September 28, 2010

A Poem for the Day: "Retty's Phases" by Thomas Hardy

The poem I want to share with you tonight is one that haunts me in many respects.  I come back to it, time, and time again.  It is a sad, poignant, and beautiful lament associated with young love.  This poem has the distinction of being thought to be the oldest surviving manuscript of any of Thomas Hardy's poetry, and was written in 1868.  The original manuscript of the poem is preserved in the Dorset Museum.

Retty's Phases


 Retty used to shake her head,
Look with wicked eye;
Say, 'I'd tease you, simple Ned,
If I cared to try!'
Then she'd hot-up scarlet red,
Stilly step away,
Much afraid of what she'd said
Sounded bold to say.


Retty used to think she loved
(Just a little) me.
Not untruly, as it proved
Afterwards to be.
For, when weakness forced her rest
If we walked a mile,
She would whisper she was blest
By my clasp awhile.


Retty used at last to say
When she neared the Vale,
'Mind that you, Dear, on that day
Ring my wedding peal!'
And we all, with pulsing pride,
Vigorous sounding gave
Those six bells, the while outside
John filled in her grave.


Retty used to draw me down
To the turfy heaps,
Where, with yeoman, squire, and clown
Noticeless she sleeps.
Now her silent slumber-place
Seldom do I know,
For when last I saw  her face
Was so long ago!


Thomas Hardy appended the following note to the manuscript--
"NOTE.--In many villages it was customary after the funeral of an unmarried woman to ring a peal as for her wedding while the grave was being filled in, as if Death were not to be allowed to balk her of bridal honours.  Young unmarried men were always her bearers."
Now, isn't that a tale?  Beautiful, lyrical, and oh so sad.  It never fails but to bring the tears to my eyes as I read it.  And it did again tonight...

I have mated this poem with a beautiful painting by the English painter, Edwin Harris (1855-1906).  The painting is entitled, "Apple Blossom at Newlyn," and it just seems to fit the image of young Retty that I carry in my head.  [Be sure to 'click' on the image for a larger view of the painting.]

Meme: Teaser Tuesdays

TEASER TUESDAYS asks you to:
- Grab your current read
- Open to a random page
- Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
- BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
- Share the title and author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!
"The round downy chicks peeping out from under their mother's wing never touched Hetty with any pleasure; that was not the sort of prettiness she cared about, but she did care about the prettiness of the new things she would buy for herself at Treddleston fair with the money they fetched.  And yet she looked so dimpled, so charming, as she stooped down to put the soaked bread under the hencoop, that you must have been a very acute personage indeed to suspect her of that hardness."
My teaser is taken from George Eliot's first novel, Adam Bede, published in 1859, and is well known for its realism, its portrayal of the lives of the country rustics in late-18th century England.  I have been reading the novels of George Eliot all summer, and I have to say that I am thoroughly enjoying Adam Bede.  I am reading it with one of my on-line groups on Goodreads.
[The rules for Teaser Tuesdays comes from MizB at Should Be Reading]

September 24, 2010

Review: "Agamemnon" from "The Oresteia" By Aeschylus

I am in the midst of participating in a group read and discussion of Aeschylus' extraordinary trilogy of plays known as The Oresteia with one of my on-line groups on Goodreads.  First of all, I need to acknowledge that I am pretty much a neophyte when it comes to any form of study of the great written works of antiquity, and this applies even more so to any of the surviving examples of ancient Greek drama.  I am currently in the process of remedying this woeful deficiency.  Sure, like most of us, I was required to read bits and pieces of The Iliad and The Odyssey in high school, but I don't recall ever having picked up any of the great classic plays of antiquity.

