Expansive Poetry & Music Online Classic Reprint

Thomas Hardy

Four from
Wessex Poems (1901)
Poems of the Past and Present

Thomas Hardy, with a lengthy and famous career as the author of Tess of the D'Urbevilles, The Return of the Native, Jude the Obscure, Far from the Madding Crowd and many others, staples ever since in both bookstores and onscreen, whether in films or in Masterpiece Theater,  had written poetry throughout his life as a novelist.  But not until he was 58 did he make any effort to get a book of poems out, though in remarks to friends he had said for decades that he always thought of himself as a poet who wrote novels.   Gifted with a variety of meters and with rhyme, with an ear for satire and irony,  he was not very well received by critics for "Wessex Poems" and subsequent volumes until very nearly the end of his life, but he became one of the most widely read poets in England.   It's not hard to hear why.  His poems bounce with song rhythms, whether in standard ballad measure or more unusual schemes, such as a very good use of seven-beat lines, something very difficult to do without music in English (we'll have some of these in August).   Though he wasn't an inventive rhymer the way Byron was and the way Auden could be, his relatively simple rhymes don't suggest a dim author but a poet on the edge of bursting into song.   Although he frequently affected one dialect or other, he rarely used the affected diction of so many Victorian poets.

"Middle-Age Enthusiasms"
     to M.H.

    We passed where flag and flower
    Signalled a jocund throng;
    We said: 'Go to, the hour
    Is apt!" -- and joined the song;
And kindling, laughed at life and care,
Although we knew no laugh lay there.

    We walked where shy birds stood
    Watching us, wonder-dumb;
    Their friendship met our mood;
    We cried: 'We'll often come:
We'll come morn, noon, eve, everywhen!'
-- We doubted we should come again.
    We joyed to see strange sheens
    Leap from quaint leaves in shade;
    A secret light of greens
    They'd for their pleasure made.
We said: 'We'll set such sorts as these!"
-- We knew with night the wish would cease.

    'So sweet the place,' we said,
    'Its tacit tales so dear,
    Our thoughts, when breath has sped,
    Will meet and mingle here!"...
'Words!' mused we.  'Passed the mortal door,
Our thoughts will reach this nook no more.'

"Nature's Questioning"

    When I look forth at dawning, pool,
        Field, flock, and lonely tree,
        All seem to gaze at me
Like clustered children sitting silent in a school;

    Their faces dulled, constrained, and worn,
        As though the master's ways
        Though the long teaching days
Had cowed them till their early rest was overborne.

    Upon them stirs in lippings mere
        (As if once clear in call,
        But now scarce breathed at all) --
'We wonder, ever wonder, why we find us here!

    'Has some Vast Imbecility,
        Mighty to build and blend,
        But impotent to tend,
Framed us in gest, and left us now to wizardry?

    'Or come we of an Automaton
        Unconscious of our pains?...
        Or are we live remains
Of Godhead dying downwards, brain and eye now gone?

    'Or is it that some high Plan betides,
        As yet not understood,
        Of Evil stormed by Good,
We the Forlorn Hope over which Achievement strides?'

    Thus things around.  No answerer I....
        Meanwhile the winds and rains,
        And Earth's old glooms and pains
Are still the same, and Life and Death are neighbors nigh.

"Shelley's Skylark"

(The neighborhood of Leghorn: March 1887)

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 slope 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.

"Architectural Masks"


There is a house with ivied walls,
And mullioned windows worn and old,
And the long dwellers in those halls
Have souls that know but sordid calls,
        And daily dote on gold.


In blazing brick and plated show
Not far away a 'villa' gleams,
And here a family few may know,
With book and pencil, viol and bow,
        Lead inner lives of dreams.


The philosophic passers say,
'See that old mansion mossed and fair,
Poetic souls therein are they:
And O that gaudy box! Away,
        You vulgar people there.'

We'll have more of Hardy, a favorite, in the future.

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