Friday, January 15, 2016

Selected Poems by Thomas Hardy

In Modern Poetry our professor taught poems by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), including Channel Firing  In The Time of 'The Breaking of Nations," and Neutral Tones. They were not poems I forgot, and I have forgot most of what we read that semester.

Many know Hardy's novels because of the films based on them. Hardy was unable to publish his poems until his novels brought fame and financial security. He wrote 900 poems over his lifetime and 14 novels.

The poems in the Dover Thrift edition include selections from Wessex Poems and Other Verses (1898), Poems of the Past and the Present (1901), Time's Laughingstock and other Verses (1909), Satires of Circumstance (1919), and Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (1917.)

You don't turn to Hardy for happy love poems. He recalls the losses and divisions, not the lyric joys and bliss of love.

The Voice is one of my favorites. "Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me/Saying that now you are not as you were/When you had changed from the one who was all to me/But as at first, when our day was fair." Hardy wrote this after the death of his estranged first wife in amends for his later treatment of her.

Neutral Tones was taught in my Modern Poetry class. It is atmospheric and concise, with sympathetic nature reflecting the inner desolation of a man who reads betrayal in the smile of his beloved.

There are poems which tell a story.

The Burghers (17--) concerns a man discovering his wife with her lover. He raises a knife but seeing his wife's love for the other man he stays his hand, considering his choice of righteous vengeance or mercy.

In Her Death and After   a man is called to the death bed of the woman he loves but who married another. She has given birth to a lame child and wishes it had been theirs. Time passes and the husband remarries and has more children. The narrator watches helplessly as the lame child is pushed aside, unloved.  He spins a lie and claims the child is his own.

Most memorable and disturbing are Hardy's war poems. We meet the the war dead in throngs and as individuals. The Boer War and WWI were waged during his lifetime. You won't find war glorified in these poems.

In Drummer Hodge a young lad dies in the Boer War and is buried under "strange stars."

The Souls of the Slain come home to England's coast to "feast on our fame", only to be told that their loved ones do not think of their sacrifice but hold dear to memories of 'old homely acts'.

In The Man He Killed  a soldier muses over the irony that the foe he killed in battle he would have treated to a a drink had they met in a bar.

The poem that has haunted me is San Sebastian  (August 1813) With Thoughts of Sergeant M-- (Pensioner), Who died 186- . Two men met on the Ivel Way. One remarks on seeing the other's daughter. The father responds by telling about the girl he "wronged in Peninsular days," when out of the trenches the soldiers stormed San Sebastian for five hours. Victorious, the men ransacked the city where he came upon a girl and raped her.
She raised her beseeching eyes to meAnd I heard the words of prayer she sentIn her own soft language...Fatefully I copied those eyes for my punishmentIn begetting the girl you see! 
The father finishes by saying,
So, to-day I stand with a God-set brandLike Cain's, when he wandered from kindred's ken...I served through the war that made Europe free;I wived me in peach-year. But, hid from men,I bear that mark on me.
Researching and reading about San Sebastian brought understanding of  the horror behind Hardy's poem. The British siege of San Sebastian took place during the Napoleonic war when Spain was ruled by Napoleon's brother Joseph. The town was well defended and the British and Portuguese suffered heavy losses before finally breaching the wall and taking the town. After weeks of war and carnage the soldiers, victory finally won, they found wine and became a drunk mob. They burned the town, killed up to 1,000 citizens, and raped the women.

According to one first hand account, "From every quarter we heard the cries of distress of women who were being raped, without regard either to their tender you or to their respective age; wives outraged under the eyes of their husbands, girls dishonored in the presence of their parents...Other crimes more horrible yet were committed on this day, and it's only a sense of 'modesty' which prevents us naming them."

And of this dehumanizing massacre Hardy explores how men live with what they have done. It is a powerful poem, relevant to all eras.

These are not poems you read in great gulps. I spent several weeks reading this volume and have not read all the poems yet.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Selected Poems by Thomas Hardy
Dover Publications
$2.50 paperback

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