I also want to point out that with all of the reading that I have done over the course of my adult life I have encountered countless references and allusions to various ancient literary works, and I have always had to sheepishly read over that reference or allusion and therefore not fully comprehending the point.  Clearly, many of the authors of the great literature that we all read and love so much owe a great deal to these earlier poets and authors of antiquity for the classic essays, poems, and dramas that have survived.  One immediately thinks of Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Tennyson, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and William Butler Yeats, just to name a few, as representatives of those who've relied upon and embraced that ancient story-telling tradition in their own works.  I finally came to the realization that in order to fully understand and appreciate many of the world's great literary works, that I needed to spend some time studying these earlier classics, including the ancient Greek canon.  This was my rationale for joining my on-line group in the discussion and analysis of The Oresteia by Aeschylus.

It is generally believed that Aeschylus was born near Athens in 525 B.C. of a noble family.  It appears that Aeschylus fought with the Greek army in its classic battle against the invading Persian army at the Battle of Marathon.  Over the course of his life, Aeschylus wrote more than seventy plays, of which only seven have survived in one form or another.  Three of those surviving seven plays make up The Oresteia and were written by Aeschylus in 458 B.C., two years before his death in 456 B.C., at the age of sixty-nine years old, at Gela in Sicily.

The Oresteia is unique in that it is the only surviving example of the ancient tradition of the usual trilogy of Greek tragic drama.  The fourth part of The Oresteia that Aeschylus would have originally presented as the normal Greek dramatic tetralogy, the satyr-play, was entitled Proteus; and would have presented the gods and heroes in comic situations that would have lightened the mood of the audience following its viewing of the preceding three tragedies.  Unfortunately, The Oresteia's satyr-play has not survived.  The three tragedies that comprise The Oresteia include:  Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides.  Collectively, the three plays tell the story of a royal family, the House of Atreus of Argos, and its journey from a dark and bleak legacy of treachery and vengeance to the establishment of a process for formal determination and atonement of guilt through the use of a trial and jury--the process that we now know as Justice.  In essence, the three plays recount Aeschylus' allegorical telling of the history of the Athenian people's journey from the chaos of vendetta-law to that of an enlightened civilization establishing order through the fair application of justice.  As Robert Fagles and W.B. Stanford say so eloquently in their introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of The Oresteia, that it " our rite of passage from savagery to civilization."

In a nutshell, Agamemnon is the story of the triumphant return of Agamemnon from the Trojan War and of his murder by his wife, Clytaemnestra.  The Trojan War, prosecuted by the Greeks with the help of the gods, resulted in the deaths of a great many Greek soldiers and the utter destruction of Troy and all of its peoples.  Homer's Iliad tells us that the Trojan War was initiated when the Trojan prince, Paris, wooed Helen, the wife of Menelaus, and spirited her off to Troy.  Menelaus and his brother, Agamemnon, then rallied the Greek army and set off in hot-pursuit to 'rescue' Helen and avenge the insult done to the Greek peoples' honor.  In order to obtain favorable winds for the Greek fleet to sail eastward to Troy, Agamemnon was compelled to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigeneia; an act that Agamemnon's wife, Clytaemnestra, cannot forgive, and which she broods upon during the entire ten-year period that Agamemnon is gone fighting.  Are you seeing a theme emerging here?  There's a whole lot of killing going on, and most of it is associated with revenge--i.e., the application of vendetta-law.

Reading the Agamemnon turned out to be a truly amazing experience for me.  First, it is an absolutely riveting and horrifying tale that simply comes to life on the page.  Obviously, I read an English translation of the play, but it still just feels ancient.  Fagles' translation is incredibly lyrical and spare and very effectively conveys the emotions of the players and the sheer horror of the plot.  Secondly, the moral messages embedded as adages in the play almost leap out at the reader.  A few of the more well-known adages include the following: 'violence begets more violence,' and 'Helen--the face that launched a thousand ships,' or that 'the sins of the father are visited upon the son,' and so forth.

The play starts with the watchman notifying Queen Clytaemnestra that he has spied the signal that Agamemnon is finally returning to Argos.  She begins preparing the palace for his return.  In the meantime, the Chorus of elders comes in and provides us with the back-story of the House of Atreus and its bloody legacy, the reason for the Trojan War, and the sacrifice of Iphigeneia.  At this point a messenger arrives detailing the breadth and scope of the Greek victory over the Trojans as well as the great losses suffered by the Greek army.

