Slow reading: Thomas Hardy, ‘The Going’

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Long Border at Calderstones Park  still lfiring on all cylinders, 23 August

For the past few days I’ve been reading Thomas Hardy’s poem, ‘The Going’. Yesterday I’d read most of stanza 2 but reading  that post over just now, I realised that I hadn’t finished it. I’d missed the last couple of lines. Welcome to life with the slowest reader in the universe.  Let’s read the poem aloud again now, to get going, nice and slow and paying attention to the punctuation – remember when you are reading aloud you are always scanning the next bit of punctuation, a place to take a breath:

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!

 

We’re going to start again in stanza 2, so let’s just read that again to gret the lovely rhythm of it:

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.

I want to think about rhythm and line endings for a moment,  something the poem seems to demand, so exceptionally powerful is it in those areas. Look at the first two lines, where the meaning fits into the line. The commas hold a clause, the clause (‘never to bid goodbye’) holds a complete unit of thought or feeling, and is  completed, marked by, the finality of the line ending. Having thought/felt ‘never to bid goodbye’, Hardy  can only close the feeling and then start again, comma, new line: ‘or lip me the softest call’.

Then it seems as if the same thing is going to happen again – he’s still thinking of her part in it, blaming her, really, in a gently complaining sort of way. It’s his third  thought/feeling of this sort: ‘or utter a wish for a word’. But this time  it does not  end there, instead of commas+ line-ending, we get comma and a new bit of thought. The dimensions shift, the world moved,  and it flashes through his mind ‘there’s me (as well as her )’. It comes out as a parallel time-thought, ‘while I’.

And now the thought doesn’t fit the line. There’s no comma, we have to keep going with it, following the twist of his thought process.

                                                  while I
Saw morning harden upon the wall,
Unmoved, unknowing
That your great going
Had place that moment, and altered all.

Instead of questioning her, he zooms out and seems to see himself as if from above, somewhere else, watching himself watch dawn break by the light it casts on the wall. Yesterday we noticed the verb ‘harden’ and its connection to ‘unmoved’  – but I’m drifting off course, let’s jut stay with line endings for a moment.

‘Saw morning harden upon the wall,’ is a unit of sense, connecting back to the hinge of ‘while I’, but not necessarily connecting forward. So once we again we get the comma and line ending to mark an  end of  bit of thought. The next line  is monumentally strong, like to great columns raised up: ‘unmoved, unknowing’. As a line it is both complete and incomplete.

The unit of sense/paraphrase is something like ‘ while I remained  unmoved because I did not know you’d gone.’ The sense of blame shifts. Who are you, to only be moved once you know? Why were you not moved before?

‘Unknowing’ has no  comma and the sense  takes us over the line end, but it doesn’t have to, those two words could stand alone. They are the essence, the heart, of the poem.  It is like a shorthand for the feeling which is drawn out into comprehensible meaning in the bigger clause:

                 unknowing
That your great going
Had place that moment,

Just look at that as a clause, a unit of meaning. Hardy is as  precise as surgeon here, cutting away his other feelings to reveal that  hurtful fact: there was moment when you went,  and I did not know.

‘Unknowing’ is a great coinage ( if it is a coinage – Wordsworth might have  used such a word), that implies something like  ‘I did know but I didn’t want to know and deliberately let myself forget’.

The final clause in this stanza leads to whats going to happen next in the poem and sheds light on what’s just come before. ‘And altered all’. The meaning might be paraphrased as: how can it be that something big happened (you went) and everything was changed at a particular point in time and I was there awake and did not know?

But how did everything alter? The next stanza puts the departed person into the present tense and I’d say that in itself is part of the great alteration. In the first stanza  Hardy says  she’s gone,

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

I seem to have missed thinking about that when I read the first stanza!

Am I not going slowly enough?

I should have asked, where is such place? The wings, the great swoops of those swallow flights in the sky, put me in mind of angels. She’s dead, of course. But here she is now, almost present:

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!

But that is my time up for the day.  I had wanted to look at the rhymes, but will have to save that for another day. What a tremendous and lovely poem it is … more tomorrow.

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