poem index

Thomas Hardy: Behind the Mask [Explaining the Poems]

Written by

Andrew Norman
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Year

2014
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Moments of Vision

Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses was published by Macmillan in November 1917. Of this collection, "Logs on the Hearth" and "In the Garden" were poems written by Hardy in memory of his sister Mary. In other poems, such as "Joys of Memory" and "To My Father's Violin," he looks back nostalgically at the past, which to him always seems preferable to the present. Similarly, in "Great Things," where Hardy admits to a love for 'sweet cider,' 'the dance,' and 'love' itself, he uses the past tense, as he ends with the words "Will always have been great things."

The theme of Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses, said Hardy, was to 'mortify the human sense of self-importance by showing or suggesting, that human beings are of no matter or appreciable value in this nonchalant universe.' This, as will be seen, was only part of the story, for there are many poems in the collection which relate, inevitably and vicariously, as always, to Emma Gifford [Hardy's first wife]. Had she been alive, she would undoubtedly have been just as offended by them as she had been with Jude the Obscure.

In 1920 publisher Vere H. Collins, during a series of discussions with Hardy at Max Gate, questioned the latter about one of his Moments of Vision poems, namely "The Interloper," which he could not make sense of. It reads as follows:

There are three folk driving in a quaint old
    chaise,
And the cliff-side track looks green and fair;
I view them talking in quiet glee
As they drop down towards the puffins' lair
    By the roughest of ways;
But another with the three rides on, I see,
    Whom I like not to be there!

No: it's not anybody you think of. Next
A dwelling appears by a slow sweet stream
Where two sit happily and half in the dark:
They read, helped out by a frail-wick'd gleam,
    Some rhythmic text;
But one sits with them whom they don't mark,
    One I'm wishing could not be there.

No: not whom you knew and name. And now
I discern gay diners in a mansion-place,
And the guests dropping wit—pert, prim, or
    choice,
And the hostess's tender and laughing face,
    And the host's bland brow;
But I cannot help hearing a hollow voice,
    And I'd fain not hear it there.

No: it's not from the stranger you once met. Ah,
Yet a goodlier scene than that succeeds;
People on a lawn—quite a crowd of them. Yes,
And they chatter and ramble as fancy leads;
    And they say, 'Hurrah!'
To a blithe speech made; save one, mirthless,
    Who ought not to be there.

Nay: it's not the pale Form your imagings raise,
That waits on us all at a destined time,
It is not the Fourth Figure the Furnace showed;
O that it were such a shape sublime
    In these latter days!
It is that under which best lives corrode;
    Would, would it could not be there!

Clearly, the first verse of the poem relates to Hardy's early visits to St Juliot in the 1870s, the 'three folk' in the chaise being himself, Emma and probably Emma's sister, Helen, and the cliffs being probably those in the vicinity of nearby Boscastle. In the second verse, the 'dwelling' may in reality be 'Riverside Villa', Sturminster Newton, Dorset, and the 'stream', the adjacent River Stour. The third verse refers to a mansion, to which Hardy and Emma have been invited for dinner—presumably after he became famous. The 'lawn' referred to in the fourth verse may be the one at Max Gate. All the events described in the above-mentioned poem should, for Hardy, have been happy ones. Instead, because of the presence of the unwanted stranger, they are not. But who was this stranger?

Vere H. Collins asked Hardy to explain the penultimate line: "What is 'that under which best lives corrode?'" To which Hardy replied:

"Madness."
Collins: "In each case?"
Hardy: "Yes. I knew the family."

When Collins suggested that Hardy give "The Interloper" a subtitle, in order to make its meaning clearer, Hardy responded (for the 1923 edition) with "And I saw the figure and visage of Madness seeking for a home." Said Collins: "When Hardy uttered that word ['madness']...there burst on me a revelation"—the subtitle was a reference to Emma. (Hardy, of course, whatever his thoughts, would never have used the word 'madness' openly had Emma still been alive.) Said Collins:

This was the clue. "The Blow," "The Blot," "The Wound" [references to other poems of Hardy's]; the spectre haunting that beautiful girl while she sang and played; the shadow darkening and chilling that passionate union; the lovers struck by an unexpected, unprovoked, undeserved foe; now at last I grasped what...had put an end to happiness in Hardy's marriage and life.

And this is why Hardy 'had tended to concentrate his attention on the tragedies and ironies in love'. But who was "the interloper"—the 'one who ought not to be there' and who corrodes the lives of others? The only interpretation possible is that it was a representation of Emma's alter ego; this being seen by Hardy as a separate entity to Emma, the physical being.

From the first verse, the conclusion, extraordinary as it may seem, must be that Emma was displaying features of insanity even before Hardy married her. (He may only have recognised this with the benefit of hindsight.) And what is equally extraordinary is that he went ahead with the marriage, notwithstanding this fact. And from Hardy's words to Collins—"Madness...I knew the family"—it is clear that it was to Emma's family that the former was referring.