Finally, Agamemnon arrives at the palace and is welcomed by the Chorus.  Clytaemnestra comes out, almost like a spider emerging from its lair, and cajoles her husband to step down from his chariot onto a broad tapestry of red cloth that she has placed on the ground from his chariot to the palace doors.  The symbolism is rich as she says,
"Quickly.  Let the red stream flow and bear him home
to the home he never hoped to see--Justice,
lead him in!"
The vision of the red tapestry reminded me of the elevator scene in the movie adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining when the elevator doors open and the blood spills out in a great gush across the floor!  Also, you need to know that only the gods can set foot on crimson tapestries, so Clytaemnestra is able to make Agamemnon commit an egregious offense by walking on it.  Symbolically, Agamemnon has turned his back on the audience watching and walks toward his doom as he enters the spider's lair, his wife also has the last word as she closely follows behind him.  The palace doors close.

At this point we realize that there has been another person in the chariot with Agamemnon.  It is Cassandra, one of the daughters of the late King of Troy, Priam.  Cassandra is an oracle, a prophet, whose powers were bestowed by the god Apollo, but he also made it such that she wouldn't be believed.  Standing in the chariot she immediately begins to foretell the bloody murder that is about to occur inside the palace.  [The photograph, at left, is of Ms. Lilo Baur in the role of Cassandra in the Royal National Theatre's production of The Oresteia in November 1999.  Awesome, huh?]  Cassandra tells the Chorus,
"Murder.  The house breathes with murder--bloody shambles!"
She sees that with the murder of Agamemnon by Clytaemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, that the curse on the House of Atreus continues; nothing changes, and chaos and the Furies still rule.  The Chorus listens to her with mounting horror; as they too now have a sense of impending doom.  Cassandra tells the Chorus that she too must die at the hands of Clytaemnestra, but that she will go to her death with honor and dignity--a daughter of a King--and not a slave as the booty of war.  Before Cassandra enters the palace to meet her own death, she leaves the chorus with an important prophecy,
"There will come another to avenge us,
born to kill his mother, born
his father's champion."
This entire scene between Cassandra and the Chorus is absolutely spellbinding, and the pathos and drama is palpable.  Some of the most powerful dialog I've ever read.

I can almost hear Colonel Kurtz from the movie Apocalypse Now,
"Oh, the horror...the horror..."
The play now essentially comes to its terrible conclusion with the opening of the palace doors and the Chorus then witnesses the wrathful Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus standing over the bloodied and butchered bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra.  Clytaemnestra has exacted her bloody revenge upon Agamemnon for his killing of their daughter.  Violence begets more violence.  Chaos rules!

The Agamemnon is Aeschylus' portrayal of why vendetta-law cannot work for a civilized society.  He has now set the stage for the profound moral questions that Orestes and Electra, the surviving children of Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra, must answer in the next play in the trilogy, The Libation Bearers

Stay tuned for my review of The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides.

[This review is based upon the Agamemnon, the first play included in the Penguin Classics softcover edition of The Oresteia, translated by Robert Fagles, 1979, 335 pp.]

September 16, 2010

A Poem for the Day: "The Two Trees" by William Butler Yeats

Love is a strange and murky thing, is it not?  As I grow older, I wonder if maybe it is really something that the Irish define best.  And I must wonder if William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) may have said it best in his loving and lilting poem, The Two Trees--
The Two Trees
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
The changing colours of its fruit
Have dowered the stars with merry light;
The surety of its hidden root
Has planted quiet in the night;
The shaking of its leafy head
Has given the waves their melody,
And made my lips and music wed,
Murmuring a wizard song for thee.
There, through bewildered branches go
Winged Loves borne on in gentle strife,
Tossing and tossing to and fro
The flaming circle of our days,
The flaming circle of our life.
When looking on their shaken hair
And dreaming how they dance and dart,
Thine eyes grow full of tender care:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.

