One for Sally Porter: ‘Wives In The Sere’, a poem by Thomas Hardy

herbgarden to be.JPG
Where Nasturtiums Rule, back garden 21 August

I was looking through the Helen Gardiner OBEV  for something to read this morning and came upon this short lyric by Thomas Hardy which I’ve not read before. I was  lingering around TH because I’d noticed a tweet from Sally Porter, English teacher extraordinaire of this parish, in which she was searching twitter for Thomas Hardy memes.

I don’t  think I  really understand what a meme is, but I got Sally’s drift. No memes, she says, mention his novels or poetry… and somewhere in back of my mind, I thought, I’ll mention him.

I suppose it is because I am approaching my 34th wedding anniversary  that I was struck – almost offended I might say – by the title of this poem. ‘Sere’ is a word I only know from Macbeth – ‘My way of life/ Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf’ – and I think it means dried up. Let’s check. Yep, dry or withered. Wives in the Sere. Oh dear, not a good start to Monday. But let’s read it. Let’s read it in the spirit of meeting someone on the road and wanting to know – who are you?

Wives in the Sere

I

Never a careworn wife but shows,
If a joy suffuse her,
Something beautiful to those
Patient to peruse her,
Some one charm the world unknows
Precious to a muser,
Haply what, ere years were foes,
Moved her mate to choose her.

II

But, be it a hint of rose
That an instant hues her,
Or some early light or pose
Wherewith thought renews her –
Seen by him at full, ere woes
Practised to abuse her –
Sparely comes it, swiftly goes,
Time again subdues her.

Some lovely things in this, despite my initial grim feminist annoyance at TH  looking at me in this way. Yes, it felt that personal.

But… thinking of the poem as a fellow-creature I might meet on the road… I know Tom Hardy of old and can forgive him much. After all, he did also write ‘I Look Into My Glass’:

I LOOK into my glass,
And view my wasting skin,
And say, “Would God it came to pass
My heart had shrunk as thin!”

For then, I, undistrest
By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
With equanimity.

But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide.

But back to ‘Wives in the Sere’. let’s read the first stanza:

Never a careworn wife but shows,
If a joy suffuse her,
Something beautiful to those
Patient to peruse her,
Some one charm the world unknows
Precious to a muser,
Haply what, ere years were foes,
Moved her mate to choose her.

It is cares that do us in, not just the passing of time. I’ve been reading a book about play (search Just Started) and have in the back if my mind the  famous quote (from variously wrongly attributed sources) ‘children are young because they play, and not vice versa; and he might have added, men grow old because they stop playing, and not conversely, for play is, at bottom, growth,’ (Wikipedia tells me these words  actually come from G. Stanley HallAdolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion and Education (1904). Could playfulness be the long-sought anti-ageing serum? But back to the poem.

The poem starts  with the doom-laden bell clanging word  ‘Never’ and yet by the end of the line something else is happening. By the end of the line we get to ‘but shows’. You see the pattern but something can break it. As cares attach to us, so they wear us down. And this is a norm. ‘Never a careworn wife’  points at a class of human beings. There are many of us.  Against ‘careworn’ Thomas Hardy sets ‘joy’ and between them, that small balancing act, tipping point, ‘if’. And by the end of the verse we are back in youth, at the moment when someone fell in love with her – moved to choose her.

But I want to look at the rhymes! I don’t know what it is called when a rhyme spreads over several words, but it is a characteristic of  Hardy’s verse-making:

suffuse her/peruse her/a muser/choose her

You’ve got to be patient, looking at her, to catch this swift rollback of years.  Good that ‘shows’ rhymes with ‘unknows’, isn’t it? Something is shown that the world cannot (or cannot any longer?) see. The world  knew it once, and now it unknows, because the woman is careworn, sere.  But it is still there.

I’m still fighting the idea that ‘years are foes’. I’ve been fighting this thought in this part of Thomas Hardy since I first met it in ‘I look into my glass’ in  thirty-five years ago. Of course, these days, I do look into my glass and I do view (what a horribly true word) my wasting skin. But I fight it! Not so much with anti-ageing cream, though I do  slap that on from time to time, but mentally, I fight it. I do not want to embrace myself as wasted, sere, no, nor feel the years as ‘foes’.  So that’s why I balk at the second verse, where Hardy rubs my nose in it:

But, be it a hint of rose
That an instant hues her,
Or some early light or pose
Wherewith thought renews her –
Seen by him at full, ere woes
Practised to abuse her –
Sparely comes it, swiftly goes,
Time again subdues her.

I know, I know! ‘sparely it comes, swiftly it goes’ that whatever we had that was lovely once and yes, ‘time again subdues her’. Hhm. It is a way of seeing but I want to object. I want something else.  Though when I read this I think of my Nan, Annie Smith, and my grandad Syd, and I wonder if these words work in my memory of them together? I think they do.

But on Saturday when my son arrived and I was in the garden happily lopping off the sere and yellow leaves of old geraniums, he said ‘Mum! you’ve turned yourself into one of those old gardening ladies!’ He meant my  garden boots and unkempt hair ( no time, it might rain soon) and those very unattractive – but no one will be looking at me –  long  khaki shorts, which I’d slightly rolled up, and that handy  but horrible sleeveless deep-pocketed jacket.  Hhm, there I was,  not so much  at that moment care-worn as careless, though perhaps weather-beaten.

And yes –  I had  turned myself into that old gardening lady.  And to my own surprise I later  went to the shops that get-up.  I didn’t care! I  needed some horticultural grit for my gardening game! But you know what, I thought my 21-year-old self would have recognised me. She didn’t care, either.

So what is lost – if it is not simply what Shakespeare called rosy lips and cheeks? What does time wipe out? Well,  yes, it shows in looks, Tom, but as you know,  the damage takes place much deeper. As you say in ‘I look into my glass’

‘…Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;’

and that’s the painful mix. I’m sixty-one and twenty-one at the same time. It’s the grieving that does us in. Let’s not grieve for looks!

Is there anyone writing  poetry about this kind of thing?

Perhaps some Sharon Olds will help?

One thought on “One for Sally Porter: ‘Wives In The Sere’, a poem by Thomas Hardy

  1. stayingfaithful August 21, 2017 / 10:03 am

    Love it, I’m a huge fan of Hardy, although of course his focus here on the ageing female is a little marked… underneath it is a love poem still. Thank you for these sane and clear-eyed reflections on ageing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s