An alternative to the architectural elegy: Hardy's unhoused poems of 1912-1913.
He had fortified himself in his opinion by thinking of the analogy of architecture, between which art and that of poetry he had discovered, to use his own words, that there existed a close and curious parallel, each art, unlike some others, having to carry a rational content inside its artistic form.... [H]e carried on into his verse, perhaps unconsciously, the Gothic art-principle in which he had been trained. (1)
In his poetry, Hardy works to link the two art forms in many ways, from publishing (in Wessex Poems) elaborate sketches of buildings alongside his words to writing poems about architects and architecture.
However, in his Poems of 1912-1913, the elegiac sequence he wrote after the death of his first wife Emma, Hardy resists the impulse to place his poetry within an architectural frame, not only in subject (nearly all of the poems take place out of doors, and those that do not express a certain yearning for escape to unbounded places), but also, as I will argue, in the formal components of the sequence's poetics. In comparing these poems to Hardy's architectural drawings-particularly his sketches of St. Juliot, the church in whose shadow he first met Emma-it becomes clear that, as he goes about elegizing his estranged wife, he takes certain poetic steps to reverse the process of architectural construction. Instead, he builds a kind of poetics that take place outside, whose visual components break open, and whose careful symmetries crumble: they are poems that evoke elaborate ruins more than they evoke grand gothic monuments. Astonished by rekindled desire for a woman he once loved and from whom he had grown distant, the poet attempts to recapture the Emma of his youth, a woman who sought the freedom of nature and who had not been changed by the confinement of a long, unhappy marriage. If, at first, his poems concentrate on the ghost of the later Emma, who is the ghost of closed quarters and habitation, his poems begin to reach out more toward the earlier Emma, a ghost who haunts water, air, and cliffs. In so doing, his poems move away from confined spaces such as houses, rooms, and even graves, rejecting the idea of the elegy as providing a house for the dead. Instead, Poems of 1912-1913 represents a dismantling of poetic structure in order to revive a ghost who insists on the freedom of windy spaces in which she, as much as her elegist, can define the proportions of her existence.
Hardy's elegiac move out of doors is remarkable when one considers the history of the elegy. In this monumentalizing genre, the desire to preserve a passing spirit within a physical, understandable space has often found urgency. In The Life of the Poet, Lawrence Lipking describes the tombeau tradition, in which poets seek to provide poetic tombs for great writers of the past in order to rectify the obscurity of unrecognized graves: "the tomb of the poet is built by other poets; their verses take him in." (2) Not only elegies for great poets, however, seek to conflate the poem itself to a physical space in which passing spirits might reside; the desire to build a poetic tomb or house for the dead appears in elegies for all classes of subject, and the space created by the poem is often more physically defined than it is in many of Lipking's tombeaux. These poems are particular kinds of monumentalizing poems. They not only seek to commemorate the dead, but they also seek to create a space (such as a tomb, a room, or a house) in which the spirit of the dead might reside, accessible to the living. While Peter Sacks claims that the fabric of the elegy is not solid but woven, (3) this strain of elegy strives for the solid enclosure of a monumentalizing poem that is architectural, more than one-dimensionally commemorative in its potential for containment.
For instance, when Shakespeare's sonnets, forecasting the death of his beloved in a kind of anticipatory elegy, promise to be a more lasting kind of sepulcher, they are promising to augment the characteristics of stone, rather than to do away with solidity, enclosure, and visible heft:
your praise shall still find room Even in the eyes of all posterity That wear this world out to the ending doom. So till the judgement that yourself arise, You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes. (4)
Shakespeare promises that his poem will be better than "gilded monuments," "unswept stone," and "masonry"; however, it will be better only in that it will increase the architectural soundness of the "room" in which the youth will reside. In "The Canonization," another anticipatory elegy, Donne plays with the meaning of "stanza," which in Italian means "room," to compare the act of writing a poem about dead lovers (whether that death has been mortal or orgasmic) to the construction of a physical building in which they might coexist as saints for eternity:
And if unfit for tombs and hearse Our legend be, it will be fit for verse; And if no piece of chronicle we prove, We'll build in sonnets pretty rooms; As well a well wrought urn becomes The greatest ashes, as half-acre tombs. (5)
In his tombeau "On Shakespeare," Milton deepens this trope by claiming not only that Shakespeare's art is its own stone sepulcher, but also that it leaves such a deep impression upon its readers that they become a fixed part of that structure:
Then thou our fancy of itself bereaving, Dost make us marble with too much conceiving; And so sepulchred in such pomp dost lie, That kings for such a tomb would wish to die. (6)
Encompassed within the physical lines of Shakespeare's poetry, the elegized poet and the marbleized reader may share the space of a grave. While it is clearly an ambivalent sensation for one poet to feel as though the reading of another poet causes the stony silence of death, the idea of such complete, housed union with the subject of an elegy still has its appeal. In the nineteenth century, Wordsworth found a similar appeal in the poetic creation of enclosed spaces in which the deceased might be contained. In "Tintern Abbey," his own self-elegy, Wordsworth instructs his sister Dorothy to become an enclosed space for memories:
thy mind Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms, Thy memory be as a dwelling-place For all sweet sounds and harmonies. (7)
If, at first, Wordsworth hopes that the wind will blow against his sister wildly, creating a vivid first impression, he also hopes that these first impressions will in time mature into more indoor ideas, her very memory becoming an architectural structure. In so doing, he ensures that the memories she has accumulated (including, luckily enough, memories of Wordsworth himself) will be held safely together and guarded beyond his own death. In "Tintern Abbey," there is great comfort in the idea of a monumentalizing poem so tangibly solid, so three-dimensionally bracing, that it can last as an architectural habitation for deceased spirits.
