The range of subject matter in Hardy’s poetry is relatively small. By looking at the poems studied so far, and the repetition of certain themes this can be seen. A lot of Hardy’s poetry is drenched in nostalgia. Of the poems studied so far, many of them reflect on a past incident. Past experiences are remembered in poems like; The Waterfall, We Sat At The Window and Castle Boterel. In the poems written between 1912 and 1913, these memories are especially painful because they were written in wake of his wife’s death. The poems are almost acts of catharsis as he comes to terms with the loss and reflects on death. He looks back on seemingly insignificant moments which acquire poignancy because of what has preceded them. This is seen in At Castle Boterel when Hardy remarks,
“It filled but a minute. But was there ever
A time of such quality”
Loss is an important subject in the poems studied. Loss is not only discussed in the poems between 1912 and 1913 but also in the poem written after his mother’s death. However, the difference is the nature of this loss. In After The Last Breath hardy tries to reconcile the conflicting emotions of relief and loss which he feels. His mother’s death was the drawn out process of old age which caused everyone around her to be in a permanent state of anxiety. When she dies he feels a “numb relief” which “savours well”. The pain he feels is small in comparison to his joy that she has escaped the “cell” of “time”. His reaction to Emma’s death is different because hers was much more sudden. In The Going he questions the nature of her death,
“Why did you give no hint that night
That quickly after the morrow’s dawn,
You would close your term here, up and be gone”
This poem was written very soon after her death and the tone and emotions are far rawer. He almost blames her for dying and accuses her of being indifferent. What he really regrets is not having the opportunity to say goodbye and he wonders at what they might have said. Hardy feels haunted by her memory and sees her at the “end of the alley”; this idea is developed in The Voice. In The Voice he hears the voice of his dead wife “call to [him]”. In the first line he repeats “call to me” in an onomatopoeic manner which mimics the calling he hears. The repetition of “call” also picks up the word “all” in the third line and emphasises how much she really meant to him.
In The Walk Hardy juxtaposes the past with the present; this is also done in Beeny Cliff and At Castle Boterel. In The Walk he shows how much has really changed despite the fact that, physically, it appears the same. In the first stanza Hardy is walking up to “the hill top tree” but is walking “alone” because his wife was “weak and lame”. However he does not mind because he doesn’t think of her as being “left behind”. The second stanza shifts to the present; he is walking up the hill in the “former way”. When he returns to the hill and, on the surface, everything appears the same, he asks,
“What difference then?”
Even though it appears the same there is,
“…that underlying sense
Of the look of a room on returning thence”
This last rhyming couplet sharply contrasts with the last rhyming couplet of the first stanza in which Hardy does “not mind” going “alone”. Despite the fact that she was never there with him, the effect of her death has permeated his perception. In Beeny Cliff Hardy looks back on a past event but this is one in which his wife was present. It is presented with far more nostalgia than in The Walk as he looks back on the “clear-sunned March Day”. 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 again; the joy of the previous stanzas are juxtaposed against the final two which serves to highlight the contrast. Like James Joyce in the Dubliners, Hardy is presenting the effect of the dead upon the living. This subject is in no line more poignantly illustrated than in The Going; when he finds out about his wife’s death, he sees,
“morning harden upon the wall”
Throughout his poetry he underlines the deep emotional connections that certain places have. This is explored in At Castle Boterel and Beeny Cliff, but in particular in Wessex Heights. In the town he is haunted by the “phantoms” and “ghosts” of the past. He is also haunted by his former self; Hardy used the word “chrysalis” in reference to the town, showing it as a place of change. He is able to find solace in the Heights because it is a place,
“Where men have never cared to haunt, nor women have walked with me,
And ghosts then keep their distance; and I know some liberty.”
Nature offers him a chance for escapism; both from the memories of other people and himself. This echoes the line from Tess of the D’Urbervilles, in which he says Tess’s shame is,
“Based on nothing more tangible than a sense of condemnation under an arbitrary law of society which had no foundation in Nature.”
A major theme in Hardy’s poetry is the merciless movement of time. This theme really comes to its head in the 1912-13 poems, written after the death of Emma. 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. Whilst Hardy is alive his memories are projected upon the landscape and the rocks “record” their moments there together. These memories are a “phantom figure” which is “fading” as Hardy’s “sand is sinking”. When Hardy dies no trace 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;”
In the face of the longevity of nature, his life is merely fleeting.
Nature is a key subject in both Hardy’s poems and his books. Like the lone tree in the The Walk, the natural surroundings reflect and magnify the emotions experienced. Hardy uses pathetic fallacy to illustrate the deep emotional connection he feels with nature. In Beeny Cliff the sea is “opal” and “sapphire” when Emma is alive. After Emma has died the cliff is “chasmal”, it reflects the divide between them which can’t be crossed. In The Waterfall the landscape also reflects a time of love and,
“add to the rhyme of love”
In direct contrast to The Waterfall, Neutral Tones shows a couple’s apathy towards each other mirrored by the colourless landscape. The poem is set in winter which is symbolically linked to death and decay. The “few leaves” which lie on the ground are symbolic of a previous fertility and life which is now lost and this representative of their relationship. Like the area around them her smile is “the deadest thing”. 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”.
Nature is shown as something both malign and benign. In The Walk it offers no solace to Hardy; the tree on the top of the hill becomes symbolic of his own state and Hardy helps present this by rhyming “tree” with “me”. Hardy does not overcomplicate the event, the lexis is quite simple and his sense of loneliness is understated; this is a method used in many of his poems. There is a frequent juxtaposition of the simplicity of the lexis and the emotional weight of the situation. In I Found Her Out There Hardy finds solace in the notion of Emma being part of nature after her death. He finds her on a slope that “falls westwardly”; west is associated with dying because it is where the sun sets. He takes her away from the “sharp-edged air” where the “ocean breaks” and instead lays her to rest in the softly alliterated “noiseless nest” where she won’t be “haunted”.
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 and Hardy’s views are 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 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.
In the poems studied so far the range of Hardy’s subject matter is relatively small. Throughout the poems subjects such as; loss, nature and the past are interwoven. These subjects are presented quite clearly and, by looking at the group of poems as a whole, we get a view of Hardy’s own personal beliefs. Often the methods he uses to present a subject are repeated throughout all his poems. However, what he may lack in range he makes up for in depth. For example, in the 1912-13 poems, the reader gets a clear idea about Hardy’s feelings towards death. A small range in subject matter of these poems is to be expected given the circumstances under which they were written. This depth of understanding would, most likely, not have been achieved in one poem. By this frequent repetition of certain subjects we can see how important they are to Hardy.