Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Life Explained, Part Seventeen: "And Still The Interrogation Is Going On"

The following poem by Edwin Muir (1887-1959) has its origin in an incident that took place in post-World War II Czechoslovakia.  At the time, Muir was serving as the director of the British Council in Prague.  In much of his poetry, Muir portrayed life as having an underlying mythic timelessness about it.  Thus, this poem seems to suggest more than a simple encounter with border guards.

                           The Interrogation

We could have crossed the road but hesitated,
And then came the patrol;
The leader conscientious and intent,
The men surly, indifferent.
While we stood by and waited
The interrogation began.  He says the whole
Must come out now, who, what we are,
Where we have come from, with what purpose, whose
Country or camp we plot for or betray.
Question on question.
We have stood and answered through the standing day
And watched across the road beyond the hedge
The careless lovers in pairs go by,
Hand linked in hand, wandering another star,
So near we could shout to them.  We cannot choose
Answer or action here,
Though still the careless lovers saunter by
And the thoughtless field is near.
We are on the very edge,
Endurance almost done,
And still the interrogation is going on.

Edwin Muir, The Labyrinth (1949).

                              Tristram Hillier, "Barns in Winter" (1943)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Three Versions Of Wang Wei: "I Close My Brushwood Door In Solitude"

When reading traditional Chinese poetry, I am always aware of the fact that, because I do not know Chinese, I am dependent upon translations.  Translations into English of T'ang Dynasty poetry often, I think, create a deceptive impression of simplicity and casualness.  For instance, in most translations the poetry tends to look and sound like free verse.  However, much of the poetry of the T'ang period (and of other periods) is in fact highly structured, being subject to rules relating to metre, rhyme, voice tone, and, in some cases, grammatical parallelism.

With those considerations in mind, here are three different versions of an 8-line poem by Wang Wei (c. 701-761).

     Living in the Hills: Impromptu Verses

I close my brushwood door in solitude
And face the vast sky as late sunlight falls.
The pine trees:  cranes are nesting all around.
My wicker gate:  a visitor seldom calls.
The tender bamboo's dusted with fresh powder.
Red lotuses strip off their former bloom.
Lamps shine out at the ford, and everywhere
The water-chestnut pickers wander home.

Vikram Seth (translator), Three Chinese Poets (1992).

              Majorie Hayes, "Stone Built Watermill, Somerset" (1934)

          A Picture of Mountain Life

In quietness I close my firewood gate.
A whitish immensity faces the dropping sun.
In every pine are nesting cranes
yet no one comes by my cottage.
Tender bamboos have new bloom on them.
Red lotuses have shed old clothes.
On the bay, lamps and bonfires shine.
Water chestnut pickers are coming home.

Tony Barnstone, Willis Barnstone, and Xu Haixin (translators), Laughing Lost in the Mountains: Poems of Wang Wei (1991).

                                                     Majorie Hayes
                                    "Two Houses in the Woods" (1945)

     Dwelling in the Mountains: Impromptu Lines

In solitude I close my brushwood gate,
In the vast expanse, facing lowering light.
Cranes nest in pine trees all around;
Men visiting my wicker gate are few.
Tender bamboos hold new powder,
And red lotuses shed old clothes.
At the ford lantern fires are lit:
Everywhere water chestnut pickers come home.

Pauline Yu (translator), The Poetry of Wang Wei (1980).

For more in this vein, I recommend Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei: How a Chinese Poem Is Translated (1987) by Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz.  In the book, the authors look at 19 translations of "Deer Park," one of Wang Wei's best-known poems.  It is ostensibly a "simple" 4-line poem.  This is Vikram Seth's translation:

                 Deer Park

Empty hills, no man in sight --
Just echoes of the voice of men.
In the deep wood reflected light
Shines on the blue-green moss again.

               Majorie Hayes, "Cottage and Pond, Abergeveny" (1944)

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Hospital Poems, Part 4: "And The Saved Man Goes Home"

Here is a hospital poem by James Reeves, one of my neglected poets.  Whether this poem is light or dark or deep or shallow I have never been able to decide.  (Which no doubt means that I am very slow on the uptake.)

                    Discharged From Hospital

He stands upon the steps and fronts the morning.
The porter has called a taxi, and behind him
The infirmary doors have swung and come to rest.
Physician, surgeon, and anaesthetist
Have exercised their skill and he is cured.
The rabelaisian sister with the bedpan,
The vigorous masseuse, the sensual nurse
Who washes him modestly beneath a blanket,
The dawn chorus of cleaners, the almoner,
The visiting clergyman -- all proceed without him.
He is alone beyond all need of them,
And the saved man goes home, to die of health.