Another poem which Collins mentions above is "The Blow," in which Hardy demands to know why someone had found it necessary 'To have hurled that stone Into the sunshine of our days!'—the days in question being, of course, those which he and Emma had shared together. The answer was that:

No aimful author's was the blow
    That swept us prone,
But the Immanent Doer's That doth not know,

Which in some age unguessed of us
May lift Its blinding incubus,
    And see, and own:
'It grieves me I did thus and thus!'

(This, of course, was an echo of the "Immanent Will" of The Dynasts.) Collins also mentions Hardy's poem "The Wound," a reference not to any physical wound, but to an inner hurt which he had chosen to keep to himself:

    ...that wound of mine
    Of which none knew,
For I'd given no sign
    That it pierced me through.

And when Collins talks about a beautiful girl singing and playing, he is referring to Hardy's poem "At the Piano":

A Woman was playing,
    A man looking on;
    And the mould of her face,
    And her neck, and her hair,
    Which the rays fell upon
    Of the two candles there,
Sent him mentally straying
    In some fancy-place
    Where pain had no trace.
A cowled Apparition
    Came pushing between;
    And her notes seemed to sigh;
    And the lights to burn pale,
    As a spell numbed the scene.
    But the maid saw no bale,
And the man no monition;
    And Time laughed awry,
    And the Phantom hid nigh.

This poem, of course, is again about Emma (who is known to have played the pianoforte). When Hardy is in her company he is happy, and imagines himself to be in a place where pain does not exist—and by implication, where there is only pleasure. However, a "phantom" (ghost or spectre) appears and intervenes between them. Emma is unaware of the evil and woe ("bale") which the phantom's presence portends, and Hardy fails to recognise its presence as a warning ("monition") of things to come.

In the above three poems, as Collins so rightly guessed, the "stone" in the first, the "wound" in the second, and the "cowled apparition" or "phantom" in the third, were all metaphors for Emma's "madness." Collins might also have mentioned "The Man with a Past," where Hardy alludes to the fact that neither he nor Emma saw the "dart" which was winging its way towards them; another metaphor, undoubtedly, for Emma's insanity:

    There was merry-making
    When the first dart fell
    As a heralding,—
Till grinned the fully bared thing,
    And froze like a spell.
    Like a spell.

    Innocent was she,
    Innocent was I,
    Too simple we!
Before us we did not see,
    Nearing. Aught wry—
    Aught wry!

It is difficult to be precise about when exactly the penny first dropped and Hardy realised that Emma was insane (or "mad," as he called it). This is because works of his which allude to Emma's insanity were written subsequent to the events which they describe, and therefore with the benefit of hindsight. Nevertheless, by the time he came to write "The Interloper," which was published in late 1917, her "madness" was a fact of which he was certain beyond all doubt.

*

Of other poems in Moments of Vision, "Honeymoon Time at an Inn" undoubtedly relates to Hardy's own honeymoon. The poem begins ominously:

At the shiver of morning, a little before the false
    dawn,
    The moon was at the window-square,
    Deedily brooding in deformed decay...

From whence, the atmosphere deteriorates even further:

Her speechless eyeing reached across the
    chamber,
    Where lay two souls opprest,
    One a white lady sighing, 'Why am I sad!'
    To him who sighed back, 'Sad, my Love, am I!'

Suddenly, a "pier-glass" (large, elongated mirror) comes crashing down from the "mantel" and lies shattered on the floor. This, for the lady (Emma), was a portent of "long years of sorrow" for herself and her new husband (Hardy).

"You Were the Sort that Men Forget" begins:

You Were the Sort that Men Forget;
Though I—not yet!—
Perhaps not ever. Your slighted weakness
Adds to the strength of my regret.

You'd not the art—you never had
For good or bad—
To make men see how sweet your meaning,
Which, visible, had charmed them glad.
You would, by words inept let fall,
Offend them all,
Even if they saw your warm devotion
Would hold your life's blood at their call.

In other words, although in Hardy's eyes Emma had some excellent qualities, she had a habit of offending everybody, because in his view, her finer qualities were not discernible to them.

In "The Glimpse," Hardy reveals how the memory of Emma continues to haunt him, even after her death:

She sped through the door
And, following in haste,
And stirred to the core,
I entered hot-faced;
But I could not find her,
No sign was behind her.
'Where is she?' I said:
"Who?" they asked that sat there;
"Not a soul's come in sight."
'A maid with red hair.'
"Ah." They paled. "She is dead.
People see her at night,
But you are the first
On whom she has burst
In the keen common light."

It was ages ago,
When I was quite strong:
I have waited since,—O,
I have waited so long!
Yea, I set me to own
The house, where now lone
I dwell in void rooms
Booming hollow as tombs!
But I never come near her,
Though nightly I hear her.
And my cheek has grown thin
And my hair has grown gray
With this waiting therein;
But she still keeps away!

