Tuesday, April 12, 2016

First Verse

Thomas Hardy started writing poetry when he was in his teens, probably concurrent with his apprenticeship under an architect in nearby Dorchester. Hardy offers up a poem constructed of "Wordworthean lines" about his parents' house, titled "Domicilum" as his oldest surviving work, though he gives no clear indication of when it was written.

Thirteen poems written during his sojourn to London or shortly thereafter appear either near the beginning of Hardy's first volume of poetry Wessex Poems and Other Verses (published in 1898) or in the following volume Poems of the Past and Present (1901). A few of these poems ("Hap," "Neutral Tones," and "The Ruined Maid") rank among Hardy's most often anthologized.

These poems include:

Many of the poems utilize a form called a Petrarchan sonnet, differentiated from the traditional version by its grouping of the lines into two stanzas of four that set up a situation or pose a question and one stanza of six responding to it. "Hap," one of Hardy's most anthologized poems provides us with a good example.

Hap (1866)

If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love's loss is my hate's profiting!” 

Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.

But not so.   How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
—Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. . . .
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.

The rhyme scheme in the first two stanzas is very conventional but the closing six lines (sestet) gives Hardy some room to play. Here he rhymes ABABBA. He uses less conventional closing rhyme schemes in "A Confession to a Friend in Trouble" (ABCCCC) and "Revulsion" (ABABAB) inside the same basic form.

His other favored form is poems built in four line stanzas (quatrains) of varying size. This form, identified as "Sapphic" in the undated poem, "The Temporary The All" shows Hardy's study and appreciation of classical forms and he blends it interestingly with almost a song refrain (with half the syllables of a full line) at the end of the line on poems like "Amabel" and "Postponement."

One of Hardy's most famous poems, "Neutral Tones" warrants a closer examination as it reveals not only his experimentation within the quatrain form but also intersects with his interest in art and painting in interesting ways.

Neutral Tones (1867)

We stood by a pond that winter day,
And the sun was white, as though chidden of God,
And a few leaves lay on the starving sod;
         – They had fallen from an ash, and were gray.

Your eyes on me were as eyes that rove
Over tedious riddles of years ago;
And some words played between us to and fro
         On which lost the more by our love.

The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing
Alive enough to have strength to die;
And a grin of bitterness swept thereby
         Like an ominous bird a-wing….

Since then, keen lessons that love deceives,
And wrings with wrong, have shaped to me
Your face, and the God curst sun, and a tree,
         And a pond edged with grayish leaves.

The first two stanzas have this almost sing-songy quality to the rhythm of each line.

We stood by a pond that win ter day
And the sun was white, as though chidd en of God
And a few leaves lay on the star ving sod
They had fal len from an ash and were gray

Your eyes on me were as eyes that rove
Over te di ous ri ddles of years a go;
And some words played be tween us to and fro
         On which lost the more by our love.

But then, this happens:

The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing
live enough to have strength to die;
And a grin of bi tter ness swept there by
         Like an om i nous bird a- wing….

The way he places the three stress rhythm scheme (which appears elsewhere only in the fourth line of each stanza) into the second line of that critical stanza places an unmistakable emphasis on the word "die" and really brings the poem to a dramatic halt at the end of that line before continuing on.

Hardy also studied art with an eye towards writing art criticism during his time in London and this poem strikes me as an attempt to funnel some of that into his poetry. The "neutral tones" in question are, one level, the two colors mentioned in the poem (white and gray). It obviously also refers to the eerily detached narrative by describing this final conversation between former lovers only in what it would have looked like from a short distance away, with the words themselves being lost to that distance. By focusing on the visual, Hardy is essentially painting with verse.

Hardy's poems at the beginning of his career show an obviously debt of influence to both Wordsworth and Swinburne, both of whom used these forms he's playing with here. We can, however, see some of the defining qualities of both his fiction and poetry developing: his use of place and dialect ("The Ruined Maid"); his much-cited pessimism fueled by a mechanistic world view devoid of God ("Hap," "Her Dilemma"); and his penchant for dwelling on failed romances ("At a Bridal"). Hardy would continue to work within fairly traditional forms and structures until he transitioned into his career as a poet rather than novelist and these early poems give us an insightful glimpse into the poems he emulated while learning his craft.

No comments:

Post a Comment