James Reeves, The Questioning Tiger (1964).

                 Charles Mahoney (1903-1968), "Still Life With Celery"

Thursday, June 23, 2011

"How Sordid Is This Crowded Life"

My previous post about the poetry of Ryokan and Wang Wei brought to mind a poem by W. H. Davies (1871-1940).  Davies's poetry is mostly forgotten now, but his work was praised by the likes of Edward Thomas.  (Thomas provided financial assistance to Davies, even though Thomas's own finances were always precarious.  They became friends, and Davies wrote "Killed in Action (Edward Thomas)" after Thomas's death in 1917.)  Davies's style is perhaps quaint by "modern" standards, but there are gems to be found in his work.          

       How Sordid Is This Crowded Life

How sordid is this crowded life, its spite
And envy, the unkindness brought to light:
It makes me think of those great modest hearts
That spend their quiet lives in lonely parts,
In deserts, hills and woods; and pass away
Judged by a few, or none, from day to day.
And O that I were free enough to dwell
In their great spaces for a while; until
The dream-like life of such a solitude
Has forced my tongue to cry 'Hallo!' aloud --
To make an echo from the silence give
My voice back with the knowledge that I live.

W. H. Davies, Complete Poems (1963).

Davies (who was a sociable fellow) suggests that, in the end, a life of retreat might be too much for him.  In this regard, Ryokan, who lived in his hut for 25 years, is forthright in his depiction of such a life, and faithfully records both the good and the bad.  But his contentment, I think, underlies everything he wrote.

The vicissitudes of this world are like the movements of the clouds.
Fifty years of life are nothing but one long dream.
Sparse rain:  in my desolate hermitage at night,
Quietly I clutch my robe and lean against the empty window.

John Stevens (translator), One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryokan (1977).

                    Robin Tanner, "The Gamekeeper's Cottage" (1928)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

"Stop Chasing After So Many Things": Ryokan And Wang Wei

When I am in need of a sense of perspective, I often turn to the poetry of Ryokan (1758-1831) or Wang Wei (c. 701-761).  Ryokan was a Zen monk who lived much of his life in a hut in the wooded hills near the coast of the Sea of Japan.  (Present-day Niigata Prefecture.)  He is one of the most beloved of Japanese poets, valued for his humility, his simplicity, and his integrity.

My hut lies in the middle of a dense forest;
Every year the green ivy grows longer.
No news of the affairs of men,
Only the occasional song of a woodcutter.
The sun shines and I mend my robe;
When the moon comes out I read Buddhist poems.
I have nothing to report, my friends.
If you want to find the meaning, stop chasing after so many things.

John Stevens (translator), One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryokan (1977). 

        John Nash, "Cornfield at Wiston-by-Nayland, Suffolk" (c. 1932)

Wang Wei was one of the four great poets of the Chinese T'ang Dynasty.  (The others are Po Chu-i, Li Po, and Tu Fu.)  He was also an artist and a musician.  Like most of the T'ang poets, he served as a government official.  He was a devout Buddhist, and this is reflected in his poetry.  This may explain the affinities between his poetry and that of Ryokan.

     In Answer to Vice-Magistrate Zhang

Late in my life I only care for quiet.
A million pressing tasks, I let them go.
I look at myself; I have no long range plans.
To go back to the forest is all I know.
Pine breeze:  I ease my belt.  Hill moon:  I strum
My lute.  You ask -- but I can say no more
About success or failure than the song
The fisherman sings, which comes to the deep shore.

Vikram Seth (translator), Three Chinese Poets (1992).

               John Nash, "Cop (Kop) Hill, Princes Risborough" (1919)

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Philip Larkin On Thomas Hardy: "One Reader At Least Would Not Wish Hardy's Collected Poems A Single Page Shorter"

Philip Larkin said on more than one occasion that his discovery of Thomas Hardy's poetry was a turning point in the writing of his own poetry.  Prior to that time, Larkin's poetry was marked by the influence of Auden and Yeats.  But Hardy's impact on Larkin was not a matter of style.  (Even those of us who love Hardy's poetry must concede that his idiosyncratic style is not amenable to imitation.)

