Thomas Hardy's poetry: ‘the intenser stare of the mind’
Thomas Hardy's poetry: ‘the intenser stare of the mind’
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter begins with an examination of Hardy's ‘spiritual or second sight’, his ‘power of the imagination in exalting’ visible objects so that they become uncanny, quasi-ghostly versions of themselves. It shows how his imaginative investment in ‘the other side’ and his profound interest in spectres, shades and shadows figuratively illustrate his pronouncements on art and literature, and that, for him, writing, particularly poetry, is a domain especially suited to ghosts and spirits, being a realm of refined essences. The final part of the chapter looks at forms of shadow portraiture in Hardy's poetry that bridge the relation between the phenomenal and the visionary, relates these forms of portraiture to the Romantic fragment and synecdoche and considers their relation to loss, especially the theme of the lost woman, where death acts as a stimulant to vision.
Dreamed of being in Verona, or in some place that was and wasn't Verona. Met an Englishman, who said ‘he had been staring at things’. I said I was glad to hear it – to stare was the right thing, to look only was no use.
(Ruskin, Diaries (1958), 2.685)
Much contemporary work on vision and visuality in Victorian poetry is still dominated by a preoccupation with particulars, with the material and phenomenal world and with material practices. This chapter tries to readdress that bias by re-examining the work of the poet Thomas Hardy (1840–1928), who may, at first sight, seem to be a strange choice for such a project in that he has been popularly understood as a chronicler or recorder of finely observed naturalistic detail (‘a man who used to notice such things’, ‘Afterwards’; Hardy 1976, 553). To read the list of titles in the contents of The Complete Poems is apparently to be faced by a world of material objects, concrete in its insistence even to the point of banality: ‘The Levelled Churchyard’, ‘The Torn Letter’, ‘Logs on the Hearth’, ‘The Whitewashed Wall’, ‘The Pat of Butter’. Lytton Strachey, reviewing Satires of Circumstance, Lyrics and Reveries (1914) in the New Statesman (19 December 1914) wrote: ‘what gives Mr Hardy's poems their unique flavour is their utter lack of romanticism, their common, undecorated presentments of things’ (Hardy 1993, 133). Ezra Pound, too, admired what appeared to be the simple clarity of Hardy's verse, observing in his Guide to Kulchur (1938): ‘When a writer's matter is stated with such entirety and with such clarity there is no place left for the explaining critic. Where the matter is of so stark a nature and so clamped to reality, the eulogist looks like an ass … poem after poem of Hardy's leaves one with nowt more to say’ (Pound 1960, 285). Although such clarity is meant to suggest an admirable economy and spareness when voiced by critics like Pound (who apparently saw in Hardy's poetry a version of his own Imagism), it tends to ignore the symbolic dimension and all too easily converts into a criticism which banalises the verse, seeing it as an uncomplicated reflection of life. This is the view of Samuel Hynes, editor of Hardy's poems, and the author of an influential early critical (p.198) work on the poetry, who opines that ‘He is neither a symbolic nor a metaphorical writer; in his poems things remain intransigently things’ (Hynes 1961, 66). Yet Hardy's thought and art are saturated in visionary Romanticism, and a close look at the poems and his own stated thoughts on the writing of poetry give a different picture. Hardy declared his dissatisfaction with photographic representation as a model for literary representation (Hardy 1962, 153, 351), and the form of realistic reproduction he favoured was not a concentration on externals but to see into ‘the heart of a thing’ (January 1881; Hardy 1962, 147), a statement which specifically echoes Wordsworth in the epiphanic ‘Tintern Abbey’ (1798), where he describes the visionary trance-like state in which the eye is ‘made quiet by the power / Of harmony, and the deep power of joy ’, and ‘We see into the life of things’ (Wordsworth 1997, 58, ll. 48–50). Hardy describes this technique as ‘realism, in fact, though through being pursued by means of the imagination … confounded with invention’ (Hardy 1962, 147). A substantial number of his poems work by a process of defamiliarisation in which the prosaic object, presented to view, is suddenly resituated or reviewed by the speaker in such a way that it ceases to be its banal everyday self but is permeated, or even subsumed and displaced, by the history, memories, impressions, or associations that it evokes. Such objects lose their matter-of-fact solidity and identity as they become uncanny; estranged from their everyday reality, they function as potent relics or catalysts which activate or stimulate what Hardy called ‘the intenser / Stare of the mind’ (‘In Front of the Landscape’; Hardy 1976, 304) in which they are further ‘exalted’ – that ‘intenser stare’ being synonymous with Ruskin's ‘spiritual or second sight’ which ‘exalts’ visible objects (Ruskin 1903–4, 5.355).
As preliminary illustration of this process, my discussion of Hardy opens with an examination of three poems. I choose the first, ‘The Lodging-House Fuchsias’, a poem from his last and posthumously published collection Winter Words (1928), partly because it is a poem singled out by Hynes for criticism as ‘An example of a mechanical reversal which doesn't work’ (Hynes 1961, 51):
- Mrs Masters's fuchsias hung
- Higher and broader, and brightly swung,
- Bell-like, more and more
- Over the narrow garden-path,
- Giving the passer a sprinkle-bath
- In the morning.
- She put up with their pushful ways,
- And made us tenderly lift their sprays,
- Going to her door:
- But when her funeral had to pass
- (p.199) They cut back all the flowery mass
- In the morning.
(Hardy 1976, 855)
I make no great claims for what is essentially a modest poem, yet it seems to me that even here Hardy manages to lift a commonplace subject into something above the ordinary. When Mrs Masters, the landlady of the lodging house, is alive, her prized fuchsias, like favourite children, are allowed to express themselves at their exuberant, excessive, unruly best, even at the inconvenience of dew-sprinkled passers-by and incoming and outgoing guests who are instructed to lift gently the flower sprays aside. The flowers effectively become her sign, express something of her character and will; but on her death, when she is no longer master in her own house, they are cut back – a thing she would have hated – to allow her funeral cortège to pass through. We sense that something of the tender indulgence Mrs Masters felt towards her flowers is carried through in the speaker's feeling towards the landlady herself as he faithfully replicates her feeling for the flowers as animate: ‘She put up with their pushful ways, / And made us tenderly lift their sprays, / Going to her door’. Hynes complains that there is no ‘clear significance in the repetition of “in the morning”; the phrase ties the two stanzas together in a mechanical way, and asserts an ironic relationship between them which does not in fact exist’ (Hynes 1956, 52). But surely this is where Hardy's delicate artistry is uppermost – the homophone ‘mourning’ making its ghostly presence felt in the repeated ‘morning’ of the second stanza, at once introducing a stark contrast between the innocent past and the sadness of the present moment; and with this repetition, the depleted flowery mass, roughly cut back to allow the coffin by, becomes a sign of loss and sorrow.
If cut flowers evoked sadness for Hardy, then a felled tree called forth an even stronger expression of regret and was a topic he treated on a number of different occasions. Like his hero Jude, Hardy ‘could scarcely bear to see trees cut down or lopped, from a fancy that it hurt them’ (Hardy 1974a, 36), and, in a symposium in the Fortnightly Review, he singled out a passage from Carlyle's The French Revolution about the felling of an ancient tree as a memorable example of ‘excellence of style’ (Hardy 1993, 313, 314). We see from its subtitle ‘A Memory of a Sister’ and appended date – December 1915 – that ‘Logs on the Hearth’, from Moments of Vision (1917), is an elegy for Hardy's shy school-teacher sister Mary. But there is the sense that is also an elegy for the felled apple tree that has provided the logs, and for a remembered childhood when the speaker and his sister climbed the tree.
- The fire advances along the log
- Of the tree we felled,
- Which bloomed and bore striped apples by the peck
- Till its last hour of bearing knelled.
- (p.200) The fork that first my hand would reach
- And then my foot
- In climbings upward inch by inch, lies now
- Sawn, sapless, darkening with soot.
- Where now the bark chars is where, one year,
- It was pruned, and bled –
- Then overgrew the wound. But now, at last,
- Its growings all have stagnated.
- My fellow-climber rises dim
- From her chilly grave –
- Just as she was, her foot near mine on the bending limb,
- Laughing, her young brown hand awave.
(Hardy 1976, 489–90)
There is certainly a feeling of regretful sympathy for the tree, which seems callously treated by its human guardians, who ‘wound’ it and make it ‘bleed’ with pruning, and finally fell it; an act which seems like a cruel execution as, remaining generously fruitful till its death, the tree is innocent of any blame that might have brought about its demise. Moreover, its once vital body is quickly chopped up into logs, ‘Sawn, sapless, darkening with soot’, and burnt on the family hearth. But out of this scene of destruction comes creation. As Hardy, a classicist, would have known, the word for hearth in Latin is ‘focus’, and what this poem does is to intensify the speaker's gaze so that the hearth, and what it holds, becomes a place for ‘the intenser stare of the mind’. As the tree is consumed by fire, the mind rekindles the flames of memory so that the speaker sees again in the burning logs the tree he used to climb with his sister, and, phoenix-like, ‘My fellow-climber rises dim / From her chilly grave’. Tree and girl are resurrected, but this is, in a special sense, a ‘family tree’, recording the speaker's private history of affiliation and alliance, and the log on the hearth becomes a personal record of remembered childhood moments. Hardy's poems perpetually offer us such visual images for preserving memory.
A prime example of such a visual analogue is ‘Under the Waterfall’ (Hardy 1976, 335–7), from Satires of Circumstance, Lyrics and Reveries (1914), a poem based on Hardy's courtship of his first wife Emma, though not included in his much-praised commemorative sequence Poems of 1912–13 included in this same volume. The poem was sparked by a description in Emma's memoir Some Recollections, which Hardy discovered and read after her death in 1912:
We sketched and talked of books; often we walked down the beautiful Valley to Boscastle harbour where we had to jump over stones and climb over a low wall by rough steps, get through by narrow pathways to come out on great wide spaces suddenly, with a sparkling little brook going the same way, into which we once lost (p.201) a tiny picnic-tumbler, and there it is to this day no doubt between two small boulders.