More than any of these writers, Thomas Hardy the architectural draftsman was equipped to be a practitioner of this kind of poem, and indeed, from the beginning of his career, Hardy was true to this tradition. In Wessex Poems (1898), Hardy's first published book of poetry, each poem was printed alongside an illustration that was highly technical in its style. As Sir John Betjeman notes, "the illustrations are distinctly architectural--a brick-built turret with a sundial on it and a conical tiled cap; a late fifteenth-century country church with square western tower; the cross-section of a church showing a Transitional Gothic arcade of two and a half bays." (8) Betjeman's list of technical structures goes on; suffice it to say that Hardy drew heavily from his past profession in the creation of his first book of poems. Moreover, Hardy makes the deliberate choice to place a proliferation of architectural illustrations alongside poems that are not necessarily about buildings. (9) "My Cicely," for example, a poem about a woman who had been the speaker's lover, is illustrated with two gorgeously ornate church spires; similarly, the illustration for "She at His Funeral" features the speaker's shadow, cast across the wall of an elaborate church. This choice may have been a utilitarian one--he was, after all, a professional sketcher of churches-but it also speaks to a strategy of allying poems to buildings, transferring the solidity of the latter to the airiness of the former. The importance of this transference is particularly marked in the book's elegiac poems. In "Thoughts of Phena," for example, the refrain focuses on the woman's departure from the physicality of her dwelling: "no mark of her late time as dame in her dwelling, / whereby I may picture her there." It is the graspable, visible evidence--the mark, the lasting picture--that Hardy craves as much as the ethereal essence of the woman, a desire that cannot be fulfilled when she no longer exists "in her dwelling." In this and other poems, Hardy foregrounds the need to build an architectural structure around the fleeting human self, using both his lyrics' themes and their illustrations to fortify this possibility.
One would expect, then, that Poems of 1912-1913 would show a particular architectural urgency, an impulse to create structures in which Emma might live past her sudden and shocking death. However, the poems in this sequence take a different tack. All but two of the twenty-one poems take place outside the frame of either house or church, causing Peter Sacks to describe them as uniquely "unhoused" (Sacks, pp. 234, 251). For the most part, these are not members of the group that Jill Richards calls "the house poems," poems which "set time to play between interior spaces of silence and echo." 10 Instead, these poems unfold on the windswept cliffs of Cornwall so that, composed as they are of sibilance, transparent color scheme, and ebbing rhythms, they are permeated with a windswept quality, one that does not (as do Richards' "house poems") hold disparate tenses together in an enclosed space.
Two issues of poesis serve to heighten this sense of windswept transparency. First is the fact that the poems' forms tend to lack the structural symmetries (the kind of thing a reader feels in those closely contained couplets and squared lines of Milton's elegy for Shakespeare, for example) that would make them evoke a reliably sturdy building for Emma's spirit. These prosodic irregularities persist not only individually, but sequentially as well; unlike Shakespeare's memorializing sonnet sequence, Hardy's sequence is completely asymmetrical, built of twenty-one poems with twenty-one distinct forms of shape, rhyme scheme, and meter. The sequence as a whole does not offer the sense of solid containment within the repetition of form. While the entire body of Hardy's work could be said to demonstrate this same gothic irregularity, this set of poems presents itself as a unified sequence, and so the total lack of formal continuity affects the reader even more strongly. Secondly, in their summoning of Emma, the poems insistently rely on other senses besides the visual. Without clear visual structures, a crucial element is subtracted from the architectural poem's push towards physicality, resulting in poems that do not provide the tangible counterpoint to an intangible subject, but are instead composed of materials as airy and dispersed as the woman herself has become. By subtracting visibility and enclosing symmetry from his elegies, Hardy dismantles the architectural qualities of his poems, insisting instead that the ghost of Emma exist outdoors, under a wider sky. In so doing, he conjures the presence of the young Emma--whom he associates with the cliffs of Cornwall--and pulls her alongside the changed presence of the later Emma who became, in the course of her unhappy marriage, the ghost of cramped habitation. By pulling that lost, younger Emma into the present, Hardy can begin to understand the two women as one.