Instead, what drew Larkin to Hardy's poetry was its content.  In a BBC Radio 4 talk given in 1968, Larkin said:

I don't think Hardy, as a poet, is a poet for young people.  I know it sounds ridiculous to say I wasn't young at twenty-five or twenty-six, but at least I was beginning to find out what life was about, and that's precisely what I found in Hardy.  In other words, I'm saying that what I like about him primarily is his temperament and the way he sees life.  He's not a transcendental writer, he's not a Yeats, he's not an Eliot; his subjects are men, the life of men, time and the passing of time, love and the fading of love.
. . . . . . . . . .
When I came to Hardy it was with the sense of relief that I didn't have to try and jack myself up to a concept of poetry that lay outside my own life -- this is perhaps what I felt Yeats was trying to make me do.  One could simply relapse back into one's own life and write from it.  Hardy taught one to feel rather than to write -- of course one has to use one's own language and one's own jargon and one's own situations -- and he taught one as well to have confidence in what one felt.  I have come, I think, to admire him even more than I did then.

Philip Larkin, "The Poetry of Hardy," in Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982 (Faber and Faber 1983), pages 175-176.

                   Evelyn Dunbar, "The Queue at the Fish Shop" (1944)

Larkin also addresses the issue of the volume of Hardy's poetic output.  The Macmillan edition of Hardy's poetry (published in 1976 and edited by James Gibson) contains 947 poems.  (I did not count them!  They are numbered.)  This vast expanse can be daunting.  But I am in complete agreement with Larkin (he was writing in response to two critical studies of Hardy that were, he thought, improperly dismissive of Hardy's poetry):

To these two gentlemen . . . may I trumpet the assurance that one reader at least would not wish Hardy's Collected Poems a single page shorter, and regards it as many times over the best body of poetic work this century so far has to show?

Philip Larkin, "Wanted: Good Hardy Critic" (1966), in Required Writing, page 174.

I have been plugging away at Hardy's poems for decades, and it may be vain to hope that I will be able to read them all.  But I will not give up the attempt.  Larkin is correct (as he said in his BBC talk):  "I like him because he wrote so much. . . . One can read him for years and years and still be surprised."  I have been visiting Hardy recently, and I came upon the following surprise (unknown to me till now).

                         Nobody Comes

     Tree-leaves labour up and down,
          And through them the fainting light
          Succumbs to the crawl of night.
     Outside in the road the telegraph wire
          To the town from the darkening land
Intones to travellers like a spectral lyre
          Swept by a spectral hand.

     A car comes up, with lamps full-glare,
          That flash upon a tree:
          It has nothing to do with me,
     And whangs along in a world of its own,
          Leaving a blacker air;
And mute by the gate I stand again alone,
          And nobody pulls up there.

   9 October 1924

Thomas Hardy, Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs and Trifles (1925).  The date at the end of the poem was included by Hardy in the original printing.

                  Evelyn Dunbar, "A Land Girl and the Bail Bull" (1945)

Friday, June 17, 2011

"So Many Summers, And I Have Lived Them Too"

The solstice soon arrives.  Although it brings summer, and long bright evenings, there is a sense of a larger shift in things.  Today I noticed that a few green leaves had fallen to the ground beneath a tall, healthy maple.  But enough!  "There will be dying, there will be dying,/but there is no need to go into that."  (Derek Mahon, "Everything Is Going To Be All Right," from Poems 1962-1978.)     

                    So Many Summers

Beside one loch, a hind's neat skeleton,
Beside another, a boat pulled high and dry:
Two neat geometries drawn in the weather:
Two things already dead and still to die.

I passed them every summer, rod in hand,
Skirting the bright blue or the spitting gray,
And, every summer, saw how the bleached timbers
Gaped wider and the neat ribs fell away.

Time adds one malice to another one --
Now you'd look very close before you knew
If it's the boat that ran, the hind went sailing.
So many summers, and I have lived them too.

Norman MacCaig, Collected Poems (1990).

                                 Eilif Peterssen, "Summer Night" (1886)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

"Arrivals, Departures"

The cruise ship season has begun again.  Out on Puget Sound, the huge, brilliantly-lit ships leave for Canada and Alaska in the evening.  A week or so later, they return at dawn.  Their glow is reflected on the water.  If the wind is right, festive music comes ashore.  And what might Philip Larkin have to do with this light-hearted scene?

                         Arrivals, Departures

This town has docks where channel boats come sidling;
Tame water lanes, tall sheds, the traveller sees
(His bag of samples knocking at his knees),
And hears, still under slackened engines gliding,
His advent blurted to the morning shore.

