To what extent is Hardy's poetry dominated by relationships?

When looking at this question it is important to define what could be meant by the term “relationships”. What the word immediately connotes is an emotional connection between a couple. A lot of Hardy’s poetry concerns this type of “relationship” but he is by not so narrow that this is his only subject matter. However the broader definition of just any state of “connectedness” may also be taken into account when coming to a conclusion.

Hardy’s most positive poem about relationships is “When I Set Out For Lyonesse”. It was written after a trip to Cornwall in which he met Emma Gifford who later became his wife. At the start of the poem the landscape is cold and desolate and love feels “a hundred miles away”. He does not describe what happened whilst he was there and he creates an aura of mystery around the Arthurian Lyonesse. The importance of Lyonesse is emphasised by its repetition within the poem. The mystery is enhanced when he proclaims that no “prophet” or “wisest wizard” could guess what would “bechance at Lyonesse. He himself seems incredulous that he could find love because the outlook in the first stanza is so decidedly bleak. When he returns he is transformed by what has happened and “magic” is in his eyes. He has a “radiance” which, unlike the macrocosmical “starlight”, comes from within. Love is portrayed as something remote, rare and capable of bringing about a magical transformation. His relationship with Emma Gifford transforms him and this poem reflects that transformation.

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“When I Set Out For Lyonesse” demonstrates just one of the ways a relationship is presented. Hardy’s experience of relationships is a varied one. Neutral Tones and We Sat At The Window present relationships soured by apathy. In Neutral Tones the relationship has stagnated; he has become a “tedious riddle” to her and when they do speak it only serves to diminish their love further. The atmosphere created is bleak and stripped bare of all fertility. Even the sun is devoid of all colour and “grayish leaves” lie on the ground. In We Sat At The Window two silent figures stare outside into the rain. The continually falling rain is incongruous with the season but its dynamism also marks the passing of time. As the time stretches on they remain silent and Hardy remarks,

“wasted were two souls in their prime”

However, here Hardy portrays a wasted potential because they don’t grasp “how much” they have yet to discover in each other. The relationship in Neutral Tones is decrepit; it has run its course and the only strength it has left is the “strength to die”. Both poems are dominated by a relationship but not in the same way that Lyonesse is. Hardy is enamoured in Lyonesse but how was he to know that, given a few years, this relationship could fade into Neutral Tones?

Retrospectively we know that the state of happiness portrayed in Lyonesse did not last. Hardy lamented his treatment of Emma Gifford after her death in 1912. The poems written between 1912 and 1913 are consumed by Veteris Vestigia Flammae. His relationship with Emma Gifford is definitely the dominant theme in this collection. There is both the relationship between the two when she was alive and his relationship with the dead Emma. In The Voice his dead wife is addressed directly. Hardy hears Emma call to him and “call to me” is repeated throughout the poem to mimic what he hears in his mind. The metrical composition of the poem is particularly striking and onomatopoeiac. The voice of his wife coming and going in the “breeze” is suggested by the use of dactyls like “call to me”, the triple rhymes on lines one and three and the sharp truncation of lines two and four. Hardy constructs the poem to show his increasing doubts; the excitement of the first two stanzas gives way to a deep uncertainty. He sees her in an “air-blue gown”, as she was in the prime of their relationship, but by the end she has “dissolved” into “wan witlessness”. Questions are asked but no response is given and so he carries on “faltering forward”. Like in Neutral Tones the landscape mimics the relationship; the leaves are falling and a there is a harsh “norward” wind. The sense of loss is acute and even at the end he hears the “woman calling”.

In many of the 1912-1913 poems reflect the affect of Emma’s death upon his perception. Particular moments are chosen to illustrate the change that has taken place. These are moments that have gained poignancy upon retrospective reflection. In The Walk Hardy juxtaposes the past with the present to try and comprehend the “difference”. The structure clearly juxtaposes the past against the present. When he walked up the hill in “earlier days” he was on his own but “did not mind” because he didn’t think of her as “left behind”. He walks up the hill in the “former way” and sees that the surroundings are “similar”, so he asks the,

“What difference then?”

