October 20, 2012

"A Sound in the Night" by Thomas Hardy

Woodsford Castle (c) Mike Searle
Here is another one of my favorite poems by Thomas Hardy.  This well-crafted macabre poem even features a spooky castle on a cold, dark, and stormy night.  Woodsford Castle is considered an excellent example of a fortified medieval manor house of the mid-14th Century.  The construction of Woodsford Castle was completed in 1370, and it is located just a few miles south of Dorchester in Dorset County, in the heart of the 'Wessex' countryside that Thomas Hardy lived in and wrote about in much of his fiction and poetry.  In fact, Hardy's builder father, Thomas Hardy, Sr., was involved in an extensive restoration effort at Woodsford Castle in 1850.  One simply has to imagine that the ten-year-old Hardy would have accompanied his father to the castle during the restoration and must have prowled about all of the nooks and crannies of this old building.

A Sound in the Night
(Woodsford Castle: 17--)

"What do I catch upon the night-wind, husband?--
What is it sounds in this house so eerily?
It seems to be a woman's voice: each little while I hear it,
And it much troubles me!"

''Tis but the eaves dripping down upon the plinth-slopes:
Letting fancies worry thee!--sure 'tis a foolish thing,
When we were on'y coupled half-an-hour before the noontide,
And now it's but evening.'

'Yet seems it still a woman's voice outside the castle, husband,
And 'tis cold to-night, and rain beats, and this is a lonely place.
Didst thou fathom much of womankind in travel or adventure
Ere ever thou sawest my face?'

'It may be a tree, bride, that rubs his arms acrosswise,
If it is not the eaves-drip upon the lower slopes,
Or the river at the bend, where it whirls about the hatches
Like a creature that sighs and mopes.'

'Yet it still seems to me like the crying of a woman,
And it saddens me much that so piteous a sound
On this my bridal night when I would get agone from sorrow
Should so ghost-like wander round!'

'To satisfy thee, Love, I will strike the flint-and-steel, then,
And set the rush-candle up, and undo the door,
And take the new horn-lantern that we bought upon our journey,
And throw the light over the moor.'

He struck a light, and breeched and booted in the further chamber,
And lit the new horn-lantern and went from her sight,
And vanished down the turret; and she heard him pass the postern,
And go out into the night.

She listened as she lay, till she heard his step returning,
And his voice as he unclothed him: "'Twas nothing, as I said,
But the nor'-west wind a-blowing from the moor ath'art the river,
And the tree that taps the gurgoyle-head."

"Nay, husband, you perplex me; for if the noise I heard here,
Awaking me from sleep so, were but as you avow,
The rain-fall, and the wind, and the tree-bough, and the river,
Why is it silent now?

"And why is thy hand and thy clasping arm so shaking,
And thy sleeve and tags of hair so muddy and so wet,
And why feel I thy heart a-thumping every time thou kissest me,
And thy breath as if hard to get?"

He lay there in silence for a while, still quickly breathing,
Then started up and walked about the room resentfully:
"O woman, witch, whom I, in sooth, against my will have wedded,
Why castedst thou thy spells on me?

"There was one I loved once: the cry you heard was her cry:
She came to me to-night, and her plight was passing sore,
As no woman . . . Yea, and it was e'en the cry you heard, wife,
But she will cry no more!

"And now I can't abide thee: this place, it hath a curse on't,
This farmstead once a castle: I'll get me straight away!"
He dressed this time in darkness, unspeaking, as she listened,
And went ere the dawn turned day.

They found a woman's body at a spot called Rocky Shallow,
Where the Froom stream curves amid the moorland, washed aground,
And they searched about for him, the yeoman, who had darkly
  known her,
But he could not be found.

And the bride left for good-and-all the farmstead once a castle,
And in a county far away lives, mourns, and sleeps alone,
And thinks in windy weather that she hears a woman crying,
And sometimes an infant's moan.

A Sound in the Night was published by Hardy in 1922 in a volume of poetry entitled Late Lyrics and Earlier.

October 11, 2012

"A Trampwoman's Tragedy" By Thomas Hardy

A Trampwoman’s Tragedy

From Wynyard's Gap the livelong day,
The livelong day,
We beat afoot the northward way
We had travelled times before.
The sun-blaze burning on our backs,
Our shoulders sticking to our packs,
By fosseway, fields, and turnpike tracks
We skirted sad Sedge-Moor.