This impulse away from architectural monumentalizing can be traced back to Hardy's experience as an architectural draftsman. His doubts about the possibility of keeping old spirit alive in new buildings culminated in "Memories of Church Restoration," the speech he delivered in 1906 to the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. In the original manuscript of the speech, Hardy approaches the issue of restoration with a tone far more hopeless than that of the speech's future editions. He also describes the original buildings in a way that is almost spiritual, discussing their spirit, or phantom, which cannot be recaptured in new materials: "[an architectural monument] is an idea independent of [its stones]--an aesthetic phantom without solidity." (11) This spirit, for Hardy, is dependent on original form: "the old form inherits, or has acquired, an indefinable quality--possibly some deviations from exact geometry (curves were often struck by hand in Medieval work) which never appears in original work" ("MCR," p. 16). Rather than tamper with that original spirit, it would be better, Hardy claims, to allow the buildings to slowly decline, to be reclaimed by the wind and the rain. This sentiment is expressed even more strongly in the gloss of the speech, edited out in editions after the first publication. While Michael Millgate has rightly noted that the absence of the original glosses compromises these editions, his appendage of the glosses to the later editions changes them, taking out some of the glosses that are most hopeless about the spiritual destruction involved in restoration. (12) The first page margin bears the title "churches better untouched"; towards the end of the original speech, four consecutive margin titles read, "Restoration practically objectionable," "And well nigh impossible," "Moreover, fatal to human interest," "But the building is actually perishing ("MCR," pp. 1-17). By the end of his career, Hardy did not, it seems, hold much store in the ability of the architect to renovate a beloved building and leave any of its humanity intact.
But long before this point, in 1867 and 1870, Hardy was working as an assistant to a Dorchester architect named John Hicks, drawing up the plans for a renovation of St. Juliot's Church. During this project, in addition to meeting Emma, Hardy became finally convinced of the deleterious effects of restoration: "Hardy much regretted the obliteration in this manner of the church's history, and too, that he should be instrumental in such obliteration, the building as he first set eyes on it having been so associated with what was romantic in his life" (Life and Work, p. 82). In Hardy's intricate pencil and watercolor drawings of the renovation of St. Juliot's Church, drawings of the church's plans in 1867 are labeled "as originally intended," drawings of the dilapidated church in 1870 are labeled "in its present state," and drawings of the renovated church in 1870 are labeled "as proposed," or "as executed." In notes penciled on the back of the drawings, it seems that Hardy has retroactively re-labeled the process: the dilapidated church is re-titled "as formerly," rather than "in its present state." (13) There are echoes of Hardy's elegiac poetry in this re-naming, in the penciled dactyl with which he looks back on the church that he has helped to reconstruct, and if this was the building that caused Hardy's final disillusionment with his draftsman's role in architectural renovation, it is worth examining what it is about the sketches of the new buildings that contributed to his sense of rupture with the original spirit of the place.
In the renovated drawings, the church becomes almost gaudy in its colorful, contained separation from the surrounding environment; in the early drawings, on the other hand, the buildings merge with the outside air. They are colorless and permeable, more like drawings of "aesthetic phantoms" than sturdy, differentiated structures. There are two qualities that most obviously contribute to the new buildings' bright separation between indoors and out. First (and this is an obvious point), the building in latter sketches becomes more sound; if the church is crumbling in early pictures, missing chunks of wall, sagging on the sides uneven at their foundations, it is symmetrical and sealed after the restoration. Secondly, as Hardy's sketches move from the original to the renovation, the church becomes more brilliantly visible to the perceiving eye. If the original church is delineated with frail gray lines and left the same color as the air around it, the renovation plans depict a church that is washed with pink, tan, and vibrant red. Paintings of the renovated church ("as executed") are even more brilliant, painted in shades of lilac, slate, maroon, hyacinth, and pink, with black and white polka-dotted foundations. These restored churches stand out from their environment with saturated vividness. While the colors are strikingly beautiful to someone without Hardy's attachment to the original churches, Hardy himself cannot celebrate this new clarity of vision which obliterates the phantom of the old church; there is an unmistakable note of nostalgia when he re-labels those muted and air-colored original drawings "as formerly," a turn of phrase that is echoed uncannily in the words of certain poems in Poems 1912-1913.
I propose that Hardy reverses these two developments (the firming up of solid and symmetrical walls and foundations and the move to a brighter visibility) as he writes his elegiac sequence for Emma, whom he met in the shadow of that church whose renovation he so regretted. In so doing, he increases the non-architectural, out-of-doors quality of his elegies, refusing to capture a phantom in new, obliterating materials. If the "aesthetic phantom" of a church has an individual spirit that it is our humanistic duty to avoid renovating, so, clearly, does a woman have her own original, individual spirit that should not be artificially contained. For Hardy, the crucial importance of this fact is made more pressing by the rift that widened between himself and Emma before she died, by what Dennis Taylor calls "the sharp gap between present reality and the past image." (14) Hardy is not confident of the precise nature of the phantom he is attempting to preserve: he has lost her across both distance and time. In the face of this wider divide, he must wonder how well he knew her in life, whether his relationship with her caused fatal changes in the person he once loved, whether in marriage he was as blind as a renovating architect to the original spirit of the woman he married. In elegizing her, then, the task of original-preservation becomes as pressing as the task of self-solace. In response to this, the author is true to his theories against church reconstruction, creating elegies that are not architectural structures, solidly defined spaces in which he might find communion with a missing spirit; instead, he composes the sequence of poems that are un-housed, permeable vessels in which the woman asserts a freedom, beyond him, as a part of ungraspable elements like wind and water.
