Monday, August 15, 2016

Winter Words by Thomas Hardy

Source of book: I own this

I’ve had kind of mixed feelings about Hardy ever since I read Jude the Obscure a decade or so ago. Yeah, I know, perhaps not the best place to start, but I owned it already, and it was controversial, so why not jump in and see? Well, the controversy part was easy enough, with its frank (for its time) sexuality and non-conventional family. Likewise, it wasn’t hard to see both the digs at academia (inaccessible to those lacking wealth or status) and the church (more concerned with enforcing sexual mores than with true morality.) In fact, both of these ideas seem every bit as relevant today as then. After all, our own modern time sees higher education becoming ever more expensive, and the most politically powerful church organizations calling for policies that would harm those who break the sexual rules. (Jude’s family starving because he couldn’t get work or housing? That sure sounds relevant these days.)

No, what actually bothered me most about Jude the Obscure was that it is the most misogynistic book I recall reading. I don’t mean “mere” sexism, but bitter, bitter hatred of women.

It turns out that there is a reason for this.

Hardy’s mother - like the father of Elizabeth Barrett Browning - made clear to her children that they were never to marry, but were to remain as “bachelor siblings” and live together for life. When Hardy did marry Emma Lavinia Gifford at age 30, he was made to know his mother’s displeasure.

The marriage with Emma started off happy, but became increasingly estranged. The last 20 years of her life, they lived on separate floors of their house, and rarely saw each other. It isn’t clear entirely what happened. The two of them made sure their correspondence was destroyed, and much of what survived of Emma’s was later burned by Thomas after her death. There are some hints, however. Hardy was a difficult man, to say the least. Emotional and high strung, he seems to have taken Emma for granted. On her part, she seems to have married for more platonic reasons, and resented her life from early on. They never had children, which may have contributed as well. Further, Hardy himself appears to have suffered from bouts of depression, and Emma is believed to have had mental health issues of her own.

Whatever the underlying causes, it appears that, like Sue in Jude, Emma retreated into religion when she hit middle age, and cut Hardy off from sexual contact. Needless to say, Hardy’s tendency to put the autobiographical details of his failing marriage into his novels didn’t exactly thrill Emma.

Odd to say, after her death, Hardy seems to have felt terrible about it all, and tried to deify her in his later poems.

All this to say that Hardy’s experiences in a failed marriage led him to believe that women, particularly middle-aged women, were out to take advantage of men, and wield their sexuality as a weapon.

I did later read Under the Greenwood Tree, which is from the earlier, more optimistic period of his works. But I’m not sure I ever recovered from the trauma of Jude.

So, with that lengthy introduction, let me proceed. 



Winter Words is Hardy’s last collection of poetry. They were generally written in the 1920s, after the horror that was World War I changed England forever. The last of the collection was dictated on his deathbed - his intention to release the collection on his next birthday had failed. Considering he started putting it together at age 87, he didn’t do too badly.

Hardy introduces the collection by noting that the critics considered his last one to be too pessimistic and gloomy. With his characteristic wit, he quips, “However, I did not suppose that the licensed tasters had wilfully misrepresented the book, and said nothing, knowing well that they could not have read it.”

The collection starts with a peculiar poem, “The New Dawn’s Business,” which expresses the feeling that Hardy has been ready to die for some time, but life keeps on.

The New Dawn’s Business
What are you doing outside my walls,
O Dawn of another day?
I have not called you over the edge
Of the heathy ledge,
So why do you come this way,
With your furtive footstep without sound here,
And your face so deedily gray?
‘I show a light for killing the man
Who lives not far from you,
And for bringing to birth the lady’s child,
Nigh domiciled,
And for earthing a corpse or two,
And for several other such odd jobs round here
That Time to-day must do.
‘But you he leaves alone (although,
As you have often said,
You are always ready to pay the debt
You don’t forget
You owe for board and bed):
The truth is, when men willing are found here
He takes those loth instead.’

Perhaps pessimistic. Perhaps just melancholy. Hardy has other moods, however. I liked this one:

Concerning His Old Home
I wish to see it never –
That dismal place
With cracks in its floor –
I would forget it ever!
To see it once, that sad
And memoried place –
Yes, just once more –
I should be faintly glad!
To see it often again –
That friendly place
With its green low door –
I’m willing anywhen!
I’ll haunt it night and day –
That loveable place,
With its flowers’ rich store
That drives regret away!