Full twenty miles we jaunted on,
We jaunted on, —
My fancy-man, and jeering John,
And Mother Lee, and I.
And, as the sun drew down to west,
We climbed the toilsome Polden crest,
And saw, of landskip sights the best,
The inn that beamed thereby.

Ay, side by side
Through the Great Forest, Blackmoor wide,
And where the Parret ran.
We'd faced the gusts on Mendip ridge,
Had crossed the Yeo unhelped by bridge,
Been stung by every Marshwood midge,
I and my fancy-man.

Lone inns we loved, my man and I,
My man and I;
'King's Stag', 'Windwhistle' high and dry,
'The Horse' on Hintock Green,
The cosy house at Wynyard's Gap,
'The Hut', renowned on Bredy Knap,
And many another wayside tap
Where folk might sit unseen.

O deadly day,
O deadly day! —
I teased my fancy man in play
And wanton idleness.
I walked alongside jeering John,
I laid his hand my waist upon;
I would not bend my glances on
My lover's dark distress.

Thus Poldon top at last we won,
At last we won,
And gained the inn at sink of sun
Far-famed as 'Marshal's Elm'.
Beneath us figured tor and lea,
From Mendip to the western sea —
I doubt if any finer sight there be
Within this royal realm.

Inside the settle all a-row —
All four a-row
We sat, I next to John, to show
That he had wooed and won.
And then he took me on his knee,
And swore it was his turn to be
My favoured mate, and Mother Lee
Passed to my former one.

Then in a voice I had never heard,
I had never heard,
My only love to me: 'One word,
My lady, if you please!
Whose is the child you are like to bear? —
His? After all my months o' care?'
Gods knows 'twas not! But, O despair!
I nodded — still to tease.

Then he sprung, and with his knife —
And with his knife,
He let out jeering Johnny's life,
Yes; there at set of sun.
The slant ray through the window nigh
Gilded John's blood and glazing eye,
Ere scarcely Mother Lee and I
Knew that the deed was done.

The taverns tell the gloomy tale,
The gloomy tale,
How that at Ivel-Chester jail
My love, my sweetheart swung;
Though stained till now by no misdeed
Save one horse ta'en in time of need;
(Blue Jimmy stole right many a steed
Ere his last fling he flung.)

Thereaft I walked the world alone
Alone, alone!
On his death-day I gave my groan
And dropt his dead-born child.
'Twas nigh the jail, beneath a tree,
None tending me; for Mother Lee
Had died at Glaston, leaving me
Unfriended on the wild.

And in the night as I lay weak,
As I lay weak,
The leaves a-falling on my cheek,
The red moon low declined —
The ghost of him I'd die to kiss
Rose up and said: 'Ah, tell me this!
Was the child mine, or was it his?
Speak, that I my rest may find!'

O doubt but I told him then,
I told him then,
That I had kept me from all men
Since we joined lips and swore.
Whereat he smiled, and thinned away
As the wind stirred to call up day. . .
--'Tis past! And here alone I stray
Haunting the Western Moor.


Stanza I 
Fosseway - The "Fosse Way" a very straight Roman road that runs from southwest England all the way up to Lincoln, a distance of over 180 miles.  The Somerset portion of the Fosse Way actually touches Windwhistle, mentioned in the poem.

Stanza II
Fancy-man - common-law husband, or a man living off the earnings of a prostitute. 
Landskip - archaic form of "landscape," descriptive of inland scenery (from 17th c. Dutch painting).

Stanza III 
Blackmoor - This, like most of the other places mentioned, is in south-west England, especially Dorset. Blackmore Vale (Valley) is just beyond the Dorset Uplands, north-west of Dorchester. 
Marshwood midge - a stinging, gnat-like insect.

Stanza IV 
King's Stag, Windwhistle, The Horse - the names of inns located along the Fosse Way.  Hardy's reference to the "Windwhistle high and dry" refers to its location on top of a hill and had no well and only alcohol to drink.

Stanza VI 
Tor and lea - The Tor at Glastonbury is a medieval watchtower on a steep incline known as Tor Hill. "Lea" means "a tract of open ground."