Thematically, the Poems of 1912-1913 remain insistently outdoors. Of the twenty-one poems in the sequence, only three--"Rain on a Grave," "His Visitor," and "The Spell of the Rose"--depict a constructed house that Hardy and Emma inhabited or might inhabit. Instead, the sequence focuses on spaces that are not confined by roofs and walls, opening, in "The Going," with an explicit description of the speaker's gravitation towards the outdoor world in order to reach for Emma's phantom:
Why do you make me leave the house And think for a breath it is you I see At the end of the alley of bending boughs Where so often at dusk you used to be. (15)
"The Going" is followed by two poems that both take place on open, unsheltered roads. Soon after, "Rain on a Grave" sets up two kinds of spaces: one is a roofed, sheltered place, from which the speaker looks out on Emma's grave, and the other is the grave itself, which is nothing more than a mound of earth on which grass and daisies soon will grow, a far cry from the stow, constructed sepulcher that we see in Milton's poem for Shakespeare. The poem makes a point of wishing not that Emma were back inside, but that they both were outside, in the unsheltered earth, together. After more unhoused poems, "His Visitor" returns to the architectural dwelling, depicting the ghost of Emma as she revisits her old abode. The return, however, is not a pleasant one. She notices all the details that have changed since her death, and ultimately these changes are so disturbing that Emma leaves, vowing never to return:
So I don't want to linger in this re-decked dwelling, I feel too uneasy at the contrasts I behold, And I make again for Mellstock to return here never, And rejoin the roomy silence, and the mute and manifold
Souls of old. (ll. 16-20)
All of these poems consider the ghost of the later Emma, who occupied the house and took those drives; however, she is depicted as gravitating back out to the outside world she loved in her youth. The only room in which this version of Emma will be enclosed is that of "roomy silence," a kind of room that lacks walls and tangible visual details that might be betrayed by the renovating hand.
The last housed poem, "The Spell of the Rose," focuses most closely on the threat of architectural enclosure. In the voice of Emma, the poem describes Max Gate, a house that caused them nothing but strife because it caused him to neglect the outdoor garden:
'I mean to build a hall anon, And shape two turrets there, And a broad newelled stair, And a cool well for crystal water; Yes; I will build a hall anon, Plant roses love shall feed upon And apple-trees and pear.' He set to build the manor-hall, And shaped the turrets there, And the broad newelled stair, And the cool well for crystal water; He built for me that manor-hall, And planted many trees withal, But no roses anywhere. (ll. 1-14)
The repetition of each of those architectural details-the manor hall, the turrets, the broad newelled stair-underscores their useless stony stubbornness; apparently she never cared for that kind of structured architectural tribute. Indeed, she blames that stubborn indoor tribute for their unhappiness: "some heart-bane moved our souls to sever / Since he had planted never a rose" (ll. 18-19). Later in the poem, the female narrator plants a rosebush outside in the hopes of mending the rift between the married couple; however, it is too late, and she dies before it is grown. All she can hope for, in this posthumous message of a poem, is that the site of the rose bush (as opposed to the enclosed house) will be the place he goes in order to re-conjure the woman he has lost:
Perhaps now blooms that queen of trees I set but saw not grow, And he, beside its glow-- Eyes couched of the mis-vision that blurred me-- Ay, there beside that queen of trees He sees me as I was, though sees Too late to tell me so! (ll. 36-42).
In this poem, Emma accuses Hardy of an inability to see her as she was, out-doors and unenclosed. It was he that caused the gap between old image and present reality because he could only conceive of her as a housed creature. After this poem's explicit warning about the importance of unhoused remembrance, the sequence again sets its sights outside, following Emma's mandate closely, conjuring her spirit on wild cliffs and in windswept picnic spots. In these poems, the mistakenly viewed Emma of interior dwelling is released into the outdoors so loved by the young Emma of Cornwall, as though, by freeing her of her confinement, Hardy could reverse the changes he witnessed and understand, for a moment at least, those two women as one.