Gaze no more in the bitter glass
The demons, with their subtle guile.
Lift up before us when they pass,
Or only gaze a little while;
For there a fatal image grows
With broken boughs, and blackened leaves,
And roots half hidden under the snows
Driven by a storm that ever grieves.
For all things turn to barrenness
In the dim glass the demons hold,
The glass of outer weariness,
Made when God slept in times of old.
There, through the broken branches, go
The ravens of unresting thought;
Flying, crying, to and fro,
Cruel claw and hungry throat,
Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
And shake their ragged wings; alas!
Thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
Gaze no more in the bitter glass.


I encourage you to also listen to the heaven-sent voice of Loreena McKennitt sing this beautiful Yeats poem.  She has titled it, Ce He Mise le Ulaingt? (Who am I to Bear It?) on her album, The Mask and the Mirror.  It will make you weep with joy and sadness!  We all gaze in our own hearts.

The photograph I have attached, at upper right, is one I made of two old oak trees in the Sierra Foothills during the Christmas holidays of 2009.  The title of the image is Medusa's Children, and it seems to fit Yeats' poem just right somehow.  I encourage you to 'click' on the image for a larger view.  Enjoy!

September 15, 2010

A Poem for the Day: "The Water Spirit's Song" by Christina Rossetti

Today I want to share a poem by another one of my favorite Victorian poets--Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894).  For those who don't know, she was the youngest sister of the Pre-Raphaelite artist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (actually one of the co-founders of the Pre-Raphaelite movement).  If you look through the archives of my blog, you'll find that I have numerous previous postings dealing with her life and poetry.  She was a brilliant poet, and an incredibly fascinating woman.

The poem I am sharing with you is entitled The Water Spirit's Song, and was written by Christina in 1844 when she was only 13 years old!  Jan Marsh, in her superb biography of Christina Rossetti (Christina Rossetti: A Literary Biography, 1994, Jonathan Cape, pp. 634), says this about the poem--
"On March 4, 1844 she completed her first long fantasy poem, The Water Spirit's Song, running to 68 lines in three rolling periods, with a wave-like rhythm and conspicuous feminine endings.  The story is that of a naiad who departs each evening from her daytime station under a waterfall to join her sister, Queen of the Ocean, in the vast depths...Truth to tell, up to this point Christina's verse displayed little real promise.  Had it not been so self-consciously copied into the notebook, it would hardly be taken to presage an exceptional talent.  And in many ways this piece too is naive and derivative, inspired by Tennyson's mermaids and mermen, who frolic 'merrily' all night, and by water-nymph stories such as Undine.  But the skill that enabled Christina, at age thirteen, to imitate such works is less striking than the expression of feeling, through intense mesmeric rhythms and cool, watery imagery.  The atmosphere is cold but compelling, and vividly conveys the desire to float amid swaying waves.  Moreover, the twin motifs of this fantasy--the wish to escape and be reunited with a sister--surely point to recent events, notably Maria's departure" [her older sister, away as a governess].
The illustration that I have chosen to accompany the poem is Lamia, and was painted by the Pre-Raphaelite artist, John William Waterhouse (1848-1917) in 1909.  Somehow, to me, this beautiful painting seems to perfectly represent the water-nymph of Christina's poem.  Please feel free to 'click' on the image for a larger view of Waterhouse's painting.

And without any further ado, the poem--

The Water Spirit's Song

In the silent hour of even,
When the stars are in the heaven,
When in the azure cloudless sky
The moon beams forth all lustrously,
When over hill and over vale
Is wafted the sweet-scented gale,
When murmurs thro' the forest trees
The cool, refreshing, evening breeze,
When the nightingale's wild melody
Is waking herb and flower and tree,
From their perfumed and soft repose,
To list the the praises of the rose;
When the ocean sleeps deceitfully,
When the waves are resting quietly,
I spread my bright wings, and fly far away
To my beautiful sister's mansion gay:
I leave behind me rock and mountain,
I leave behind me rill and fountain,
And I dive far down in the murmuring sea,
Where my fair sister welcomes me joyously;
For she's Queen of Ocean for ever and ever,
And I of each fountain and still lake and river.

