I had rather a restless night last night. (My sleeping seems to run in cycles, which I can make worse by having too much screen time, but otherwise am largely powerless to influence.) At about 3.30 I decided to transfer to the second bedroom, and give my beloved a few undisturbed hours.
I had been thinking about poetry a bit more recently, and that of Thomas Hardy in particular. I came to read Hardy’s poetry by a circuitous route. I was browsing our bookshelves when I couldn’t sleep a few nights ago, and found my old copy of The Mayor of Casterbridge. This is neither Hardy’s best known novel, nor the most admired. It is, however, the one I read first, as a teenager, while we were living in Sydney. I still have that copy, published by MacMillan in their PaperMac series. I must prize it, having lugged it around all the places I have lived since then. When I took it off the shelf the other night, I found to my surprise that there was a second copy sitting next to it. This copy was also the PaperMac version: obviously not an expensive edition. (We had weeded our book collection before the last move, but for some reason neither of us could rationalise our copies of The Mayor of Casterbridge down to one.)
When I was looking for something to read before going back off to sleep last night, it was Hardy’s poetry that I thought of this time. This was an odd choice in some ways. Hardy is much better known as a novelist than a poet: in the latter genre he is caviar to the general. Even when I was doing English, I didn’t encounter a word of his poetry. One could do great slabs of Wordsworth, and acres of Milton, but Hardy was not on offer. Hardy’s poetry has its devotees, though. I must have made a mental note to read him at the right time, which rolled around last night.
My weighty Norton Anthology of Poetry has sixteen of his poems, and I looked at about half a dozen before I eventually got to sleep. I am guessing this is the best known one; I had read it, but hadn’t remembered it as being Hardy.
In Time of “The Breaking of Nations”
IOnly a man harrowing clodsIn a slow silent walkWith an old horse that stumbles and nodsHalf asleep as they stalk.IIOnly thin smoke without flameFrom the heaps of couch-grass;Yet this will go onward the sameThough Dynasties pass.IIIYonder a maid and her wightCome whispering by:War’s annals will cloud into nightEre their story die.
I only had a vague idea about when Hardy was around: I had thought of him a Victorian author. His dates were 1840-1928, so I can say I was not quite incorrect in this. The Norton Anthology dates this poem as 1915-16, and they also supply a footnote on the title: ‘See Jeremiah li.20: “Thou art my battle axe and weapons of war: for with thee I will break in pieces the nations, and with thee I will destroy kingdoms.”‘ The line “A maid and her wight” is puzzling, though; what does Hardy mean by “wight”? According to the Cambridge online dictionary, this word has several meanings, including “deserter”. The alternative meaning of “a living being, especially a human being”, however, seems to fit better.
To me this is a poem of deceptive simplicity. I particularly like how all the lines, except two, have no end punctuation. The rhythms are subtly irregular. The subject matter, and some of the vocabulary, is archaic; the man harrowing clods, the maid and her wight. But the elements of the poem are irreducible: earth, fire, desire. It is is as weighty and abrupt as something fallen to earth.
From the sublime to the gorblimey: what else have I been up to today? We didn’t go for our usual walk this morning. My beloved was booked to meet a friend at our local park. They arranged for the latter to bring her a takeaway coffee; they consumed these while walking around. As well, I had a strained quad muscle after our walk yesterday, and didn’t want to do further damage before the exercise class I had coming up at 11.30, via Zoom.
Beforehand I did a couple of loads of washing, laid out the mat, weights and resistance band, logged into the appropriate web site, and got my equipment ready for class. My beloved has also been working industriously away for several hours, with the exception of a lunch break. I haven’t really done much — not even been for a walk — but somehow it seems as if I have had a full day.