Table of Contents
1 Lyrical Correspondence with the Historical Past
1.1 The Roman Road
1.2 Rome: On The Palantine
2 Nature and Natural Imagery Conceptualised through Temporal Processes
2.1 The Last Chrysanthemum
2.2 The Darkling Thrush
3 Evolutionary Meliorism
3.1 The Concept of Evolutionary Meliorism
3.2 To Outer Nature
3.3 The Lacking Sense
Thomas Hardy's lyrical oeuvre includes over one thousand poems that vary widely in their subjects and form. Yet, his vast array of output does allow for a few central themes to be recognised throughout. The centrality of the entity of time in its various incarnations and occurrences is amongst the most prominent of them and will be the subject of this paper. The aforementioned variety of Hardy's output, in structure, rhyme, metre, themes, and ideas render a concise and complete account of any subject or motif impractical. Nonetheless, the ubiquity and varied application of temporal concepts and notions allow for a categorisation of different occurrences of these temporal images and a consequent thorough analysis in terms of their connections and deviations, in order to be able to isolate overarching ideologies and their interplay within Hardy's lyrics.
The three main frameworks for these uses of time discussed are the historical past, natural imagery and Evolutionary Meliorism. All these categories have overlapping and adjacent connotations. In order to frame the subjects in a clear and focussed way, their respective chapters all include analyses of two individual poems regarding their corresponding motif, while the discovered implications and insights are collated with previous scholarly assertions on Hardy's poetry. The in-depth lyrical analysis of different poems on the same subject is facilitative in contrasting and comparing the varied uses and characterisations of time personified, of temporal processes within the poem's narrative, and of temporal imageries' utilisations for different objectives. In order to fully contextualise the distinctive layers of meaning in each poem they are first analysed in terms of overall structure. Therein, the rhyme, meter and other structural elements are investigated in search of coherent conveyances of relevant features. Consequently, the poems' contents are examined line by line with regard to temporal significance, overall composition and underlying threads of meaning.
The three main lyrical subjects are investigated individually while the sequential results and assertions are cumulatively abstracted to systematise their relationship with, and importance for the concept of time. The historical past aids in introducing the pervasiveness and instrumental role of uses of time and temporal processes to create meaningful connections. It simultaneously elucidates the concept of moments of vision, itself a temporal image and device that inhabits a central role in Thomas Hardy's lyrical works. The chapter also starts the general examination of individual poems under different lyrical criteria in order to isolate and interpret the intent behind specific choices and their relationship to the theme of time. The subject of ancient Rome is included in both poems of the chapter. Their individual treatment of the location and its significance further illustrates the merits of analysing and contrasting the variation inherent in Hardy's poetry.
The second chapter will similarly contain two individual poems. Their use and representation of nature and natural processes will illuminate the special connection between temporal and natural forces that Hardy recognised to be ubiquitous. The poems will further contain a general analysis of both floral and faunal poetic imagery, respectively. These natural forces and the similarly personified concept of Mother Nature are the central concepts related to time in this chapter. In the investigation, the aspect of time's central instrumentality and the concept of Mother Nature itself and its role in Hardy's poems are first linked. Furthermore, the peculiar relationship of the two discussed poems, both in the sequence of publishing and in their subjects' fights with temporal forces, is examined. They are also contextualised in terms of their respective outcome and the similarities and differences of their conclusions.
Finally, the last chapter discusses the self-coined, self-defined worldview of Thomas Hardy, Evolutionary Meliorism. It begins with a general assertion of the definition and scope of this worldview itself, based on Hardy's own words on the subject and leading scholars' examinations, to effectively outline the meaning and motivation behind the term. Subsequently, two poems are analysed on the basis of these findings. The poems' respective characterisation of the previously discussed forces and entities that are of general import to Hardy's lyrical mind is then used to explore the different incorporations and utilisations of them under the worldview of Evolutionary Meliorism. The results are subsequently reviewed and coordinated with regards to the overall findings on the role of time in Hardy's lyrical oeuvre and, more specifically, time's applications in defining, correlating and contrasting his other main lyrical subjects under his own articulation of a worldview.
Thus, I will investigate the theory that time personified, temporal imagery, processes, and their symbolism are a special language which Hardy always inevitably turns to in his poetry. To express any higher thought or idea, to wrestle with one of the many metaphysical and ideological quandaries of his era and, most presciently, to give meaning to most of the lyrical constructs he wants to produce and also be understood by a larger audience. Time is amongst the most universal concepts one can resort to in finding a meaningful consensus, or the right wording to reach common ground. Thus, it would only be natural that Hardy, the poet generally associated with a clear and universally accessible style and wording (cf. Harvey 190 ff.) would identify and connect the most with such a universal, communally shared concept.