And we, barely recalled from sleep there, sense
Arrivals lowing in a doleful distance --
Horny dilemmas at the gate once more.
Come and choose wrong, they cry, come and choose wrong;
And so we rise.  At night again they sound,

Calling the traveller now, the outward bound:
O not for long, they cry, O not for long --
And we are nudged from comfort, never knowing
How safely we may disregard their blowing,
Or if, this night, happiness too is going.

Philip Larkin, The Less Deceived (1955).

                                          Eric Ravilious, "Pilot Boat"

Monday, June 13, 2011

"Delicate Grasses"

I cross a field on my daily walk.  In that field I have worn a path.  Six months ago I was walking the path on a cold afternoon when suddenly a curtain of snow swept across it off of Puget Sound.  The wild grasses were grey and fallen.  I was deep in a wintry Robert Frost mood at that time, and I remember thinking of lines from his "Desert Places":  "Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast/In a field I looked into going past."

Now, near summer, the grasses in the field are four to five feet high in places.  I have to search to find my old path through the swaying stalks.  It brings back memories of walking down rustling rows of tall corn in Minnesota when I was young.

                    Delicate Grasses

Delicate grasses blowing in the wind,
grass out of cracks among tiered seats of stone
where a Greek theatre swarmed with audience,
till Time's door shut upon
the stir, the eloquence.

A hawk waiting above the enormous plain,
lying upon the nothing of the air,
a hawk who turns at some sky-wave or lull
this way, and after there
as dial needles prowl.

Cool water jetting from a drinking fountain
in crag-lands, miles from any peopled spot,
year upon year with its indifferent flow;
sound that is and is not;
the wet stone trodden low.

There is no name for such strong liberation;
I drift their way; I need what their world lends;
then, chilled by one thought further still than those,
I swerve towards life and friends
before the trap-fangs close.

Bernard Spencer, With Luck Lasting (1963).

                         Peter Christian Skovgaard, "Oat Field" (1843)

Saturday, June 11, 2011

How To Live, Part Seven: "I Kept My Answers Small And Kept Them Near . . . I Let The Stars Assume The Whole Of Night"

In the following poem, Elizabeth Jennings speaks of "small answers" and "big answers."  Perhaps I have grown old and jaded (by the antics of humanity, my own included), but I prefer small answers.  How tiresome to seek The Meaning Of Life!  It is enough for one lifetime to struggle (emphasis on the struggle) to conduct oneself in a thoughtful, kind, and honorable manner.  Oblivion will come in due time, with or without an Explanation.   (I fear that I am starting to sound like Philip Larkin or Thomas Hardy.)

A remark by Ludwig Wittgenstein in the preface to his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus comes to mind:  "What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must consign to silence."  I think that the whole Meaning Of Life business is one of the things that must be consigned to silence.


I kept my answers small and kept them near;
Big questions bruised my mind but still I let
Small answers be a bulwark to my fear.

The huge abstractions I kept from the light;
Small things I handled and caressed and loved.
I let the stars assume the whole of night.

But the big answers clamoured to be moved
Into my life.  Their great audacity
Shouted to be acknowledged and believed.

Even when all small answers build up to
Protection of my spirit, still I hear
Big answers striving for their overthrow

And all the great conclusions coming near.

Elizabeth Jennings, A Way of Looking (1955).

                   James Bateman, "Haytime in the Cotswolds" (1939)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

No Escape, Part Ten: "Angle Of Vision"

In previous installments of "No Escape," we have seen some opine that, rather than pursuing the longed-for (but ever-elusive) Ideal Place, we should simply look around us.  The following poem does not necessarily say that where we are is, in fact, the Ideal Place, but it does suggest that Right Here is not without interest.

                       Angle of Vision

But, John, have you seen the world, said he,
Trains and tramcars and sixty-seaters,
Cities in lands across the sea --
Giotto's tower and the dome of St. Peter's?

No, but I've seen the arc of the earth,
From the Birsay shore, like the edge of a planet,
And the lifeboat plunge through the Pentland Firth
To a cosmic tide with the men that man it.

Robert Rendall, Shore Poems (1957).

Robert Rendall (1898-1967) lived most of his life in Kirkwall, Orkney.  He was in the drapery business, but he also wrote poetry and painted.  He was a conchologist whose Mollusca Orcadensia was published in 1956.  I found "Angle of Vision" in  The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse -- yet another discovery by the ever-diligent, ever-reliable Philip Larkin.

