Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Poems of the Past and the Present by Thomas Hardy.

One of the criticisms I had of Thomas Hardy's first poetry  collection Wessex Poems and Other Verses (1898) was that the arrangement was slightly haphazard. Not so with his second collection, Poems of the Past and the Present (1901), which is divided into five sections - 'War Poems' (referring to the Second Boer War, 1899 - 1902), 'Poems of Pilgrimage', 'Miscellaneous Poems', 'Imitations, etc', and 'Retrospect'.

The war poems, it's said, lead to the success of Poems of the Past and Present. The most famous one of the collection I would say is Drummer Hodge:
They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
Uncoffined -- just as found:
His landmark is a kopje-crest
That breaks the veldt around:
And foreign constellations west
Each night above his mound.
Young Hodge the drummer never knew --
Fresh from his Wessex home --
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
The Bush, the dusty loam,
And why uprose to nightly view
Strange stars amid the gloam.
Yet portion of that unknown plain
Will Hodge for ever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
His stars eternally.
Manuscript of Shelley's Skylark.
Of 'Poems of Pilgrimage' Shelley's Skylark is the most striking (or at least I thought so), which was written whilst Hardy and his wife travelled in Italy in the late 1880s:
Somewhere afield here something lies
In Earth's oblivious eyeless trust
That moved a poet to prophecies -
A pinch of unseen, unguarded dust 
The dust of the lark that Shelley heard,
And made immortal through times to be; -
Though it only lived like another bird,
And knew not its immortality. 
Lived its meek life; then, one day, fell -
A little ball of feather and bone;
And how it perished, when piped farewell,
And where it wastes, are alike unknown. 
Maybe it rests in the loam I view,
Maybe it throbs in a myrtle's green,
Maybe it sleeps in the coming hue
Of a grape on the slopes of yon inland scene. 
Go find it, faeries, go and find
That tiny pinch of priceless dust,
And bring a casket silver-lined,
And framed of gold that gems encrust; 
And we will lay it safe therein,
And consecrate it to endless time;
For it inspired a bard to win
Ecstatic heights in thought and rhyme. 
The next section is 'Miscellaneous Poems', which takes up the majority of the collection. Again we see Hardy reminisce, often with regret and, as ever, with an attention to nature, such as Birds at Winter Nightfall:
Around the house the flakes fly faster,
And all the berries now are gone
From holly and cotoneaster
Around the house. The flakes fly!--faster
Shutting indoors that crumb-outcaster
We used to see upon the lawn
Around the house. The flakes fly faster,
And all the berries now are gone!  
There's also another favourite of mine - The Self-Unseeing:
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! 
Also in this section, Tess's Lament, which of course is a reference to his 1891 novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles:
I
I would that folk forgot me quite,
         Forgot me quite!
I would that I could shrink from sight,
         And no more see the sun.
Would it were time to say farewell,
To claim my nook, to need my knell,
Time for them all to stand and tell
         Of my day's work as done.
II
Ah! dairy where I lived so long,
         I lived so long;
Where I would rise up stanch and strong,
         And lie down hopefully.
'Twas there within the chimney-seat
He watched me to the clock's slow beat -
Loved me, and learnt to call me sweet,
         And whispered words to me.
III
And now he's gone; and now he's gone; . . .
         And now he's gone!
The flowers we potted p'rhaps are thrown
         To rot upon the farm.
And where we had our supper-fire
May now grow nettle, dock, and briar,
And all the place be mould and mire
         So cozy once and warm.
IV
And it was I who did it all,
         Who did it all;
'Twas I who made the blow to fall
         On him who thought no guile.
Well, it is finished--past, and he
Has left me to my misery,
And I must take my Cross on me
         For wronging him awhile.
V
How gay we looked that day we wed,
         That day we wed!
"May joy be with ye!" all o'm said
         A standing by the durn.
I wonder what they say o's now,
And if they know my lot; and how
She feels who milks my favourite cow,
         And takes my place at churn!
VI
It wears me out to think of it,
         To think of it;
I cannot bear my fate as writ,
         I'd have my life unbe;
Would turn my memory to a blot,
Make every relic of me rot,
My doings be as they were not,
         And what they've brought to me! 
But it's not all doom and gloom: The Ruined Maid sees a more satirical Hardy:
"O 'Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?" —
"O didn't you know I'd been ruined?" said she. 
— "You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,
Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks;
And now you've gay bracelets and bright feathers three!" —
"Yes: that's how we dress when we're ruined," said she. 
— "At home in the barton you said thee' and thou,'
And thik oon,' and theäs oon,' and t'other'; but now
Your talking quite fits 'ee for high compa-ny!" —
"Some polish is gained with one's ruin," said she. 
— "Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak
But now I'm bewitched by your delicate cheek,
And your little gloves fit as on any la-dy!" —
"We never do work when we're ruined," said she. 
— "You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream,
And you'd sigh, and you'd sock; but at present you seem
To know not of megrims or melancho-ly!" —
"True. One's pretty lively when ruined," said she. 
— "I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!" —
"My dear — a raw country girl, such as you be,
Cannot quite expect that. You ain't ruined," said she. 

In the following section Hardy offers some imitations of great poets: Sappho, Catullus, Schiller, Heine, Victor Hugo, and Pietro Bembo, and finally, in 'Retrospect', there are three poems: I Have Lived with Shades, Memory and I, and ΑΓΝΩΣΤΩI  ΘΕΩ.

It's an interesting collection though not one I particularly loved, more of a relief, if I may be honest, to finish, but there are some very beautiful poems within it. I'll finish with my absolute favourite written on 31st December 1900, which was considered the turn of the 20th Century:
I leant upon a coppice gate
      When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
      The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
      Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
      Had sought their household fires. 
The land's sharp features seemed to be
      The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
      The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
      Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
      Seemed fervourless as I. 
At once a voice arose among
      The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
      Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
      In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
      Upon the growing gloom. 
So little cause for carolings
      Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
      Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
      His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
      And I was unaware. 

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