What to read in a Shared Reading group: Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Going’

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Geranium ‘Rozanne’ doing well on the back door step 22 August

It’s a long  while since I read Thomas Hardy.  This morning I’ve reread some poems I half-remember from previous readings, long ago, when I used to teach his work in my Continuing Education classes.  Some of those poems are more than half-remembered, I know them inside and out, probably by rote, because at some point they mattered so much that they became part of me, written in the heart, felt along the blood.  ‘The Voice’, ‘The Self-Unseeing’, ‘The Haunter’, ‘Shadow on the Stone’, ‘In the Time of Breaking of Nations’. Occasionally I’ve read a poem of his in Shared Reading, but I can’t remember if I’ve ever read this one in group. The ‘Poems of 1912-13’ from which this is taken are strong medicine. You’d use them with caution.

So it’s some time since I’ve read today’s poem ‘The Going’, one of those which seem to have become part of my body my being, I know it so well.

My most recent connection to this poem comes through Jeanette Winterson’s writing about it  in her terrifically moving memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal. (A great read for a group, too). I can’t find a copy of that wonderful book here this morning – perhaps I’ve given mine away again, so I can’t look it up and give you chapter and verse. Only to say that at a time of great distress, following the breakdown of yet another relationship, there the poem is, in Jeanette’s head, waiting to be read, or said, repeated, recited or whatever it is we do with poems we know inside out when they rise into consciousness and may or may not be spoken aloud.

There are things you can look up about Hardy and the biographical details of these poems. I’d say, don’t do that. Or if you must do it,  do it, and then read the poems as if you’ve forgotten all about it all. He wrote them as poems. They were published as stand alone items. Understanding them is not about knowing to whom he writing,  or where  they were standing, or what she wore, but about entering the human emotional experience he captures in language, and entering that experience and making it real with our own  knowledge and experience.

Let’s read it now:

The Going

Why did you give no hint that night
That quickly after the morrow’s dawn,
And calmly, as if indifferent quite,
You would close your term here, up and be gone
Where I could not follow
With wing of swallow
To gain one glimpse of you ever anon!

Never to bid good-bye,
Or lip me the softest call,
Or utter a wish for a word, while I
Saw morning harden upon the wall,
Unmoved, unknowing
That your great going
Had place that moment, and altered all.

Why do you make me leave the house
And think for a breath it is you I see
At the end of the alley of bending boughs
Where so often at dusk you used to be;
Till in darkening dankness
The yawning blankness
Of the perspective sickens me!

You were she who abode
By those red-veined rocks far West,
You were the swan-necked one who rode
Along the beetling Beeny Crest,
And, reining nigh me,
Would muse and eye me,
While Life unrolled us its very best.

Why, then, latterly did we not speak,
Did we not think of those days long dead,
And ere your vanishing strive to seek
That time’s renewal?  We might have said,
‘In this bright spring weather
We’ll visit together
Those places that once we visited.’

Well, well!  All’s past amend,
Unchangeable.  It must go.
I seem but a dead man held on end
To sink down soon. . . . O you could not know
That such swift fleeing
No soul foreseeing-
Not even I—would undo me so!

Wonderful, sad, deep reality of loss. Read it slowly and let the words sink in before we begin to look more closely at the stanzas.  In a group I’d let the poem rest there for a while, and let people respond to it in whatever way they felt before perhaps reading again. It’s a big poem and there’s a lot to absorb.  Then I’d be anything to get some group members voices into the room – maybe ‘what do you make of it?’ and someone will answer something like, ‘He’s battered, isn’t he? He’s done in.’  or surprisingly, wonderfully, someone will say ‘Brilliant that he can write it out, though, isn’t it? When you feel like that and it’s all locked in… that’s what does you in.’

And after a while as we  feel the reality of some of this powerful feeling, I’ll say, let’s read the first one or two stanzas again shall we?

Why did you give no hint that night
That quickly after the morrow’s dawn,
And calmly, as if indifferent quite,
You would close your term here, up and be gone
Where I could not follow
With wing of swallow
To gain one glimpse of you ever anon!

 

It begins as if part of a conversation and  perhaps a complaint. It’s very easy, this conversation, feels  as  if the two people are used to each other, are intimate. It just begins, like someone walking into a room and no need for any sort of introduction, ‘Why did you give no hint?’

But then there’s  time in this – ‘that night’ and ‘the morrow’ – and I ‘d ask here what the time-frame feels like – short of long? Is this way after the event? or days after or weeks , months?

‘That night’ makes it feel as if it is some time again. ‘That’ is a word that points to a particular point in the past. Shall we just look at the opening four lines?

Why did you give no hint that night
That quickly after the morrow’s dawn,
And calmly, as if indifferent quite,
You would close your term here, up and be gone

It seems even more like a complaint than it did before. ‘Why?’ asks Hardy. The person he is talking to has gone – quickly and calmly – and with no notice, and to him this feels like indifference. The departed person might have been, from the language at this point, a lodger! They have closed up their ‘term’.

It’s interesting that two specific times are mentioned – ‘night’ and ‘morrow’.

This could have been a whole sentence. And when you are reading it, it does feel as if it is a whole chunk of meaning, yet Hardy doesn’t put a full-stop in, but carries on, and that onward rushing to what comes next transforms what we’ve just read – we glance back : he loves her!

Where I could not follow
With wing of swallow
To gain one glimpse of you ever anon!

The swallow-like swoop of the rhythm here does something, lifts and drops you as you read. We know we are not reading the story of a lodger, a tenancy. The desire to follow, the uplift of swallow, tells me, this is love.

So a lover’s complaint, in the old broken-heart sense. You went! you didn’t tell me! and the big wail: why?

Let’s read the next verse now, because the rush of the not quite visible swallow’s wing pulls us along with Hardy’ feeling:

Never to bid good-bye,
Or lip me the softest call,
Or utter a wish for a word, while I
Saw morning harden upon the wall,
Unmoved, unknowing
That your great going
Had place that moment, and altered all.

She went without saying goodbye, or allowing him to say it. And he uses the words ‘lip’ and ‘softest’ as he thinks of  her, so that we think of kisses –  though that word does not, can not, even enter the poem. She did not call him, no nor ask him to speak to her.

And while this  ‘great going’, her death, was taking place, he was somewhere else, unaware, and did not know and did not feel:

while I
Saw morning harden upon the wall,
Unmoved, unknowing

Oh dear, time’s up . Gosh, talk about a flow state. More tomorrow.

 

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