Hardy’s poems are quite traditional in meter and form, and the level of craft is apparent. In the above, the internal lines of each stanza rhyme with each other throughout the entire poem, which I found to be an interesting way to tie the form together.

The craft is evident in many of the pictures Hardy paints as well. The first stanza of this one is memorable: the picture of the sky as a pot with a slightly askew lid.


A clamminess hangs over all like a clout,
The fields are a water-colour washed out,
The sky at its rim leaves a chink of light,
Like the lid of a pot that will not close tight.

She is away by the groaning sea,
Strained at the heart, and waiting for me:
Between us our foe from a hid retreat
Is watching, to wither us if we meet. . . .

But it matters little, however we fare—
Whether we meet, or I get not there;
The sky will look the same thereupon,
And the wind and the sea go groaning on.

Another example of melancholy, rather than true pessimism.

One of the themes that runs through this collection is the loss of the naivete of the past. For Hardy, this means the loss of his religious beliefs, the loss of faith in mankind, and the devastation of the passage of time. Whether you agree with his assessment or not, these are some of the best poems in the collection. Here are a few that stood out.

I won’t quote all of “Drinking Song,” which recounts the gradual loss (as Hardy sees it) of the “God in the Gaps” of ancient times. The great thoughts of the past lose their mystery as science explains them. I don’t agree with Hardy on the philosophical point, perhaps because I never liked the God in the Gaps argument in the first place. But the poem itself has a humor about it. Sure, we have to adapt as we discover, but no need to despair. Thus, at the end, Hardy concludes that even without the great thoughts of the past, we can still do good in the world. The best stanza in my opinion is the one on Einstein. (Recall that Relativity was a new concept when the poem was written…)

And now comes Einstein with a notion —
Not yet quite clear
To many here —
That's there's no time, no space, no motion,
Nor rathe nor late,
Nor square nor straight,
But just a sort of bending-ocean.


Fill full your cups: feel no distress;
'Tis only one great thought the less!

This loss of faith seems to be particularly lacerating to Hardy around Christmas. There are two poems with this theme, the first of which is one of Hardy’s better known late poems.

Yuletide in a Younger World

We believed in highdays then,
And could glimpse at night
On Christmas Eve
Imminent oncomings of radiant revel—
Doings of delight:—
Now we have no such sight.

We had eyes for phantoms then,
And at bridge or stile
On Christmas Eve
Clear beheld those countless ones who had crossed it
Cross again in file:—
Such has ceased longwhile!

We liked divination then,
And, as they homeward wound
On Christmas Eve,
We could read men's dreams within them spinning
Even as wheels spin round:—
Now we are blinker-bound.

We heard still small voices then,
And, in the dim serene
Of Christmas Eve,
Caught the far-time tones of fire-filled prophets
Long on earth unseen. . . .
—Can such ever have been?

Should I live as long as Hardy, I truly hope I never lose the ability to see the wonder. On the other hand, I suppose one can see why Hardy felt that way. World War I caused so many to recoil in horror at the hatred that mankind has for mankind. And I share Hardy’s frustration that all the centuries of Christian faith seem to have done little to nothing to prevent it.

Christmas: 1924

'Peace upon earth!' was said. We sing it,
And pay a million priests to bring it.
After two thousand years of mass
We've got as far as poison-gas.

A bitter little epitaph, although it misses the point that mankind has yet to find any creed, sacred or secular, that appears to be able to overpower the tribalist instinct.

Turning from that wretched taste, here is one that shows more good humor: his lament by an old newspaper. (Had he only seen the Digital Age…)

The Aged Newspaper Soliloquizes

Yes; yes; I am old. In me appears
The history of a hundred years;
Empires’, kings’, captives’, births and deaths,
Strange faiths, and fleeting shibboleths.
- Tragedy, comedy, throngs on my page
Beyond all mummed on any stage:
Cold hearts beat hot, hot hearts beat cold,
And I beat on. Yes; yes; I am old.

Two things I love about this one. The use of semicolons to slow the repeat of “yes.” It’s brilliant, and I’m not saying that just because I love semicolons. The other thing I adore is “fleeting shibboleths.” Every age has them, the litmus tests, the signs of belonging to a tribe - and the means of excluding outsiders. Just a great picture.

Another poem also uses tragedy and comedy in a creative way. This may be my favorite of the collection.