She dwells in a palace of coral
Of diamond and pearl;
And in each jewelled chamber the fishes
Their scaly length unfurl;
And the sun can dart no light
On the depths beneath the sea;
But the ruby there shines bright
And sparkles brilliantly;
No mortal e'er trod on the surface
Of the adamantine floor;
No human being e'er passed the bound
Of the pearl-encrusted door.
But the mermaidens sing plaintively
Beneath the deep blue ocean,
And to their song the green fishes dance
With undulating motion.
And the cold bright moon looks down on us
With her fixed unchanging smile;
'Neath her chilly glance the mermaids dance
Upon each coral isle;
And her beams she laves in the briny waves
With loving constancy;
And she never ceases with light caresses
To soothe the swelling sea;
All night on us she softly shines
With a fond and tender gaze
Till the sun blushes red from his ocean bed
And sends forth his warming rays.
And then she flies to other skies
Till the sun has run his race,
And again the day to the night's soft sway
To the moon and stars gives place.

And when the bright sun doth arise,
To tinge with gold the vaulted skies,
When the nightingale no longer sings,
And the blush rose forth its odour flings,
When the breath of morn is rustling through
The trees, and kissing away the dew,
When the sea casts up its foam and spray,
And greets the fresh gale that speeds away,
I fly back to my home in the rushing cascade--
By the silvery streamlet my dark hair I braid,
And then when the sun once more sinks in the ocean,
I glide with a floating and passionless motion,
To my sister 'neath the boundless sea
And with her till morn dwell joyously.


And to think that this was written by a thirteen year old girl!

If you like Christina Rossetti's poetry, and would like to read more, I highly recommend the Penguin Classics edition of Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems (edited by R.W. Crump, 2001, 1,221 pp.).

September 9, 2010

A Poem for the Day: "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" by William Wordsworth

Summer is coming to an end, and fall will be here before we know it.  Interestingly, over the past few days two of my friends ('Thanks!' Jan and Dixie) each reminded me of a poem written in 1804 by William Wordsworth (1770-1850) that has always been a favorite of mine, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud (also known as Daffodils).  I love this poem!  It is a 'cup that simply and eloquently overflows with joy' every time I read it.  I thought that it might be nice to ease into the coming fall with a sublime memory of the summer we are leaving behind by posting the poem and sharing it with all of you.

I am also featuring a beautiful ceramic tile that was designed by Walter Crane (1845-1915).  Crane was an illustrator of books and loved graphic design, and was greatly influenced by the artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  Crane, an Englishman, very much embraced the "Arts and Crafts" movement that flourished in England between 1880 and about 1910; and, in fact, became the first president of the "Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1887.  Crane developed this design for the tile (at upper right) that was then prepared as a glazed ceramic tile by the Pilkington Tile and Pottery Co. Earthenware, and is thought to be circa 1900.  If you are interested in the English Arts and Crafts movement, I thoroughly recommend A.S. Byatt's recent novel, The Children's Book (2009).  Somehow this tile just reminds me of Wordsworth's beautiful poem.  Can you imagine having the back-splash of your kitchen, or the surround of your fireplace made up of this beautiful motif? ['Click' on the image for a larger view of this beautiful tile]

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
and twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretched in never-ending line
along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed--and gazed--but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.