(E. Hardy 1979, 35)
Reproduced opposite this page in the published memoir is a pencil sketch by Hardy, depicting Emma crouching by a small waterfall with her arm in the current. The sketch is annotated ‘E. C. G. by T. H. Aug 19, 1870’, and titled underneath ‘Searching for the glass – (watercolour sketching in Valency [sic] valley)’ (E. Hardy 1979, 34).1 Emma's recollection of this incident became the germ for Hardy's poem (Hardy 1976, 335–7) for which he considered two alternative titles – ‘The Lost Glass’ and ‘The Glass in the Stream’ – before fixing on ‘Under the Waterfall’. Yet the poem is no simple transcription of the event as Emma told it, nor the lost glass a clear and simple ‘thing’. Indeed it becomes a mnemonic image, containing and preserving untainted memories of the couple's early love; and, moreover, caught and held in the flowing current, it is, for the imaginative speaker, necessarily ‘opalized’, its opacity testifying to the passage of time etched on its surface.
One of the many interesting things about the poem is that it starts with a physical memory which then gives way to a stream of reflective consciousness. The speaker, in conversation with a friend, asserts:
- ‘Whenever I plunge my arm, like this,
- In a basin of water, I never miss
- The sweet sharp sense of a fugitive day
- Fetched back from its thickening shroud of gray.’
This opening is reminiscent of the physical sensation described by Pater in the Conclusion to The Renaissance: ‘the moment … of delicious recoil from the flood of water in summer heat’ (Pater 1980, Ren 186). That physical sensation, here described as ‘the sweet sharp sense’, and later as ‘throbs’ and ‘a throe from the past’, merges with the memory of a similar sensation and a revived ripple of sexual excitement and desire, enlivening an episode from the otherwise dull and distant past.2 Like Pater, Hardy does not remain with the initial sensation but moves from outer to inner life, his speaker extracting from memory the particular day, scene, and emotion associated with the sensory stimulus. Unsurprisingly the recollected stream and ‘purl of a little valley fall’ mimes the flow of consciousness and memory, a confluence already hallowed by poets (p.202) such as Shelley, Tennyson, Swinburne, and Rossetti, and by Pater who, in turning away from sensation to ‘the inward life of thought and feeling’, traces a similar current conspicuous in ‘the race of the midstream, a drift of momentary acts of sight and passion and thought’ (Pater 1980, Ren 187).3 However, Hardy's speaker directly associates ‘the purl of a runlet that never ceases’ with poetry, asserting that the brook, connected with these memories of first romance, is the best rhythmic ‘love-rhyme / That I know by heart’. This natural love poetry is apparently prized by the speaker above all human song, but of course Hardy's poetic rendering of the description of the stream necessarily ensures that the purl of the ‘little valley fall’ can't be anything other than poetry, perhaps thereby implicitly transferring the speaker's accolade to his own verse to make it a superlative ‘love-rhyme’.
In the second part of the poem the speaker responds to the interlocutor's questions as to why the stream's song has become the authentic ‘love-rhyme’, and why plunging an arm into a basin of cold water is such a powerful stimulant to memory. The story of the lovers’ picnic lunch on a burning August day is told along with the detail of the rinsed glass that falls into the stream and cannot be recovered, ‘Though we stooped and plumbed the little abyss / With long bared arms’. This much is factual. What happens next, however, starting with the confident assertion ‘There the glass still is’, is another matter. Although we may read with perfect belief and acceptance the lovely account of the glass preserved under the waterfall, held safe in a cleft of the rocks, it is the speaker's own desire and imagination which has projected this symbolic wholeness. In reality there can be no assurance that the glass did not break and shatter when it first fell into the pool or that, subsequently dislodged by the current, it did not get smashed against stones or other water-borne debris. Whether broken or out of reach, the glass is completely invisible, yet it is the speaker's intensity of conviction that miraculously makes it appear to us. Like the speaker, we want to believe in the continuing presence of the glass, perhaps because, as the poem says, ‘its presence adds to the rhyme of love’, and also because Hardy has subtly infused the poetry with mythic and other associations that help crystallise the central luminous image of the glass and foster our belief in it:
- ‘By night, by day, when it shines or lours,
- There lies intact that chalice of ours,
- And its presence adds to the rhyme of love
- Persistently sung by the fall above.
- No lip has touched it since his and mine
- In turns therefrom sipped lovers’ wine.’
(p.203) Clearly the image of the chalice and the shared wine-drinking conjures up the notion of a eucharist or holy communion sacralising the lovers’ bond and signifying not the ‘real presence’ of Christ, but the real presence of their love which at that time seemingly had the potential to endure for ever unbroken. Another Biblical echo might be the cup that ‘runneth over’ from Psalm 23 expressing excess of joy (v. 5). But I suspect Hardy also presses us delicately towards the legend of Tristram and Iseult, who accidentally drink from a chalice containing enchanted wine and fall passionately and irrevocably in love with one another. We know that this Celtic legend, set in Cornwall, had been in his mind since his courtship of Emma in her Cornish homeland, also the setting for the incident that inspired this poem. In his Life, Hardy recorded that, in August 1870, the month when he was staying with Emma's family and the glass was lost,
His hosts drove him to various picturesque points on the wild and rugged coast near the Rectory, among others to King Arthur's Castle, Tintagel, which he now saw for the first time.… [A]fter it had been smouldering in his mind for between forty and fifty years, he constructed The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall from the legends connected with that romantic spot. Why he did not do it sooner, while she was still living who knew the scene so well, and had frequently painted it, it is impossible to say.
The poem's evocation of Tristram and Iseult, tender but ill-fated lovers whose alliance brings much suffering, also strengthens the hint that the preserved glass testifies to the initial purity and sincerity of the modern-day lovers’ affection for one another, even though their lives and love may have been damaged by subsequent events. The memory and symbol of first love and affection endures even if their later relationship was fraught with pain and difficulty. The ‘opalizing’ of the glass reflects the misting of time, but also, by association with the precious stone, suggests that, as time has gone by, the treasured memory has become increasingly more valuable to the speaker.5 It is possible that this memory also evokes an Edenic time of virginal longing and idealised desire before the ‘fall’ of sexual consummation and knowledge. The chalice, which remains ‘intact’, recalls the eroticised language of the Biblical Song of Songs where, in the wooing courtship address of the lover, the beloved woman's mouth ‘is like the best wine’ (Ch 7 v. 9) and her ‘navel’ – the word is a poetic euphemism for her sex – is ‘a rounded goblet that never lacks mixed wine’ (Ch 7 v. 2).
(p.204) Other associations also pervade the pool into which the water falls:
- ‘And, as said, if I thrust my arm below
- Cold water in basin or bowl, a throe
- From the past awakens a sense of that time,
- And the glass we used, and the cascade's rhyme.
- The basin seems the pool, and its edge
- The hard smooth face of the brook-side ledge,
- And the leafy pattern of china-ware
- The hanging plants that were bathing there.’
Hardy sets up the strangest of metamorphoses whereby, at the prompting of an evocative physical sensation, a common Victorian domestic object, a patterned china basin, is transformed into the pool the lovers plumbed with their arms. In his novels Hardy shows he is adept at uncanny scenic transformations which occur at moments of extremity: in A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873), Stephen Knight, clinging perilously to the cliff-face, sees pass before his eyes a telescoped history of evolution (Ch 22), while in The Well-Beloved (1897), Jocelyn Pierston, reading the letter relating Avice's death at a London dinner-party (Bk 2, Ch 3), finds his immediate surroundings melting into a coastal view of the Isle of Slingers, his dead love's home and the scene of his courtship of her. In this poem the physical stimulus of cold water provokes ‘the intenser stare of the mind’ that makes the basin into a pool, and the pool into the place where we see the visionary chalice of the couple's love. In Ovid's Metamorphoses, the pool in the mythic stories of Narcissus and Hermaphroditus is a place of transformation. It can also suggest, as it does in Rossetti's ‘Willowwood’, a depth model of the reflecting mind in which submerged memories can float up, or, as here, be sounded out.
Reading the poem for the first time (especially if one has no knowledge of Emma's memoir), the reader might well assume that the speaker is male till the very end of the piece where one meets the qualification ‘his and mine’. Proportionally more of Hardy's dramatic poems are written in a masculine voice and, where a woman's voice is used, it is generally signalled in the title or quickly made explicit in the poem. In ‘Under the Waterfall’, the assumption of masculinity seems borne out by the first line with the word ‘plunge’ and the later ‘thrust’ which have a suggestive virility that one might not so easily associate with a young Victorian woman. Although, in retrospect, it is perhaps more common to use the word ‘lover’ of a man than a woman and although the domestic detail of rinsing the glass may be thought more feminine than masculine, these are not immediately self-evident signals. This unsettling ripple across gender might be attributed to the fact that Hardy, a man, is ventriloquising a woman and perhaps, in creating her viewpoint, inadvertently leaves traces of his own masculine voice behind. However, rather than (p.205) regarding this slippage as an ‘accident’, it would be more interesting, in this poem about hallucinatory preservation, to preserve the hallucinatory marks of a reading where an apparently masculine voice transforms into a feminine one, as Hardy, plumbing the depths of consciousness, plunges through the more immediately evident upper strata of masculine identity in an attempt to reach and capture the elusive delicate vessel of the woman's fantasy; in such a reading the poem does, in fact, become something like the pool of Hermaphroditus, fusing male and female experience.6
In my exploration of these three poems, I hope to have shown that the things they treat – the fuschias, the logs, the basin and glass – all lose their everyday identity and, illuminated by ‘the intenser stare of the mind’ or ‘second sight’, become uncanny, quasi-ghostly versions of themselves, haloed by the imagination and radiant with symbolism. This is what Hardy means by the ‘real’: ‘the material is not the real – only the visible, the real being invisible optically … it is because we are in a somnambulistic hallucination that we think the real to be what we see as real’ (13 February 1887; Hardy 1962, 186). The imaginatively contemplative mind, a mind which naturally expresses itself in poetry, sees as ‘real’ what is normally regarded as metaphysical, abstract, supernatural, or unconscious. If material things can have a supernatural aspect, then they vary only in degree and not in kind from those spectres and visions more generally regarded as supernatural and which, as we shall see, play a dominant role in Hardy's poetry. The rest of this chapter will attempt to elucidate what Hardy calls the ‘abstract imaginings’ underlying the visible and to show how ghostliness is germane to his best verse.
In The Life of Thomas Hardy, which he ghosted in the name of his second wife, Florence, Hardy recorded journal entries which show how naturalistic verisimilitude practised for its own sake left him cold. He made it clear that for him the interest of a scene depends on its human associations:
An object or mark raised or made by man on a scene is worth ten times any such formed by unconscious Nature. Hence clouds, mists, and mountains are unimportant besides the wear on a threshold, or the print of a hand.