He Did Not Know Me
(Woman's Sorrow Song)

He said: " I do not know you;
You are not she who came
And made my heart grow tame?"
I laughed: " The same!"

Still said he: " I don't know you."
" But I am your Love!" laughed I:
" Yours — faithful ever — till I die,
And pulseless lie!"

Yet he said: " I don't know you."
Freakful, I went away,
And met pale Time, with " Pray,
What means his Nay?"

Said Time: " He does not know you
In your mask of Comedy."
" But," said I, " that I have chosen to be:
Tragedy he."

" True; hence he did not know you."
" But him I could recognize?"
" Yea. Tragedy is true guise,
Comedy lies."

Two contrasting poems also caught my eye on the way that age steals beauty. In the first, the narrator never catches the object of his love, but wonders if she would have faded to him. (Perhaps like Emma.)

A Countenance

Her laugh was not in the middle of her face quite,
As a gay laugh springs,
It was plain she was anxious about some things
I could not trace quite.
Her curls were like fir-cones — piled up, brown —
Or rather like tight-tied sheaves:
It seemed they could never be taken down. . . .

And her lips were too full, some might say:
I did not think so. Anyway,
The shadow her lower one would cast
Was green in hue whenever she passed
Bright sun on midsummer leaves.
Alas, I knew not much of her,
And lost all sight and touch of her!

If otherwise, should I have minded
The shy laugh not in the middle of her mouth quite,
And would my kisses have died of drouth quite
As love became unblinded?

But not for everyone does love lose its luster.

Faithful Wilson

" I say she's handsome, by all laws
Of beauty, if wife ever was!"
Wilson insists thus, though each day
The years fret Fanny towards decay.

" She was once beauteous as a jewel,"
Hint friends; " but Time, of course, is cruel."
Still Wilson does not quite feel how,
Once fair, she can be different now.

Anyone who has known a couple who has had true love for many years knows this to be true.

There are a lot of poems in this collection - over a hundred pages worth - and they span many other moods, genres, and forms. Hardy may or may not be your taste, but I found his poems to be better than I expected, with many having a psychological and philosophical depth that went well with the superb craftsmanship.

I’ll end with this one, another favorite, that might be seen as an argument between an extrovert and an introvert.

A Private Man on Public Men

When my contemporaries were driving
Their coach through Life with strain and striving,
And raking riches into heaps,
And ably pleading in the Courts
With smart rejoinders and retorts,
Or where the Senate nightly keeps
Its vigils, till their fames were fanned
By rumour's tongue throughout the land,
I lived in quiet, screened, unknown,
Pondering upon some stick or stone,
Or news of some rare book or bird
Latterly bought, or seen, or heard,
Not wishing ever to set eyes on
The surging crowd beyond the horizon,
Tasting years of moderate gladness
Mellowed by sundry days of sadness,
Shut from the noise of the world without,
Hearing but dimly its rush and rout,
Unenvying those amid its roar,
Little endowed, not wanting more.


  1. Why the "bachelor siblings" plan? Was that a thing at some point?

    1. I have no idea. This was the first I saw of that *particular* idea. For EBB, her dad was such a narcissist that he expected his kids to devote their lives to caring for him. I can't find evidence that this was any more mainstream in the Victorian Era than now - probably controlling parents exist in every society. Still, it must have been enough to drive one to poetry...

    2. It seems to be an eccentricity of certain individuals. I haven't heard it as a common thread anywhere, but I've run across at least two that I remember.

      One mother I heard about had a genetic disease and apparently for that reason decided that none of her children should ever marry. However, once a test became available, she still thought they should all remain single and apparently stay with her at home - even the ones who didn't carry the gene. They didn't, but two of them only married after her early death (due to the disease). (The father never agreed with this attitude, by the way, and actually helped one daughter marry against her mother's will.)

      The other woman told me that she knew her daughters "could never find good husbands" so she was raising them to be self-supporting because they would never marry. I don't know what ever happened with that situation, but I hate to think what those young women must have suffered due to their mother's excessive controlling. I hate to think what her husband suffered as well. :-/

  2. Speaking of poetry - while exploring some rabbit trail of the internet I landed at the web page of a young Australian poet who writes some really amazing stuff. You might be interested:

  3. I enjoyed your take on these poems. I love Hardy's work, both novels and poetry but the poetry the best. In spite of all of the talk about the autobiographical themes in his novels I truly believe that the real Hardy is in his poetry. Thanks for sharing!