September 5, 2010

A Poem for the Day: "The Revisitation" by Thomas Hardy

The poem I am featuring tonight is another by Thomas Hardy. It is entitled, "The Revisitation" and was published in 1904. What I love the most about much of Hardy's poetry is his ability to tell a story, and this is a whopper! Of the nearly 1,000 poems that Hardy wrote, many have this almost ballad or folktale quality about them.  From reading biographies of Hardy, it seems that he was an inveterate listener and note-taker.  Apparently, he crafted these poetic tales from the stories he heard and collected from his older relatives and people he spoke with across Dorset.  This particular poem seems to refer back to the days when England was at war with France (i.e., the Napoleonic wars).  It seems an unrequited love revisited, with essentially disastrous results. Methinks, knowing Hardy, this would have made an equally good short story. I look at it as essentially macabre and terribly poignant at the same time. Vintage Hardy, in my humble opinion, and a sad, sad poem.  Read it and tell me what you think. 

The photograph that I have attached (at right) is one that I took on a very blustery and cold late-afternoon in the spring on Tehachapi Pass in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains in southern California. Please feel free to 'click' on the image for a larger view.

The Revisitation

As I lay awake at night-time
In an ancient country barrack known to ancient cannoneers,
And recalled the hopes that heralded each seeming brave and bright time
Of my primal purple years,

Much it haunted me that, nigh there,
I had borne my bitterest loss--when One who went, came not again;
In a joyless hour of discord, in a joyless-hued July there -
A July just such as then.

And as thus I brooded longer,
With my faint eyes on the feeble square of wan-lit window frame,
A quick conviction sprung within me, grew, and grew yet stronger,
That the month-night was the same,

Too, as that which saw her leave me
On the rugged ridge of Waterstone, the peewits plaining round;
And a lapsing twenty years had ruled that--as it were to grieve me -
I should near the once-loved ground.

Though but now a war-worn stranger
Chance had quartered here, I rose up and descended to the yard.
All was soundless, save the troopers' horses tossing at the manger,
And the sentry keeping guard.

Through the gateway I betook me
Down the High Street and beyond the lamps, across the battered bridge,
Till the country darkness clasped me and the friendly shine forsook me,
And I bore towards the Ridge,

With a dim unowned emotion
Saying softly: "Small my reason, now at midnight, to be here . . .
Yet a sleepless swain of fifty with a brief romantic notion
May retrace a track so dear."

Thus I walked with thoughts half-uttered
Up the lane I knew so well, the grey, gaunt, lonely Lane of Slyre;
And at whiles behind me, far at sea, a sullen thunder muttered
As I mounted high and higher.

Till, the upper roadway quitting,
I adventured on the open drouthy downland thinly grassed,
While the spry white scuts of conies flashed before me, earthward flitting,
And an arid wind went past.

Round about me bulged the barrows
As before, in antique silence--immemorial funeral piles -
Where the sleek herds trampled daily the remains of flint-tipt arrows
Mid the thyme and chamomiles;

And the Sarsen stone there, dateless,
On whose breast we had sat and told the zephyrs many a tender vow,
Held the heat of yester sun, as sank thereon one fated mateless
From those far fond hours till now.

Maybe flustered by my presence
Rose the peewits, just as all those years back, wailing soft and loud,
And revealing their pale pinions like a fitful phosphorescence
Up against the cope of cloud,

Where their dolesome exclamations
Seemed the voicings of the self-same throats I had heard when life was
Though since that day uncounted frail forgotten generations
Of their kind had flecked the scene. -

And so, living long and longer
In a past that lived no more, my eyes discerned there, suddenly,
That a figure broke the skyline--first in vague contour, then stronger,
And was crossing near to me.

Some long-missed familiar gesture,
Something wonted, struck me in the figure's pause to list and heed,
Till I fancied from its handling of its loosely wrapping vesture
That it might be She indeed.

'Twas not reasonless: below there
In the vale, had been her home; the nook might hold her even yet,
And the downlands were her father's fief; she still might come and go there;-
So I rose, and said, "Agnette!"

With a little leap, half-frightened,
She withdrew some steps; then letting intuition smother fear
In a place so long-accustomed, and as one whom thought enlightened,
She replied: "What--that voice?--here!"

