Saturday, September 15, 2012

a Hardy sonnet


the tragical To-Be

Among the books I wish existed is the Collected Sonnets of Thomas Hardy. Rexroth in the intro to his selection of Lawrence's poetry says something to the effect that Hardy's best poems are his most formal, and there may be some truth in that . . . I think Hardy's sonnets at their best are awesome and brilliant.

—Here's the Rexroth quote:

"[T]here is always something a little synthetic about Hardy's rugged verse. The smooth ones seem more natural, somehow. The full dress, Matthew Arnold sort of sonnet to Leslie Stephen is probably Hardy's best poem. It is a very great poem, but Arnold learned the trick of talking like a highly idealized Anglican archbishop and passed it on to Hardy."

Assuming for the moment that Rexroth's right, then presumably the sonnet form itself would channel Hardy's "more natural" powers into their full dress best . . .

Though of course Hardy was a master of any and every mode—

We should never forget that Hart Crane called Hardy "perhaps the greatest verse technician since Shakespeare."

Here's one I've read at recently:


Here, where Vespasian's legions struck the sands,
And Cerdic with his Saxons entered in,
And Henry's army leapt afloat to win
Convincing triumphs over neighbor lands,

Vaster battalions press for further strands,
To argue in the selfsame bloody mode
Which this late age of thought, and pact, and code,
Still fails to mend. — Now deckward tramp the bands,

Yellow as autumn leaves, alive as spring;
And as each host draws out upon the sea
Beyond which lies the tragical To-Be,
None dubious of the cause, none murmuring,

Wives, sisters, parents, wave white hands and smile,
As if they knew not that they weep the while.

Note the balance of the two sentences, splitting the poem in half.

A few of the splits, the conflicts here:
convincing/dubious . . .

The white hands waving like the white flag of surrender.

Beginning with the three famous names is a poignant ironic contrast to the present anonymous bands and hosts, whose individual loved names are perhaps being "murmured" by wives sisters parents . . .

the latter want to weep, and are weeping within, but are forced and shamed and shoved by cultural sociopolitical pressures into showing a brave front:

and to raise their faces in encouraging supportive smiles, to give the lads a good send-off—none can admit to being "yellow" cowards unwilling to sacrifice their kin for Crown and Country.

None are dubious of the cause, because they know in their hearts that the cause is the same it always was (and is), the "selfsame bloody mode" whose "argue" still wins out over "thought, and pact, and code."

Legions, Saxons, army, battalions, hosts: how eternal these forces seem to be, as ever-returning as the seasons . . .

Yellow as autumn leaves, alive as spring.

(Another irony: there in October 1899, how "alive" would the green hopes and joys of spring seem to any thoughtful (dubious, skeptical) person?)

The telescoping of historical time (Roman, Saxon, British) in the first three lines is like an overlap of montage besieging the singular scene of Southhampton's shores: innumerable as "sands" the lives lost in these endless wars . . .

Hardy's depiction of the troops here embarking for the Boer War, in their fresh uniforms of yellow (is that khaki-colored? sand-colored for camouflage?),

"Yellow as autumn leaves, alive as spring,"

reminded me of a passage from Robert Payne's The White Pony (an Anthology of Chinese Poetry from Earliest Times to the Present Day, Newly Translated), published in 1947:

this is from page 226, Payne's introduction to the poems of Tu Fu:

[H]e is universal. No poet before or after him in Chinese history has been so conscious of the human role that can be played by a poet, and no else would have dared to sum up all human history, as he saw it, in words so charged with meaning that they burst out of the page with the effect of an explosion:

Blue is the smoke of war, white the bones of men.

Payne concludes his intro with terms that might apply to Hardy:

[Tu Fu] remains to the end the eternal wanderer, complaining against the cold, the poor profits of earth, the sorrows of death, the ghastly (but splendid) rituals of empire. He cared for nothing except the dignity and freedom of men to live their own lives as they choose, and would have preferred to be remembered, if he was remembered at all, as a man of simple faith in simple things . . . .

(I seem to remember Berryman somewhere joshing that Hardy's poems are disingenuous when they profess "simple faith in simple things" . . . am I remembering that right?)

(It's significant that Robert Lowell said the two greatest modern poets were Rilke and Hardy.)


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