Stanza VII 
Settle - a wooden bench with high back and arms.

Stanza X 
Blue Jimmy - a British horse-thief of some renown.

Stanza XI 
Glaston - Glastonbury, an ancient town in southwestern England famous for its abbey.


Thomas Hardy and his bicycle
It is October, and fall is upon us.  I thought it might be fun to post a few of Thomas Hardy's narrative poems that are somewhat spooky or border on the macabre, and A Trampwoman's Tragedy certainly qualifies on both counts.  Apparently, Hardy had taken a bicycle ride up around Glastonbury in Somerset County and had heard a story about a woman named Mary Ann Taylor, and when he returned to his home (Max Gate) in Dorset he crafted this poem in 1902 and submitted it for publication to the Cornhill Magazine for publication.  It was rejected as "unsuitable for a family periodical".  It was, however, published in the North American Review in the November 1903 issue.  Hardy came to believe that A Trampwoman's Tragedy was "upon the whole his most successful poem", and included it among his collection of poems entitled Time's Laughingstocks and Other Verses published in 1909.  

[The black and white photograph at the top of the post is an image that I took in 2007 on a cold and blustery day on Tehachapi Pass in the southern Sierras east of Bakersfield, California.  It very much reminds me of some of the landscapes Hardy describes in this poem.]

October 5, 2012

"At a Pause in a Country Dance" By Thomas Hardy

At a Pause in a Country Dance
(Middle of Last Century)

THEY stood at the foot of the figure,
And panted: they'd danced it down through--
That 'Dashing White Serjeant' they loved so:--
A window, uncurtained, was nigh them
That end of the room. Thence in view

Outside it a valley updrew,
Where the frozen moon lit frozen snow:
At the furthermost reach of the valley
A light from the window shone low.
'They are inside that window,' said she,

As she looked, 'They sit up there for me;
And baby is sleeping there, too.'
He glanced. 'Yes,' he said. 'Never mind,
Let's foot our way up again; do!
And dance down the line as before.

Pierre Auguste Renoir, 1883
What's the world to us, meeting once more!'
'--Not much, when your husband full trusts you,
And thinks the child his that I bore!'
He was silent. The fiddlers six-eighted
With even more passionate vigour.

The pair swept again up the figure,
The child's cuckoo-father and she,
And the next couples threaded below,
And the twain wove their way to the top
Of 'The Dashing White Serjeant' they loved so,
Restarting: right, left, to and fro.

--From the homestead, seen yon, the small glow
Still adventured forth over the white,
Where the child still slept, unknowing who sired it,
In the cradle of wicker tucked tight,
And its grandparents, nodding, admired it
In elbow chairs through the slow night.


Edel Rodriguez, NY Times
I love Thomas Hardy's poetry on so many levels, and this poem is just such a fine example.  First, Hardy is incredibly adept at portraying the 'country rustics'--the people--of his beloved Dorset; and, in fact, much of his fiction and poetry centers upon this part of southwestern England that he called "Wessex".  The people he writes about are fun-loving, earthy, and incredibly connected to the landscape around them--the farms and fields, the forests and orchards, the rolling hills, the villages and towns, and the streams and rivers.

Hardy, as many of you know, is a master story-teller; who absolutely excelled at his craft, and it doesn't matter if it is one of his poems, a short story, or one of his famous novels--Hardy can can tell a tale.  Hardy typically takes his reader to the heart of the matter--and it is generally an unbridled mix of passion and joy, sadness and grief, and sometimes even a touch of the macabre.  Somehow, Hardy was able to unerringly hone in on the fabric of Life and what it is that we like to think of as the 'total human experience'.  And it was in that dynamic between a man and a woman that Hardy truly found ever so much to write about.  I have to think that "At a Pause in a Country Dance" was spawned from the fond memories Hardy had of accompanying his father to country dances where they both played the fiddle for the dancers.  Perhaps there's even a remnant of some bit of idle gossip he heard whilst at one of these dances.  Who knows?  It is simply a wonderful example of the brilliant little poetic vignettes that Hardy was so fond of writing. 

["At a Pause in a Country Dance" was published in a collection entitled Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs and Trifles in 1925, three years before Hardy's death in 1928]