He replies that there is an,

“…underlying sense

Of the look of a room on returning thence”

The absence is not physical but metaphysical. This poem demonstrates how the loss of a loved one can affect perception. This very Joycean theme is a recurrent one, especially in the 1912-1913 poems. In Beeny Cliff Hardy looks back to a moment where his wife was present. He looks back on an idyllic “clear-sunned March Day” and the tone is far less emotionally removed than that of The Walk. The first three stanzas are full of colour and “light-hearted” joy, even though there is darkness it is only temporary and the,

“…sun [bursts] out again”

After the first three stanzas Hardy shifts; “March is nigh” and Beeny Cliff is “chasmal”. This clearly illustrates his shift in perception owing to her death. This idea is again presented in The Going when, upon her death, he sees,

“morning harden upon the wall”

The Going has an immediacy that many of his other poems lack. It is Hardy’s first attempt to come to terms with the death of Emma and is written in the aftermath of her death. Unlike the death in After The Last Breath no sense of “numb relief”; unlike his mother’s death Emma’s death came relatively unexpected. The emotions are raw and the tone fluctuates between accusatory and remorseful. He asks why she gave “no hint” of her death which has “altered all”. He accuses Emma of “indifference” but then goes on to regret their lack of communication before her death. Finally at the end of the poem resigns himself to the fact that “All’s past amend”. He says that her death has “[undone]” him and he is a “dead man held on end”. Though their relationship before death was not particularly cordial her death has affected him deeply.

Though relationships are a dominant theme in a lot of Hardy’s poetry they are by no means the only theme. One subject which surfaces in nearly all of his poetry is the natural world. The natural world is used as a device to reflect emotions in, what T.S Eliot called, an ‘objective correlative’. Hardy uses pathetic fallacy to illustrate the deep emotional connection he feels with nature. It could be argued that, in the broad sense of the word “relationship”, these poems are in fact about relationships. Hardy shows the intrinsic relationship between the human being and the natural world. In Beeny Cliff the sea is “opal” and “sapphire” when Emma is alive, reflecting Hardy’s happiness. After Emma has died the cliff is “chasmal” and is representative of the divide which separates the two. In The Waterfall nature seems to,

“add to the rhyme of love”

In Neutral Tones shows a couple’s apathy towards each other mirrored by the colourless autumn landscape. In Beeny Cliff the seasons are also utilised; it is a “clear-sunned March day” which traditionally represents a time of fertility and joy. Later on in the poem March is used ironically; he returns to Beeny Cliff on a March day but there is no longer any joy. In We Sat At The Window July the seasons are used ironically again. Even though they are two people in their “prime” they are “wasted”: even though it is July it is raining. The scene is incongruous and they are “irked by it”. This contrasts sharply with The Waterfall in which a moment of pure happiness takes place in the “burn of August”.

Hardy came from a rural background and he felt an deep connection with the natural world. In Throwing A Tree Hardy shows an altruistic concern for nature. He uses an emotive lexis to describe the cutting down of a tree. The workmen are deemed “executioners” and his personification of the “proud” tree evokes pathos. At the end of the poem he laments that,

“Two hundred years’ steady growth has been ended in less than two hours”

The incursion of modernism into the natural world is portrayed in a brutal light. This seems an inversion of the fleeting nature of human life in the face of the longevity of nature conveyed in many of his other poems. Nature is often portrayed as a constant which Hardy looks to as a measure of human frailty. This theme really comes to its head in the 1912-13 poems; despite the death of his wife the world continues and he is reminded of his own mortality. In Beeny Cliff the waves are,

“…engrossed in saying their ceaseless babbling say”

The waves move forward mechanically like time. Though the waves might have seemed “far away” when they were together, time has caught up with them. Time has now taken Emma to a place where she,

“No longer cares for Beeny and will laugh there nevermore”

This is also seen in At Castle Boterel. Hardy imagines that his own subjective memories can surpass the objective facts of time. However, these memories are a “phantom figure” which is “fading” as Hardy’s “sand is sinking”. When Hardy dies no “record” of them ever being there will remain because none will remember it, time, in its “unflinching rigour”, will have moved on. The rocks are “primeval” and have witnessed the “Earth’s long order” and will continue to do so once he is gone. Hardy is a being humbled by the idea of time. In The Waterfall he is mesmerised by the,

“The purl of a runlet that never ceases

In stir of kingdoms, in wars, in peaces;”

Hardy feels sorely the “ache of modernism”. In many poems he reviles or tries to shun the encroaching modern world. He escapes the towns in Wessex Heights to go to a place where he can find some “liberty”. This is one of the dominant ideas arising from Hardy’s poetry and his books. The Darkling Thrush was written at the end of the 19th century and reflects his deep pessimism. Hardy is in a “desolate” landscape and night is approaching. He sees the,

“Century’s corpse outleant”

And with references to a “crypt” and the wind’s “death-lament” he seems to be at the funeral of the century. The “pulse” of the earth seems “hard and dry” and this loss of fertility is reminiscent of Neutral Tones. However this is far more macrocosmical than Neutral Tones, it is not just two lovers who are “fervourless”, it is,

“…every spirit upon earth.”

