One of Thomas Hardy’s most powerful themes is, as Joanna Cullen Brown puts it, that ‘one awakes to understanding too late’. Many of his poems cover this territory, but take the Self Unseeing as an example:
Here is the ancient floor,
Footworn and hollowed and thin,
Here was the former door
Where the dead feet walked in.
She sat here in her chair,
Smiling into the fire;
He who played stood there,
Bowing it higher and higher.
Childlike, I danced in a dream;
Blessings emblazoned that day;
Everything glowed with a gleam;
Yet we were looking away!
This is a picture of Hardy’s childhood home, where the ‘he’ and ‘she’ are his father and mother. There is a finely poised balance here between happiness and remorse, between life and bereavement. As C. Day Lewis says in his essay The Lyrical Poetry (1951), published in Thomas Hardy: Poems, the Casebook Series: ‘It shows his delicate skill in suffusing pathos with gaiety, his sense of the transient haunting all scenes of present happiness’.
For Hardy the great tragedy of life lies in this unconscious ‘turning away’ from its most important aspects. The last stanza of his poem Overlooking the River Stour offers a poignant self-revelation:
And never I turned my head, alack,
While these things met my gaze
Through the pane’s drop-drenched glaze,
To see the more behind my back . . .
O never I turned, but let, alack,
These less things hold my gaze!
Hardy doesn’t offer this as merely his own personal tragedy; we are meant to understand that it afflicts all of us. This is clear from the opening of Beyond the Last Lamp, for example, where the lovers might represent all lovers:
Two linked loiterers, wan, downcast:
Some heavy thought constrained each face,
And blinded them to time and place.
This is characteristic of the aspect of Hardy’s work that Lytton Strachey referred to when he said: ‘A flashlight is turned for a moment upon some scene or upon some character, and in that moment the tragedies of whole lives and the long fatalities of human relationships seem to stand revealed’ (from his essay of 1914, published in Thomas Hardy: Poems).
The poems of 1912-13, written for his late wife, who died suddenly and unexpectedly, appear to represent a crisis point for Hardy. Finally this theme of regret enters his life in a stark realisation, and Hardy immediately responds to this with poetry that desperately tries to find meaning in the lost opportunities and the events of the past. One can detect, though, a new and more positive note in one of the best poems of this collection, After a Journey. The phantom of his dead wife has brought him in the night to a place they used to visit when they first fell in love. But as the sun rises the poem ends with an affirmation:
Soon you will have, Dear, to vanish from me,
For the stars close their shutters and the dawn whitens hazily.
Trust me, I mind not, though Life lours,
The bringing of me here; nay, bring me here again!
I am just the same as when
Our days were a joy, and our paths through flowers.
This is new; Hardy has found a relationship to the past that is beyond regret.
Joanna Cullen Brown summarises the critical transformation in Hardy that is expressed through these poems in her book A Journey into Thomas Hardy’s Poetry:
With Emma’s death, and his strenuous attempts to understand it and to re-orientate himself, he came to see exemplified in himself the tragic themes he had already identified in his novels and earlier poems: the too-late awakening, and the human consciousness at odds with the world around it. He also saw how, working out his memories in his poems, articulating in them the final understanding of the experience, this could rivet human life and poetry together, making the one grow out of the other.