"Yes, Agnette!--And did the occasion
Of our marching hither make you think I might walk where we two--'
"O, I often come," she murmured with a moment's coy evasion,
"('Tis not far),--and--think of you."

Then I took her hand, and led her
To the ancient people's stone whereon I had sat. There now sat we;
And together talked, until the first reluctant shyness fled her,
And she spoke confidingly.

"It is just as ere we parted!"
Said she, brimming high with joy.--"And when, then, came you here, and why?"
"--Dear, I could not sleep for thinking of our trystings when twin-hearted."
She responded, "Nor could I.

"There are few things I would rather
Than be wandering at this spirit-hour--lone-lived, my kindred dead -
On this wold of well-known feature I inherit from my father:
Night or day, I have no dread . . .

"O I wonder, wonder whether
Any heartstring bore a signal-thrill between us twain or no? -
Some such influence can, at times, they say, draw severed souls together."
I said, "Dear, we'll dream it so."

Each one's hand the other's grasping,
And a mutual forgiveness won, we sank to silent thought,
A large content in us that seemed our rended lives reclasping,
And contracting years to nought.

Till I, maybe overweary
From the lateness, and a wayfaring so full of strain and stress
For one no longer buoyant, to a peak so steep and eery,
Sank to slow unconsciousness . . .

How long I slept I knew not,
But the brief warm summer night had slid when, to my swift surprise,
A red upedging sun, of glory chambered mortals view not,
Was blazing on my eyes,

From the Milton Woods to Dole-Hill
All the spacious landscape lighting, and around about my feet
Flinging tall thin tapering shadows from the meanest mound and mole-hill,
And on trails the ewes had beat.

She was sitting still beside me,
Dozing likewise; and I turned to her, to take her hanging hand;
When, the more regarding, that which like a spectre shook and tried me
In her image then I scanned;

That which Time's transforming chisel
Had been tooling night and day for twenty years, and tooled too well,
In its rendering of crease where curve was, where was raven, grizzle -
Pits, where peonies once did dwell.

She had wakened, and perceiving
(I surmise) my sigh and shock, my quite involuntary dismay,
Up she started, and--her wasted figure all throughout it heaving -
Said, "Ah, yes: I am thus by day!

"Can you really wince and wonder
That the sunlight should reveal you such a thing of skin and bone,
As if unaware a Death's-head must of need lie not far under
Flesh whose years out-count your own?

"Yes: that movement was a warning
Of the worth of man's devotion!--Yes, Sir, I am old," said she,
"And the thing which should increase love turns it quickly into scorning -
And your new-won heart from me!"

Then she went, ere I could call her,
With the too proud temper ruling that had parted us before,
And I saw her form descend the slopes, and smaller grow and smaller,
Till I caught its course no more . . .

True; I might have dogged her downward;
- But it may be (though I know not) that this trick on us of Time
Disconcerted and confused me.--Soon I bent my footsteps townward,
Like to one who had watched a crime.

Well I knew my native weakness,
Well I know it still. I cherished her reproach like physic-wine,
For I saw in that emaciate shape of bitterness and bleakness
A nobler soul than mine.

Did I not return, then, ever? -
Did we meet again?--mend all?--Alas, what greyhead perseveres! -
Soon I got the Route elsewhither.--Since that hour I have seen her never:
Love is lame at fifty years.


["The Revisitation", No. 152 in the variorum edition of Thomas Hardy: The Complete Poems, edited by James Gibson, Palgrave, 2001]

September 1, 2010

Review: "Two on a Tower" By Thomas Hardy

Well, I am sad to say, but I am slowly winding up my summer of reading the literary works of George Eliot and Thomas Hardy.  I recently finished Thomas Hardy's Two on a Tower, one of his more obscure novels. Two on a Tower was first serialized in the Atlantic Monthly and then published in book-form in 1882, and was categorized by Hardy as a novel of "Romance and Fantasies."   I had the devil of a time finding a copy of this novel, and short of ordering a brand-new copy from an on-line source, I continued to diligently search the shelves of every used bookstore I encountered.  On a recent business trip to Arizona, I finally found a nearly new copy for six dollars!