To supplement this thematic move outdoors, the poems--both as individual works and as a conjoined sequence-formally reverse both of the forward movements of his architectural drawings. First, the sequence's dismantling of formal and symmetrical structures beautifully echoes its thematic aversion to sealed interior spaces. On the plane of the sequence, each of the twenty-one poems possesses a different form and shape. This distinguishes them from the kind of poetic sequence that is organized by uniformity of form, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti's House of Life sonnet sequence, in which each poem possesses an identical pattern of line indentation. The uniform shape of these poems felt to him so clearly like the fitted parts of a house that Algernon Charles Swinburne in his review of the sequence perpetuated the metaphor enthusiastically:
This House of Life has in it so many mansions, so many halls of state and bowers of music, chapels for worship and chambers for festival, that no guest can declare on a first entrance the secret of its scheme. ... But the scheme is solid and harmonious: there is no waste in this luxury of genius: the whole is lovelier than its loveliest parts." (16)
According to Swinburne, the symmetry of the parts of The House of Life makes them fit together so felicitously that they cannot be extracted from the larger work they have constructed. Hardy's poems, on the other hand, seem to undermine any unifying construction: they are long and short, thin and wide, dense and dispersed. Some are numbered, some are not; some are aligned along the left margin as though approximating some kind of solid wall; and some are elaborately perforated at the margins. Some, like "Beeny Cliff," are composed of lines so long that words nearly spill off the edge of the page; other poems, such as "The Phantom Horsewoman," or "Self-Unconscious," are composed primarily of curt dimeter lines. Within individual poems, moreover, we see another kind of looseness of structural grip. In a poem like "The Voice," for example, the repeated fact of doubly unstressed line endings (such as "call to me" and "all to me") make for a poem markedly different from one comprised of strict iambic lines, each ending with the firmness of a stressed beat. Instead, the double unstressed syllables feel almost as though they are the down-slanting side of an old building, and certainly as though they have run over the solidity of a line with final stress. Underscoring this sensation is the fact that the poem's final stanza is significantly smaller than the stanzas above it, undermining the regular pattern that has been established up to that point. Highly variable line length appears in many poems throughout the sequence, such as "At Castle Boterel," a poem which lacks any mention of actual castle. Each of its stanzas moves from lines of five beats to four beats to two beats so that the stanza dwindles, slipping away, undermining the reader's sense of fortified solidity. In this sequence, Hardy will not fit his poems together according to rules of structural soundness, nor will he give the reader the comfort of feeling as though, through the experience of reading the poem, we are bound together in a tangible space with the spirit of the woman we are trying to imagine.
In addition to this dismantling of symmetrical soundness, the visual elements of the poems are, at various points, either absent, unreliable, unheeded, or balanced with a combination of other sense-data. A stanza is like a room at least in part because of its visible dark lines on the whiteness of a page, because of the collection of visual objects that it presents, because of the way in which it calls us to imagine things with our mind's eye. Hardy's elegies, however, not only present stanzaic shapes that are permeated by white, open space, but often refuse to present clear visual objects. This fact renders his stanzas less room-like and more air-like. In many of the poems, it appears that he cannot see at all, or else he sees what he knows is a figment of his imagination, some "mis-vision" that does not correspond to the actual woman with whom Hardy shared a fractured home.
This undercutting of vision is surprising in the elegiac tradition, in which poems often conclude with a consolatory vision of the deceased such as the day star at the end of Milton's "Lycidas" (1638) or Keats' light shining through heaven in Shelley's "Adonais" (1821). In Hardy's poetry, these lights, a part of what Peter Sacks describes as a primary convention of the English Elegy, dwindle from bright beams to "attenuated retrospective glimmerings" (Sacks, p. 34). Such attenuated glimmerings are the best of cases in Hardy's elegies; more often, the poems entirely refrain from permitting themselves the luxury of consolation by light-vision, insisting instead upon the shortcomings of the eye.
Many critics have located in Hardy a desire to write his way to a kind of heightened, sharpened vision, one that can perform its task with more representative acuity. In Thomas Hardy: The Poetry of Perception, Tom Paulin writes that "Hardy's wish to see an indubitable ghost is characteristic of his discontented skepticism, and ... his imagination operates under what Coleridge terms the 'despotism of the eye.'" (17) Similarly, Melanie Sexton writes that, in Poems 1912-1913, Hardy "strives, in fact, not simply to remember the young Emma, but to recover her-to 'gain' a vivid physical image of her, the strength of which will allow him to capture the love, innocence, and joy which are associated with her." (18) I would argue that Hardy does express desire for some kind of visible proof but, in the end, is hesitant to use that eye as his main tool in reconstructing a lost love. If Hardy's architectural vision (as we see in the sketches of St. Juliot's) becomes increasingly clear, color-saturated, and vivid, Hardy's elegiac vision does not inherit these qualities. Instead, by the opening of Poems of 1912-1913, the speaker seems to set himself in a state of blindness as he goes about remembering Emma. In "The Going," the first poem of the sequence, Hardy bemoans the fact that he cannot, and will not ever be able to "gain one glimpse" (l. 7) of Emma beyond the veil of death. However, the poem does not move towards a vision of Emma, either as she was originally or as she became; instead, it ends with the sentiment "All's past amend, / Unchangeable. It must go" (ll. 36-37) Emma slips beyond the reach of his vision in a way that appears to be willed, and Hardy does not defy this will by summoning a posthumous vision.
He continues this visual acquiescence in the second poem of the sequence, "Your Last Drive," a poem about dying light and obscured vision:
had I sat At your side that eve I should not have seen That the countenance I was glancing at Had a last-time look in the flickering sheen, Nor have read the writing upon your face" (ll. 13-17).
It is not only death that makes Hardy blind to Emma; even during her life he missed the visual details that might have helped him to know her. Having admitted this, he does not try to scrape these details together posthumously. Here, as in "The Going," Hardy permits Emma to escape him. He does not attempt to visualize her, lest he violate the separation she imposed in her quick going and which she expresses in a firmly independent second stanza:
'You may miss me then. But I shall not know How many times you visit me there, Or what your thoughts are, or if you go There never at all. And I shall not care. Should you censure me I shall take no heed, And even your praises no more shall need.' (ll. 19-24)
It is her wish to be beyond him, and he does not rein in that desire by picturing her as though she was present and accessible. In its bereft conclusion, the poem leaves this irrevocable divide open between them, one that is caused by his inability to properly see and her refusal to allow him to belatedly summon her.
