A hybrid sonnet–half English, half Italian–that takes Hardy’s anxiety about the lack of meaning and extends it even to the certainty of there being no meaning–that is, even tragic irony is withheld from this poem. “If but some vengeful god would call to me / From up the sky, and laugh.” Indeed, the form is syllogistic (If…then..but not so) but causality is almost entirely absent. The wish for a relinquishment of agency into the “Powerfuller than I” does not result in any sort of knowledge that can recuperate the “unmbloomed” hopes. Instead, “these purblin Doomsters has as readily strown / Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.” Formally, the sestet (ABABBA), manges to slip in a Spenserian quatrain, which might just be a way if indicating the amount of finagling poetry will go through in order to extract the meaning that is denied it. ??
Neutral Tones (1867)
16 line poem comprise of four In Memoriam quatrains. Here, memory is shown to be a perverting force that can only yield a peculiar type of knowing: realizing how one’s own making-sense is an act of perversion, or “graying.” The event recounted by the speaker is a meeting between him and another by a pond. Both subjects are nameless despite the intense intersubjectivity: “Your eyes on me were as eyes that rove / Over tedious riddles of years ago.” The speaker thus takes on the eyes of his interlocutor as the principle of mode of epistemology determining the poem. Indeed, the vagueness of the scene bears out the inability of the speaker to remember much of anything: “And some words played between us to and fro / On which lost the more by our love.” The temporal distance that would render the immediate encounter intelligible (“Since then…”) merely give shape to a redundant “face,” “God-curst sun,” and a “tree”–that is, even less distinct generic properties that are no longer “gray” but “grayish.” One wonders, then, about the status of the recounted scene at all–was it gray or grayish? In what register of possibility does a phrase like this exist: “The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing / Alive enough to have strength to die” ? This move towards death, as the condition for representability and “aliveness” writes the power of poetry as the intervention into a time that can somehow “fix” the perpetual non-synchronicity of historical action–for instance, the sort of problematics we get in the novels. But this fix is merely a writing oneself back into a missed opportunity whose recession can only be gestured at. ….
Darkling Thrush (31st December 1900)
A rewriting of Keats’ “Ode to Nightingale”…but in this poem, the bird is seen and heard, and is therefore not the eternally exchangeable nightingale that can be substituted for every other Nightingale Keats has never seen:
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen this to fing his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
The melodramatic scene of poetic action causes the poetic speaker to be impressed with the certainty that some meaning must be around somewhere…inhering in the poetic object itself: “Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew / And I was unaware.” The inability to determine meaning is offset by the particular rawness of the poetic source of inspiration: “The tangled bine-stems scored the sky / Like strings of broken lyres.” Yet all of this song is ungrounded, disconnected from its referent: from one angle absurd, from another angle desiring-producing–not art to fill a hollow created by desire, but desire as the desiring of desire. Thus possibility. Read as possible counter-example or complication to “Hap” and “Neutral Tones.”
A collection reckoning with the death of his wife Emma. The latin epigraph opening the collection translates (the traces/signs/ashes of an old flame). The poems are “melancholic,” yes, but not in ways that easily fit the Freudian model of a memory that can’t be located–and is therefore productive of a symbolic regime of sorts. Instead, it seems that the memory (a presence from which the the loss of the presence can be gauged) was compromised form the very beginning. Emma’s forms of withholding are not only constructed within the framework of memory, but are are constructive of those frameworks.
“The Going” – “Why did you give no hint that night” the poem opens: already this is not a complaint about loss, but about the loss of not being able to participate in the scene of loss. As in “Hap,” Hardy is mourning the inability to engage in sorts of poetic relationships. “Unmoved, unknowing,” in the second stanza can refer both to the morning light hardening on the bedroom wall, or can refer to the epistemological stasis-emptiness of the speaking subject. The speaker is being excised form a relationship of possession that was never memorialized–because it was never present.
“The Walk” – Here Hardy plays with the idea of habituation to loss–he cannot tell the difference between the recurrent loss during Emma’s life and the permanent loss he suffers after her death. The question is how one carries over this sentiment: “Not thinking of you as left behind.” The difference in the two experiences, is that the present walk (post-death) is concluded by returning to an empty room. Curious analogy to Freud’s fort/da. “Only that underlying sense of the look of a room on returning thence.” How doe sone account for the difference between a proximity that was not an effort and a permanent absence? One could argue that the material traces of everyday existence is what signified Emma’s duration, existential capacities. Now, the room can only signify nothing, where as previously it could signify lack or desire, depending on the paradigm one chooses.
Opens up 1922 collection Later Lyrics and Earlier. He is conscious of his career stretching across two “time-periods”–the mid-Victorian to the neo-Georgian, as he calls them–a vocational longevity that allows him to quote himself: “If way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst.” He calls this progress towards human betterment “pessimism,” or “evolutionary meliorism.” This Darwinian fate/progress results in something very much like an affective steady-state:
And looking down the future these few hold fast to the same: that whether the human and kindred animal races survive till the exhaustion or destruction of the globe, or whether these races perish and are succeeded by others before that conclusion comes, pain to all upon it, tongued or dumb, shall be kept down to a minimum of loving-kindness, operating through scientific knowledge, and actuated by the modicum of free will conjecturally possessed by organic life when the mighty necessitating forces–unconscious or other–that have “the balancings of the clouds,” happen to be in equilibrium, which may or may not be often.
“Loving-kindness” stands in for that deathly/deathless moment from which one could narrate the workings of “these disordered years of our prematurely afflicted century.” But the price that must be paid for clarity of representation means reducing the capacity for human action to the amount of freewill which Drawing granted to organic beings under the name of instinct. By contrast, most art in 1922 is invested, at least in part, in resisting the idea of mechanical causality extending to the domain of artistic creation. To this end, Hardy takes up Arnold’s definition of poetry as “the application of ideas to life” and thinks of it in terms of this Darwinian affectivity. Thus poetry is “the visible signs of mental and emotional life, [which] must like all other things keep moving, becoming.” Thus Hardy imagines, briefly, the becoming of a poetry that merges the stability of the church with Enlightenment rationality.