There are more poems on the theme of lost love and bereavement, which resound with words and phrases such as "my own heart nigh broke," "sorrow wrung" and "mourn," and it requires but little discernment on the reader's part to realise that, as so often is the case, it is about Emma that Hardy is really writing.

In Moments of Vision, Hardy also reveals his morbid side with his references to "death," "mournful mould" (of one deceased), "tombs" and "vaults." This brooding side of his nature cannot entirely be attributed to his failed marriage, for it will be remembered that on his honeymoon he insisted on paying a visit to the Paris morgue. The remainder of the poems deal with such subjects as war and patriotism.

It is now obvious why Hardy chose the title Moments of Vision for this collection of poems, for what the title really means is "Now I see Emma more clearly for what she really was." In other words, Hardy had now come to a full realisation of the true state of mind of his late wife Emma (which he may well have previously been in denial about), even though he lacked the medical knowledge and expertise to make the "diagnosis." Likewise, the title of the poem's predecessor, Satires of Circumstance, translates to "Behold, here I have satirised my unhappy life with Emma," and Time's Laughingstocks translates to "Time has made me a laughingstock."


Late Lyrics and Earlier

Late Lyrics and Earlier was published by Macmillan in May 1922. However, some of the poems in this collection—as the title implies—had been written several years prior to this date. In Hardy's words:

Owing to lack of time, through the necessity of novel-writing for magazines, many of the poems [in this and in other collections] were temporarily jotted down to the extent of a stanza or two when the ideas occurred, and put aside till time should serve for finishing them—often not till years later... This makes it difficult to date those not dated in the volumes.

In the Preface to Late Lyrics and Earlier, Hardy expressed his disappointment that the proposed revisions to the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer had not been "in a rationalistic direction"; according to his wife, Florence, from that time onward "he lost all expectation of seeing the Church [as] representative of modern thinking minds." (In the event, the revisions to which he referred were rejected by the House of Commons in 1927, and again in 1928.)

The fact that the poems included in this volume, unlike many of their predecessors, are less morbid, and display less nostalgia for years past, indicates that Hardy had now become somewhat less dissatisfied with life. Some of them, in fact, are quite jolly; for example, "Weathers":

This is the weather the cuckoo likes,
And so do I...

Hardy's new lease of life is entirely attributable to the presence of Florence. Nonetheless, the past and Emma were never far from his thoughts. In "Faintheart in a Railway Train" Hardy speaks of a lost opportunity to introduce himself to a "radiant stranger"—female, of course—encountered on a station platform. In "The West-of-Wessex Girl" he regrets that the subject of the poem was "never...squired" by him. Judging by the mention of Emma's home town, and that the two never had a romantic relationship, the subject is almost certainly Emma.

The very title of "If It's Ever Spring Again" indicates that for Hardy, those early, happy times in which he spent courting Emma will not come again. In "Two Serenades," written, poignantly, one Christmas Eve, he complains that Emma is indifferent to his overtures of love:

But she would not heed
What I melodied
In my soul's sore need—
She would not heed.

So that finally:

Sick I withdrew
At love's grim hue...

In "The Rift," Hardy refers to "those true tones—of span so brief!"—in other words, to what he remembers as the true Emma, before her "old gamut [musical note 'G'] changed its chime." After this:

So sank I from my high sublime!
We faced but chancewise after that,
And never I knew or guessed my crime...

Hardy could not understand why Emma had changed, and wondered if he was to blame for that change; but if so, in what way?

In a poem entitled, ironically, "Side by Side," the terrible consequences of Hardy's and Emma's union become apparent when the 'estranged two' meet one day, by chance, at church, and find themselves sharing the same pew:

Thus side by side
Blindly alighted,
They seemed united
As groom and bride,
Who's not communed
For many years—
Lives from twain spheres
With hearts distuned.

In "Read by Moonlight" he (Hardy) reads the last letter which Emma had written to him, the last of many such "missives of pain and pine." In "A Gentleman's Epitaph on Himself and a Lady, Who were Buried Together," Hardy appears to anticipate his own death and burial next to his late wife Emma. In the poem, Hardy discloses that although the 'Lady' was and would be his companion forever, she was also a person whom he did not really know:

Not a word passed of love all our lifetime,
    Between us, nor thrill;
We'd never a husband-and-wife time,
    For good or for ill.

Nevertheless, the fact that he loved Emma is borne out by the poem "The Woman I Met," where he declares:

Well; your very simplicity made me love you
    Mid such town dross
Till I set not Heaven itself above you,
    Who grew my Cross.

And yet:

...despite how I sighed for you;
So you tortured me, who fain would have died for you!

Finally, in "Fetching Her," he is in total and absolute despair, as he agonises with himself over whether it might have been better had he not:

...pulled this flower
From the craggy nook it knew,
And set it in an alien bower;
    But left it where it grew!

From Thomas Hardy: Behind the Mask, by Andrew Norman, published by The History Press. Copyright © 2011 by Andrew Norman. Used with permission. All rights reserved.