Despite accepting this basic divide, however, the poem does allude to a better kind of impression that might have been received when Emma was alive, if they had taken that final drive together, and if he had seen as he ought to have seen. And how is this ideal impression described? If he had taken that final drive, if he had managed to see the meaning on her face before she died, what would he have seen? He would have noticed a "last-time look in the flickering sheen," and "writing upon your face," phrases that extend a certain amount of agency to Emma. The active verb lurking behind the noun "look" implies a gaze that she turns on him as much as a passive expression; similarly, the writing on her face implies both that she is marked for death and that she has placed a message there for him. Ideally, had he seen as he wishes he had, he would have seen her looking at him and writing to him: he would have been a passive, blank slate for her projected expressions, which would have had more significance than his admittedly meaningless visual imaginings. Rather than creating an impressive visual memorial-of her, or for her-Hardy seems to desire to become a palimpsest himself, an empty space onto which her message to him might be projected.
The first seven poems of the book, including the two just mentioned, are often grouped together as Hardy's poems of "rupture," or "shock," (19) and they are marked by bleak sensory deprivation; after these, however, Hardy's desire for some consolation, or at least some communication, with his lost wife seems to overcome his pessimism when he introduces three poems that rather boldly attempt occult communion with her ghost. It is these poems that most arouse expectations of some kind of visible reconstitution; instead, however, Hardy reconstitutes Emma's voice. In "The Haunter," Emma speaks, claiming that Hardy cannot see her; in "The Voice," Hardy is offered a tantalizing echo of the early Emma's voice in the winter wind; in "His Visitor," the later Emma speaks again, an invisible voice which vows to depart her old house because of the changes that have been wrought there, joining her earlier self in the wind. In place, then, of an elegiac sequence that is architectural-contained indoors, symmetrically enclosed, and visually present-Hardy offers us reconstitution through unenclosed voice.
But what kind of alternative does Hardy provide to the solid comfort of a spirit-containing, architectural elegy that is visible and solid? What can be offered by an elegy that insists on dismantling and invisibility, on seamless merger of the subject with the ungraspable atmosphere? In the place of clear and sound visual structures, sounds assert new importance. In Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, Susan Stewart describes a kind of poetic architecture that is built of sounds, rather than visual components: "the poet works from the received foundation of speech-out of this inheritance, the poet makes another self, an eidetic self estranged from mere authorship." (20) Perhaps, by obeying the "received foundations" of a metrical pattern, a rhyme pattern, a received set of grammar and syntax rules, Hardy steps into a frame that is common, inherited, property, belonging to the speaking human community. By emptying his poem of the visual, then, and filling it instead with the shared currency of sound, Hardy is able to rely upon public sound, rather than his fallible architect's eye, to reconstitute Emma passively, his poetic mind the palimpsest he wished to become in "Your Last Drive."
In these three poems of reconstitution, Hardy emphasizes the importance of sound to an almost manic extent. As Stewart points out, "The Voice" is a collage of popular songs and hymns, borrowing not only from a public store of language sounds but from a public and pre-determined store of music, as though Hardy's poem is "possessed" by the voices of other songwriters and singers who have preceded him (Stewart, pp. 132-138). Interestingly, this kind of passive sound borrowing seems to imbue the poet with a certain confidence. "The Voice" opens with a bold claim that the poet can indeed hear Emma's calls, a claim that is surprisingly confident given his self-proclaimed deafness in earlier poems:
Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me, Saying that now you are not as you were When you had changed from the one who was all to me, But as at first, when our day was fair. Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then, Standing as when I drew near to the town Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then, Even to the original air-blue gown! (ll. 1-8)
The first stanzas make clear Hardy's embrace of certain shared rules of sound: his three-syllable rhymes at the ends of lines one and three call attention to the power that rhyme wielded in the construction of this poem. If his will tugs against this submission in lines two and four, where we find a slant-rhymed set of b-rhymes ("were" and "fair"), the unequal weight of three syllables of a-rhyme counteract this tug to make us believe in the possessed quality of his speaking voice. Rhythmically, the poem maintains the aching insistence of dactyls, the strength of will in that original stress followed by the passivity of two unstressed beats. Again, in the dactylic rhythm, it seems as though will bows out to make room for a more passive presence. In "The Voice," sound, as a method of asserting presence, is tied less to the certainties of stress as it is tied to the uncertainties of unstress, less to the control of the rhymer than to the control of the rhyme.
This semi-passive sound-reconstitution established, it does not seem that the poem seeks to see either the woman or a structure that is intended to contain her. Nowhere in the first stanza are we given an idea of what the woman looks like: in this first stanza, she is described in nothing but vague temporal terms ("as you were," or "as at first," modifiers which, coincidentally, directly echo the penciled labels at the back of Hardy's various sketches of St. Juliot's). In the stanza's first line, she is introduced as a "woman much missed," the pun on "mist" evoking a woman who is dispersed and invisible as air. Similarly, in the stanza's final line, she is summarized not by visual details but by an indirect evocation of the atmosphere at that moment, "but as at first, when our day was fair." The woman has less visual particularity than vague resemblance to diffuse atmosphere.