1 Lyrical Correspondence with the Historical Past
Hardy's lyrical connection to the distant past is the first temporal phenomenon in his poetry that will be discussed in this paper. His verse often incorporates historical events and locations, and the connections he creates between these and his lyrical persona are the subject of the subsequent chapter. In order to fully grasp the use of time and its many devices in Hardy's poems, these allusions to the historical past will help to demonstrate his utilisation of temporal connections in general and their contextual role in creating both a coherent, continual narrative and individual lyrical images within specific pieces of poetry. This chapter also serves to illustrate Hardy's strikingly varied use of different styles, rhyme schemes and meters and their diverse, connotative features.
Both poems in this chapter contain Roman imagery, a recurring subject of the author. He has written several poems referencing the Roman Empire, especially in his collection on travelling, aptly titled “Poems of Pilgrimage” (Hardy Collected Poems 91 ff.), wherein he ruminated on various prestigious places and their historical and personal significance.
1.1 The Roman Road
The first poem that will be analysed in detail can be found in the collection “Time's Laughingstock, and Other Verses,” (Hardy Collected Poems 175 ff.) published in 1909. It takes place in his native English countryside and references the ancient Roman road that runs by his home county Dorset, called Ridgeway (cf. Pinion Dictionary 158).
The Roman Road runs straight and bare
As the pale parting-line in hair
Across the heath. And thoughtful men
Contrast its days of Now and Then,
And delve, and measure, and compare;
Visioning on the vacant air
Helmeted legionnaires, who proudly rear
The Eagle, as they pace again
The Roman Road.
But no tall brass-helmeted legionnaire
Haunts it for me. Uprises there
A mother's form upon my ken,
Guiding my infant steps, as when
We walked that ancient thoroughfare,
The Roman Road.
(Hardy Collected Poems 248)
“The Roman Road” is a succinct piece of poetry with a simple but well- rounded rhyme scheme. The three stanzas all feature the recurring, prominent a end rhyme, forming the scheme of aabba aabc aabbac, with the titular road being the one word that is only rhymed with itself and thus stands out as a particular point of pause for the reader. A close resemblance to the historic rhyme scheme of the French fifteen-line rondeau cinquain, popularised in the 16th century, can be observed in the structure (cf. Fry 247 ff.). It inhabits this form's typical sequence of a quintet, a quatrain and a sestet with the exact same rhyme scheme and a special emphasis its emblematic rentrement, in this case referred to as c, the centrepiece of the poem: “The Roman Road” (cf. Wainwright 145). This close similarity to a rather obscure, medieval poetry form also works to reinforce the notion of a close contact between the historical motif of old traditions, and the personal present's openness toward recognising and adapting these relics to create new merits.
The images, firstly of the road itself and, secondly of the legionnaires using it, are vivid and resounding despite the use of straightforward language and terms. The first line has a continuous alliteration of three “r's”, which already metaphorically indicates a long and straight structure that might seem like it goes on forever, similar to the eponymous road. Following this tonal structure is the subsequent metaphor of a parting line of hair, a sharp image to illustrate this straight and bare structure (cf. 1). It also adds to the typically rural English heath as a focal point, to ground us in Hardy's native Dorset landscape, in spite of the more direct and exotic association with Roman times. It is furthermore believed that the poem's location is Egdon Heath, the oft-referenced, semi-fictional place that Hardy also mentioned in several of his novels and other works (cf. Morgan 151). In fact, the specific image of the straight, bare road, seeming like a parting-line of hair is itself also used in Hardy's The Return of the Native: “bisected that vast dark surface like the parting-line on a head of black hair.” (qtd. in Bailey Handbook 241)
With Egdon's potent intertextual and personal meaning regarding his childhood and own origins, it reinforces the strong connection the poet felt between the historical and the personal sense of past time. The heath and its spatial and visual tethering to his upbringing add a personal level to the otherwise rather objective and removed contents of the first stanza, which foreshadows the intimate, individual experiences that are shared in the last stanza. It also places us firmly in the British countryside and its murky, shallow landscape, while interweaving this thoroughly English image with the subsequent impressions of and ruminations on a bygone era and its purported glory in the next stanza.