(28 September 1877; Hardy 1962, 116)
The marks man imposes on Nature when he makes an artistic representation are also important. Commenting on contemporary painting and his growing (p.206) interest in Turner's late style, Hardy declares that ‘the “simply natural” is interesting no longer’, and continues:
The exact truth as to material fact ceases to be of importance in art – it is a student's style – the style of a period when the mind is serene and unawakened to the tragical mysteries of life; when it does not bring anything to the object that coalesces with and translates the qualities that are already there, – half hidden, it may be – and the two united are depicted as the All.
(January 1887; Hardy 1962, 185)
This entry is prefaced by the remark
I don't want to see landscapes, i.e., scenic paintings of them, because I don't want to see the original realities – as optical effects, that is. I want to see the deeper reality underlying the scenic, the expression of what are sometimes called abstract imaginings.
(January 1887; Hardy 1962, 185)
This distinction broadly corresponds to the phenomenon Vernon Lee calls ‘the lie of the land’, by which she means
the real, individual landscape – the landscape one actually sees with the eyes of the body and the eyes of the spirit – the landscape you cannot describe…. Yes, lie of the land is what has mattered to us since we were children, to our fathers and remotest ancestors; and its perception, the instinctive preference for one kind rather than another, is among the obscure things inherited with our blood, and making up the stuff of our souls.
(Lee 1897, 45, 47)
Hardy's comments on landscape, written in response to the modernity of Turner, are informed by a latent Romanticism: Wordsworth's ‘eye and ear’ which ‘half-create’ and ‘perceive’ (‘Tintern Abbey’, ll. 107–8; Wordsworth 1997, 60), Coleridge's cry that ‘in our life alone does nature live’ (‘Dejection Ode’, l. 48; Coleridge 1974, 281), and Shelley's declaration in the Defence that ‘All things exist as they are perceived: at least in relation to the percipient’ (Shelley 1977, 505). It is apparent from comments dating from the very beginning of Hardy's career, such as ‘The poetry of a scene varies with the minds of the perceivers. Indeed, it does not lie in the scene at all’ (August 23 1865; Hardy 1962, 50), that Hardy was in line with the Romantic belief which still underpins much poetic writing in the period. In trying to distinguish with unnecessary rigour between Romantic and Victorian literatures, we have down-played similarities. For the Romantic belief that it is the viewer's subjective power which colours and charges what is viewed remains constant throughout the period, and culminates with the late Decadent assertion of the priority of the imagination over Nature. While certain Victorian commentators alarmed by their ever-more complex sense of ‘the world's multitudinousness’ (Arnold cited in (p.207) Christ 1975, 35, 65) may have sought objective standards of truth, as in Arnold's behest ‘to see the object as in itself it really is’ and Ruskin's unease with the pathetic fallacy, they were countered by those like Hardy who believed poetry's mission was ‘to record impressions, not convictions’ (Hardy 1962, 377).
As Dennis Taylor points out, Hardy's ‘“notion of impression” came from a number of traditions, that of English skepticism particularly from Hume to Spencer, the aesthetic tradition from Keats to Pater,…and nineteenth-century impressionist painting’ (Taylor 1993, 41). The quotations about landscape, ‘material fact’, and ‘abstract imaginings’ cited above date from a period when Hardy was observing impressionist painterly techniques in the galleries and exhibitions he attended. In The Expressive Eye (1986), his study of perception in Hardy's fiction, J. B. Bullen discusses the impact of impressionist painting on his novel The Woodlanders (1887), while Tom Paulin in The Poetry of Perception (1975; 2nd ed., 1986) makes a good case for the late poem ‘The High-school Lawn’ from Human Shows (1925) as ‘impressionist’ in the painterly sense, with its blur of colour,‘shimmering, ephemeral qualities of surfaces’ and evocation of ‘a passing mood’ (Paulin 1986, 34). But Hardy's observations on impressionist technique are not essentially new but are recognisably a development of his earlier Romantic tenets such the Wordsworthian impulse to see into ‘the heart of a thing’ (January 1881; Hardy 1962, 147). Thus, discussing impressionism in art and literature, he sees it as ‘what appeals to your own individual eye and heart in particular’ (December 1886; Hardy 1862, 184). Pater seems to me the crucial figure in mediating this development as, for example, in his own cunning transumption of Arnold in the Preface to The Renaissance: ‘“To see the object as in itself it really is,” has been justly said to be the aim of all criticism whatever; and in æsthetic criticism the first step towards seeing one's object as it really is, is to know one's impression as it really is, to discriminate it, to realise it distinctly’ (Pater 1980, Ren xix). In the Conclusion to The Renaissance, Pater also describes how, although, as perceivers, we, at first, feel ourselves buried under ‘a flood of external objects, pressing upon us with a sharp and importunate reality’, ‘reflexion’ dissipates those objects, suspending their ‘cohesive force’, so that ‘each object is loosed into a group of impressions’ (Pater 1980, Ren 187). These Paterian processes of reflective dissipation of the object and discrimination of one's impression seem to me intriguingly close to that defamiliarising review of the object which I have described Hardy as undertaking in so many of his poems. Hardy would almost certainly agree with Pater's follower, Lee ‘that seeing is a business of the mind, the memory and the heart, quite as much as the eye’ (Lee 1927b, 251) and that ‘the life of all art goes on in the mind and heart, not merely of those who make the work, but of those who read it’ (‘The Lie of the Land’; Lee 1897, 59). In ‘Alike and Unlike’, his short poem about a couple's shared viewing of a particular scene (the ‘Great (p.208) Orme's Head’ of the subtitle), Hardy's metaphor of pictorial engraving is an evident synonym for ‘impression’:
- We watched the self-same scene on that long drive,
- Saw the magnificent purples, as one eye,
- Of those near mountains; saw the storm arrive;
- Laid up the sight in memory, you and I,
- As if for joint recallings by and by.
- But our eye-records, like in hue and line,
- Had superimposed on them, that very day,
- Gravings on your side deep, but slight on mine! –
- Tending to sever us thenceforth alway;
- Mine commonplace; yours tragic, gruesome, gray.
(Hardy 1976, 788–9)
When the couple recall this incident afterwards, they have different impressions of ‘the self-same scene’ because of the different emotions they experienced on ‘that very day’. From the perspective of hindsight, different emotions connected with the scene or with some aspect of their relationship, emotions perhaps not fully conscious or recognised at the time, prepare the ground for future dissension.
Hardy's awareness of how different emotions shape one's impression of a scene is obvious in both his novels and his poems. He appears to have first read Ruskin's Modern Painters (1843–60) around 1862 (Paulin 1986, 18), and his poems show a strong interest in what Ruskin termed ‘the pathetic fallacy’ (Modern Painters 3 (1856), Ch. 12) which, in its now common debased form, is understood as the imputation of human character and feeling to natural objects, but which is properly the imputation of human character and feeling to natural objects by the perceiving subject when under the influence of strong emotion. While Ruskin sanctions certain manifestations when they appear to him to be caused by genuine emotion, he remains at heart uneasy about the fallacy which, for him, is essentially based on false appearances and deceit and, as such, a perversion of the book of nature which is the revelation of the Divine Mind. His exposition of the fallacy makes it clear that he prefers those poets of the first rank who avoid the fallacy by making analogies, similes, and comparisons using words such as ‘like’, ‘as’, or ‘seems’; for him, ‘The temperament which admits the pathetic fallacy, is … that of a mind and body in some sort too weak to deal fully with what is before them or upon them’ (Ruskin 1903– 4, 5.208). As one of the best-known descriptive devices for representing the sympathy of the perceiving subject with Nature and vice versa, the pathetic fallacy is a master trope of Romantic and Post-Romantic poetry. Among those who use the fallacy are Wordsworth, Keats, and Tennyson who, thus tainted by weakness, immediately constitute Ruskin's second order of poets. Hardy clearly (p.209) rejected Ruskin's deprecation of the fallacy with its degradation of users to a second order or below, judging emotional vision, and thus the fallacy, as implicit to acts of intense perception. While Ruskin saw the perceiver as subordinate to nature and praised Sir Walter Scott for this very thing (Ruskin 1903–4, 5.341), Hardy typically sees nature as subordinate to the perceiver.7
Hardy must have balked at Ruskin's charge of deceit and false appearance in the pathetic fallacy, for the anthropomorphic element of the fallacy was part of an imaginative animism which was habitual with him: ‘In spite of myself I cannot help noticing countenances and tempers in objects of scenery, e.g. trees, hills, houses’; ‘I sometimes look upon all things in inanimate Nature as pensive mutes’ (10 February 1897; 30 May 1877; Hardy 1962, 285, 114). His writings are full of minor animations, as inanimate things or natural objects such as roads, rooms, trees, buildings, places, landscapes, the elements, are personified, and, typically, are given characters or faces, as in these examples from The Woodlanders and The Mayor of Casterbridge: ‘the physiognomy of a deserted highway’, ‘the features of the town’, ‘the bleared white visage of a sunless winter's day’.8 Often, when it is a face that comes to view, that face solicits or demands interpretation:
These bridges had speaking countenances.
(Mayor, Hardy 1974c, 247)
Her own bedroom wore at once a look more familiar than when she had left it, and yet a face estranged.
(Woodlanders, Hardy 1974d, 77)
The smooth surfaces of glossy plants came out like weak lidless eyes; there were strange faces and figures from expiring lights.
(Woodlanders, Hardy 1974d, 326)
This animism might be regarded as ‘primitive’ form of the imagination which is none the less a vital constituent in poetic perception. After citing remarks made by his friend Edward Clodd about the primitive temperament, Hardy commented, ‘This “barbaric idea which confuses persons and things” is, by the way, also common to the highest imaginative genius – that of the poet’ (18 December 1890; Hardy 1962, 230). Clearly animism also pervades his own poetry, as in, for example, ‘The weakening eye of day’ and ‘The land's sharp features’, from ‘The Darkling Thrush’; ‘the frigid face of the heath-hemmed pond’ in ‘At Rushy Pond’; or, in ‘On the Esplanade’, where ‘The broad bald moon (p.210) edged up where the sea was wide, / Mild, mellow-faced’ (Hardy 1976, 150, 713, 715). In ‘Nature's Questionings’, a poem which puts the speaker on the receiving end of Nature's philosophical queries, he tells how
- When I look forth at dawning, pool,
- Field, flock, and lonely tree,
- All seem to gaze at me
- Like chastened children sitting silent in a school.