                                      The Broch of Gurness, Orkney

A "broch" is a stone tower that served as a dwelling.  Rendall discovered the Broch of Gurness in 1929 while he was out sketching.  At that time, the area was simply a large earth mound.  One of the legs of the stool on which Rendall was sitting sank into the ground.  He turned over a few stones and came upon a staircase which led down into the mound.  Excavations were undertaken and the broch was discovered.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

"The Sense Of Seeing Suddenly Very Plain A Very Obvious Thing"

As I noted in a previous post, the poet and glass-engraver Laurence Whistler (1912-2000) was the brother of the artist Rex Whistler (1905-1944).  Rex joined the Welsh Guards in 1940.  In July of 1944 he was commanding a tank in the Guards Armoured Division in Normandy.  He was killed by a mortar explosion on July 18.

Laurence Whistler wrote the following poem after his brother's death.

          A Portrait in the Guards

So these two faced each other there,
The artist and his model.  Both
In uniform.  Years back.  In training.
Not combatant yet.  But both aware
Of what the word meant.  Not complaining,
But, inwardly, how loth.

They talked of this, perhaps.  Each knew
The other, or himself, might be
Unlucky.  But each knew this true
Of anyone at all.  And so
There was no thrill in it.  A knee
Jigged to the hit-tune of some show.

Each scrutinized the other frankly,
As only painter and sitter do:
Objectively and at leisure.  Face
That must not, please, relax too blankly
Into repose.  And face that threw
Glances, the brush being poised in space.

So both, it may be, had the sense
Of seeing suddenly very plain
A very obvious thing: the immense
Thereness of someone else: a man
Once only, since the world began.
Never before, and never again.

It could be, while a cigarette
Hung grey, each recognized the other
As valid utterly and brother.
It should be so.  Because, of all
Who in that mess-tent shortly met,
These would be first to fall.

Laurence Whistler, Audible Silence (1961).

                                 Rex Whistler, "Self-Portrait" (c. 1940) 

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Vanished America, Part Three: "There Will Be No Turning Back"

I believe that, apart from Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant was the most admirable and most interesting character to emerge from the American Civil War.  (I am speaking of those on the national stage, not of the thousands of admirable and interesting characters -- on both sides -- who were involved in the War.)

As I have noted before, the best description of Grant comes from Theodore Lyman (who served as an aide to Major-General George Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac):  "He is the concentration of all that is American."

It is interesting that this description comes from Lyman:  he was born into Boston high society, graduated from Harvard, and his letters and his journal entries tend to be dismissive of military officers from "the West" (i.e., anyone who did not come from the East Coast).  He considered them uneducated, unsophisticated, and uncouth.  However, Lyman has nothing but good things to say about Grant.  He cannot avoid a bit of condescension now and then, but it is clear that Lyman recognized that he was in the presence of a remarkable man.

In the late summer of 1864, Grant's headquarters were located in City Point, Virginia, on the James River.  On August 6, a munitions barge anchored in the James exploded due to Confederate sabotage.  Lyman wrote this about the incident:

"This morning we heard a heavy explosion towards City Point, and there came a telegraph in a few minutes that an ordnance barge had blown up with much loss of life.  Rosie, Worth, Cavada and Cadwalader were in a tent at Grant's headquarters when suddenly there was a great noise, and a 12-pounder shot came smash into the mess-chest!  They rushed out -- it was raining shot, shell, timbers, and saddles (of which there had been a barge-load near)!  Two dragoons were killed near them.  They saw just then a man running towards the explosion -- the only one -- it was Grant! and this shows his character well."

David Lowe (editor), Meade's Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman (2007), page 248.  (The emphases are in the original.)

Although Grant was "noticeably an intrepid man" (Lyman's words again), he had no vainglory about him.  He was quiet, steady, and -- above all else -- supremely imperturbable.  When Grant went east to assume overall command of the Union armies, William Tecumseh Sherman wrote to his brother John (who was a United States Senator):  "Give Grant all the support you can. . . . He will fight, and the Army of the Potomac will have all the fighting they want. . . . His simplicity and modesty are natural and not affected."

                                                    Charles W. Reed
                  "Grant Whittling During The Battle Of The Wilderness"
                                                       May 5, 1864

In May of 1864, Grant began his first campaign in Virginia against Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.  The Army of the Potomac was immediately battered by Lee for two days in the Battle of the Wilderness.  In the first three years of the War, each prior commander of the Army of the Potomac had turned back to the north after coming up against Lee in Virginia.  Not Grant.  He continued to move south. 

