The Altered All, Thomas Hardy, The Going

two flowers
Dahlia and Clematis on the back step, 28August

Last week I was reading, very slowly, Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Going’. Search ‘Hardy’ for previous blog entries. I hadn’t finished and so here it is, and if you are joining as a new reader, give it a good slow read aloud, and actually, if you are coming back, do that too, because we want to get the poem live in our minds, not leave it dead in our memory:

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!

I’d got to the point where I was just about to start reading stanza 4.

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.

This stanza, joy-filled, excited, rises from the misery of the previous, when the ‘blankness’ of her absence overwhelms Hardy. Suddenly, as he turns from the empty view,  here she is in the beginning of their time together. The power of this woman, on horseback, musing and eyeing him, feels a delight to him. The stanza is  full of  sexual energy and feels drenched in light. I don’t know where I get that from, except perhaps those ‘red-veined rocks far west’. Life seems an unknown, and full of possibility, full of feeling. It feels fast, it’s moving, that unrolling – a like a carpet, a bolt of cloth? – slightly out of control? But all this heat and energy disappears as Hardy comes back to the present with another question – another why – for her. Or is he now speaking only to himself?

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.’

I wonder how long that ‘ latterly’ has lasted.  The period seems connected to the death of their relationship. They have lived though a period when that excitement and energy  was ‘long dead’. They did not even speak. They did not remember ‘those days long dead’.

Now he cannot forget her, dead.

But he doesn’t say ‘dead’, he says ‘vanishing’ as if even know he cannot bear to remember the truth of her going. She is dead, in reality, now, but he can only use the word ‘dead’ for the long-ago days when they were together.  That person who dies, who vanished… Was that her?  He can imagine a different relation suddenly, where they could speak to one another. Instead of ‘Why, then, latterly did we not speak’ he imagines a kindly warmth between them that might have helped to take them back:

                 We might have said,
‘In this bright spring weather
We’ll visit together
Those places that once we visited.’

But that did not happen. She did not speak and neither did he. They lost their chances. Now she has gone, and  the great going has altered ‘all’. When we first read that word ‘all’ in stanza 2, we didn’t know its import. We didn’t know what ‘all’ contained.  Now we know it was the possibility of potential change that was lost, and in a sense, his future. Has her death killed him?

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!

He turns away from her, her absence, his memory of her. That ‘well, well’ is like a man talking to himself, turning back to the acceptance of reality. And what he has to accept is that ‘all’s past amend/Unchangeable’. Death, as  Shakespeare said, closes all:  the same ‘all’ we saw in stanza 2: everything that might have happened  or  everything that might have changed if life had continued. Now ‘all’ is unchangeable.

Then we come to these three most striking words: ‘it must go.’

This is a sentence, and yet it seems to have almost no constituent parts – a subject, ‘it’: but what is ‘it’? and a verb, ‘must go’ and  there’s no object.

Does he mean the past?

Does he mean the chance of change?

Does he mean the lost possibility of  ‘we might have said’?

The verb is ‘go’ and the poem is called  ‘The Going’, and much of it has been about her going without notice, so does he mean his relationship to her?  Why ‘it’?  I’m wondering if  ‘it’ could ‘it’ refer to ‘all’?

I do not know if there is a line, a half line, with so much desolation in it anywhere. We have reached  the nub of his pain:

I seem but a dead man held on end
To sink down soon. . . .

This extraordinary image of this man –  like a weight suspended in water –  drowning – but like something that should be horizontal, should be dead, sums up his state of being. He is wrong. He is all wrong.  And now he turns once more to her:

 O you could not know
That such swift fleeing
No soul foreseeing-
Not even I—would undo me so!

Is that ‘you could know not’  forgiving? is it crying, ‘o’. Is it taking the initial sense blame away from her for ‘fleeing’ – see how the verb of her going has changed. Now it seems she had something to run away from – him.

Even he, the person who now suffers  this guilt and loss, could not imagine that he would be so undone by her going. Her going has altered ‘all’. but there’s only him left to be altered. He feels the pain of change after the event. Count the number of times he says  ‘why’ in this poem. Why. Why. Why. The first two whys are for her – why did you give no hint, why do you make me leave.

The third is addressed to both of them:

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.’

This was something they both might have done but neither did. And he is left with that burden of remorse.  Is Thomas Hardy avoiding the word ‘I’ ?

It comes in the last line, in a sightly hidden clause, ‘not even I’.  You couldn’t know, no one could, not even I. Know what ? That I would be altered by your going. That’s the altered all.  And he knows it.

 

 

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