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wessex poems

7 february 2023

When Thomas Hardy gave up prose fiction after Jude the Obscure (1895), the story goes that he rummaged around in his trunk to dig out a stack of poems that had been accumulating there for thirty years or more, and assembled the manuscripts into his first poetry collection, Wessex Poems. Possibly the composition of Wessex Poems didn't work entirely like that. But it's an intriguing tale. It's as if some towering composer gave up on symphonies and then decided to publish a bunch of chamber music they'd just had sitting around, or a giant of academic painting dropped out and put together a show of watercolor landscapes from their sketchbooks – and some turned out to be greater masterpieces in their own way than their achievements in more epic modes.

The Wessex Poems do seem "early" in some ways;. They fall back on strained and artificial "high" diction ("But that I fain would wot of," 50). "Her Death and After" – a very "Hardyesque" situation where a man lies that he has fathered the neglected child of his deceased old flame and his rival for her love – is an example. It is written in compact, complex, and intricately-rhyming stanzas that demand multiple inversions of syntax to get all the sounds to line up. The characters don't sound remotely natural. But the story gets told and the reader marvels at the tour de force.

Very early in the set is the anthology sonnet "Hap" (1866), which has a magnificent central idea, of a Fate that isn't even concerned enough to punish the speaker, but just rolls the dice. But the language of "Hap" is contrived and thee-and-thou-y. In an adjacent sonnet, "In Vision I Roamed," the reader feels like Wordsworth seeing a sonnet of Thomas Gray's, picking out a genuine line here and there from the conventional context:

Then, any spot on our own Earth seemed Home!
And the sick grief that you were far away …
Another early anthology piece, "Neutral Tones," achieves a more consistent effect by casting anguish as ennui. The color palette of the poem is indeed drab: leaves that "had fallen from an ash, and were gray," repeated without variation in the final phrase, "a pond edged with grayish leaves." The poem is about the noiseless extinction of a bitter and fateful love, and it is the more vivid for having no color at all.

More clamorous is the extinction of love in "My Cicely," a poem that fuses together Hardy's awkward diction, his puzzle-like rhyming forms, and his narrative genius. "My Cicely" goes beyond that fusion, too, to create an ad hoc verse form that seems to demand to be sung. Add in the Hardy themes of the vast deep history of England and a Tess-like obsession with a "depraved" descent in social class, and the result is a compellingly odd poem. Like "My Cicely," "In a Wood" is highly musical; you can sing it, for a few verses, to the tune of Stephen Sondheim's "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" and it is very Sondheimesque in its intricacy. Or rather, Sondheim was Hardyesque, I suppose.

And once in a while, Hardy comes up with phrasing that fits a tortuous metrical exercise but at the same time sounds heartfelt and natural, as in "Thoughts of Phena":

Not a line of her writing have I,
Not a thread of her hair

"Middle-Age Enthusiasms" has a strong central idea: that of whimsical resolutions to cultivate interests and pleasures, even as you half-know you will never get to them. It rings very true. Maybe one reason I have started to read some of these canonical poets with a new thoroughness is a realization of all the enthusiasms I've deferred since middle age. Now that I am a senior citizen I can finally catch up … "At an Inn" is another poem, very short, written in two-beat lines, hardly even there: but it catches an entire social web of expectations about a relationship that, in good Thomas Hardy fashion, go unfulfilled.

"Heiress and Architect" is another fine, if lugubriuous, poem. The Heiress wants to design her house for some sort of gracious living, but the Architect wants her home to be a monotonous memento mori. Maybe this is why Thomas Hardy quit architecture to take up depressing literary subjects.

Quite a few of the Wessex Poems are ballad-like narratives, often set in Napoleonic times, tributary to the work that Hardy would do in his long historical poem The Dynasts. (For all I know, some of them reappear there. I've tried to read The Dynasts but gotten no further with it than I did with Herman Melville's similarly doughy American Civil War poems). No matter; one can skip the Napoleonic stuff in Hardy, as well as items like "The Casterbridge Captains" (set in the "Khyber Pass, 1842").

Wessex Poems closes with its most succinct and memorable piece,"I Look Into My Glass." Because it was published 125 years ago, I can quote it in full here.

I look into my glass,
And view my wasting skin,
And say, "Would God it came to pass
My heart had shrunk as thin!"

For then, I, undistrest
By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
With equanimity.

But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide.
Its author was only 58 years old; he had another 30 years to live.

Hardy, Thomas. Wessex Poems and other verses. 1898. In The Complete Poems. Ed. James Gibson. 1976. Houndmills: Palgrave, 2001. 6-81. PR 4741 .G5