The first mystery one stumbles upon is a reference to “thoughtful men” (3) and their activities in both contrasting the aforementioned present and past (cf. 4), and in delving, measuring and comparing (cf. 5). The former activity seems to mirror Hardy's own efforts. While he not directly, or merely, contrasts the present and the past, he does focus on both perspectives in a lot of his poetry. The mere mention of this contrast can itself be seen as explicitly self-referential in consideration of another poetry collection of his being titled “Poems of the Past and the Present” (Hardy Collected Poems 75 ff.). The detailed activities in line 5, on the other hand, are all very quantifiable, scientific activities, akin to the rigorous work of perfecting the form of a poem and editing thoughts into this structure. However, the tone of their introduction also invites a mocking, sarcastic reading of the poet persona's view on these thoughtful men. Be they historians, surveyors or archaeologists; their work is presented as insignificant and as repetitively pointless as the wording of their tasks.
This notion can also be read as the underlining of a personal statement by Hardy on his own view of how to cope with and address the past, both in poetic form and in personal thoughts on time. More specifically, this would mean that an individual and their personal memories would outrank the scientific temporal perspective of the historical past and are necessary to render history meaningful at all. However, a complete dismissal of the historical is also a flawed reading since Hardy's own knowledge and frequent mention of historical events and places would contradict a completely cynical disregard or contempt for history and its body of knowledge. Rather, the clear connection and relations between both the personal “Now” and the historical “Then” (4) seem to form the centre of the Roman Road.
“Now and Then” (4), consequently, is the overarching concern of the poem. The temporal complexity of a relation between the distant, historical past and a very personal, emotional memory is not only placing time in a very central and powerful position, it also illuminates the extreme variety that temporal perspectives and imagery can exhibit. The poet persona's memories are not directly connected to an ancient history, in fact his child persona was most likely not even aware of the Roman background that the road he travelled had. While both points of view are clearly referring to a kind of past, they could not be more different when contrasting them on other criteria. This more intimate, personal kind of past is explored in more detail in the second stanza.
In terms of form, this quatrain is the smallest and, in the scope of its contents, it could be argued that it is also the least significant. The infinite verb form that starts off these verses syntactically refers back to the “thoughtful men” (3), still leaving out a clear, personal point of view from the speaker while also linking the contents of stanzas one and two. The following imagery of an actual Roman procession and its details add to the objective, analytical tone of the thoughtful men and is simultaneously mining colourful minutiae from actual historical details (cf. 7, 8). The temporal connection here is the imagination of these aforementioned rational men, who are trying to recreate the past and thus actually become dreamers themselves. This juxtaposition of cold, measuring entities whose fantasies are sparked by historic facts consequently addresses another point of view on time. The closeness and irrationally intimate connection a scholar can develop with a subject he examines.
Yet, ultimately, this poem is not primarily about the thoughtful men. The third stanza makes it abundantly clear that the poet character, his memories and his point of view are the main focus of “The Roman Road”. The first verse of the last stanza already sets up this conclusion in changing the tone, from the previous glory of the Roman soldiers' procession to nothing but “tall brass-helmeted legionnaires” (10). Subsequently, the sentence's second half reveals theshift to a first person speaker's perspective (cf. 11). The poet persona now mocks the thoughtful men's obsession with these visions of the past, explicitly distancing his own character from this point of view (cf. 10, 11). This turn puts the previous verses into perspective. Everything said before now seems like an afterthought, as the reader is introduced to the speaker's true feelings on this Roman Road and its temporal link to his own identity and past.
While the stanzas one and two set the scene and paint the picture of a historic landscape and the ghosts that haunt it, the final stanza subverts these images and their significance by focussing in on the poet persona's own memories of walking the road with his mother. Both these temporal perspectives are important in the context of the whole poem, and by mentioning the historical imagery in such detail, Hardy still places a significant amount of thought and emphasis on the historical past, despite the refutative nature of the last stanza's opening sentence. This passage does not offer up any personal information yet. It does set the scene for a more confessional, intimate narrative by also banishing the grandiose image of Roman legionnaires to the first two stanzas and the specific temporal contrasting and connecting qualities they have with a historian's link to the ancient past.
Thus, there is a clear transition from the general, historical point of view to the specific, intimate memories of the poet character revealed right after. The way, in which Hardy describes the speaker's mother, presumably his own, in these lines, hulking over him (cf. 11) but benevolently guiding his child self (cf. 13), seems akin to a mythical creature or a superior being. The way she “uprises” (11) over him, he can only liken her to a mother's form, but the status she holds seems to be elevated from just a mother figure. Consequently, the memorised image of his guiding mother, a vision of the past, is placed above history and scientific time to represent the powerful personal, temporal image that can be created when the ancient thoroughfare meets the deeply personal memory realm. In order to not dismiss this former aspect of the whole poem, the poet persona returns to his recurring phrase “The Roman Road” (14) prefacing it with the literally temporal modifier “ancient” (13) and reminding the reader that both sides of this image are in fact what makes it so powerful.