(Hardy 1976, 66)
The ensuing questions about existential origins, which the speaker is unable to answer, are, we assume, his own. In Hardy's poetry, ‘the intenser stare of the mind’ can seem like a version of Hopkins's ‘what you look hard at seems to look hard at you’ (Hopkins 1959, 204); that is, as in the pathetic fallacy's projection of identity through strong emotion, the experience of being looked at is the result of a reflection. In the second stanza of the poem ‘Moments of Vision’ which opens the 1917 verse collection of the same name, the speaker asks
- That mirror
- Whose magic penetrates like a dart,
- Who lifts that mirror
- And throws our mind back on us, and our own heart,
- Until we start?
(Hardy 1976, 427)
One way of responding to this question might be that we (and, more specifically, Hardy) are the ones who have unconsciously or half-consciously positioned that mirror in Nature or our surroundings to ‘throw our mind back’ on ourselves. However, there might be another explanation if we consider Hardy's animism (which, as we have seen, he associates with his creative vision as a poet) in connection with the remarks of the psychoanalyst Marion Milner on the relation between the painter and his world. In On Not Being Able to Paint (1950), her personal investigation of painting and drawing, Milner came to the conclusion that
the relationship of oneself to the external world is basically and originally a relationship of one person to another, even though it does eventually become differentiated into relations to living beings and relations to things, inanimate nature. In other words, in the beginning one's mother is, literally, the whole world. Of course, the idea of one's first relationship to the outside world being felt as a relationship to persons, or parts of persons, was one I had frequently met with in discussions of childhood and savage animism. But the possibility that the adult painter could be basically, even though unconsciously, concerned with an animistically conceived world, was something I had hardly dared let myself face.
Looked at in these terms the problem of the relation between the painter and his world then became basically a problem of one's own need and the needs of the (p.211) ‘other’, a problem of reciprocity between ‘you’ and ‘me’; with ‘you’ and ‘me’ meaning originally mother and child.
(Milner 1957, 116)
Hardy's animism then might be a relic or remnant of his original relationship with his mother, a relationship we know was a strong one. When at home in Dorset, Hardy visited her at Bockhampton every Sunday till her death at the age of ninety in April 1904. Hardy's biographer Michael Millgate calls Jemima Hardy ‘the single most important influence in his life, and the source, together with his father, of so much of that local and traditional material which formed the groundwork of his fiction and poetry alike’ (Millgate 1985, 20–3, 435). The traces of this relationship then reveal themselves through his representations of his surroundings, especially his personalised recreation of Wessex, his cherished motherland. In the psychoanalytic theory of D. W. Winnicott, the mother is the first person who, by offering the infant a mirror in herself (that is, in her face and expressions), reflects the infant back to himself and gives him a sense of self.9 So the mother is behind the original mirroring which ‘throws us back’ on ourselves, and the ‘reflection’ provided by animistic perception is a relic of this original process. Thus a landscape that takes over this function, that perpetually reflects and reinforces a sense of identity, is in a real sense a motherland.
As theorists of child development have proposed, one of the infant's major tasks is to separate himself gradually from his mother. In ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ (1920), Freud famously introduced the figure of his one-and-a half-year-old grandson playing with a wooden reel on a piece of string. Holding the string, the child would throw the reel into his curtained cot, noting its disappearance with what sounded like the German word ‘fort’ meaning ‘gone’, and then pulling it back into view would greet ‘its reappearance with a joyful “da” [“there”]’. Freud determined that through this game the child was miming his mother's departures from him, along with her subsequent returns, in order to gain mastery over his loss of her (Freud 1984b, 11.283–6). Later Winnicott theorised that children used playthings such as toys as transitional objects to aid them in the process of weaning themselves away from their mother. Adult versions of these transitional objects might be art objects, which may thus carry marks of that original primary relation between mother and child.10 Hardy's own art objects are, of course, his novels and poems. He regarded his poetry as his real creative work and thought that it was much more personally revealing than his novels, writing to Clive Holland on 25 August 1923 that, ‘If you read the thin paper volume called “Collected Poems”,…you will gather more personal particulars than I could give you in an interview, circumstances not being so veiled in the verse as in the novels’ (Hardy 1978–88, 6.206–7).
(p.212) One can't help but notice that Hardy is obsessed with the idea of the lost woman. Indeed, as repetition is fundamental to his writing, we should not be surprised to find the loss of the woman endlessly repeated.11 His 1897 novel The Well-Beloved (The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved in the 1892 serial version), which in its opening chapters shows the inconstant Jocelyn Pierston allured by a succession of different women, satirises a temperament Hardy knew only too well. In life he was perpetually fixing on female strangers met casually, or glimpsed in the street, or on buses and trains, and falling in love with them.12 Robert Gittings calls him ‘A perpetual adolescent even into his eighties’ and Hardy himself confessed to Florence, his second wife, that ‘he thought he had never grown up’ (Gittings 1978, 66, 159).13 One wonders if it is not the very transient nature of these experiences, the fact that such women will swiftly and inevitably be removed from view, which makes them so exciting to him and the women so attractive. He looks everywhere for ‘reflecting’ female faces, but he also perhaps relies on their disappearance and his mastery of his loss. If the Romantic epipsyche or reflecting female beloved of male poets can be deemed an adult substitute for the reflecting mother, then more than most poets, Hardy seems reconciled to her loss, perhaps because he knows he will continue to see her refracted in the landscape and in the intense stare of his mind's eye. As we know, Hardy's feelings for Emma, his first wife, which had fallen into abeyance towards the end of her life, were rekindled only after her death, his powerful emotions of yearning and regret finding expression in some of his best poems. These poems, and indeed many other of his poems which are about lost women, can be read as Hardy's repeated version of the fort / da game, signifying his attempt to compensate for and master a separation that echoes that primary separation. In a similar vein U. C. Knoepflmacher suggests that ‘The female shades who stimulated Hardy's imagination were, like the living women in his life, versions of the mother he could not afford directly to impersonate or appropriate’ (Knoepflmacher 1993, 124).14 Robert Gittings comments that (p.213) the death of Hardy's childhood sweetheart, Louisa Harding, in September 1913 ‘made him realize that all dead women had a mysterious attraction for him, though Emma was still “the elect one”’ and that ‘The death of a woman remained the most powerful and lasting factor in his creative life’ (Gittings 1978, 158, 66). Of the poems that commemorate Emma, Michael Millgate observes: ‘It is perfectly clear that, as on many previous occasions, what gave Hardy pain was precisely what provided the fuel for his art’; and he also remarks: ‘it is clear from the verbal and rhythmic control of these poems that Hardy remained very much in control of his emotions at this period, that he cherished his melancholy rather than surrendered to it’ (Millgate 1985, 488). In a number of the poems about Emma, the return to Cornwall – her birth-place, native terrain, and the scene of the couple's courtship – identifies her with the landscape she inhabited, a displaced or extended version of Hardy's motherland. In these poems about lost women, the woman's ghost, which may appear after her death, might also be the enacted maternal return of the fort /da, a return carefully staged and controlled by the poet.
Hardy was to call one of his most celebrated verse collections Moments of Vision (1917). Evoking the Wordsworthian entranced subject ‘who had passed alone / Beyond the visible barriers of the world / And travelled into things to come’ (‘The Borderers’, 4.2.143–5; 1797–99 version; Wordsworth 1982, 238), much of his poetry celebrates ‘The visioning powers of souls who dare / To pierce the material screen’ (‘The House of Silence’; Hardy 1976, 474). For Hardy, who told the interviewer William Archer that he ‘cheerfully would have given ten years of my life to see a ghost … I should think I am cut out by nature for a ghost-seer’ (Archer 1904, 37), poetry is a domain especially sympathetic to phantoms. ‘Half my time – particularly when writing verse – I “believe” (in the modern sense of the word)…in spectres, mysterious voices, omens, dreams, haunted places, etc. etc.’ (Hardy 1962, 370). Many of Hardy's poems are about ghosts or the experience of being haunted, something that that has been fully acknowledged only relatively recently in monographs by Tim Armstrong (2000) and Sven Bäckman (2001). That the treatment of this subject is by no means self-evident or predictable is shown by the widely divergent approaches of these writers. Armstrong's monograph, heavily informed by post-structuralist theory, is primarily interested in ‘the construction of history as a discourse (often a haunted discourse) in Hardy's poetry … above all about the entry into history, the trauma of becoming-historical which is central to nineteenth-century conceptions of the human’ (Armstrong 2000, 2), while Bäckman's discusses ‘the use Hardy the poet makes of various supernatural elements – i.e. motifs, themes, and phenomena connected with the world beyond what he (p.214) once referred to as “the material screen”’ (Bäckman 2001, 1–2). Moreover, when dealing with the supernatural in Hardy's poetry, these differing views of what constitutes the ghostly or the spectral result in noticeably different selections of poems, and, while any selection is likely to be determined by personal preferences, Hardy's œuvre of some 950 poems allows for considerable variation in choice. My own position is different from both of these critics in that I see Hardy's phantasmal leanings as a more accentuated flowering of his visionary imagination, nurtured by Romantic and Post-Romantic writers, and by his own inner life in so far as it contributes to his shaping as a poet.
As indicated above, Hardy acknowledged that writing and especially the writing of verse opened him up to the supernatural. Poetry in particular for him has the potential to accommodate ghosts and other phantasmal things, to make space for forms of consciousness or unconsciousness which he might not so easily entertain in everyday life. We know that Hardy often had a sense of his poems as a particular space or shape before they took actual form in words; that is, they existed as ‘verse skeletons’ (Hardy 1962, 301). Of these Samuel Hynes writes: ‘The notion of the empty poetic mold, waiting to be filled with words, may seem naïve … but they do show Hardy's lively interest in the technical aspects of his chosen art’ (Hynes 1961, 20). Dennis Taylor's monograph on Hardy's metrical experiments, Hardy's Metres and Victorian Prosody (1988), suggests his approach was anything but naive, but, to put the issue of metre to one side, it is possible to think of these demarked or designated spaces as waiting for the appropriate form to inhabit them. These outlined gaps are reminiscent of the kind of gap in consciousness that occurs when searching for a forgotten name, as described by William James in his The Principles of Psychology:
The state of our consciousness is peculiar. There is gap therein; but no mere gap. It is a gap that is intensely active. A sort of wraith of the name is in it, beckoning us in a given direction, making us at moments tingle with the sense of our closeness, and then letting us sink back without the longed-for term. If wrong names are proposed to us, this singularly definite gap acts immediately so as to negate them. They do not fit into its mould. And the gap of one word does not feel like the gap of another, all empty of content as both might seem necessarily to be when described as gaps …. The rhythm of a lost word may be there without a sound to clothe it; or the evanescent sense of something which is the initial vowel or consonant may mock us fitfully, without growing more distinct. Everyone must know the tantalizing effect of the blank rhythm of some forgotten verse, restlessly dancing in one's mind, striving to be filled out with words.
