The love songs of Thomas Hardy.

Examining culture and the arts.
Jan. 18 2007 12:16 PM

A Pessimist in Flower

The love songs of Thomas Hardy.

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At the time of their writing, he was in love with a younger woman who eventually became his wife. Yet the poems for Emma resonate with the poet's forlorn desire to sift through the ember of memories, as if to light them once more, only to find his hands stained with ashes. This, he seems to say, is the material of our lives: a regret more powerful than the experience itself. Among the best are "The Voice," "Your Last Drive," "The Walk," "After a Journey," and "A Dream or No." Here is "The Voice," in full:

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!

Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?

******Thus I; faltering forward,
******Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
******And the woman calling.

The poem offers an extraordinary example of how poetic meter can subtly shape our perception of time. The rhyme scheme acts out a powerful sense that the crux of the matter was long past. Hardy does this by using a regular meter with multisyllabic rhymes ("call to me" and "all to me") in which the most important stress falls not on the last word (as is more typical) but on the third-to-last syllable ("call" or "all"). * This creates a kind of dying fall, a slacking off from the height of the emotion—mimicking the arc of the relationship itself. Then there is the abrupt, even ugly change in the final stanza, in which the speaker, "faltering forward," is prevented from reaching his destination by "wind oozing thin through the thorn." The loss here has no antidote. The ghostly woman goes on "calling" in an endless, bleak present, a portent of what Hardy would have called "nescience"—that is, the unknowing that comes with death.

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Over the years, critics have spent a lot of time trying to explain how Hardy wasn't a Victorian, yet wasn't a Modernist either, claiming that English poetry has truly followed his path (extended through Philip Larkin), or arguing that it has firmly left him behind. In doing so, they echo Hardy's own sense that he was a peculiar outsider, a childhood daydreamer forced to make a place for himself in a puzzlingly conventional society. But they miss his essence. As he wrote in his earliest extant poem, composed around 1857, about flowers by his grandmother's house, "Red roses, lilacs …/Are there in plenty, and such hardy flowers/ As flourish best untrained." It's impossible not to hear "hardy" as a self-reference, evocative of the poet's own early intuition that he would thrive as one "untrained" by convention, kept, perhaps profitably, from the halls of Oxbridge, and likewise unlucky (or just awfully honest) in love.

Correction, Jan. 22, 2007: This sentence originally referred to a "second-to-last iamb" in the poem; in fact, the last foot of the line is not an iamb, but a dactyl. I'm afraid I had noticed this error but failed to make the correction before the piece posted; many thanks to the self-identified "pedantic" experts in scansion for pointing it out once again. Click here  to return to the corrected sentence.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.