“The Phantom Horsewoman” was the last of 18 poems written by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) that were published as “Poems of 1912-13”, although three more were later added when the collection became part of the “Collected Poems” of 1919. The set of poems was written following the death on 27th November 1912 of Emma Hardy (née Gifford). The marriage had not been a happy one during the last years of Emma’s life and Hardy had certainly not treated her well, although he only came to appreciate the extent of his neglect after her sudden death and his discovery of her secret writings, including a document entitled “What I Think Of My Husband”, which pulled no punches.
As an act of what Hardy called “expiation”, he travelled back to Cornwall in March 1913 to revisit the places where they had first met and been happy, and “The Phantom Horsewoman” is one of the poems that resulted from that visit.
Queer are the ways of a man I know:
He comes and stands
In a careworn craze,
And looks at the sands
And the seaward haze
With moveless hands
And face and gaze,
Then turns to go...
And what does he see when he gazes so?
They say he sees as an instant thing
More clear than to-day,
A sweet soft scene
That once was in play
By that briny green;
Yes, notes alway
Warm, real, and keen,
What his back years bring—
A phantom of his own figuring.
Of this vision of his they might say more:
Not only there
Does he see this sight,
In his brain–day, night,
As if on the air
It were drawn rose bright–
Yea, far from that shore
Does he carry this vision of heretofore:
A ghost-girl-rider. And though, toil-tried,
He withers daily,
Time touches her not,
But she still rides gaily
In his rapt thought
On that shagged and shaly
And as when first eyed
Draws rein and sings to the swing of the tide.
The poem comprises four numbered stanzas, each of nine lines, the first and last lines being much longer than the rest. The rhyme scheme is ABCBCBCAA. The effect of this arrangement is that the outside lines frame the inner ones, which can be read as a commentary on, or development of, the outside lines, or the pattern can be seen as contrasting the outer “real” world with the inner workings of the poet’s mind. Indeed, the eight lines that comprise the frame can be read consecutively as though they were a poem on their own, and will make near-perfect sense if this is done. The final “AA” rhyme provides a link between the inner and outer elements of each stanza, thus tying them together.
The point of view of the first two stanzas is that of local bystanders who see the poet standing transfixed in a place he remembers from long ago, seeming to see Emma riding her pony along the beach as she did more than forty years before.
Hardy had clearly been greatly impressed by Emma’s skill and courage as a horsewoman and he mentions it in several poems in this collection (notably “The Going”, “Beeny Cliff” and “Places”). It may have been that, mounted on horseback while he stood on the ground, Emma became “set on a pedestal”, in the manner of the courtly love tradition of the Middle Ages, such that the perfect woman was above and out of reach. Or it might instead have been the opposite, and that Hardy was sexually aroused by the sight of a young woman sitting astride a sweating and vibrant animal, herself panting and aglow or moving at speed with her long brown hair flying behind. Whatever the reason, it was a powerful image in his mind and one that he often brought to mind as “A phantom of his own figuring”.
The frame of the first stanza reads: “Queer are the ways of a man I know / And what does he see when he gazes so?” The “development” lines describe those ways as the poet “in a careworn craze” stands motionless, looking at “the sands / And the seaward haze”.
The second stanza, framed by: “They say he sees an instant thing / A phantom of his own figuring”, explains that the vision is of “A sweet soft scene / That once was in play / By that briny green” and that the image in his mind is “Warm, real, and keen”. By being now in this unchanging place, the intervening years have flown away.
The third and fourth stanzas present what the observers might say if they could see inside the poet’s mind and share his memory. As the third stanza says, Hardy’s vision is constant: “Not only there / Does he see this sight / But everywhere / In his brain – day, night”. The vision has therefore always been there, but coming to the actual place has reinforced it and made it more real than before.
Like the maiden on Keats’s Grecian urn, the girl of Hardy’s vision of “A girl-ghost-rider” cannot fade. There is also, as expressed in the fourth stanza, the suggestion that the vision gives Emma a kind of immortality, because although “he withers daily / Times touches her not.” As long as he lives, she “still rides gaily / in his rapt thought / On that shagged and shaly / Atlantic spot”.
The poem therefore serves to taunt the past through an exercise of the imagination. Hardy is seeking to put the more recent past behind him by recalling a more distant past when all was well. By making that past as real to himself as possible he is, of course, creating a new unreality. Hardy the poet recognises this by pointing to the contrast between the vision he experiences as the subject of the poem and the observations of the outsiders, this being emphasized by the inside/outside structure of the poem as noted above.
That said, it should also be noted that this pattern breaks down at the very end of the poem when the final “observer’s” line becomes part of the vision: “And as when first eyed / Draws rein and sings to the swing of the tide”. The reader, who has been clear up to now about where the line is set between reality and vision, is finally drawn into the vision and becomes aware that the edges of the two worlds are blurred. The reader/observer is now inside the mind of the poet, where the vision is the reality.
© John Welford