Friday, October 21, 2022

Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs, and Trifles by Thomas Hardy

Source of book: I own Hardy’s complete poems


When I read Hardy’s last collection of poems, Winter Words, I laughed at his introduction, which called out the critics of his previous volume, who claimed it was “too pessimistic” - Hardy quipped that it was clear then hadn’t read the collection. 


Well, this collection, Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs, and Trifles, is that previous collection. And, I think Hardy is right. It really isn’t particularly pessimistic. Mostly, it indulges on occasion the Victorian tendency toward overblow pathos, and even this isn’t the most characteristic trait of the collection. One wonders if critics were reacting to his disillusionment with Empire and the optimistic beliefs of that era. In that case, Hardy was more right than they wanted to admit. Within a generation, the Empire would be no more, and the world would be smoldering from two world wars. 


But none of that is really the point of the collection, which has a wide range of topics, moods, and styles. Some of the poems did nothing for me, while others were quite excellent. I suspect each person would choose different poems, and a younger (or older?) me might also be struck by different ones. Anyway, here are my favorites.


Waiting Both


A star looks down at me,

And says:  “Here I and you

Stand each in our degree:

What do you mean to do,—

  Mean to do?”


I say:  “For all I know,

Wait, and let Time go by,

Till my change come.”—”Just so,”

The star says:  “So mean I:—

  So mean I.”


That’s just a compact gem. You can call it pessimistic, or you can call it a truth about life and the inevitability of death. It isn’t entirely a surprise to see Hardy concerned with death. Poets in general have always done so. And Hardy was an old man by then, and had seen many friends pass. Here is another one, which is hardly pessimistic. 


When Dead


It will be much better when

I am under the bough;

I shall be more myself, Dear, then,

Than I am now.


No sign of querulousness

To wear you out

Shall I show there:  strivings and stress

Be quite without.


This fleeting life-brief blight

Will have gone past

When I resume my old and right

Place in the Vast.


And when you come to me

To show you true,

Doubt not I shall infallibly

Be waiting for you.


This next one is interesting. Artemisia is both the name for a family of plants that includes Wormwood and Sagebrush. It is also the name for a legendary female naval commander. I can see allusions to both in the poem, although I am not sure he intended that. In any case, I love the dialogue with the ghostly women of the past. His title as well seems to indicate a universal idea, encompassing every case where a woman has played a significant role. 


Every Artemisia


‘Your eye-light wanes with an ail of care,

Frets freeze gray your face and hair.’


‘I was the woman who met him,

Then cool and keen,

Whiling away

Time, with its restless scene on scene

Every day.’


‘Your features fashion as in a dream

Of things that were, or used to seem.’


‘I was the woman who won him:

Steadfast and fond

Was he, while I

Tepidly took what he gave, nor conned

Wherefore or why.’


‘Your house looks blistered by a curse,

As if a wraith ruled there, or worse.’


‘I was the woman who slighted him:

Far from my town

Into the night

He went... My hair, then auburn-brown,

Pangs have wanned white.’


‘Your ways reflect a monstrous gloom;

Your voice speaks from within a tomb.’


‘I was the woman who buried him:

My misery

God laughed to scorn:

The people said: “ ’Twere well if she

Had not been born!” ’


‘You plod to pile a monument

So madly that your breath is spent.’


‘I am the woman who god him:

I build, to ease

My scalding fires,

A temple topping the Deities’

Fanes of my sires.’


There is a series of poems about snow and winter in the collection, all of which are lovely. My favorite is this one, which is a song. Also, it has a cat.


Snow in the Suburbs


Every branch big with it,

Bent every twig with it;

Every fork like a white web-foot;

Every street and pavement mute:

Some flakes have lost their way, and grope back upward when

Meeting those meandering down they turn and descend again.

The palings are glued together like a wall,

And there is no waft of wind with the fleecy fall.


A sparrow enters the tree,

Whereon immediately

A snow-lump thrice his own slight size

Descends on him and showers his head and eye

And overturns him,

And near inurns him,

And lights on a nether twig, when its brush

Starts off a volley of other lodging lumps with a rush.


The steps are a blanched slope,

Up which, with feeble hope,

A black cat comes, wide-eyed and thin;

And we take him in.