On the night of the second day of the battle, Grant learned that Henry Wing, a reporter from The New York Tribune, was returning to Washington to file his story on the battle.  Grant took Wing aside, put his hand on Wing's shoulder, and, "in a low tone," said:  "Well, if you see the President, tell him from me that, whatever happens, there will be no turning back."

Wing returned to Washington (a dangerous trip), and he was then brought to the White House to provide whatever information he had about the battle.  (Given the state of communication in those days, information was scarce, even for Lincoln.)  Wing provided a 30-minute report to Lincoln and an assembled group.  As the others left, Wing told Lincoln that he had a "personal word" for him.  Alone with Lincoln, Wing then repeated Grant's message.  According to Wing, "Mr. Lincoln put his great, strong arms about me and, carried away in the exuberance of his gladness, imprinted a kiss upon my forehead."  Henry Wing, When Lincoln Kissed Me: A Story of the Wilderness Campaign (1913), pages 36-39.

                                        Cold Harbor, Virginia, 1864

Friday, June 3, 2011

Hospital Poems, Part Three: "Waiting"

W. E. Henley (1849-1903) wrote a sequence of 28 poems titled "In Hospital."  The poems are based upon his 20-month stay in The Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh from 1873 to 1875, where he was treated for tuberculosis by Dr. Joseph Lister (namesake of, yes, Listerine).  He had suffered from the disease from the age of twelve.  This all sounds very bleak, I know.  But Henley brings (trust me!) some humor to the whole business.  Although there is, of necessity, some bleakness.


A square, squat room (a cellar on promotion),
   Drab to the soul, drab to the very daylight;
   Plasters astray in unnatural-looking tin-ware;
   Scissors and lint and apothecary's jars.

Here, on a bench a skeleton would writhe from,
   Angry and sore, I wait to be admitted:
   Wait till my heart is lead upon my stomach,
   While at their ease two dressers do their chores.

One has a probe -- it feels to me a crowbar.
   A small boy sniffs and shudders after bluestone.
   A poor old tramp explains his poor old ulcers.
   Life is (I think) a blunder and a shame.

W. E. Henley, A Book of Verses (1888).

Henley closed the sequence with "Discharged."  This is the final stanza of the poem:

Free . . . !
Dizzy, hysterical, faint,
I sit, and the carriage rolls on with me
Into the wonderful world.

           Kenneth Rowntree, "View Through an Open Window" (1944)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

"Well, Well! All's Past Amend, Unchangeable. It Must Go."

The sequence titled "Poems of 1912-13" is generally recognized to be Thomas Hardy's finest sustained poetic achievement.  Hardy wrote the poems after the death of his wife Emma in November of 1912 (when both she and Hardy were 72).  They had been married for 38 years.  In the latter years of their marriage, the two had become estranged -- not in today's legal sense, but emotionally.

The sequence reflects Hardy's sorrow, regret, and self-recrimination after Emma's death.  As the old saying goes, no one except a husband and a wife knows what really goes on in a marriage.  But based upon the biographical evidence (such as it is), fault for the marriage's deterioration would seem to lie (no surprise here) on both sides.  Whatever the "truth" may be, Hardy's regret and self-recrimination were real.

The skeptical and/or the judgmental among us may be tempted to say something along these lines:  "Get over it, Hardy!  If you had treated her right when she was alive, then you wouldn't be suffering regret and self-recrimination now."  To those, I would reply:  you may not wish to read "Poems of 1912-13."  Which, I think, will be your loss.

"The Going" is the first poem in the sequence.  It is a bit too long to post in its entirety, but here is the final stanza:

          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!

Thomas Hardy, Satires of Circumstance, Lyrics and Reveries (1914).  Hardy dated the poem "December 1912."  The ellipses occur in the original.

This is the third poem in the sequence:

                    The Walk

You did not walk with me
Of late to the hill-top tree
        By the gated ways,
        As in earlier days;
        You were weak and lame,
        So you never came,
And I went alone, and I did not mind,
Not thinking of you as left behind.

I walked up there to-day
Just in the former way;
        Surveyed around
        The familiar ground
        By myself again:
        What difference, then?
Only that underlying sense
Of the look of a room on returning thence.

                                                 Stanley Spencer
                "Bluebells, Cornflowers and Rhododendrons" (1945)