In summation, the poem manages to convey a clear sense of two distinct temporal concepts that, only in their symbiotic relation, become more than mere images. While time is not personified or addressed outright, the emphasis and main focus throughout the text is on the meaning of specific moments under different temporal and emotional factors. Thus, the concept of time is allotted a major role within the narrative of the poem as the catalyst for a connection between human and historic mental images to create a cathartic, overarching moment. Under Hardy's overall output, this kind of moment can be described as a “moment of vision”, described as “times of flash-like insight when men [...] see into the life of things” by leading Hardy scholar J.O. Bailey (Handbook 340). Essential to this case of visionary insight seems to be the factor of different temporal representations amalgamating.
1.2 Rome: On The Palatine
The next poem is more explicit and detailed in its reflections on the historical past, while still being focussed on the Roman Empire from the outset. “The Roman Road” (Hardy Collected Poems 248), despite its imagery of centurions and legionnaires, was still deeply rooted in Hardy's British countryside home and memories. In “Rome: On The Palatine” (Hardy Collected Poems 93), on the other hand, Hardy leaves Wessex to talk of travel and Rome itself. Dated to the April of 1887, this poem also addresses a temporal link between two distinct points in history. However, in this instance the historical past is connected to the actual present life of Hardy.
This poem was published amongst others on the subject of Rome and different travel destinations in the aforementioned collection “Poems of the Past and the Present” (Hardy Collected Poems 75 ff.), emphasising the importance of this link between the two temporal perspectives in any new location. The section it is relegated to is therefore fittingly called “Poems of Pilgrimage” (Hardy Collected Poems 91 ff.). The eponymous Palatine is “[.] the largest of the seven hills of ancient Rome,” (Pinion Dictionary 35). This Palatine Hill with its ruins of the palaces of major Roman emperors Augustus, Tiberius, and Domitian (cf. Bownas 46) gives Hardy an even more lyrically potent, but also an exponentially more referentially removed view of the ancient past than his Roman Road ruminations.
We walked where Victor Jove was shrined awhile,
And passed to Livia's rich red mural show,
Whence, thridding cave and Criptoportico,
We gained Caligula's dissolving pile.
And each ranked ruin tended to beguile
The outer sense, and shape itself as though
It wore its marble hues, its pristine glow
Of scenic frieze and pompous peristyle.
When lo, swift hands, on strings nigh over-head,
Began to melodize a waltz by Strauss:
It stirred me as I stood, in Caesar's house,
Raised the old routs Imperial lyres had led,
And blended pulsing life with lives long done,
Till Time seemed fiction, Past and Present one.
(Hardy Collected Poems 93)
The stanza structure in this poem, at first glance, seems similar to that of a sonnet. Three quatrains are followed by a final couplet. However, the rhyming scheme differs from the English sonnet's. The first two stanzas already divert from the expected Shakespearean alternating rhymes and instead follow the Petrarchan sonnet's octave enclosing rhyme scheme, even in using the same end rhymes in both stanzas (cf. Fry 285). However, in the last quatrain, the abba echoed in the first two is abandoned and a new enclosing end rhyme cddc is added. This decision both abandons the Petrarchan structure and reintroduces an element of the English one. The mixing of both forms is then continued in the final couplet ee, usually a typical Shakespearean ending. However, a true Shakespearean sonnet would not repeat a rhyme in two stanzas, resulting in the differing final couplet being a gg. Thus, “Rome: On The Palatine” manages to hint at another, third sonnet structure, the Spenserian sonnet, wherein the final couplet is in fact an ee, completing the poem's overall structure to be abba abba cddc ee (cf. Wainwright 148).
With such a wild mixing of different traditional poetry forms, the reader is already thrown into a text with references to different time periods and different cultures, solely on a structural level. It also does not seem to be a coincidence that the Italian Petrarchan form is alluded to in verses explicitly about Rome and its history. It is not only the origin of Shakespeare's later lyrical accomplishments but also deeply connected to Italian literary history. Thus, we can already observe a temporal link between the Petrarchan 14th century, the Shakespearean and Spenserian 16th century and Hardy's own 19th century wherein he supposedly wrote the poem. In relation to the poem's content, it mirrors these clashes in the form of Hardy's real life visit to Rome, his deeply English character and close relation to the British literature in general, and subsequently this character being enveloped by the ancient ruins and generally thick, historic air of Rome. Therein, all three centuries are vaguely represented and wildly mix in Hardy's mind as well as in this poem's structure and content.
