An Alternative to the Architectural Elegy: Hardy's Unhoused Poems of 1912-1913

By Hall, Louisa | Victorian Poetry, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

An Alternative to the Architectural Elegy: Hardy's Unhoused Poems of 1912-1913


Hall, Louisa, Victorian Poetry


Throughout English poetry one finds examples of poems that are metaphorized as architectural structures, as houses or churches built of solid enough materials to reliably contain ephemeral spirits and ideas. From Chaucer to Heaney, the writing of a poetic line has been linked with the construction of a sure foundation, the use of a carpenter's level, the solidity of physical enclosure. As a one-time architect's assistant, Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was extraordinarily well positioned to make an informed entrance into this genre of architectural poems, and indeed, he embraced architectural theory as an aspect of his poetics. Famously, in The Life of Thomas Hardy, Florence Hardy-or Hardy himself-describes his poetry in terms of gothic building principles:

   He had fortified himself in his opinion by thinking of the analogy
   of architecture, between which art and that of poetry he had
   discovered, to use his own words, that there existed a close and
   curious parallel, each art, unlike some others, having to carry a
   rational content inside its artistic form.... [H]e carried on into
   his verse, perhaps unconsciously, the Gothic art-principle in which
   he had been trained. (1)

In his poetry, Hardy works to link the two art forms in many ways, from publishing (in Wessex Poems) elaborate sketches of buildings alongside his words to writing poems about architects and architecture.

However, in his Poems of 1912-1913, the elegiac sequence he wrote after the death of his first wife Emma, Hardy resists the impulse to place his poetry within an architectural frame, not only in subject (nearly all of the poems take place out of doors, and those that do not express a certain yearning for escape to unbounded places), but also, as I will argue, in the formal components of the sequence's poetics. In comparing these poems to Hardy's architectural drawings-particularly his sketches of St. Juliot, the church in whose shadow he first met Emma-it becomes clear that, as he goes about elegizing his estranged wife, he takes certain poetic steps to reverse the process of architectural construction. Instead, he builds a kind of poetics that take place outside, whose visual components break open, and whose careful symmetries crumble: they are poems that evoke elaborate ruins more than they evoke grand gothic monuments. Astonished by rekindled desire for a woman he once loved and from whom he had grown distant, the poet attempts to recapture the Emma of his youth, a woman who sought the freedom of nature and who had not been changed by the confinement of a long, unhappy marriage. If, at first, his poems concentrate on the ghost of the later Emma, who is the ghost of closed quarters and habitation, his poems begin to reach out more toward the earlier Emma, a ghost who haunts water, air, and cliffs. In so doing, his poems move away from confined spaces such as houses, rooms, and even graves, rejecting the idea of the elegy as providing a house for the dead. Instead, Poems of 1912-1913 represents a dismantling of poetic structure in order to revive a ghost who insists on the freedom of windy spaces in which she, as much as her elegist, can define the proportions of her existence.

Hardy's elegiac move out of doors is remarkable when one considers the history of the elegy. In this monumentalizing genre, the desire to preserve a passing spirit within a physical, understandable space has often found urgency. In The Life of the Poet, Lawrence Lipking describes the tombeau tradition, in which poets seek to provide poetic tombs for great writers of the past in order to rectify the obscurity of unrecognized graves: "the tomb of the poet is built by other poets; their verses take him in." (2) Not only elegies for great poets, however, seek to conflate the poem itself to a physical space in which passing spirits might reside; the desire to build a poetic tomb or house for the dead appears in elegies for all classes of subject, and the space created by the poem is often more physically defined than it is in many of Lipking's tombeaux.

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