Out of the darkness arises the thrush who sings out in “joy illimited”. Though the thrush is as “frail” and “gaunt” as Hardy it still shows a defiant optimism. The thrush’s song causes Hardy to reflect upon his own pessimism. He looks upon “terrestrial things” and sees no reason for such “ecstatic sounds” and at the end he is “unaware” of such “Hope”. The diction in this poem is highly suggestive; the use of “darkling” reflects his state of mind whilst also alluding to the poem Dover Beach by Mathew Arnold about the erosion of faith in the 19th century.

The morals of the 19th century trouble Hardy quite deeply. In A Sunday Morning Tragedy he tells the story of a girl who falls pregnant outside wedlock. Her lover refuses to marry her and thus, in fear of the shame that would be cast upon her, she tries to abort her baby with a potion but dies. Hardy criticises the fact that her “plight” is “scorned in Christendie”. A similar situation occurs in Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Hardy remarks that her shame is,

“Based on nothing more tangible than a sense of condemnation under an arbitrary law of society which had no foundation in Nature.” ”

Hardy advocates the “plight” of women who have to bare the brunt of such shame. In the poem the girl’s mother declares,

“O women! Scourged the worst are we….”

One of the underlying subjects in Hardy’s poetry is his agnosticism. In Hap he believes his life is dictated by “casualty” and not by the will of god. Hardy asks for a “vengeful” god; his view of the world is such that, if it were to be the product of any higher power, it is a ruthless one. He believes that random chance, or “hap”, dictates his suffering. He explicitly links “pilgrimage” with “pain” through alliteration; he is referencing the sacrificial element of religion. Throughout the rest of the poems it is the lack of religion which remarkable. In the poems written after the death of his wife few religious references are made, this is quite unusual. . In Beeny Cliff Hardy is unsure where his wife is; the previously regular rhythm jars at “-elsewhere-“to illustrate Hardy’s uncertainty in regards to the afterlife. Some of Hardy’s views could be seen as quite pagan. When he describes laying his wife to rest in I Found Her Out There he uses many natural images like “loamy” and “nest”, this burial appears quite heathen. In Voices From Things Growing in a Churchyard he imagines the dead becoming part of nature, in the first line one of the dead declares,

“These flowers are I”

Another topic which Hardy writes about is war. In Drummer Hodge a simple country boy from Wessex has become permanently transplanted under the “foreign constellations” of Africa. Hodge has been fighting in the Boer and is laid to rest in a crude grave. “Hodge” was a somewhat derogatory term for an agricultural labourer and Hardy disliked such words. In The Man He Killed, another poem about the Boer war, Hardy remarks on the absurdity of killing someone whom,

“You’d treat if met where any bar is,

Or help to half-a-crown.”

Hardy’s portrayal of war is more negative in Channel Firing. The noise of gunnery practice out to sea “[shakes] the coffins” of the dead and they think it could be “Judgement-day”. God informs them that all is “just as before” and the “world is as it used to be.” As an omniscient being God understands the repetitive cycle of war. In light of this cycle God says they are “mad as hatters”. No comfort is offered when God says it’s a “blessed thing” that for some of them it is not Judgement Day because otherwise they’d have to “scour Hell’s floor”. The poem ends with the guns firing “again” and the place names over which the sound can be heard are deliberate. They are three vestiges of past civilisations that inevitably fought wars as well. Hardy is not overly vitriolic in his commentary on war. For the most part he portrays its absurdity and futility but it is important to note that these poems were written before the atrocities of 1914.

In the narrow sense of the word, “relationships” do not completely dominate Hardy’s poetry. They are a common subject area but relationships are not an underlying presence throughout all of his poems. The significance of relationships in his poem varies owing to contextual reasons. In the 1912-1913 poems relationships are dominant because the poems were written in the aftermath of his wife’s death. Many of the poems deal with other matters such as; war, faith and the natural world. However it is wrong to think of subject matter as something which is mutually exclusive. For example relationships closely interlink with the natural world in poems such as Neutral Tones and Beeny Cliff. If the word “relationship” is studied in its broadest sense as a state of connectedness then relationships do indeed dominate Hardy’s poetry. Numerous “relationships” occur: the relationships between people, the relationship between people and the natural world and the relationship between man and god are just a few examples. Again, using this definition it could be said that all poetry is dominated by relationships. Not forgetting one of the most important relationships – the relationship between the reader and the writer.