However, as though emboldened by his possession of her voice, the poet in the second stanza suddenly demands visual evidence: "let me view you then." In this stanza, Hardy's desire as a viewer exchanges passivity for commanding confidence. The describing voice of the first stanza is replaced by an exclamation-pointed, twice-repeated demand, at the end of which the first visual clue (the "air-blue gown") magically appears. But as soon as Hardy's vision gets too confident-the demand to "view" is followed by the demand that Emma be as he "knew" her, a demand that verges on a kind of desirous renovation that is far from the acknowledgement that she is beyond him-the poem undermines itself. Even within that visual clue there exists a kind of creeping invisibility, the vividness of "blue" tied to the transparency of "air." Moreover, as soon as that clue has been uttered, the third stanza undermines the veracity of the statement:
Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness Travelling across the wet mead to me here, You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness, Heard no more again far or near? (ll. 9-12)
The previous stanza's momentum from question to exclamation is here completely reversed by a stanza that consists of nothing but one extended question about absence.
Again, as he does in the final line of the first stanza, Hardy averts his eyes from a vision of Emma to a dispersed view of the surrounding atmosphere; here, however, the atmosphere is a place which he can neither see (the only visual descriptor, "wan," describes the lack of color rather than the presence of color) nor hear (her voice has waned to the point that she is "heard no more again far or near"). The poet's overconfident demands for vision have only further removed the presence of the woman, alienating the poet from his initial confidence in his powers of hearing.
This loss is reinforced in the last stanza, in which Hardy's original adherence to sound-forms such as three-syllable rhymes and dactylic tetrameter-as though those might have been the scaffolding on which an original Emma could be restored-crumbles:
Thus I; faltering forward, Leaves around me falling, Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward, And the woman calling. (ll. 13-16)
The first and third line three-syllable rhymes become two-syllable rhymes, and three of the four lines become trimeter, rather than tetrameter: an audible element has been lost that can never return. Beats have fallen away from the poem as desolately as the falling leaves. As if to underscore the rift of this loss, the smooth melody of regular dactyls is replaced with a jarring composite of spondees, trochees, iambs, and dactyls, all of which break from the hymns and folk songs that Hardy drew upon. Even the architecture of sound has fallen apart.
Nevertheless, having enacted such a bereavement, the poem ends on a strangely optimistic note; in the face of mourning that she will never more be heard, the voice of young Emma, lost across distance and time, does conclude the poem, as present as it was in the first line of the poem, before the stages of Hardy's doubt had unraveled that sureness. It is as though Hardy's faith in her presence depends upon the admission that he cannot see her or hear her; his powers of reconstitution depend upon the destruction of formally containing structures, whether visual or aural. Ultimately, when he ceases to make visual or aural demands upon her, she speaks, in a way that seems almost out of the control of Hardy's own poem. If he builds his poem from description and question to demand and exclamation, she calls his tone back to question and description; if he insists on a vision, she denies even those remnants of sound that she offered; if he insists upon incantatory sound elements in the hopes of reconstituting her voice, she tears open his dactyls, his rhymes, and his folk song allusions. This done, the woman placed out of Hardy's control (she is no longer the familiar "you" but a third-person, defamiliarized "woman"), the poem is permitted to end with her voice, even as the poem-as-architectural-monument allows itself to crumble. In "The Voice," Hardy refuses to risk "mis-vision" or renovation by summoning Emma actively; instead the poem waits for her phantom to assert itself.
Even in the sequence's more visually oriented poems, vision is complicated by the press of other sensual channels. Just as "The Voice" uses sound to chastise the desire for vision, the original sequence's final poem, "The Phantom Horsewoman," checks vision by describing it as a mosaic of other sense impressions. In stanza one, the poem's central character "looks" with "moveless hands / And face and gaze" (11.6-7); the vision is seen three times through the lens of three different organs. In stanza two, the man's vision is described as much with modifiers that belong to other sense categories as it is with proper visual adjectives: all that he notes is "clear" (a visual modifier), "sweet" (a taste modifier), "soft" (a tactile modifier), "briny" (taste), "green" (visual), "warm" (tactile), and "keen" (tactile). In the midst of this string of adjectives, "real" inserts itself with a confidence that rarely appears in Hardy's elegies: it is as though, by comprising a vision of touch and taste as well as vision itself, Hardy can ensure that it is in some way true to its original. As in "The Voice," only when the senses check and narrate each other is the author able to step outside of himself and reveal a consolatory vision. Sexton is correct when she describes the achievement of this phantom (the poem's end announces the vision of a girl-ghost-rider) as transcending "the reminder of inevitable decay" that plagues Hardy's skeptical mind (p. 222). However, to think of this particular phantom as purely image-and not a figment of sound, touch, and taste as well-seems like a bereavement. Hardy does not, as an utter skeptic might, allow himself the freedom of pure visual imagining, unmoored from any actual; instead, he humbles his sight to sound and touch and then finds himself able to visually conjure in "The Phantom Horsewoman."
