This post was originally published at The Master’s Artist.
Thomas Hardy is best known for his novels – The Return of the Native was at one time required reading in many high school or college English classes. His fiction has often been described as rather dark and brooding, and sometimes as depressing, but it was clearly part of the bridge that connected the Victorians to the Moderns.
Hardy also wrote poetry, and a considerable amount of it. Some of his best known poems during his lifetime were about his wife Emma. Now, lots of poets write poems for their wives, girlfriends or lovers. What distinguishes these love poems of Hardy’s is that they were written after Emma died in 1912 – and the two were barely on speaking terms at the time of her death. She died shortly after her 72nd birthday, which Hardy had ignored. He had not written love poetry to her before her death. He was already in love with another woman and would eventually marry her. And yet Emma’s death evoked a remarkable an outpouring of love.
“No one could have predicted the effect Emma’s death had on Hardy,” writes Claire Tomalin in the introduction to Unexpected Elegies, Poem of 1912-13 and Other Poems About Emma. “He immediately began to mourn like a lover. He had her body brought down and placed in a coffin at the foot of his bed, where it remained for three days and three nights until the funeral. And he began almost at once to write, revisiting the early love between them in his mind with an intensity that expressed itself in a series of poems.”
It was almost as if he fell in love with her after she died.
They had met in Wessex, Hardy’s “home turf” and the setting for so many of his novels. She came from a better class than he did, and both families opposed their marriage. They married anyway. Hardy published a romance novel in 1873, called A Pair of Blue Eyes, that is little known today but is partially based on their meeting and love affair. (I posted a review of it in 2012.)
Over the years, Emma helped him enormously in his writing work, but they grew apart. For the last decade of her life, they lived together under the same roof but rarely spoke.
And then she died, and Hardy seemed to fall in love with her again, or perhaps fell in love with the idea of her again. And the result was some 41 poems published form 1912 to 1920 (Hardy died in 1924).
The poems are rather simple and beautiful, the simplicity arising from profound emotion that speaks for itself. These are not lines dashed off in a fit of mourning but worked and refined and hammered into something very fine indeed. As I read Unexpected Elegies, I felt a sense of regret that at least one of these might have been read to her while she still lived. But then, they wouldn’t have been the poems they were, and are.
Here are two from the collection.
She Opened the Door
She opened the door of the West to me,
With its loud sea-lashings,
And cliff-side clashings
Of waters rife with revelry.
She opened the door of Romance to me,
The door from a cell
I had know too well,
Too long, till then, and was fain to flee.
She opened the door of a Love to me,
That passed the wry
As far as the arching blue the lea.
She opens the door of the Past to me,
Its magic lights,
Its heavenly heights,
When forward little is to see!
You did not walk with me
Of late to the hill-top tree
By the gated ways,
As in earlier days;
You were weak and lame,
So you never came,
And I went alone, and I did not mind,
Not thinking of you as left behind.
I walked up there to-day
Just in the former way;
The familiar ground
By myself again:
What difference, then?
Only that underlying sense
Of the look of a room on returning thence.
Photograph by Nadeeshx Jayawardana via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.