(James 1901, 251, 252)
As the psychologist Anton Ehrenzweig has suggested with reference to this passage, James's ‘“gap” which …“beckons” us into a given direction is akin to the guiding vision of the creative artist or thinker which accepts or rejects (p.215) the formative ideas’ (Ehrenzweig 1975, 10). In Chapter 53 of Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891), Hardy memorably described Angel Clare on his return from South America as whittled him down by mental agony to an excruciated core: ‘You could see the skeleton behind the man, and almost the ghost behind the skeleton’ (Hardy 1974b, 417). Likewise Hardy's verse skeletons allow us to speculate on the ghosts of poems that lie behind them which take shape and form in the act of writing. They direct us toward that region which the philosopher Maurice Blanchot indicates in his essay ‘The Book to Come’:
Nothing is created and no discourse can be creative except through the preliminary exploration of the totally vacant region where language, before it is a set of given words, is a silent process of correspondences, or a rhythmic scansion of life. Words exist only to signify the area of correspondence, the space onto which they are projected.
(Blanchot 1982, 237)
If, for Hardy, the writing of poetry is the taking shape and the taking over of a ghostly space, then within the poems ghost space is also important in that his spectres have specific territories or haunting grounds. Houses, in particular, are prime sites for accumulating spirits. In the poem ‘The Two Houses’, the older house, responding to the newer house's insults about his dilapidations, retorts, ‘A new house has no sense of the have-beens. / Void as a drum / You stand’, and after listing the many spectres who people his rooms, declares
- ‘Where such inbe
- A dwelling's character
- Takes theirs, and a vague semblancy
- To them in all its limbs, and light, and atmosphere.’
(Hardy 1976, 596)
Cowed by this speech, the newer house tentatively asks if the day will come when he, too, will ‘“with such spectral guests become acquaint”’, to which the older replies with magisterial patronage:
- ‘That will it, boy;
- Such shades will people thee,
- Each in his misery or, irk, or joy,
- And print on thee their presences as on me.’
That sense of the ‘printed presence’, akin to ‘impression’, is what makes places, especially houses, paradoxically ‘vital’ to Hardy. When, in the poem ‘The Self-unseeing’ (Hardy 1976, 166–7), the speaker visits his childhood home, the ‘ancient floor / Footworn and hollowed and thin’ bears tangible marks of former inhabitants, but he also sees with his mind's stare the phantom imprinted presences of his own self, mother, and father enjoying his father's fiddle music, but unaware, so it seems to him now, of the full extent of their (p.216) happiness. It is this sense of a continuously printed presence that perhaps enables Hardy to make the observation in the Life dated 10 June 1923: ‘Relativity. That things and events always were, are, and will be (e.g. Emma, Mother and Father are still living in the past)’ (Hardy 1962, 419). This review of the past that makes it live on, that enables the reviewer to see even the ghost of his former self, seems to be something that Hardy specifically identified with poetry.
Hardy's perception of the printed presence corresponds well with Vernon Lee's sense, in her essay ‘In Praise of Old Houses’ (1892), ‘which to many of us has grown into a cherished habit – the sense of being companioned by the past, of being in a place warmed for our living by the lives of others’ (Lee 1897, 29). None the less for the sensitive subject such an experience can on occasion feel oppressive. In his Life Hardy complains feelingly that ‘The worst of taking a furnished house is that the articles in the rooms are saturated with the thoughts and glances of others’ (28 April 1893; 1962, 254). It is telling that Hardy's mother seemed to have felt something similar about her own inherited furniture; he noted that ‘My mother says she looks at the furniture and feels she is nothing to it. All those belonging to it, and the place, are gone, and it is left in her hands, a stranger. (She has, however, lived there these fifty-three years!)’ (31 August 1892; Hardy 1962, 249). The speaker of the poem ‘Old Furniture’ is one of those sitting ‘amid relics of householdry / That date from the days of their mothers’ mothers’, who can
- see the hands of the generations
- That owned each shiny familiar thing
- In play on its knobs and indentations,
- And with its ancient fashioning
- Still dallying:
- Hands behind hands, growing paler and paler,
- As in a mirror a candle-flame
- Shows images of itself, each frailer
- As it recedes, though the eye may frame
- Its shape the same.
(Hardy 1976, 485–6)
In ‘The House of Silence’ (Hardy 1976, 474), we find out that the house of the title, which seems to the observing child ‘a quiet place’, but is said to teem with phantasmal life, is actually ‘a poet's bower’, the implication being that the poet is one who has ‘The visioning powers of those who dare / To pierce the material screen’, but also that the phantoms are of his perception and creation, the products of the ‘brain’ that ‘spins there till dawn’. The ‘ghost space’ of the house is here directly linked to the ghost space of poetry writing and perhaps poetry reading where ‘Figures dance to a mind with sight’. The printed presences that (p.217) haunt the house and the poet's creative consciousness are those that will eventually find their way into print, and thereafter impress themselves on the minds of sensitive readers. However the last two lines of this poem's first stanza – ‘Why a phantom abides there, the last of its race, / And a brain spins there till dawn’ – suggest that the ‘phantom’ and the spinning ‘brain’ are one, and thus that the poet, who necessarily inhabits ghost space, may be considered to be a phantom himself.15 As Hardy recorded in his Life, ‘For my part, if there is any way of getting a melancholy satisfaction out of life it lies in dying, so to speak, before one is out of the flesh; by which I mean putting on the manners of ghosts, wandering in their haunts, and taking their views of surrounding things’ (July 1888; Hardy 1962, 209–10).
So what for Hardy is a ghost and what does it mean to be a ghost? If a ghost is a printed presence, it is also a ‘visible essence’, a phrase that, as we have seen in Chapter 2, has a strong Paterian ring. Hardy first used the phrase in The Return of the Native (1878) where, in Chapter 5 – a chapter in which critics have felt Pater's influence at work – he gives his famous portrait of Eustacia Vye: ‘Assuming that the souls of men and women were visible essences, you could fancy the colour of Eustacia's soul to be flame-like’.16 He used it again in a note of 4 March 1888 on novel-writing reproduced in his Life: ‘Novel-writing as an art cannot go backward. Having reached the analytic stage, it must transcend it by going still further in the same direction. Why not by rendering as visible essences, spectres, etc., the abstract thoughts of the analytic school?’ (Hardy 1962, 177). Underneath this entry, he added in the form of a later commentary: ‘This notion was approximately carried out, not in a novel, but in the more appropriate medium of poetry, the supernatural framework of The Dynasts as also in smaller poems’ (Hardy 1962, 177). An abstraction, virtually synonymous with the spectre, and inherently more suited to poetry, the ‘visible essence’, as in Paterian alchemy, is something condensed to its characterising essentials and an essential likeness. It also evokes Ruskin's statement in the second volume of Modern Painters that ‘The virtue of the Imagination is its reaching, by intuition and intensity of gaze (not by reasoning but by its authoritative opening and revealing power), a more essential truth than is seen at the (p.218) surface of things’ (Ruskin 1903–4, 4.284). If a ghost is a visible essence, to be a ghost is to be one's essential self or self-in-essence, to cast off extraneous matter, or superficial trappings and conventions, and to see beyond the immediate and the obvious. We can see why Hardy might well then readily identify the phantom with the writer and, especially, the poet. T. E. Lawrence evidently thought the elderly Hardy had succeeded in becoming a ghost, writing to Robert Graves in September 1923: ‘Hardy is so pale, so quiet, so refined into an essence’ (Lawrence 1964, 429–30). Hardy's ghost-making, whether of persons or objects, is also poetry-making, implying a kind of death in which the inessential is lost. If the imagination or intenser stare of the mind is what brings visible essence into view, loss or death is the pre-condition for the distillation or condensation of essence that activates the imaginative impulse. Thus in the poem ‘When Dead’ the speaker announces:
- It will be much better when
- I am under the bough
- I shall be more myself, Dear, then;
- Than I am now.
(Hardy 1976, 721)
Robert Gittings has said that for Hardy ‘Death … proved a stimulant whose effects did not so easily wear off’ (Gittings 1978, 66), to which I would add that, as we shall see, death is also the imaginative stimulant that makes ‘visible essence’ or essential character appear.
Shades and silhouettes
May 18 . Royal Academy. No. 118. ‘Death of Ney’, by Gérôme. The presence of Death makes the picture great.
No. 985. ‘Jerusalem’, by the same. The shadows only of the three crucified ones are seen. A fine conception.
(Hardy 1962, 76)
It is Hardy's imaginative belief in the visionary and the supernatural, a world that lies beyond optical verisimilitude, which occupies me in this conclusion where the poems I wish to explore are forms of cryptic portraiture which chart relations between the phenomenal and the visionary. Noticeable in most of these poems is Hardy's use of the silhouette which Tom Paulin has referred to as a mnemonic device (Paulin 1986, 107–20); an outline which calls to mind the familiar features of a well-known personage. Silhouettes occur naturally when individuals are seen, often from a distance, outlined against the sky or a lighter background, but they also constitute an important form of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century portraiture in which a profile view of the subject's (p.219) head and shoulders is depicted either by a black paper cut-out or in black ink. Most fashionable in the period 1750–1850, these silhouette portraits were also, according to the OED, known as ‘shades’; a word which is a particular favourite of Hardy's and which, like its Latin antecedent umbra, has the advantage of meaning both ‘shadow’ and ‘ghost’. While the shade or silhouette recalls to memory the personage it represents, it is interesting for what it leaves out as much as for what it includes. An evocative outline which excludes the particularity of individual features, the silhouette is like a draft or sketch, a ghost of a drawing – that form of delineation also favoured by Vernon Lee in her rerouting of the sublime into the supernatural. The partial portraiture of the silhouette brings the subject to mind but, repressing the fullness of her presence, reminds us that she is not there. Thus, although as I have argued elsewhere (Maxwell 1997) all portraiture has a link with death, the silhouette has an even stronger relation in that it figures absence more graphically, so that where the subject of the representation is in fact dead, the silhouette becomes the shade of a shade. An archetypal female silhouette associated with death was imprinted early on Hardy's mind in August 1856. In a letter to Lady Hester Pinney of 20 January 1926, he recalls
that unhappy woman Martha Brown [sic], whom I am ashamed to say I saw hanged, my only excuse being that I was but a youth, & had to be in the town at the time for other reasons … I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain, & how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half-round & back.