This careful sense-matrix is the foundation not only for this individual poem, but for the structure of Poems of 1912-1913 as a whole. If the individual lines of "The Phantom Horsewoman" form a matrix of competing image and sound, the poem itself is also embedded in the metanarrative of the entire sequence, which itself performs the same synaesthetic trick by placing various sense poems in juxtaposition. Hardy does not seek either a vision or a voice, but endeavors to find instead a kind of ghost that affects him through multiple senses, so that he need not worry that one sense has imagined it all in a way that is not, to a certain extent, true to the "real" original. Out of the ruins of aural belief and visual belief, in the unroofed space of his outdoor poems, there arises a sense of the original woman who was lost both in death and in the blindness of life.
This, then, is the alternative to architectural containment that Hardy finds in poetry. Within this kind of sequence, he can re-imagine precious things while insisting that they remain outside of himself, beyond the reach of his renovations. It is for this reason, perhaps, that Hardy so often re-imagines architecture in poetry (in poems such as "Copying Architecture in an Old Minster," and "A Cathedral Facade at Midnight"): rebuilt with verbal lines that are both visual and aural, the spirit of each church is able to present itself more freely than it might have in a visual sketch. More importantly, Hardy is thus able to address the dilemma of his desire to reconstitute a young woman who, in real life, he had ceased to desire. If, in life, young Emma was changed by their co-habitation, there exists in elegy the danger of again changing that young woman by placing her in poems of enclosed habitation: if he were to capture the wild young woman he loved, she would no longer be so wild. Still, his rekindled desire for the young woman he married will not permit him to let her slip away unremembered, severed forever from the woman he came to know in marriage. By opening his unhoused elegies to the elements, and by experiencing these elements without other senses besides the enlightened visual sense, Hardy not only feels his loss more fully but also offers each sense the chance to edit the other, to criticize and question the claims made by the other. When this is enacted, Hardy can finally allow himself to conjure a vision of the woman he lost. His vision of Emma is not contained within a room, a hermitage, a marble tomb, or even a poem that mimics certain qualities of these structures; instead, she is left out in the wind, on the wild cliffs, inexplicable and unenclosable, less available for constant solace but more ensured of her individuality as an un-renovated original.
Many thanks to Carol MacKay for all her generous help on this article, and for pointing me to Hardy's architectural drawings in the first place.
(1) Thomas Hardy, The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy, ed. Michael Millgate (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1985), p. 323.
(2) Lawrence Lipking, The Life of the Poet (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1981), p. 139.
(3) Peter M. Sacks, The English Elegy: Studies in the Genre from Spenser to Yeats (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1985), p. 18.
(4) Shakespeare's Sonnets, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones (London: Arden Editions, 1997), p. 273.
(5) John Donne: The Major Works, ed. John Carey (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1990), p. 96.
(6) The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton, ed. William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen Fallon (New York: The Modern Library, 2007), p. 34.
(7) The Major Works of William Wordsworth, ed. Stephen Gill (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2000), p. 135.
(8) Sir John Betjeman, "Hardy and Architecture," in The Genius of Thomas Hardy, ed. Margaret Drabble (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976), p. 150.
(9) Thomas Hardy, "Illustrations for Wessex Poems," VP 17, nos. 1-2 (1979): 135-154.
(10) Jill Richards, "The History of Error: Hardy's Critics and the Self Unseen," VP 45, no. 2 (Summer 2007): 117-133.
(11) Thomas Hardy, "'Memories of Church Restoration': author's manuscript, signed, with author's revisions" (Thomas Hardy Collection, Harry Ransom Center, Univ. of Texas at Austin, 1906), p. 15. Hereafter cited as "MCR."
(12) Thomas Hardy's Public Voice: The Essays, Speeches, and Miscellaneous Prose, ed. Michael Millgate (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001), p. 240.
(13) Thomas Hardy, "St. Juliot's Church, Cornwall: 20 Architectural Drawings in Pencil, Ink, and Watercolor" (Thomas Hardy Collection, Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin, 1967-1970). Many thanks to Carol MacKay for directing me to this manuscript.
(14) Dennis Taylor, Hardy's Poetry, 1860-1928 (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1981), p. 24.
(15) "The Going," ll. 15-18. The Complete Poetical Works of Thomas Hardy, ed. Samuel Hynes, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984-85). All quotations from Hardy's poetry are from this edition unless otherwise noted.
(16) Charles Algernon Swinburne, in The House of Life: A Sonnet Sequence, ed. Roger C. Lewis (Rochester: D. S. Brewer, 2007), p. 9.
(17) Tom Paulin, Thomas Hardy: The Poetry of Perception (London: Macmillan, 1974), pp. 2-3.
(18) Melanie Sexton, "Phantoms of His Own Figuring: The Movement Toward Recovery in Hardy's 'Poems of 1912-1913,'" VP 29, no. 3 (1991): 209-226.
(19) Thomas Hardy: Selected Poems, ed. Tim Armstrong (London: Longman, 1993), p. 153.
(20) Susan Stewart, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2002), p. 89.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||Thomas Hardy|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2012|
|Previous Article:||Poetics and layers of meaning in Rossetti's Forced Music.|
|Next Article:||Tennyson, Heidegger, and the problematics of "home".|