In my opinion, Hardy has crafted an incredibly fascinating plot for the novel, and at times it reminded me of the plotting of Wilkie Collins.  Also, the novel pivots almost entirely around just two characters, versus the more normal Hardyan plot with a larger number of country rustics intermingled with the protagonists.  In Two on a Tower, much of the plot is solely focused on young Swithin St. Cleeve and the older Lady Constantine.  St. Cleeve is a twenty-year old consumed with becoming a famous professional astronomer, who has been surreptitiously using an old tower on a hill in an isolated portion of Lady Constantine's absent husband's estate.  Lady Viviette Constantine is a beautiful dark-haired woman, nearly ten years older than Swithin, who has been left alone for several years by her husband who is off adventuring on safari in Africa.

Over time the two meet and young St. Cleeve introduces Lady Constantine to the majesty and awe of the night sky above the rural Wessex countryside.  Hardy's portrayal of the stars and planets, through Swithin's descriptions and patient tutelage of Lady Constantine as they huddle on top of the tower with his telescope, is one of the truly unique and particularly beautiful elements of this novel.  It really illustrates Hardy's fascination and reverence for the natural world around him.  Hardy obviously spent a lot of time researching the astronomical portions of his plot, as these sections are extremely well written and factually correct; both the descriptions of the night sky, and techniques that they use to view it, as well as the equipment Swithin constructs in the tower observatory.  Fundamentally then, it seems to me, the novel is a story of the relationship of the human species with the universe in which we reside, and a relationship at its most elemental level--the Love between two humans.

Ah, but it is a plot written by Hardy; therefore this growing love between Swithin and Lady Constantine must of necessity become complicated, doesn't it?  Well, yes it does, and here's where the similarities to Collins crop up.  There are mysterious reports concerning Lady Constantine's missing husband; Lady Constantine's scheming older brother, Louis, shows up; and the pompous Bishop of Melchester, Lord Helmsdale, begins meddling in everyone's affairs.  Oh, it gets good now, real good!  I couldn't put it down at all from about the novel's mid-point on.  I also found myself becoming quite attached to the characters, what few there are; and because there aren't that many, Hardy does a superb job of fleshing them out and bringing them to life on the page.

I want to share just a bit of Hardy's beautiful prose from the novel with you.  This is from a scene, late at night at the height of a violent windstorm that catches Lady Constantine and Swithin atop the old tower attempting to perform some astronomical observations
"Under any other circumstances Lady Constantine might have felt a nameless fear in thus sitting aloft on a lonely column, with a forest groaning under her feet, and paleolithic dead men feeding its roots; but the passionate decision stirred her pulses to an intensity beside which the ordinary tremors of feminine existence asserted themselves in vain.  The apocalyptic effect of the scene surrounding her was, indeed, not inharmonious, and afforded an appropriate background to her intentions.

After what seemed to her an interminable space of time, quick steps in the staircase became audible above the roar of the firs, and in a few instants St. Cleeve again stood by her."
Wow!  Was that not just awesome?  In just a few sentences, Hardy has managed to establish a connection between the raw power of Nature, the hundreds of generations of humans that have occupied this ancient landscape, and the genuine and palpable love that these two beings on the tower share for one another.  Great stuff, and vintage Thomas Hardy!  Find yourself a copy of this wonderful novel, and put it on your shelf and wait for a rainy day with no interruptions.  You'll soon find yourself completely swept away and engrossed in the lives of Swithin St. Cleeve and his love, the beautiful Lady Constantine.  This was a terrific novel, and I would give it 4.5 stars out of 5 stars.

Post Script--I actually found two copies of the novel, and presented one to my elderly father.  He has been a quite serious amateur astronomer most of his life.  He began reading it the day I gave it to him.  I can't wait to hear his reaction when he's finished.