(Hardy 1978–88, 7.5)
In this gruesome but compelling recollection, Hardy literally watches Browne turning into a shadow of herself. But in this undoubtedly sexualised reminiscence she also seems to become the essence of nubile womanhood; for, if the empty outline of the shade figures absence, it can be also thought to offer a greater degree of visionary or imaginative potential in that it offers the sensitive observer the opportunity of projecting more freely his own memories, impressions, fantasies, and associations into the charged blank space of the silhouette; that is, it sums up what is important to him, or, as Hardy put it in his discussion of impressionism, ‘what appeals to your own individual eye and heart in particular’ (Hardy 1962, 184). According to this view, the shade has the potential for a plenitude lacked by a more visually exacting resemblance as it functions as, to use Hardy's phrases, a ‘visible essence’ and not ‘a photograph in words, that inartistic species of literary produce’ (Hardy 1962, 177, 351).
The suggestive fragment or part-for-whole which prompts a fuller because imaginative vision is a staple of a visionary trend in nineteenth-century literature. Hardy habitually practised a synecdochic vision, declaring that ‘The art of (p.220) observation’ lay in ‘the seeing of great things in little things, the whole in the part – even the infinitesimal part’ (Hardy 1962, 248), and that ‘the would-be storyteller’ required an ‘intuitive power’ that allowed him ‘To see in half and quarter views the whole picture, to catch from a few bars the whole tune’ (Hardy 1966b, 137). In his essay ‘The Profitable Reading of Fiction’ (1888), Hardy proposed that ‘the appreciative, perspicacious reader’ is one who is skilled at such synecdochic reading: ‘He will see what his author is aiming at, and by affording full scope to his own insight, catch the vision which the writer has in his eye, and is endeavoring to project upon the paper, even while it half eludes him’ (Hardy 1966d, 117). In her essay ‘Thomas Hardy's Novels’ (1928), Virginia Woolf sees Hardy employing in his fiction a kind of latent synecdochic appeal to the reader: ‘It is as if Hardy himself were not quite aware of what he did, as if his consciousness held more than he could produce, and he left it for his readers to make out his full meaning and to supplement it from their own experience’ (Woolf 1986–94, 4.510). In Hardy, as in other nineteenth-century writers such as Browning, Vernon Lee, and Lee-Hamilton, synecdoche is the figure that leads sight to vision, that tutors perception not just to register or document, but to make visible that which is normally unseen. It is well illustrated by Ruskin, commonly associated with more precisionist modes of representation, in the following moving passage from Modern Painters 3:
It follows evidently from the first of these characters of the imagination, its dislike of substance and presence, that a picture has in some measure even an advantage with us in not being real. The imagination rejoices in having something to do, springs up with all its willing power, flattered and happy; and ready with its fairest colours and most tender pencilling, to prove itself worthy of the trust, and exalt into sweet supremacy the shadow that has been confided to its fondness. And thus, so far from its being at all an object to the painter to make his work look real, he ought to dread such a consummation as the loss of one of its most precious claims upon the heart. So far from striving to convince the beholder that what he sees is substance, his mind should be to what he paints as the fire to the body on the pile, burning away the ashes, leaving the unconquerable shade – an immortal dream.
(Ruskin 1903–4, 5.184–5; my italics)
Ruskin describes the valuable nature of the sketch which, in complicity with the imagination, best preserves a cherished subject matter, but the deeply charged nature of his words and figures implies that the most desirable subject matter is a memorial likeness of a dead or absent beloved. If Ruskin unconsciously links the sketch or shade-drawing with a poignant play of absence and presence, then this too is present in an apocryphal history of representation where the drawn silhouette importantly foreshadows the evolution of painting. Pliny's Natural History (Bk 35) provides two accounts, the first being of a more general nature:
(p.221) The question as to the origin of the art of painting is uncertain and it does not belong to the plan of this work. The Egyptians declare that it was invented among themselves six thousand years before it passed over into Greece – which is clearly an idle assertion. As to the Greeks, some of them say that it was discovered at Sicyon, others in Corinth, but all agree that it began with tracing an outline round a man's shadow and consequently that pictures were originally done in this way.
(Pliny 1961, 10.271)
In a second account, also set at Sicyon, Corinth, the first artist appears to be a woman, but her achievement is overshadowed by that of her father who subsumes her work into his claim to be the first sculptor:
Enough and more than enough has now been said about painting. It may be suitable to append to these remarks something about the plastic art. It was through the service of that same earth that modelling portraits from clay was first invented by Butades, a potter of Sicyon, at Corinth. He did this owing to his daughter, who was in love with a young man; and she, when he was going abroad, drew in outline on the wall the shadow of his face thrown by a lamp. Her father pressed clay on this and made a relief, which he hardened by exposure to fire with the rest of his pottery; and it is said that this likeness was preserved in the Shrine of the Nymphs until the destruction of Corinth by Mummius.
(Pliny 1961, 10.371–3)
David Allen's painting The Origin of Drawing (1775), in the National Gallery of Scotland, chooses to regard the woman as originary artist and shows her seated on her lover's knee while tracing his profile as it is shadowed on the wall. What is particularly interesting about this story is that the young woman captures her lover's likeness as a memorial likeness which will compensate her for his absence while he is abroad.
Shades and silhouettes evoke the forms of lost loved ones or absent individuals in a number of poems by Hardy. All the poems I shall discuss were written after the death of Emma Hardy in 1912, and the first two,‘The Figure in the Scene’ and ‘Why Did I Sketch’ from Moments of Vision (Hardy 1976, 476, 477), have a special connection with drawing as the speaker describes sketches he has made of a woman who has since been ‘called hence’. Biographical evidence can supply an actual sketch (Pinion 1968; Plate facing 339) which Hardy produced of Emma at Beeny Cliffs on a rainy August day in 1870, but it would be wrong to see the poem as a transcript of the sketch, for ‘The Figure in the Scene’ gives the woman a prominence which the sketch does not. She is clearly centre-stage in this drama as she seems confidently to organise the scene, electing to take a role whose importance her partner does not recognise at the time:
- It pleased her to step in front and sit
- Where the cragged slope was green,
- (p.222) While I stood back that I might pencil it
- With her amid the scene;…
Yet the sketched woman, though immediately and painfully recognisable, is screened at three removes – by the cloak which protects her from the elements, by the curtaining drizzle of the rain, and by the stains watermarks have imposed on the drawing:
- And thus I drew her there alone,
- Seated amid the gauze
- Of moisture, hooded, only her outline shown,
- With rainfall marked across.
The gauze metaphor was one that Hardy had used before in August 1876 when he noted, ‘Rain: like a banner of gauze waved in folds across the scene’ (Hardy 1978, 19). Joan Grundy has remarked on his fascination with the Victorian use of theatrical gauzes to obscure outline on stage, noting how he ‘recommends them at the end of his Preface to The Dynasts as suitable to be used to “blur outlines” and thus “shut off the actual” in the “plays of poesy and dream” he surmises may be produced in the future’, and she comments: ‘Gauzes are for Hardy an intrinsic part of the human stage. Physically, in the form of mist or rain, they obscure or diminish vision’ (Grundy 1979, 103, 105). Yet I would suggest that the gauze – in this poem ‘the gauze / Of moisture’ – while it obscures physical sight, intensifies vision. Together with the cloak, the blots on the paper, the gauze heightens the effect and impact of the woman's ‘outline’. The gauze and other screening devices when viewed and read by the speaker stand in for what intervenes between him and the woman: the passage of time and death. Yet these things – time and death – do not detract from or diminish the figure but give it added emphasis. Death doubles the impact of the evocative outline giving it a power it did not possess when the speaker limned the woman's figure. Now a ‘visible essence’, the silhouette sums up and summons up the woman in all her ineffable power for the speaker so that
- her rainy form is the Genius still of the spot,
- Immutable, yea,
- Though the place knows her no more, and has known her not
- Ever since that day.
Not only does she confront him with her own essential spirit but she becomes for him the genius loci, the tutelary divinity or presiding spirit of a place. The notion of the genius loci stems from classical mythology, but, as Hardy must have been aware, the attempt to capture the essence of a place in writing, something dear to his own heart, had recently been practised by writers such as Alice Meynell and Vernon Lee in short impressionistic essays gathered under titles (p.223) such as The Spirit of Place (1896) and Genius Loci: Notes on Places (1899).17 For the speaker, the woman comes before him not just as the essence of herself but as the essence of the place.
‘Why Did I Sketch’, the companion poem to ‘The Figure in the Scene’, returns compulsively to the sketch and ‘a woman's silhouette’. This wryly ironic afterword is a half-hearted attempt at erasure as the speaker urges the reader not to repeat his mistake in thoughtlessly adding into his sketch a figure which will come to trouble him in the years thereafter:
- If you go drawing on down or cliff
- Let no soft curve intrude
- Of a woman's silhouette,
- But show the escarpments stark and stiff
- As in utter solitude;
- So shall you half forget.
But of course the speaker only adds to the power of the previous poem and the sketch it describes by retracing what he would erase or disfigure, thereby stressing its indelible impression; while the woman ‘has ceased to be seen’ in the phenomenal world, we know she dominates his imagination. His adjuration to the reader, evidently an adjuration to himself, shows that he can only ‘half forget’; that is, he is doomed to remember. The defences he puts in place against the past, as suggested by the ‘escarpments’ of the projected sketch he recommends, serve merely to reinforce the sense of his vulnerability and bereavement, his ‘utter solitude’. The poem becomes, in spite of itself, another testimony to Hardy's words about the mark of man on a landscape, its title ghosted by the realisation ‘How could I not sketch?’
