Tuesday, 8 May 2018

The Choirmaster's Burial, by Thomas Hardy

“The Choirmaster’s Burial” was published in the 1917 collection “Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses” by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928). It is one of many poems in this volume that were written after the outbreak of World War I in 1914, but it makes no mention of the war. Indeed, it looks a long way back to an incident that happened three years before his own birth, namely the burial of his paternal grandfather, who also bore the name Thomas.

The first of three Thomas Hardys, grandfather Thomas had been a skilled musician who played the bass viol in the small string band that led the singing from the west gallery of his local parish church, that of St Michael at Stinsford, near Dorchester, Dorset. He had performed this role, later joined by his two sons, Thomas and James, from 1801 until a week before his death. As mentioned in the poem, one role of the players was to play at the graveside when burials took place in the churchyard.

The poem


He often would ask us

That, when he died,

After playing so many

To their last rest,

If out of us any

Should here abide,

And it would not task us,

We would with our lutes

Play over him

By his grave-brim

The psalm he liked best—

The one whose sense suits

“Mount Ephraim”—

And perhaps we should seem

To him, in Death’s dream,

Like the seraphim.


As soon as I knew

That his spirit was gone

I thought this his due,

And spoke, thereupon.

“I think,” said the vicar,

“A read service quicker

Than viols out-of-doors

In these frosts and hoars.

That old-fashioned way

Requires a fine day,

And it seems to me

It had better not be.”


Hence, that afternoon,

Though never knew he

That his wish could not be,

To get through it faster

They buried the master

Without any tune.


But ’twas said that, when

At the dead of next night

The vicar looked out,

There struck on his ken

Thronged roundabout,

Where the frost was graying

The headstoned grass,

A band all in white

Like the saints in church-glass,

Singing and playing

The ancient stave

By the choirmaster’s grave.


Such the tenor man told

When he had grown old.



The poem comprises five stanzas of uneven length (16, 12, 6, 12 and 2 lines). Although each stanza is rhymed, the rhyme schemes vary between the stanzas. The irregularity of the poem contributes to a sense that this is a story being told in a rush by somebody who has not planned the telling in advance but is pouring it out spontaneously. This is also helped by the use of short lines with only two beats to the line, although the diction of the lines is carefully controlled. It reads like the sort of short metre hymn that would have been the common fare of the choir that the choirmaster conducted.

The first stanza explains the old man’s wish that, when his turn comes, the remaining string players will play “by his grave-brim / The psalm he liked best”. This would be a fitting send-off for someone “After playing so many / To their last rest”. He believed that he would hear them play from his grave and that they would sound “Like the seraphim”.

In the second stanza, the poem’s narrator (who is Thomas’s father and the son of the deceased) explains that this wish could not be granted due to the objection of the vicar. The grounds given for his refusal are that the January weather would be too cold for “viols out-of-doors” and a read service would be quicker.

However, there is an interesting hint that this is not the vicar’s only reason, and that maybe it is not his main objection. The hint is in the word “old-fashioned” in “That old-fashioned way / Requires a fine day”. This opens the possibility that the vicar might have agreed had this been June rather than January, but it also suggests that the time of the year is being used as a convenient excuse for an action that the vicar did not want to happen in any case.

The third stanza makes the point that the reason why “They buried the master / Without any tune” was merely “To get through it faster”. Clearly the vicar had no wish to be standing outside in the churchyard any longer than necessary, but there is also the implication that he did not consider the person being buried worthy of making an exception on his behalf. It is the vicar’s comfort rather than respect for the choirmaster that takes priority.

But Hardy cannot let the story end there. The fourth stanza is therefore an account of what the vicar is supposed to have seen “At the dead of next night”. This is a vision of a ghostly choir (“all in white”) that is “Singing and playing / The ancient stave” just as the old man had wanted.

The poem ends with a couplet that sets the story in context: “Such the tenor man told / When he had grown old”. The tenor man was, as mentioned above, the second of the three Thomas Hardys who is telling his son the circumstances of his father’s burial.

One very interesting aspect of this poem is that the story (even leaving aside the ghosts at the end) is not the same as that told in the biography of Thomas Hardy ostensibly written by his widow Florence Emily Hardy (“The Early Life of Thomas Hardy”, 1928) but which is based very largely on Hardy’s attempt at an autobiography. This states that the reason for the lack of music at the graveside was simply that the chief mourners at the funeral were Thomas Senior’s sons, Thomas Junior and James, who were also two of the three surviving choir instrumentalists. They could not perform both roles, so the burial had to be a read service, not a sung one.

So why did Thomas Hardy the third choose to ignore his own earlier text when writing his poem? The poem lays the blame fully on the vicar, who is punished for his lack of respect by being forced to witness the very thing that he tried to prevent. Hardy is thus venting his spleen on the vicar rather than telling the full truth of the matter.

The fact was that the vicar, who had only just taken office at the time of Thomas Senior’s death in January 1837, was not well liked by the Hardy family. He was the Rev Arthur Shirley, who was the vicar of Stinsford until his death in 1891, a span of more than 50 years. He was a devotee of “High Church” Anglicanism, which did not accord well with the “Low Church” traditions of most Dorset parishes, including Stinsford. One difference between these approaches was that a High Church vicar was more likely to see himself as the sole authority in a parish and so would not welcome the contributions of lay members when it came to organising church services. Having the music controlled by an independent-minded choirmaster was at odds with how he thought things should be done.

A few years after the death of Thomas Senior, Arthur Shirley did away with the “old-fashioned” string choir altogether and installed a barrel organ instead. This was played by turning a handle which would have allowed a limited number of tunes to be played by someone with no musical ability at all. The Hardys, now led by Thomas Junior, were thus displaced from the west gallery, which Shirley later demolished. The distaste of the Hardy family for Rev Shirley was thus set in stone, and Thomas Hardy the poet inherited this animosity even though he had no experience of how things used to be before the vicar’s arrival.

“The Choirmaster’s Burial” is thus a late attack on a long-dead vicar on behalf of family members who were also by then occupying graves in Stinsford churchyard. Hardy, like all good tellers of tales, was unlikely to let the truth get in the way of a good story, especially when there was no-one left alive to raise objections to it!

© John Welford


  1. However interesting the correlation between the poem and its historical background, I think it distracts from the meaning of the actual poem. A poem must stand on its own without reference to knowledge that the general reader could never know without being told. I was moved by the poem because of its pathos, and because of its theme of the triumph of virtue. A humble choirmaster, who has faithfully fulfilled a service to so many, makes a simple request that he be remembered in his passing, in the spirit of his own contribution to others.

    For apparently selfish or unfeeling reasons, the vicar denies this request. But in the end, the choirmaster's wish is granted, his goodness acknowledged by a Higher Authority. I don't think this is a bitter condemnation of the vicar's apparent selfishness, but a celebration of goodness in spite of those that would not hold it in esteem.

    1. My blog is entitled "Great Poetry Explained", so if I can explain why a poem is as it is, I will always try so to do!