Wednesday, 6 June 2018

A Thunderstorm in Town, by Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy’s poem “A Thunderstorm in Town” is subtitled “A Reminiscence, 1893”. It was published in 1914 in his collection “Satires of Circumstance” and so must have written at some point between those two dates. Given the nature of the event recalled in the poem it is possible that Hardy withheld its publication until after the death of his first wife in 1912, or it may not have been written until after that occurrence. 

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) is known as both a novelist and a poet. Although his novel-writing and poetry overlapped, the novels all belong to the first 55 years of his life, after which he concentrated mostly on writing poems, of which he produced more than 900. The setting of “A Thunderstorm in Town”, although presumably not its writing, is about halfway between the publications of his two final novels, “Tess of the D’Urbevilles” (1891) and “Jude the Obscure” (1895).

Hardy’s marriage, to Emma Gifford, had taken place in 1874 but by 1893 it was going through a very difficult period. Hardy had become a famous writer who mixed with the glitterati of the London literary scene, but Emma did not have the intellectual capacity to keep up and was in turn regarded by London society as being dull and uninteresting.

The couple therefore spent much of their time apart, and Thomas was in turn proving attractive to other women, and they to him. “A Thunderstorm in Town” recounts a moment spent alone with one of those other women.

She was Florence Henniker, the daughter of Lord Houghton. She was a novelist herself, and, if not exactly Hardy’s intellectual or artistic equal, at least she was able to converse with him on terms of mutual understanding. They even collaborated on writing a fictional piece together. Hardy described her as a “charming, intuitive woman”. He was clearly deeply attracted to her and it is probably true to say that, of all Hardy’s extra-marital relationships, and there were several, this was the most serious. However, there was never any question of her leaving her husband, to whom she always remained loyal, and Hardy, who was an atheist, could not have coped with her sincerely held religious beliefs. 

“A Thunderstorm in Town” describes an incident shortly after they first met, when Hardy knew that he was becoming attracted to her but had not made his feelings fully known to her. 

The poem is very short, comprising ten lines in two stanzas, in which the rhyme scheme is not the same, being ABAAB in the first and ABBAB in the second (or CDDCD if considering the poem as a whole). The first stanza reads:

“She wore a new 'terra-cotta' dress,
And we stayed, because of the pelting storm,
Within the hansom's dry recess,
Though the horse had stopped; yea, motionless
We sat on, snug and warm.”

This sets the scene in five short lines that say no more and no less than is needed. The poet has accompanied a lady to her home by hansom cab. The reader does not know where the couple have been, and does not need to know. There is no past to this story, just a present and, as will be seen, a hint of a future. The lady is wearing a new dress and presumably has nothing to protect her from the elements, which are in the form of a sudden and unexpected thunderstorm with heavy rain. As she has no wish to ruin her dress by stepping from the cab, her best course is to stay put until the rain eases.

During the time when the poem was set, the horse-drawn hansom cab was ubiquitous in London, with thousands of them plying for hire and filling the streets. The carriage was slung between two large wheels and provided a single two-person seat on which the passengers sat side by side, facing forwards. The driver’s seat was high at the back, with the reins passing over the top of the cab. This meant that the passengers were conveyed in total privacy and were protected against the weather by two folding doors which covered their legs and a hinged glass screen that filled in the space above the doors. There was not much spare space inside the cab which meant that the passengers could, should they so choose, be quite intimate with each other. This was clearly what the poet had in mind. However:

“Then the downpour ceased, to my sharp sad pain,
And the glass that had screened our forms before
Flew up, and out she sprang to her door:
I should have kissed her if the rain
Had lasted a minute more.”

The thunderstorm ends as suddenly as it had begun, and the poet’s plan to turn the conservation into something more than a polite chat comes to nothing. She is clearly keen to get home as soon as she can and she steps out of the cab at the first opportunity. He would have liked the rain to last just a little longer so that he could steal a kiss.

It is interesting to read into these few lines the motivations of the two people involved. Had the woman wanted to be kissed, she could presumably have stayed long enough and not left as soon as the rain stopped. However, she is sitting in a cab with a man who is not her husband, outside her house in which, quite possibly, her husband is looking out for her. Once the rain had cleared, he would have been able to see that she was sharing the cab with a man. She would presumably have decided from the outset that she would “spring to her door” the second that the rain stopped, and this motivation would have overridden any desire to be kissed by her companion.

However, the poet clearly regrets that the opportunity has passed. It is quite possible that this is the first time that the couple have been together in such an intimate environment, and for a man in Victorian London who wanted to start an illicit relationship such opportunities would not have come along very often. He would not know when, if ever, the next chance for a stolen kiss would present itself. Very frustrating!

Maybe there is another element here, namely that the opportunity was there but he could not pluck up the courage to take it. The reader is not told how long the cab waited at the roadside while the horse was motionless, but it might have been several minutes during which he could have made his move. Did he blow his chance and then use the cessation of the storm as his excuse? Did he write the poem some time later to recall his stupidity in not seizing the moment when it presented itself? It is questions like these that make poems like this so fascinating! 

The reader does not know whether the poem is telling the story of an opportunity that has gone forever, or if the poet will ever get a second chance to demonstrate his feelings for the woman. This lends the poem a certain poignancy, although the actual event was not as critical to the relationship as the poem might suggest.

In any event, this is a poem to which most men can relate, although the sensation of having made a mess of an encounter with the opposite sex is one that is usually associated with young men of limited sexual experience, as opposed to men in their fifties, which is the age that Hardy was at the time of this incident. 

The reader must decide whether to take the poem at face value or to make use of the background knowledge outlined above. From the first perspective it could indeed be read as a recollection of youthful fumblings in the back of a cab, and it comes across as a portrayal of innocence. However, when the reader is aware that this is a well-respected married man in his fifties who is regretting his failure in making a pass at a married woman outside her own front door, and that she is afraid of being discovered in an embarrassing situation by her husband, the whole thing takes on a different meaning and becomes somewhat creepy and sinister. It is little wonder that Hardy did not consider this poem to be suitable for publication during his wife’s lifetime, assuming that it had been written prior to her death.

Although very short, and hardly the greatest poem ever written, “A Thunderstorm in Town” presents an interesting snippet of the psychology of sexual attraction, and is worth reading for that reason alone.