Here is another good one:


The Prospect


The twigs of the birch imprint the December sky

Like branching veins upon a thin old hand;

I think of summer-time, yes, of last July,

When she was beneath them, greeting a gathered band

Of the urban and bland.


Iced airs wheeze through the skeletoned hedge from the north,

With steady snores, and a numbing that threatens snow,

And skaters pass; and merry boys go forth

To look for slides. But well, well do I know

Whither I would go!


I have to quote this next one, because I am told this is what it feels like to hike with me. 


The Weary Walker


A plain in front of me,

And there's the road

Upon it. Wide country,

And, too, the road!


Past the first ridge another,

And still the road

Creeps on. Perhaps no other

Ridge for the road?


Ah! Past that ridge a third,

Which still the road

Has to climb furtherward —

The thin white road!


Sky seems to end its track;

But no. The road

Trails down the hill at the back.

Ever the road!


This next one reminded me of a certain Terry Pratchett quote:

“It is said that your life flashes before your eyes just before you die. That is true, it's called Life.”


Here is Hardy’s take:


A Second Attempt


Thirty years after

I began again

An old-time passion:

And it seemed as fresh as when

The first day ventured on:

When mutely I would waft her

In Love's past fashion

Dreams much dwelt upon,

Dreams I wished she knew.


I went the course through,

From Love's fresh-found sensation—

Remembered still so well—

To worn words charged anew,

That left no more to tell:

Thence to hot hopes and fears,

And thence to consummation,

And thence to sober years,

Markless, and mellow-hued.


Firm the whole fabric stood,

Or seemed to stand, and sound

As it had stood before.

But nothing backward climbs,

And when I looked around

As at the former times,

There was Life—pale and hoar;

And slow it said to me,

‘Twice-over cannot be!’


If this sort of poem is “too pessimistic,” then methinks the reviewer has an unhealthy sense of - not optimism, exactly, but more of denialism. I think our culture has a tendency to live in denial of death and time and loss - and expect a forced “optimism” that is “positive emotions only.” That is problematic, and leads to a lack of healthy emotional expression. And also, in what possible way is this more pessimistic than, say, In Memoriam


Here is another one which speaks of death, but is the opposite of pessimism. 


The Sexton at Longpuddle


He passes down the churchyard track

On his way to toll the bell;

And stops, and looks at the graves around,

And notes each finished and greening mound


As their shaper he,

And one who can do it well,

And, with a prosperous sense of his doing,

Thinks he’ll not lack

Plenty such work in the long ensuing


For people will always die,

And he will always be nigh

To shape their cell.


This next one is specifically about Great Ormes Head, a headland of sedimentary rock in Wales. It is pretty spectacular, of the pictures do it any justice. Hardy notes that our memories are personal - and even the exact same experience can lead to completely different impressions. A wonderful poem. 


Alike and Unlike


We watched the selfsame scene on that long drive,

Saw the magnificent purples, as one eye,

Of those near mountains; saw the storm arrive;

Laid up the sight in memory, you and I,

As if for joint recallings by and by.


But our eye-records, like in hue and line,

Had superimposed on them, that very day,

Gravings on your side deep, but slight on mine! —

Tending to sever us thenceforth alway;

Mine commonplace; yours tragic, gruesome, gray.


The last poem I will feature in this post is one that I sent to my sister-in-law, who has a thing for butter. And not cheap butter, but the good stuff. So, we tease her a bit about it, and my brother for that one time he got store-brand butter that was not up to cream, shall we say. 


The Pat of Butter


Once, at the Agricultural Show,

We tasted—all so yellow—

Those butter-pats, cool and mellow!

Each taste I still remember, though

It was so long ago.


This spoke of the grass of Netherhay,

And this of Kingcomb Hill,

And this of Coker Rill:

Which was the prime I could not say

Of all those tried that day,


Till she, the fair and wicked-eyed,

Held out a pat to me:

Then felt I all Yeo-Lea

Was by her sample sheer outvied;

And, ‘This is the best,’ I cried.


As you can see, the range of poems is pretty great - and these are just the ones I liked best. If you like poetry from the Victorian Era, give Hardy a try. I find him less cloying than some, even if nobody can quite live up to Tennyson at his best. 


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