Hardy draws a different kind of sketch, that of a woman he has never seen, in his poem ‘The Sunshade’ (Hardy 1976, 490). Like the piece that precedes it, ‘The Logs on the Hearth’, this poem seems to be about resurrection. Here the speaker muses on the rusty spokes of an old parasol, which he discovers in a cleft in the rocks at the seaside. This skeleton-form acts as a trigger to the speaker's imagination and is reclothed and resurrected in his fantasy in a way that tacitly parallels Biblical narratives of divine creating power such as Ezekiel's vision of the renuited and refleshed bones (Ezekiel 37).18
- Ah – it's the skeleton of a lady's sunshade,
- Here at my feet in the hard rock's chink,
- (p.224) Merely a naked sheaf of wires! –
- Twenty years have gone with their livers and diers
- Since it was silked in its white and pink.
- Noonshine riddles the ribs of the sunshade,
- No more a screen from the weakest ray;
- Nothing to tell us the hue of its dyes,
- Nothing but rusty bones at it lies
- In its coffin of stone, unseen till to-day.
The deftly handled analogy of the parasol as ‘skeleton’ – the speaker refers to its ‘ribs’, its ‘bones’ and its ‘coffin’ – prepares the way for a process of embodiment as the speaker conjures up a version of the past. Such is the persuasive force of the speaker as he plunges headlong into his tale, it is hard not to see this as a genuine act of recovery rather than a flight of fancy. The recovered sunshade leads to speculations about its owner – we are asked to picture a pretty young woman with coquettish tendencies plotting her conquests at this fashionable seaside town:
- Where is the woman who carried that sunshade
- Up and down this seaside place? –
- Little thumb bent against its stem,
- Thoughts perhaps bent on a love-strategem,
- Softening yet more the already soft face!
Then as a final coup de grâce, we are asked to speculate on the woman's possible death, on her once-attractive body, now too a skeleton:
- Is the fair woman who carried that sunshade
- A skeleton just as her property is,
- Laid in the chink that none may scan?
- And does she regret – if regret dust can –
- The vain things thought when she flourished this?
The process of embodiment is inverted as the sunshade becomes abruptly a memento mori and the woman so vividly evoked is now consigned to the grave. A touch of the morality play enters as the innocent scene of the woman's flirtation is somewhat melodramatically reviewed as Vanity Fair and matter for her regret – ‘if regret dust can’. The poem moves between light and dark as Hardy forces our attention upon the separate but juxtaposed ‘sun’ and ‘shade’ constituents of his title. From the gloom of the ‘coffin of stone’ that hides the parasol, we move to the sunlit idyll of the woman's careless youth and then back again to the darkness of the grave.
But, if we pause for reflection, we may also become aware that the woman herself is a ‘sun-shade’, a phantom and a sketch drawn by the speaker's day-dreaming fantasy. Indeed we are reminded of the creative writer's ability to (p.225) manipulate his fictions and his audience by the slightly sadistic way in which the speaker animates this girl only to kill her off, and by the calculated way in which he pulls at our heart-strings. No sooner have we been led to take an interest in this attractive new figure than we are rudely bereaved of her. Moreover the poem insists we accept its highly conjectural fantasy as a truth, a historical vignette with a moral; it allows us no space to demur with objections: that the owner of the parasol might have been other than the speaker describes her, older, plainer, with no interest in ‘love-stratagems’, or that, even as he dilates on her possible demise, she might be sitting comfortably at home, fair, fat, and forty, with a brood of children about her. Such prosaic alternatives are refused by the poem's masterful and masterly narrative, which presses ineluctably towards its desired conclusion. The poem, which works on the typical Hardy stratagem of a vision produced by a visual cue, testifies to the power of fictions and the way they are able to assume a reality of their own. The fleshing out of the skeleton-form of the parasol also acts as a kind of allegory of the fleshing out of the skeleton-form of the poem, a process that can reincarnate ghosts or make resurrections out of things that never existed. Although the grave is apparently a ‘chink that none may scan’, poetry and the poet do have the power to scan, to essentialise and capture phantoms in metrical form. In just such a way in ‘After a Journey’ does the substance of the verse allow the bereaved speaker to see his dead love ‘Scanned across the dark space wherein I have lacked you’ (Hardy 1976, 349).
The shade as a fiction of another sort occurs in Hardy's ‘The Shadow on the Stone’ (Hardy 1976, 530), another poem from Moments of Vision. A note by Hardy records that he began the poem in 1913 and finished it in 1916, and it is clearly one of many writings touched by the death of his first wife. The mysterious Druid stone mentioned in the first line of the poem had a biographical counterpart which Hardy found buried in his garden at Max Gate and had raised to ground level. Around the buried stone the excavators discovered ‘a quantity of ashes and half charred bones’ (Hardy 1962, 234). Clive Holland, a visitor to Max Gate in 1898, recorded that Hardy showed him the stone with the remark ‘“Do you believe in ghosts?…If you do you ought to see such manifestations here, on a moonlight night.”’ Ghosts and burnt offerings of a more personal nature may also have imprinted the stone on Hardy's memory, for the second Mrs Hardy reported to Irene Cooper Willis that ‘“Hardy found his wife burning all his love-letters to her behind that stone”’ (Bailey 1970, 412). However, intriguing though they are, the poem does not need these biographical details. The stone, one of the most ancient marks of man on a landscape, brings with it a halo of associations concerning burial, sacrifice, and regeneration. It evokes the primitive, removing us from the polite middle-class Christianity of Hardy's day to a place where other beliefs are tolerated. The (p.226) stone personified as ‘brood[ing]…white and lone’ gently intimates the speaker's own meditative emotion, yet simultaneously reminds us of the ‘animism’ of Hardy's use of the pathetic fallacy, a ‘primitive’ form of the imagination ‘“confusing persons and things”…common to the highest imaginative genius – that of the poet’ and a vital constituent in poetic perception. The stone serves as a monument to a certain kind of imaginative vision exercised in the poem.
The poem's preoccupation with shadows also recalls the Druidic use of large standing-stones as sundials, shadow-clocks, and calendars. This primitive chronology suggests that the speaker experiences the time of the imagination, which is outside of ordinary time and keeps its own calendar. Certainly the shadow that falls on the stone hearkens back to an earlier time, which mysteriously gets printed on the present moment. The poem shows us the imagination in the process of ghost-making whereby a shadow is made into a shade. The undifferentiated shadows playing on the Druid stone are ‘shaped in [the speaker's] imagining’ into the shadow the lost woman was wont to cast: ‘the shade that a well-known head and shoulders / Threw there when she was gardening’. ‘Shade’ here, evidently meaning shadow and ghost, also evokes silhouette drawing, typically of a head-and-shoulders view.
If the power of the speaker's imagination makes him see the shadow as a resemblance, the resemblance – the shade of a shade – makes him imagine that the woman he has loved and lost stands behind him. The speaker, determined to prolong this belief, protects this visionary image by refusing to look at it directly: ‘I would not turn my head to discover / That there was nothing in my belief.’ This encounter evokes the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice; Tom Paulin remarks of the speaker – ‘Like Orpheus he wants to look back’ (Paulin 1986, 59). But Paulin doesn't note how the speaker corrects Orpheus’ misadventure. Orpheus, who has charmed his way through the Underworld in order to retrieve his dead wife, is allowed to take her home on the condition that he doesn't look back at her until she has safely followed him to the earth above. Orpheus should properly believe that his wife follows behind him, but, doubting, has to look to make sure and so loses her; Hardy's speaker should properly know that his lost love is not behind him, but, in order to preserve her imagined presence, forgoes the desired backward glance. It is his not looking at her which keeps her ‘alive’, defended from rational objectifying scrutiny. The poem testifies to the recreative power of imaginative vision over and against the empirical proofs of optical sight.
- Yet I wanted to look and see
- That nobody stood at the back of me;
- But I thought once more: ‘Nay, I'll not unvision
- A shape which, somehow, there may be.’
- So I went on softly from the glade,
- (p.227) And left her behind me throwing her shade,
- As she were indeed an apparition –
- My head unturned lest my dream should fade.
The speaker does not see a genuine apparition face to face. Arguably then this is not a genuine visionary poem like Milton's Sonnet 23, also part inspired by Orpheus myth, in which the speaker beholds the transfigured likeness of his dead wife (see Maxwell 2001, 57–61). Seemingly Hardy's speaker cannot attain to this full vision and can only fabricate it by hints, guesses, and make-believe. But Hardy is not quite so clear-cut. The language of the final stanza is equivocal about the woman's presence, suggesting she is both provisional and real. The attribution of agency to her gives her a kind of authenticity even as it suggests that she is not a ‘true’ spectre: ‘So I went on softly from the glade, / And left her behind me throwing her shade, / As she were indeed an apparition’. The poem might equally make us question if there is a real distinction between imagining and the visionary, or if they are simply points of degree on the same spectrum. Moreover, it tantalises the reader with that space at the back of the speaker's head – the space he won't look at with his corporeal eyes –which becomes aligned with the imaginative space in which he can produce images he chooses not to share with the reader. At the heart of the poem is a mysterious and intimate privacy, a withheld vision which the speaker can see and which we can't and which allures us by being ever out of reach.
The private vision that cryptically energises a poem and arrests the reader who is none the less able to register its latent presence is one of Hardy's special devices. Subliminally present in the ‘The Figure in the Scene’ and ‘Why Did I Sketch’ where only the speaker can properly recreate from the ‘outline’ the features of his dead love, it is most powerfully employed in the last poem I shall treat in this series. All the poems I have looked at are exercises in memorial shade or shadow-drawing, but, while the earlier poems draw the shades of dead women, this last one features a son mourned by his mother. The dedication of this particular woman's vision suggests that for Hardy the memorialising tendencies of the female gaze are no less potent than those of its male counterpart. Moreover this look of recovery is directed towards a shade which derives from Hardy's most literal and perhaps most fascinating rendering of the technique described by Pliny.
‘The Whitewashed Wall’ (Hardy 1976, 685–6), from Late Lyrics and Earlier (1922), is written in the form of a conversation in which two acquaintances of the woman cottager discuss her strange behaviour. One of them wants to know why her attention seems held by the chimney-corner wall, so the other explains that a friend drew her son's shadow-portrait there which the ‘whitener’ unthinkingly covered over when he came to whitewash the cottage wall. This (p.228) second speaker also explains that the woman still intuits the presence of her son's portrait hidden underneath the paint and turns to it for consolation in his absence. That absence is implied to be terminal by the poem, which figures death in the reported apology of the whitener:
- ‘Yes,’ he said: ‘My brush goes on with a rush,
- And the draught is buried under;
- When you have to whiten old cots and brighten,
- What else can you do, I wonder?’
