Thomas Hardy’s Poems 1912-13: Ghosts, Memory and the Presence of the Past

by ttucker23 on February 11, 2008

Thomas Hardy

Throughout Thomas Hardy’s Poems of 1912-13, written after the sudden death of his first wife and originally published in the volume Satires of Circumastance, there’s a dominant theme of ‘haunting’, in both the supernatural and the psychological sense. Often this is a direct allusion, such as in the poem The Haunter, where the ghost of his dead wife describes herself as a phantom, who hovers nearby, and follows her living husband ‘where the night rooks go’. Similarly in the poem The Phantom Horsewoman, we see the ‘ghost-girl-rider’, a ‘phantom of his own figuring’.

But these are only the most explicit examples of the supernatural in this poetry. Almost every poem in the series alludes to it. Think of the extraordinary image of the dead woman’s shade creeping underground in the poem I Found Her Out There. Or the eeriness of The Voice, with the ‘Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward/And the woman calling’. Or its opposite, a ‘voiceless ghost’, presented in After A Journey. Or the contrast between the brightly dressed living woman and ‘Her who before last year ebbed out/Was costumed in a shroud’ from A Circular. Or the image of ‘one phantom figure’ remaining on the slope in At Castle Boterel. Or the atmosphere of Your Last Drive where ‘… the borough lights ahead/That lit your face – all undiscerned/To be in a week the face of the dead’. Or the ‘strange necromancy’ that ‘charmed me to fancy’ in A Dream or No.

The theme is driven home; elsewhere the word ‘haunts’ is used in its other sense, as a pun: ‘Yes I have re-entered your olden haunts at last’ and ‘You are leading on/To the spots we knew when we haunted here together’ (both from After a Journey). Similarly, ‘So she does not sleep by those haunted heights’ in I Found Here Out There. The line ‘wholly possessed/By an infinite rest’ from Lament also perhaps suggests more supernatural meanings.

So what is the poet haunted by? With an eye on the biographical details behind these poems (Hardy and Emma had been estranged for some time, and there is evidence that he perhaps cruelly neglected her), it is tempting to suggest that ‘guilt’ is the answer. However, whatever the actualities of the relationship between the couple at the time of her sudden death, a close reading of the poetry itself reveals very little in the way of guilt on Hardy’s part.

If an expression of guilt were the intention, or even an unconscious compulsion, we would have the ghost of the recently deceased haunting the poet. But the most powerful poetry here reflects on the happier times, the times when the two met and fell in love.

The presence of the past

From the first poem, The Going, there is the presence of their first encounter:

You were she who abode
By those red-veined rocks far West,
You were the swan-necked one who rode
Along the beetling Beeny Crest,
And, reining nigh me,
Would muse and eye me,
While Life unrolled us its very best.

Over the course of the ensuing poems the reflections on the distant past predominate. I Found Her Out There is a rumination on the location of their first meeting, and in The Voice the ghost explicitly states that it is her younger self, the self that the poet fell in love with, who is doing the haunting:

Woman much missed how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you have changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

The poet conjures vivid images of the object of his love ‘as I knew you then, Even to the original air-blue gown!’ In A Dream or No we get more distinct pictures: ‘Fair-eyed and white-shouldered, broad-browed and brown-tressed.’ This intensifies in After a Journey, where a lost and bemused poet is compelled to visit his lover’s ‘olden haunts’, and is surrounded by a vivid but evasive presence:

Where you will next be there’s no knowing,
Facing round about me everywhere,
With your nut-coloured hair,
And gray eyes, and rose-flush coming and going.

The references to the past are concentrated in specific memories. The motif of the woman riding that we saw in The Going is based on a specific incident in the couple’s courtship, and is picked up in the poem Beeny Cliff: ‘The woman now is – elsewhere – whom the ambling pony bore’. This memory then becomes the subject of The Phantom Horsewoman, where the poet becomes obsessed by the ‘ghost-girl-rider’ (the poet is here referred to in the third person, a masterful way of remaining objective while disclosing the obsessiveness of the vision that he sees ‘everywhere in his brain – day, night’.)

The best example of this ‘presence of the past’ is reached in one of the very best of the poems here, and indeed in Hardy’s entire output, At Castle Boterel. Once again the poet views the past from a firmly rooted present. The distinction between past and present is dramatised by the contrasting weather between the two scenes, which also symbolises the differences between the two states of mind described by the poet:

As I drive to the junction of lane and highway,
And the drizzle bedrenches the wagonette,
I look behind at the fading byway,
And see on its slope, now glistening wet
Distinctly yet

Myself and a girlish form benighted
In dry March weather.

This powerful comparison of past and present events suggests some new insight into the poet’s life. Joanna Cullen Brown, in her book A Journey into Thomas Hardy’s Poetry, has this to say about the poem:

At Castle Boterel is a perfect imitation of life. The poem’s journey to an understanding and assessment of his love – substance and phantom – is the pattern of his life’s journey of forty years to that same assessment. Like a photographer sorting his negatives, he has superimposed over the picture of the first journey the experience of the second. Out of that experience he has created a final, new, whole understanding of the life’s long pursuit; and when we achieve such an understanding of experience, we no longer need to worry at it – it can lie down in peace. In the poem, as in his life, Hardy reaches the final sharp clarity of that moment before it fades away.

Hardy’s attitude to time

It is clear that the imagery of ghosts and haunting plays a part in something that is distinct in Hardy’s poetry throughout his work – something that can best be described as the collapsing of time. So often the subject of his poetry is a specific moment in the past, which is viewed from the perspective of the present as if both existed at the same instance. The distance between the two events is removed, in order to highlight the two events, just like in the Beatles’ song, when ‘Yesterday came suddenly’.

Take, for example, the lines from I Found Her Out There, where the intervening years between the couple meeting by the sea and Emma dying inland, are completely removed from the picture, collapsing the distance between them and suggesting a new attitude to the events of the past: ‘I brought her here/And have laid her to rest/In a noiseless nest/No sea beats near.’

Through the use of the ‘haunted’ imagery, distinct moments of the past are made more than ‘mere’ memories. They become something close to an actual re-living of the events. They also dramatise the relationship between a specific moment in the present and a specific moment in the past, revealing profound truths about the poet’s life. J. Middleton M Murry summarises this element of Hardy’s verse in his essay ‘The Poetry of Mr Hardy’ (1919), published in Thomas Hardy: Poems (Casebook Series):

In a ‘moment of vision’ the poet recognises in a single separate incident of life, life’s essential quality.

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