Sunday, 6 March 2016

The Going, by Thomas Hardy



“The Going” is the first of a sequence of poems by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928),  given the title “Poems of 1912-13”, in which he dealt as best he could with the devastating loss of his first wife, Emma (née Gifford), who died on 27th November 1912.

Memorial poems

Although she had been in poor health for some time, Thomas Hardy did not appreciate just how ill his wife Emma was and her death, when it came, was sudden and a profound shock to him. He felt considerable guilt over the fact that he had not been able to rectify the bad feeling that there had been between them over recent years, and which had led Emma to spend much of her time alone in a small attic room in their house (Max Gate) on the edge of Dorchester, Dorset. The poems he wrote at this time, which can be seen as a memorial to Emma, are among his finest.

The poem

Why did you give no hint that night
That quickly after the morrow's dawn,
And calmly, as if indifferent quite,
You would close your term here, up and be gone
Where I could not follow
With wing of swallow
To gain one glimpse of you ever anon!

Never to bid good-bye
Or lip me the softest call,
Or utter a wish for a word, while I
Saw morning harden upon the wall,
Unmoved, unknowing
That your great going
Had place that moment, and altered all.

Why do you make me leave the house
And think for a breath it is you I see
At the end of the alley of bending boughs
Where so often at dusk you used to be;
Till in darkening dankness
The yawning blankness
Of the perspective sickens me!

You were she who abode
By those red-veined rocks far West,
You were the swan-necked one who rode
Along the beetling Beeny Crest,
And, reining nigh me,
Would muse and eye me,
While Life unrolled us its very best.

Why, then, latterly did we not speak,
Did we not think of those days long dead,
And ere your vanishing strive to seek
That time's renewal? We might have said,
"In this bright spring weather
We'll visit together
Those places that once we visited."

Well, well! All's past amend,
Unchangeable. It must go.
I seem but a dead man held on end
To sink down soon. . . . O you could not know
That such swift fleeing
No soul foreseeing--
Not even I--would undo me so!


A closer look at “The Going”

The 21 poems in the collection “Poems 1912-13” explored a number of themes, including Hardy’s feelings during a visit he made during the year following Emma’s death to the places where he had courted her more than forty years previously. However, in “The Going” the tone is one of shock, questioning and turmoil. The poem was written within a few weeks of the event, so it is hardly surprising that this should be the case.

That said, the structure of the poem is evidence of considerable thought on Hardy’s part, in that it reflects perfectly the emotions that he expresses. The poem comprises six seven-line stanzas, with an ABABCCB rhyme scheme, but the rhythm of the stanzas alternates in that the pattern of line lengths, from short (i.e. two metrical feet) to long (i.e. four feet) is LLLLSSL in stanzas one, three and five and SSLLSSL in stanzas two, four and six. The poem can therefore be seen as comprising three double stanzas. Each of the leading stanzas begins with “Why”, with the following stanzas developing the question that is asked or, in the final stanza, admitting that no answer is possible. This structured irregularity adds to the questioning tone of the poem and makes a huge contribution to its authenticity.

First and second stanzas

The first stanza sets the scene of the unexpected nature of Emma’s death: “Why did you give no hint that night / That quickly after the morrow’s dawn / … / You would close your term here … ” Although Emma had had a visit from a doctor on that day there had been no immediate cause for alarm.

The second stanza expands on the first by pointing to the fact that Thomas had been downstairs, watching “morning harden upon the wall”, while Emma was slipping into a coma in her bed upstairs. It is, incidentally, worth pointing out that Emma and Thomas had been sleeping in separate rooms for some time, the rooms being on different floors.

His words seem almost to be a complaint, namely that she left him “… unknowing / that your great going / Had place that moment”. He appears to believe that her failure to “lip me the softest call / Or utter a wish for a word” was a deliberate act on her part, as though it was her choice to fail to communicate as she slipped away.

Third and fourth stanzas

The third stanza introduces a different question, relating to Thomas’s lingering impression that he can still see her in the garden, “At the end of the alley of bending boughs / Where so often at dusk you used to be”. This is phrased as “Why do you make me leave the house”, laying the blame for these apparitions on Emma. Thomas’s reaction is to be sickened by the “yawning blankness” of his realisation that his impressions are false and that Emma will never walk there again.

The fourth stanza develops the third by thinking back in time to when Thomas and Emma first met, in March 1870, as a result of Thomas having been sent to north Cornwall by his architect employer to look at the church of St Juliot that was in need of restoration. Emma was then living with her sister and brother-in-law at the rectory where Thomas called late in the evening with the manuscript of a poem sticking out of his pocket. Thomas made several later visits to St Juliot and their love affair began. Emma impressed Thomas by her beauty and skill on horseback, as reflected in these lines:

“You were the swan-necked one who rode
Along the beetling Beeny Crest,
And, reining nigh me,
Would muse and eye me,
While Life unrolled us its very best.”


Fifth and sixth stanzas

The fifth stanza leaps forward again to less happy days when the couple quarrelled and, at times, lived separate lives under the same roof. Hardy was conscious of the fact that he and Emma never went back to Cornwall after their marriage in 1874, and he explored this theme in more depth in another poem in this set, namely “I Found Her Out There”. However, here he regrets this fact and that “We might have said / … / We’ll visit together / Those places that once we visited”. As mentioned above, he was later to do something to put that right by making a “pilgrimage” to Cornwall with the intention of remembering Emma as she had been in her youth.

However, that thought is clearly not in his mind in the sixth and final stanza as he accepts the fact that the past cannot be recovered: “Well, well! All’s past amend, / Unchangeable. It must go”. He then reflects on his inadequacy to cope: “I seem but a dead man held on end / To sink down soon”, and finally gives way to grief: “O you could not know / That such swift fleeing / … / … would undo me so!”

Summary

“The Going” is a one-sided conversation that Hardy dearly wishes was not so. In later poems (such as “The Haunter” and “His Visitor”) he imagines what the other side of that conversation might be, but so early in his bereavement there is no room for such ordered thoughts. There is confusion and uncertainty here, with emotions dashing to and fro, as might be expected under such circumstances. It therefore serves as a more than adequate introduction to the complex working out of a new relationship, namely between Thomas the widower and Emma the ghost and former lover, that will follow in the other poems in the collection.


© John Welford