

"There is no line, until you reach the last four, that stops you with its beauty; and you run through the beauty of the last four to reach the end; and then the beauty of the whole takes you and flows back through the whole poem."

Anonymous reviewer, Times Literary Supplement (June 1, 1922), quoted in Dennis Taylor, Hardy's Poetry, 1860-1928 (Columbia University Press 1981), page 2.  This is an extremely perceptive observation, and goes a long way towards increasing one's appreciation of Hardy's art.

                    Old Furniture

I know not how it may be with others
        Who sit amid relics of householdry
That date from the days of their mothers' mothers,
        But well I know how it is with me

I see the hands of the generations
        That owned each shiny familiar thing
In play on its knobs and indentations
        And with its ancient fashioning
                Still dallying:

Hands behind hands, growing paler and paler,
        As in a mirror a candle-flame
Shows images of itself, each frailer
        As it recedes, though the eye may frame
                Its shape the same.

On the clock's dull dial a foggy finger,
        Moving to set the minutes right
With tentative touches that lift and linger
        In the wont of a moth on a summer night,
                Creeps on my sight.

On this old viol, too, fingers are dancing --
        As whilom -- just over the strings by the nut,
The tip of a bow receding, advancing
        In airy quivers, as if it would cut
                The plaintive gut.

And I see a face by that box for tinder,
        Glowing forth in fits from the dark,
And fading again, as the linten cinder
        Kindles to red at the flinty spark,
                Or goes out stark.

Well, well.  It is best to be up and doing,
        The world has no use for one to-day
Who eyes things thus -- no aim pursuing!
        He should not continue in this stay,
                But sink away.

Thomas Hardy, Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (1917). "Whilom" (line 22) means "at some past time; some time before or ago; once upon a time."  OED.

I am very fond of "Well, well" in the final stanza, just as I am very fond of "Well, well!" in the final stanza of "The Going":

        Well, well!  All's past amend,
        Unchangeable.  It must go.
I seem but a dead man held on end
To sink down soon. . . . O you could not know
        That such swift fleeing
        No soul foreseeing --
Not even I -- would undo me so!

C. H. H. Burleigh
"The Burleigh Family Taking Tea at Wilbury Crescent, Hove" (1947)


Bovey Belle said...

Ah, you are talking to the queen of the 2nd hand, here!, so I get Hardy's drift absolutely perfectly. I even buy things - not just furniture - because they seem to "speak" to me or even, ahem, because I feel sorry for them. I guess I have a romantic soul, although I will claim to a certain empathic talent.

I love the Hardy poems, as truly, he understood what old pieces of furniture (and belongings generally) hold and communicate to the present. The number of times I have touched a table or a cupboard, and thought, if only it could talk.

My favourite lines - "I see the hands of the generations, That owned each shiny familiar thing" and "Hands behind hands, growing paler and paler, As in a mirror a candle-flame . . ." Of course, he was looking at pieces of furniture handed down through generations of Hardys, but each old piece of furniture carries a history and gains yet more layers of memories in its new home.

By the way, why can I NEVER find these best of poems in my big thick book of all Hardy's poems? My hand seems stayed by other of his words.

Mark said...

Thanks for this. I'd never read Hardy for the furniture; now I will. Hardy's the man.

As for furniture and poetry, I always think also of Larkin's "Home Is So Sad":

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft

And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.

"You can see how it was . . .That vase" [UK: vahz for the rhyme] is the inimitable touch.

Frost once spoke warmly as to the furniture in "In the Home Stretch" ("Mountain Interval," 1916). In a 28 December 1916 letter to Philip Sherman (professor of English at Oberlin), he wrote:

"Thanks for the warmth of your letter, and thanks for knowing so well how to take me. It’s by what you put your finger on that you show your understanding. Some people think we mention stoves and telephone poles and kitchen sinks and wallpaper just to see what we can lug into poetry, but we mention them because they haunt us with old memories and for no other reason. Isn’t that so?"

Some sixteen lines of "In the Home Stretch" are devoted to the stove. The wall-paper, kitchen sink, and telephone poles figure in other poems from "A Mountain Interval."


Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: ah! -- being a visitor of your blog, I can understand why these poems are meant for you. The past and its inhabitants were always present for Hardy, weren't they?

As for not finding certain poems by Hardy: I always have the same feeling when I read him. I am continually discovering wonderful new poems and saying to myself: "Why haven't I seen this before!" But I am determined to read all of them by hook or by crook.

As ever, thank you very much for visiting, and for your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mark: thank you very much for "Home Is So Sad": it is perfect in this context. I have always loved "A joyous shot at how things ought to be,/Long fallen wide."

And thank you as well for the reference to "In the Home Stretch" and for the wonderful passage from Frost's letter, which I hadn't seen before: I won't forget it. And now I must revisit A Mountain Interval as well.

Again, thank you very much: I appreciate your taking the time to share these connections.

Julie Whitmore Pottery said...

Stephen, A moving post. Hardy did look back with such longing, and the physical things seemed to provide quick conveyance there, a carriage ride to his past! I have trouble giving even my grandmothers worn old dish towels to the Goodwill, so much I can see her delicate hands rubbing down a china plate with it after a good dousing in scalding soapy water. All the while humming 'Beautiful Dreamer' or telling grandpa he missed a spot again. So here Hardy has pierced my heart again, as he always does.

Stephen Pentz said...

Julie: thank you. I'm pleased you liked the post.

As you probably know, Hardy once wrote (I am paraphrasing from memory) that he could quite clearly see in his mind's-eye incidents that occurred in his life 40 or more years earlier. And one of the things that always strikes me in many of the accounts of people who met him is their mentioning of his gaze (not in an aggressive sense) and his watchfulness. More than a few mention that it was almost as if he could see into the past -- even the ancient past.

I think that this accounts for much of the impact of both his poetry and his fiction: he has looked into, and seen into, things very deeply. And these "furniture poems" are one instance of this.

And, at the same time, he is recounting feelings that we all have had -- as you mention in your comment and as Bovey Belle mentioned in her comment. This is what makes Hardy great.

I always appreciate hearing from you. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to Mark's comment, I have just read Frost's "In the Home Stretch" for the first time. I might never have come upon it, and I'm very glad I did. I see something of myself in the woman.
Now I'll read all the poems in "Mountain Interval".

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: I visited it as well after reading Mark's comment. I feel that I haven't given Frost's longer narrative poems the time they deserve. I love these lines in "In the Home Stretch": "It would take me forever to recite/All that's not new in where we find ourselves." Well, well.

As ever, thank you for visiting. Happy holidays!