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ClassicsOnline Home » HARDY,T.: Winter Words (Unabridged)
This selection of Hardy’s poetry does full justice to its humanity, integrity, humour and evocative power, ranging from charming anthology pieces such as ‘Weathers’ to the great love poems he wrote after the death of his first wife and the meditations on war and philosophy. The poems—nearly eighty in total—are set in the context of his life and thought, including personal writings by him and those closest to him.
Thomas Hardy, born in 1840, died in
1928, does not fit comfortably into the
categories of English literature. For a
start, he was (most unusually) both
novelist and poet, both experimentalist
and traditionalist, in form as much as in
content. He was a poet from his youth,
a novelist in middle age, and a poet
again until his death.
The ideas about poetry which he
articulated in diaries, notes and
prefaces were simple and direct—‘poetry is emotion put into measure’;
or, ‘the mission of poetry is to record
impressions, not convictions’. Some
critics and readers of his own day
commented adversely on his
technique, not understanding what he
was trying to do, and on his ideas,
wrongly considering him a pessimist.
He tried to explain the technique: ‘As
to rhythm’. Years earlier he had
decided that too regular a beat was
bad art…He knew that in architecture
cunning irregularity is of enormous worth, and it is obvious that he carried
this into his verse, perhaps in part
unconsciously, the Gothic art-principle
in which he had been trained—the
principle of spontaneity, found in
mouldings, tracery and such-like—resulting in the ‘unforeseen’ character
of his metres and stanzas, that of stress
rather than of syllable…’ (Life of
Thomas Hardy). And he defended
himself against the charge of
pessimism: ‘that these impressions
have been condemned as “pessimistic”—as if that were a very wicked adjective—shows a curious muddle-mindedness.
It must be obvious that there is a higher
characteristic of philosophy than
pessimism, or than meliorism—which is
truth…’ (General Preface, 1912).
Yet it remains the case that the
dominant note of Hardy’s poetry is an
acute sense of loss—loss of faith, loss
of love. For Hardy, time and human
insensitivity combine to destroy the
person and his personality: if, as Larkin says, the essential instinct of art is to
‘preserve’, then this is certainly true of
Hardy. The poem itself is an act of
defiant preservation, asserting the
value of the human spirit in spite of all
that time and its agents can do:
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the raindrop
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the raindrop
The ‘names’ represent individuals—
feelings, people—while the impersonal
rain-drop, agent of what Housman
calls ‘heartless, witless nature’,
embodies all that opposes the precious,
albeit transient, in human life.
It was only after Hardy’s death that
the literary world began to realise what
it had lost. W.H. Auden commented
favourably on Hardy’s ‘hawk’s vision,
his way of looking at life from a very
great height’; Ezra Pound said that
nobody had taught him anything about
writing after Thomas Hardy died; and
Philip Larkin declared that Hardy’s
Collected Poems were ‘many times
over the best body of poetic work this
century has so far to show’.
Adverse critical comment has
resulted from a common modernist misconception of what makes great
poetry—John Crowe Ransom, for
example, in claiming that Hardy was ‘a
great minor poet…and a poor major
poet’ clumsily mistakes the personal,
idiosyncratic, small-scale voice of Hardy
for ‘minor’ work, failing to realise that
greatness has to do with expression,
feeling and insight, not ‘big’ ideas,
clever literary allusions and selfconscious
When the work of T.S. Eliot (and Ezra
Pound) has dulled into datedness,
Hardy’s will survive, and be loved.
Perhaps we should leave the last word
to F.R. Leavis, not normally known as
an admirer of Hardy: ‘the singleminded
integrity of his preoccupation
with a real world and a real past, the
intentness of his focus upon particular
facts and situations, gives this poetry
the solidest kind of emotional
substance. There is no emotionality.
The emotion seems to inhere in the
reality recognized and grasped.’
Notes by Perry Keenlyside
Notes on the Poems
The Oxen Hardy movingly and simply
expresses his nostalgia for the religious
faith he has lost, imagining the
Christmas story as it might be
A Church Romance The poet
touchingly evokes the first meeting of
his parents-to-be. ‘New Sabbath’ and
‘Mount Ephraim’ are old psalm-tunes.
The Self-Unseeing The dreamy
atmosphere suggests a lack of
awareness in the characters that their
innocent world will disappear forever.
Neutral Tones Stark language and
imagery evoke a feeling of despair: the
lovers have arrived at a moment of
When I Set Out for Lyonnesse
‘Lyonnesse’ is an old word for
Cornwall. Hardy thought, along with
an American admirer, that this was
perhaps his ‘sweetest lyric’.
Domicilium The title simply means
‘home’. This is the earliest of Hardy’s
surviving poems, written between
1857 and 1860. He tells us how his
home was poised on the edge of what he later called ‘Egdon Heath’, the wild
setting for his novel ‘The Return of the
Native’. ‘Esculents’ are vegetables.
During Wind and Rain This
remarkable poem mimics in its sound
and movement a cry of despair at
time’s ruthless destruction of precious
people and places.
The House of Hospitalities The poet
is haunted by memories of childhood
Night in the Old Home Ancestral
ghosts counsel resignation and
A Trampwoman’s Tragedy Hardy
thought this old-style ballad his most
successful poem: certainly the storytelling
is brilliantly strong and
At the Railway Station, Upway A
little boy innocently offers to comfort a
convict by playing his violin for him.
One Ralph Blossom Soliloquizes An
example of sly humour in Hardy—he is
amused by the idea of an old
womaniser escaping punishment
through mortal illness.
The Ruined Maid Hardy draws a
poignant and humorous contrast
between the Dorset peasant girl and
her old friend who has become a
successful prostitute in London.
The Lost Pyx A priest miraculously
recovers ‘the Body of Christ Himself’
and is thus able to give communion to
a dying man.
Great Things An exhilarating
celebration of simple pleasures.
Weathers A much-anthologised and
charming poem, written with a
Snow in the Suburbs Hardy
characteristically shows compassion for
the animals in the snow.
The Fallow Deer at the Lonely
House The title is almost a poem in
itself. An exquisitely understated
In Tenebris I ‘In the darkness’.
Language and syntax are stripped to
the bone for this terrifying description
of a state almost beyond despair—the
state of absolute emptiness.
In Tenebris II The brilliantly-controlled
long lines spell out Hardy’s
uncompromising vision of life, and the way in which he feels excluded
because he will not express facile
Wessex Heights Again Hardy spins a
long line in this poem which powerfully
evokes the poet’s absolute isolation—
he is an outcast, feeling more like a
ghost than an alive member of society.
At Day-Close in November A simple
but deeply touching statement about
ageing and the passage of time.
Shut Out that Moon The poet asks
that we resort to ‘mechanic speech’
rather than dwell on memories of
earlier happiness: their recall is too
The Five Students Not literally
‘students’: Hardy and his closest
companions are referred to here. ‘Dark
He’ is certainly Horace Moule who
committed suicide in 1873. ‘Fair She’ is
A Commonplace Day A dull day ends.
The poet senses a vague regret,
perhaps a faint reflection of some
positive intent somewhere in the
world, now aborted…
I Look Into My Glass If his heart were
as ‘shrunk’ as his ageing skin, he would be spared painful feelings of regret.
Nobody Comes Hardy’s sense of
isolation is increased by the impersonal
‘whang’ of a car which speeds by him.
Exeunt Omnes The poet’s world is
compared to a fair closing down in the
evening: he alone remains. ‘Kennels’
are street gutters.
The Workbox The carpenter husband
presents his young wife with a
workbox made from a length of wood
also used for a coffin. What her
husband doesn’t know is that the dead
man within that coffin is a former
sweetheart of his wife’s…
Ah, Are You Digging on my Grave?
A dead woman asks who disturbs her
grave. Her little dog has been burying a
bone, not (as the woman had hoped)
showing its love or loyalty.
In Church The powerful preacher is a
In The Cemetery Mothers squabbling
over the whereabouts of their
children’s graves do not realise that
they have all been moved to
accommodate the laying of a new
At Tea The young wife does not realise that the tea-time guest is an old
lover of her husband’s.
At a Watering-Place A man explains
to his friend that the pretty young
bride-to-be strolling with her lover was
until recently his mistress. Ignorance is
The Curate’s Kindness An old man
going to the workhouse is
disappointed to find that a ‘kind’ new
rule will force him to stay with the
nagging wife he had hoped to
The Rash Bride A young carol-singer is
heartbroken to discover that the pretty
young widow he loves has married
A Countenance Her features may
have been irregular, but they were
The Contretemps Two young people
mistake each other for the lover they
await. Impulsively they decide to form a
Plena Timoris A pair of lovers,
meeting on a bridge, are chilled to
discover that a jilted girl has drowned
Molly Gone A late poem (1917) which affectionately recalls a nowdead
female companion; either Hardy’s
first wife, or his sister Mary.
A Broken Appointment The poet
wishes at least that his lover, rejecting
him, might show some compassion.
The Division A sharply-realised
evocation of separation both
geographical and emotional.
The Photograph An old photograph
of a woman burns in the grate: the
poet feels its destruction as if it were
really the person rather than the
picture which is eaten up by flames.
Thoughts of Phena At News of Her
Death Hardy, in what is clearly an
autobiographical poem, wonders
about the life of a former lover.
Her Death and After An old lover
tricks his way into adopting an
Her Immortality The poet’s dead
mistress can only live in his memory; he
swears to live as long as he may.
A Night in November A leaf blown in
through the window is like the touch of
a vanished hand.
He Prefers Her Earthly The poet
prefers to think of his dead lover as she really was, rather than as some
grandiose natural manifestation.
Under the Waterfall Probably
inspired by the passage in Emma
Lavinia’s ‘Some Recollections’ where
she describes the loss of a picnic
The Going The poem is full of a sense
of disturbed equilibrium, with its
rhythmic and syntactic lurches: the
feeling of raw grief is extraordinary.
The Frozen Greenhouse: St Juliot
Hardy remembers Emma Lavinia’s
childish grief at the loss of some
greenhouse plants. Now, years later,
she lies cold in the grave while the
I Found Her Out There Hardy regrets
that his wife is buried far from the
western ocean within whose sound she
was brought up. Yet perhaps her
‘shade’ will ‘creep underground/ Till it
catch the sound/ Of that western
sea…’ The fancy is both original and
The Haunter With his usual capacity
for empathy, Hardy imagines that his
wife’s shade has forgiven him for the
coldness he showed her in later years: she goes ‘straight to his side’ if he ‘but
The Voice Hardy does not know
whether he really hears his late wife’s
voice, or whether it is merely the ‘wind
oozing thin through the thorn from
norward’. ‘Wistlessness’ means ‘lack of
His Visitor Once again Hardy puts
himself in the place of Emma Lavinia,
imagining that she revisits the place
‘where I lived with you for twenty years
and more’. The indifference of the
place and its current owners
encourages her to return sadly to the
twilight world of her fellow ghosts.
After a Journey This closely argued,
densely expressed poem is charged
with feeling: the poet, revisiting the
Cornish coast, is moved to an ecstatic
assertion of continuing unity with his
Beeny Cliff The poet recalls a scene of
courtship with exalted energy,
expressed in long, lilting lines; only
towards the close does he articulate
the bleak truth that ‘the woman…will
laugh there nevermore’.
At Castle Boterel A defiant assertion of the value of individual human
experience, set against the ‘primaeval’
cliffs: however much they have seen of
‘Earth’s long order’, the important
thing for the writer is that they ‘record
in colour and cast…that we two
In the British Museum An ordinary
‘labouring man’ marvels at the fact that
the ‘time-touched stone’ he sees once
‘echoed / The voice of Paul’.
Before Life and After The poet muses
about the glory and innocence of the
time before mankind was corrupted
and asks how long it will be before the
return to such a state.
In the Servants’ Quarters A
powerfully dramatic retelling of the
story of Peter’s denial of Christ.
Epitaph on a Pessimist This cynical
reflection on life anticipates Larkin’s
‘They fuck you up, your Mum and
The Darkling Thrush Written at the
turn of the last century. Hardy muses
on the contrast between his own bleak
thoughts and the unexpected hope
which he hears expressed by ‘an aged
thrush’, battered by the elements.
The Convergence of the Twain
Hardy’s famous poem on the loss of
the ‘Titanic’. Instead of focusing on
individuals or the technical details of
the sinking, Hardy’s ‘hawk’s vision’
looks at the disaster from a sardonic,
philosophical perspective. Man’s vanity
is punished by the ruthless ‘Immanent
Men Who March Away Written in
September 1914, this is an
expression of patriotic faith.
Channel Firing God reassures the
dead souls buried in the churchyard
that they have been disturbed by the
usual folly of mankind: ‘gunnery
practice out at sea’ prefaces probable
war. It is not yet time for ‘the
judgment-hour’…Written in April
1914, the poem is uncannily prophetic.
A Christmas Ghost Story Prompted
by the Boer War and written on
Christmas Eve, 1899. The phantom of
a dead British soldier wonders why the
world has yet to adopt the pacific
values of Christianity.
Drummer Hodge Hardy (unsentimentally)
anticipates the idea of Brooke’s ‘If I should die...’: Drummer Hodge will
become a part of the veldt in which he
In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’ With powerful simplicity and
poignant understatement, Hardy avers
that the essentials of life—agriculture
and human love—will go on,
regardless of war’s barbarity.
Afterwards Hardy’s modest farewell:
perhaps people will remember him as
an observant countryman—‘a man
who used to notice such things’. For
Hardy, the apprehension and
appreciation of the little things in
nature stands for the importance of
truth in all things.
The music on this recording is taken from the NAXOS and MARCO POLO catalogues
TOVEY Cello Sonata in F major
Rebecca Rust, cello
David Apter, piano
BRIDGE Three Idylls
Traditional Wessex music recorded especially for this collection:
Haste to the Wedding, Guy Fletcher, violin
The Outlandish Knight, Madeleine Butcher, violin; Sarah Butcher, cello
Spencer the Rover, Guy Fletcher, violin
Break o’ the Day, Madeleine Butcher, violin; Sarah Butcher, cello
Recorded at Bucks Audio Recording by Alan Smyth
Music programmed by Nicolas Soames
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HARDY,T.: Winter Words (Unabridged)