Thomas Hardy

Thursday, 3 July 2014

This weekend, on the radio show, I’ll be playing poetry from Thomas Hardy. I’m not wholly familiar with Hardy’s work. I know he was a prolific novelist as well as a competent poet. But my main area of knowledge with his writing comes from the following triolet.

How great my grief, my joys how few,
Since first it was my fate to know thee!
- Have the slow years not brought to view
How great my grief, my joys how few,
Nor memory shaped old times anew,
   Nor loving-kindness helped to show thee
How great my grief, my joys how few,
   Since first it was my fate to know thee?

It’s sad to admit but I only know this piece because I’ve taught students to write triolets and used this one as an exemplar. The triolet is eight lines of end–rhymed poetry that follows a pattern of A B a A a b A B (where capitals indicate refrains or repeated lines). And, whilst Hardy’s triolet does work well to demonstrate how the form can be used, I don’t think it’s his best writing.
Personally, I feel this poem, from his Wessex Poems, is a piece of more accomplished writing.

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 of 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,
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.

That third verse is heart-breaking: The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing... Hardy has already prepared us that this romance is going to end poorly. He’s already set the tone for this upset. We’ve been immersed in grey leaves, fallen from an ash to land upon a starving sod. Now we’re seeing the misery of the doomed relationship in all its sad, sullen glory.

I don’t know what other treats I’m likely to find in Wessex Poems, but I know I’m already excited at the prospect of finding out more about this writer.

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