The ‘draught’ is not simply erased but is ‘buried under’; it lingers like a cadaver underneath the layering of paint, described by the second speaker as a shroud-like ‘sheet of white’.
Hardy originally wrote the poem for Reveille, the government quarterly ‘Devoted to the Disabled Soldier and Sailor’. The editor John Galsworthy had written to Hardy on 30 July 1918 to ask for a contribution. Hardy sent the poem in a letter dated 15 August 1918 and it was published in the November edition (Hardy 1985, 5.275–6). In the first published version, line 9 reads ‘Well, her soldier-son cast his shadow there’ (Hardy 1979, 686). But, when Hardy came to reprint the poem in Late Lyrics and Earlier (May 1922), he removed the obvious military reference as well as making one or two other smaller alterations. This emendation significantly alters the way we read the poem as it becomes impossible to age the son, who is defined solely by his relation to his mother. But, for those who know of its existence, the first version of Hardy's poem also lingers on buried under the later one. The word ‘draught’ is a Hardy variant on ‘draft’, the usual spelling for the word meaning both a rough sketch and military conscription. The ‘draught / draft is buried under’ becomes a beautifully subtle way of suggesting the son's demise in battle and also of alluding to the first Reveille version which lies inhearsed in the second, Late Lyrics poem.
The draught or shadow-drawing, the relic which conjures up the absentee, has precursors not only in Pliny but in Hardy's tender feeling for ‘the mark of man’ on a scene. In his commentary on ‘The Whitewashed Wall’, J. O. Bailey directs us to moments in Two on a Tower (Ch 28) and The Woodlanders (Ch 3) where Swithun's grandmother and Grace Melbury's father preserve marks and traces left by their loved ones (Bailey 1970, 494). I find another precursor to this poem in Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891), which shows how affection can be aroused by the (albeit transitory) shadow of the beloved. Retty teases Izz about Angel Clare – ‘“I zid you kissing his shade’ – and explains to Marian how, when Angel's shadow was cast on the wall close to Izz, she surreptitiously kissed ‘the shade of his mouth’ (Hardy 1974b, 175). Hardy seems to remember this scene when the woman, like a coy lover, turns in a ‘shy soft way’ to ‘kiss to the chimney-corner wall’ on which lies her son's submerged shadow-likeness. This (p.229) shade-drawing, so cherished by the woman, is more than just a banal tracing; apparently it captures a ‘lifelike semblance’, a ‘familiar look’, and, just at the moment it disappears under the whitewash, it becomes, poignantly, ‘a face’. The whitening, which becomes synonymous with death, has the strange effect of making the obliterated image more like and more powerful precisely because it can't be seen. But this is owing to the strength of the woman's determination to keep that face in view even if it is isn't actually visible. Although she was not the one who drew the shadow-drawing – that was the act of ‘a friend’ whose gender is not specified – it is her devotion which continually re-marks its presence and, refusing to abandon it, makes it a reality even to others. The speaker does not deride her belief as the hysterical fantasy of a bereaved woman but tenderly endorses it in the poem's last lines, when, as in earlier poems, the identity of the shade-portrait and the absent subject are merged – ‘she knows he's there’ – to suggest that the woman experiences an authentic vision of her son.
That vision, even when glimpsed at a remove, suggests the all-consuming nature of the woman's feeling for her son. As mentioned before, the Late Lyrics version does not specify whether the son is child or adult and the poem exploits this uncertainty in its last lines where Hardy delicately fuses eros, maternity, and mourning:
- But she knows he's there. And when she yearns
- For him, deep in the labouring night,
- She sees him as close at hand, and turns
- To him under his sheet of white.
Birth is figured in the ‘labouring’ night and the form beneath the sheet could be an infant's or, even more strangely, the body of a lover or mate. Thus embodied in the mother is the woman who tends to her infant, the woman who turns to her lover in the night, and the woman who lifts the shroud of her son in a perpetual wake that is his and her reawakening.
What is haunting about ‘The Whitewashed Wall’ is how the power of what is hidden charges the whole poem; a humble and prosaic interior is flooded by the strangest phantasmagoria. The wall, the site of the ‘draught’, lacks the mystery of the Druid stone, but it becomes just as uncanny under the intensity of a woman's visionary gaze. In the Life, Hardy records a notebook entry of 1886 in which he describes a process of revelation under conditions of extremity:
January 2…Cold weather brings out upon the faces of people the written marks of their habits, vices, passions, and memories, as warmth brings out on paper a writing in sympathetic ink. The drunkard looks still more a drunkard when the splotches have their margins made distinct by frost, the hectic blush becomes a (p.230) stain now, the cadaverous complexion reveals the bone under, the quality of hand-someness is reduced to its lowest terms.
This revelation of character is produced by a physical circumstance – intense cold – just as ‘sympathetic’ or invisible ink becomes visible when exposed to heat, but we realise that the kind of legibility which Hardy describes can be read only by an observer who has a particularly discriminating and penetrating way of looking. So too the poet inscribes the visionary (‘the real being invisible optically’) in a kind of ‘sympathetic ink’ which communicates only to an attuned sympathetic reader. In the Life, an entry adjoining the one quoted above shows that Hardy understands that the aesthetic revelation of the visionary essences of things must occur as a result of intensity: ‘January 3. My art is to intensify the expression of things, as is done by Crivelli, Bellini, etc., so that the heart and inner meaning is made vividly visible’ (Hardy 1962, 177). Just as the press of mortality on Angel Clare makes him resemble the dead Christus of Crivelli, that intensely expressive painter – ‘You could see the skeleton behind the man, and almost the ghost behind the skeleton. He matched Crivelli's dead Christus’ (Hardy 1974b, 417) – so too in ‘The Whitewashed Wall’, as elsewhere in Hardy's poetry, death is the condition of extremity that acts as a stimulant, intensifying the stare of the mind or the imagination for writer and reader as much as for the woman in the poem. It is this kind of stare that activates the legibility of hidden draughts or ‘sympathetic ink’ which, in its gradual appearance on the page, looks as if it is emerging out of the paper, coming through from a ‘beyond’ on the other side. Just so the ‘sheet’ of paint that shrouds the son is permeated by the power of his image. Because the actual picture remains, like the son's familiar look, a family secret or familial property, we can't actually see the form of the dead as the woman can – ‘She sees him close at hand’ – but we sense the hint of a recovered outline, the image of an image, or shade of a shade, a presence shielded from direct view.
When sending his poem to Galsworthy, Hardy wrote ‘The fact is that I cannot do patriotic poems very well – seeing the other side too much’ (Hardy 1985, 5.275). Evidently ‘the other side’ means the enemy point of view or the death and destruction caused by war, but it also carries a ghostly meaning of the visionary world on the ‘other side’ of the ‘material screen’, the world which breaks into the phenomenal and alters its appearance, turning an attempt at a patriotic poem into a moment of vision. In such a way does Hardy achieve Shelley's aim to ‘always seek in what I see the manifestation of something beyond the present & tangible object’ (Shelley 1964, 2.47), and the words he (p.231) used to William Archer in an interview of 1901 are perhaps fitting ones with which to end this chapter and this book:
But for my part I say in all sincerity, ‘Better be inconvenienced by visitants from beyond the grave than see none at all.’ The material world is so uninteresting, human life is so miserably bounded, circumscribed, cabin'd, cribb'd, confined. I want another domain for the imagination to expatiate in.
(Archer 1904, 45)
(2.) The word ‘throbs’ is explicitly associated with sexual excitement by Hardy in an earlier poem, the well-known short lyric ‘I Look into My Glass’, in which the speaker laments how his ageing body is still shaken ‘With throbbings of noontide’ (Hardy 1976, 81).
(3.) See, by way of example, Shelley's ‘Mont Blanc’, Tennyson's ‘The Brook’, Swinburne's ‘Before the Mirror’, Rossetti's ‘The Stream's Secret’.
(4.) The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall (1923) is included in The Complete Poetical Works of Thomas Hardy, 5 (1995), 257–329; explanatory notes 361–5.
(6.) Hardy knew well Swinburne's ‘Hermaphroditus’, lines from which he inscribed in his ‘Studies, Specimens &c’ Notebook, a record mainly of his poetry reading in the late 1860s (Hardy 1994, 50). His editor Tim Armstrong detects an echo of ‘Hermaphroditus’ in ‘Neutral Tones’ (Hardy 1993, 54).
(7.) Poems that directly explore the fallacy are ‘Seasons of Her Year’ (originally titled ‘The Pathetic Fallacy’), ‘The King's Experiment’, and ‘The Difference’.
(13.) For the complete text of Florence's letter of 7 April 1914 in which she records this see Millgate 1996, 97. Hardy put a slightly more flattering public spin on the matter when he recorded in the Life: ‘I was quick to bloom; late to ripen.… I was a child till I was 16; a youth till I was 25; a young man till I was 40–50’ (13 November 1917; Hardy 1962, 378).
(14.) Knoepflmacher's thoughtful essay ‘Hardy Ruins: Female Spaces and Male Designs’ (1993), an earlier version of which appeared in PMLA 105 (1990), 1055–70, also proposes the significance of the mother to Hardy's verse. One of his footnotes (Knoepflmacher 1993, 129) refers to Ruth Perry's use of Winnicott in the Introduction to Mothering the Mind (Perry 1984, 7).
(15.) The description of the phantom as ‘the last of its race’ suggests Hardy himself who, much to his regret, remained childless, and whose house, the rather gloomy Max Gate, is signified by ‘That house in the trees with the shady lawn’ (Hardy 1976, 474). Florence Hardy confirms this in a letter to John Cowper Powys of 26 October 1930. See Millgate 1996, 308.
(16.) David J. DeLaura and J. B. Bullen have pointed out that Hardy's description of Eustacia evokes Pater's Mona Lisa from his essay on Leonardo (DeLaura, 1967, 382–3; Bullen 1986, 103), but the adjective ‘flame-like’ is also Paterian, hailing from the Conclusion to The Renaissance: ‘This at least of flame-like our life has’ (Pater 1980, Ren 187).
(17.) Lee's Genius Loci went into a second (1907) and third edition (1908). In 1905 she brought out The Enchanted Woods, and Other Essays on the Genius of Places, which went into a second edition in 1910. See also her The Spirit of Rome (1906) and The Sentimental Traveller: Notes on Places (1908).
(18.) This Biblical allusion also lies behind Browning's accounts of the poet as resurrectionist in The Ring and the Book, 1.706–79, which Hardy may recall here.