On Thomas and Emma Hardy

The story is well known. After taking to her bed with an indisposition on November 26, 1912, Emma Lavinia Hardy, Thomas Hardy’s wife of thirty-eight years, died the following day. It was then that he fell in love with her. His last words to her, after the maid had hastily summoned him to her sick room, were, “Em, Em – don’t you know me?” She didn’t hear him.

In truth, Thomas Hardy had loved Emma Gifford when, as a journeyman architect assigned a job of church restoration, he had met her forty-two years earlier. She was then living on the coast of Cornwall with her sister and her brother-in-law, an Anglican parson whose country church needed a bit of work and who had contracted him for the job. But that love had long since hardened into an awkward détente and arguably had never been so ardent as now, when a surge of guilt and regret reawakened all his dormant feelings of tenderness and longing. What do you do when the love of your life unexpectedly dies, leaving you no chance to explain, apologize, or redeem your mistakes?

Well, if you’re a poet, you might write poetry. Thomas Hardy set to work. The sequence of twenty-one poems that he wrote to and about Emma, poems that voyaged back and forth between the blighted present and the promise of the past (and published two years later under the heading “Poems of 1912-13” in the volume Satires of Circumstance), is possibly his greatest achievement. Yet to call it that seems oddly cold and formal. Hardy had already established his reputation, and he had more urgent matters on his mind than the world’s opinion when he wrote lines like:

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.
(“The Voice”)

Oscar Wilde said, “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.” Very true, but when you’re able to express your genuine feelings in dactylic hexameter and the other formidable meters that Hardy uses in “Poems of 1912-13,” you’re likely to keep them from getting too genuine. Wilde further said, “To be natural is to be obvious, and to be obvious is to be inartistic.” Nothing could be less obvious than the outward design of this sequence, in which no two poems share the same rhyme scheme or stanzaic arrangement. A draftsman and architect by training, Hardy was a scrupulous craftsman, but the formal variety of his verse was no fin de siècle filigree. Without the rigor imposed by demanding verse forms (dactylic hexameter is the meter of classical Greek epic and does not easily lend itself to English elegy), he might well have composed for the occasion the sort of bad poetry that Wilde was mocking. Instead, he poured his emotions into form.

As if to subdue the emotions that threaten to overwhelm him, Hardy structures his thoughts in “The Going” — the opening poem of the sequence, written within weeks of Emma’s death – into not one but two complex stanzaic forms. All six stanzas consist of seven lines rhymed ABABCCB, which in turn alternate on an ABABAB pattern based on the placement of long and short lines. What might seem rigidly geometrical turns out to be a delicate balancing act of exposition and lyricism. You can almost feel the poem breathing.

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