|Illustration by Thomas Hardy in Wessex Poems and Other Verses (1899 edition).|
Wessex Poems and Other Verses is Thomas Hardy's first published poetry collection, a mix of his early poems written as far back as the 1860s and those written for this publication. As the title suggests the broad theme of the book is Wessex - south and south west England based on the medieval kingdom of Wessex before the unification of England by King Æthelstan (924 - 939), taking in the counties of Devon, Wiltshire, Berkshire, Somerset, Dorset and Hampshire.
Aside from Wessex, one of the major themes of this work is nostalgia. Hardy began his poetry career at the age of 58, and there's a great sense of yearning mixed with regret. Some of the poems, The Alarm, Leipzig, and The Sergeant's Song, are set during or are based on the Napoleonic Wars (1803 - 1815) well before he was born, during which time the Dorset town of Poole was particularly vulnerable to the threat of invasion. It was a period that fascinated Hardy: several of his works are inspired by this period (The Trumpet-Major, 1880, and The Dynasts, 1904 - 1908, for example). In others, he invokes the old spirit of Dorset with ballads and poems with a strong folk-feel, such as in The Dance at the Phoenix and Friends Beyond. My favourite poems though were the more personal, and these, many of them, were very melancholic. My absolute favourite of the entire publication is Neutral Tones written in 1867:
We stood by a pond that winter day,
And the sun was white, as though chidden of God,
And a few leaves lay on the starving sod,
—They had fallen from an ash, and were grey.
Your eyes on me were as eyes that rove
Over tedious riddles solved years ago;
And some words played between us to and fro—
On which lost the more by our love.
The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing
Alive enough to have strength to die;
And a grin of bitterness swept thereby
Like an ominous bird a-wing….
Since then, keen lessons that love deceives,Another particularly moving poem is Unknowing:
And wrings with wrong, have shaped to me
Your face, and the God-curst sun, and a tree,
And a pond edged with greyish leaves.
When, soul in soul reflected,
We breathed an æthered air,
When we neglected
All things elsewhere,
And left the friendly friendless
To keep our love aglow,
We deemed it endless…
—We did not know!
When, by mad passion goaded,
We planned to hie away,
The storm-shafts gray
So heavily down-pattered
That none could forthward go,
Our lives seemed shattered…
—We did not know!
When I found you, helpless lying,
And you waived my deep misprise,
And swore me, dying,
To wing to me when grieving,
And touch away my woe,
We kissed, believing…
—We did not know!
But though, your powers outreckoning,And, one final example, I Look into the Glass:
You hold you dead and dumb,
Or scorn my beckoning,
And will not come;
And I say, “’Twere mood ungainly
To store her memory so:”
I say it vainly—
I feel and know!
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
But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide.
I do have to admit: this collection is a little mixed in terms of simple organisation, and it does suffer from the odd moments of 'Hardy clumsiness', however I really really enjoyed reading it. For one thing it was interesting to read Hardy's poetry after reading all his novels and some of his short stories, and many of them were very beautiful and moving. I get the sense that as I continue through his poetry they'll get better and better. The next collection of Hardy poems is Time's Laughingstocks and Other Verses (1909) and I'll most likely start them this weekend. Until then, here are some of Hardy's own illustrations to Wessex Poems and Other Verses from the 1908 edition, which I found very exciting as I didn't know Hardy'd ever illustrated his works: