Tuesday, December 4, 2012

"Ah, Are You Digging On My Grave?"

In my previous post, I noted the presence of talking birds in Thomas Hardy's poetry.  I would be remiss if I failed to mention that one comes across a few talking dogs as well.  Hardy's own dog -- "Wessex" -- has his say in two poems:  "A Popular Personage at Home" ("I am a dog known rather well") and "Dead 'Wessex' the Dog to the Household" ("Do you think of me at all,/Wistful ones?").

                                           Thomas Hardy and "Wessex"

The following poem consists of a conversation between a dog and a dead woman who lies in her grave.  In addition to becoming accustomed to encountering voluble birds and dogs in Hardy's poetry, one comes to expect an occasional word or two from those who have been laid away in their graves:  conversations among the dead about the living (as well as between the dead and the living) take place fairly often in Hardy's poems.  The dead seem to be good company:  they are often jolly, and they are apt to offer a helpful perspective on life for those of us who remain above ground.

               Wessex's Gravestone at Max Gate:  "Faithful.  Unflinching."

Ah, Are You Digging On My Grave?

'Ah, are you digging on my grave,
     My loved one? -- planting rue?'
-- 'No:  yesterday he went to wed
One of the brightest wealth has bred.
"It cannot hurt her now," he said,
     "That I should not be true."'

'Then who is digging on my grave?
     My nearest dearest kin?'
-- 'Ah, no:  they sit and think, "What use!
What good will planting flowers produce?
No tendance of her mound can loose
     Her spirit from Death's gin."'

'But some one digs upon my grave?
     My enemy? -- prodding sly?'
-- 'Nay:  when she heard you had passed the Gate
That shuts on all flesh soon or late,
She thought you no more worth her hate,
     And cares not where you lie.'

'Then, who is digging on my grave?
     Say -- since I have not guessed!'
-- 'O it is I, my mistress dear,
Your little dog, who still lives near,
And much I hope my movements here
     Have not disturbed your rest?'

'Ah, yes!  You dig upon my grave. . . .
     Why flashed it not on me
That one true heart was left behind!
What feeling do we ever find
To equal among human kind
     A dog's fidelity!'

'Mistress, I dug upon your grave
     To bury a bone, in case
I should be hungry near this spot
When passing on my daily trot.
I am sorry, but I quite forgot
     It was your resting-place.'

Thomas Hardy, Satires of Circumstance, Lyrics and Reveries (1914).

Hardy has sometimes been criticized for his rustic sense of humor and for his quaint (in the judgment of "modernists") view of things.  In other words:  "Who writes poems about talking dogs and talking corpses in this day and age?"  I suppose that the avant-garde had -- and have -- no time for Hardy, and for poems such as this.  For that, we can all be thankful.

As for me, Hardy the poet can do no wrong.  As I have noted before, I agree with Philip Larkin who, in response to critics who suggest that Hardy wrote too many poems, of which a large number are (according to the critics) flawed, writes:

"To these . . . 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: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982 (Faber and Faber 1983), page 174.

Larkin offered his assessment in 1966.  It proved to be true for the century as a whole.

                          Marion Adnams, "Spring in the Cemetery" (1956)


bruce floyd said...

The poem below by Robinson Jeffers is probably the most atypical poem he wrote, letting his dead dog speak of issues the poet probably never could. The poem edges close to sentimentality. It's clear, however, that this stern poet, hawklike in his nature, loved his dog.

The House Dog's Grave (Haig, an English bulldog)
I've changed my ways a little; I cannot now
Run with you in the evenings along the shore,
Except in a kind of dream; and you, if you dream a moment,
You see me there.

So leave awhile the paw-marks on the front door
Where I used to scratch to go out or in,
And you'd soon open; leave on the kitchen floor
The marks of my drinking-pan.

I cannot lie by your fire as I used to do
On the warm stone,
Nor at the foot of your bed; no, all the night through
I lie alone.

But your kind thought has laid me less than six feet
Outside your window where firelight so often plays,
And where you sit to read--and I fear often grieving for me--
Every night your lamplight lies on my place.

You, man and woman, live so long, it is hard
To think of you ever dying
A little dog would get tired, living so long.
I hope than when you are lying

Under the ground like me your lives will appear
As good and joyful as mine.
No, dear, that's too much hope: you are not so well cared for
As I have been.

And never have known the passionate undivided
Fidelities that I knew.
Your minds are perhaps too active, too many-sided. . . .
But to me you were true.

You were never masters, but friends. I was your friend.
I loved you well, and was loved. Deep love endures
To the end and far past the end. If this is my end,
I am not lonely. I am not afraid. I am still yours.

Robinson Jeffers, 1941

Return to list of Healing and Inspirational Poetry

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Floyd: thank you very much for the poem. I know very little of Jeffers's poetry, but, given that deficit, I agree that it does seem atypical of his work. My impression is that he is usually preoccupied with large-scale philosophical and political themes that are hard for me to warm to. On the other hand, this poem's small-scale is something that I like.

As for it being sentimental, I have no problem whatsoever with that. Especially where dogs are concerned.

As ever, thank you for visiting.

Jane England said...

For those who are interested to know more about the images of paintings by Marian Adnams - the image of 'Dark River' is taken from the website of England & Co gallery: