Tuesday, 17 September 2013

The Flattering Light of Hindsight

On this day in 1874 at St Peter's Church, Paddington, Thomas Hardy married Emma Gifford. Their marriage started out well, as almost all marriages do, but, despite a mutual fondness for bicycling, ended with each partner 'locked in mutual incomprehension', according to Claire Tomalin in her biography of Hardy "The Time-Torn Man".

Facts rarely get in the way of art though - despite their lack of happiness together, Hardy was overcome by remorseful grief after Emma died. As a result, again according to Tomalin, Emma's death became, 'the moment when Thomas Hardy became a great poet ,,, Filled with sorrow and remorse for their estrangement ... he wrote more poems than he had ever done before in the same space of time.They are among the most original elegies ever written, in feeling and in the handling of language and verse forms".

Here is one of them, which I believe is really set in Boscastle in North Cornwall:

At Castle Boterel

As I drive to the junction of lane and highway,
And the drizzle bedrenches the waggonette,
I look behind at the fading byway,
And see on its slope, now glistening wet,
Distinctly yet

Myself and a girlish form benighted
In dry March weather. We climb the road
Beside a chaise. We had just alighted
To ease the sturdy pony's load
When he sighed and slowed.

What we did as we climbed, and what we talked of
Matters not much, nor to what it led, -
Something that life will not be balked of
Without rude reason till hope is dead,
And feeling fled.

It filled but a minute. But was there ever
A time of such quality, since or before,
In that hill's story? To one mind never,
Though it has been climbed, foot-swift, foot-sore,
By thousands more.

Primaeval rocks form the road's steep border,
And much have they faced there, first and last,
Of the transitory in Earth's long order;
But what they record in colour and cast
Is - that we two passed.

And to me, though Time's unflinching rigour,
In mindless rote, has ruled from sight
The substance now, one phantom figure
Remains on the slope, as when that night
Saw us alight.

I look and see it there, shrinking, shrinking,
I look back at it amid the rain
For the very last time; for my sand is sinking,
And I shall traverse old love's domain
Never again.

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