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.]


  1. Oh, that is so sad and heartfelt. Thank you for sharing the poem.

  2. Hi there, Chris,
    I have a quick question. Do you read contemporary poetry? I met some poets last Sunday but I was lost when they talked about fellow poets and their work. I read and write fiction. Perhaps one day I'll experiment with poetry but not now. ;)

  3. Claudia, I do read some modern, or contemporary, poetry. Nowhere near as much as do the more classical stuff. I am not a huge fan of the direction of poetry these days, with all of the free verse, open form, and fragmentation. While I very much respect and admire the human poetic voice, I think I am more influenced and affected by poetry that tells me a story that I can grasp and relate to. Perhaps this says more about my ability to decipher and comprehend, than it does about the modern styles of poetry out there these days. ;-)

    I hope this makes sense, Claudia. I would have been just as lost as you were if I had been with you at your gathering of poets. Having said that though, I do try and stay up with the really 'big guns' out there. I do like some of W.S. Merwin's poetry, and Seamus Heaney is amazing, as is Pablo Neruda's.

    Thanks for dropping by! Cheers! Chris

  4. Hello Chris,
    I have never read any of Hardy's poetry, and it seems that I have been missing out. This was a beautiful choice--very beautiful in its mournful sadness. It's actually very true to Hardy's other work (well, at least the work I have read). The postscript only renders the poem even more poignant. Thanks for this...