The first quatrain begins the narration richly filled with references to these ancient ruins. The use of the first person plural (cf. 1), on the other hand, indicates a less direct, removed experience, akin to a tourist group's retelling wherein Hardy observes the sights alongside several other foreign strangers in an anonymous fashion, both physically and emotionally. The first, obscure reference is to a long-lost temple for Jupiter Victor (cf. 1), whose existence is debatable, and whose prominence is mostly due to its literary mentions, among others, in Ovid (cf. Pinion Commentary 35). Nonetheless, the importance of this allusion, despite Ovid's relevance in regards to temporal perspectives, is questionable. As pointed out by Victoria Zimmerman, who gained insight into Hardy's own copy of the Rome Baedeker travel guide and according to his notes therein, it traces the same route of these four sights mentioned in the first stanza (cf. 73). Zimmerman goes on to argue that Hardy might have actually lifted these details from the guide itself later on rather than directly writing them from his own experiences, thus diminishing their import and subtextual relevance.
Yet, the notes he himself added to the guide indicate that Hardy must in fact have visited these sights at some point, albeit not in relation to the sights mentioned in this poem (cf. Zimmerman 73). Nevertheless, these references all fulfil their purpose in bringing the reader into the perspective of an outsider observing these monuments, ripe with history and notions of various centuries' past. As previously observed in “The Roman Road” (Hardy Collected Poems 248), Hardy once again starts by painting a broad picture of a colourful, ancient past, to then focus in on more personal, pointed observations. However, the second quatrain takes its time to execute this manoeuvre by just getting rid of the inclusive pronoun and focussing on the experience itself of seeing these objects, steeped in history (cf. 5 ff.). In personifying these artefacts by adding similes of movement and action to ancient objects, the poet persona adds meaning to the superficial nature of his observations from the first quatrain. The emphasis he puts on his outer senses being stimulated nonetheless also indicates the shallower layer of his reflections in this point of the poem.
The shift in the third quatrain is subsequently introduced abruptly. By beginning with a temporal indicator, a sense of immediacy is created. The feeling of a change right at the moment when the poet character muses on the past is boosted by the exclamatory term “lo” (9), which indicates that the reader now follows the narrator into a more direct and personal telling. He stops in his tracks and is taken out of the ancient past and into the immediate present, albeit told in past tense (cf. 9 ff.). The reason for this abrupt change is revealed right after in the form of personified hands playing a Strauss waltz (cf. 10). The absence of another individual playing the instrument adds to the ghostly atmosphere Hardy creates in this stanza. Strauss also introduces another temporal and cultural layer to the proceedings, with him and his works' origins located far away from either Roman or Hardy's geographical and cultural background. Focus is then centralised on the poet persona's point of view with a colon ending this first sentence and introducing the second (cf. 10), just as the waltz shifts the tone from mere touristic observation to a more substantial directness.
The second sentence of the third quatrain manages to change the tone and focus of the narrative even more by introducing the first person singular for the first time, and by bringing the reader as close to the train of thought of the speaker as possible (cf. 11). Under a temporal perspective, this change seems to make time stop at once and let go of a chronically told narrative with the temporal indicators “When” and “swift” (9). The reader is now deeply settled in the mind of the narrator. The poet character himself also seems to have a passively incorporated point of view within the proceedings. By saying that the music “stirred” him as he “stood” (11), instead of having him be stirred by his own reaction, the experience does not leave him any agency and he seems frozenly out of body in the process. He is overcome by the transcendental portal of Strauss's waltz that connects him firmly with his surroundings, “Caesar's house” (11), and both historical figures' long-gone, glorious moments in time. While the waltz is not musically associated with the “Imperial lyres” (12), ringing back from centuries' passed, they still connect to create an imaginary temporal vortex wherein he can see the past being raised back to life.
The final couplet makes this extraordinary event even more grandiose by remaining syntactically dependent on the waltz and the hands that play it. Meanwhile, the poem also has this musical image act as the impetus that actively blends the two timelines, of present life and its pulsing nature, and, not just the vision of the past, but in fact actual “lives long gone” (13). This occurrence and its extraordinary nature are reinforced in the last line, wherein the poet persona is compelled to characterise the capitalised concept of time as fiction and specify further that both the “Past and Present” (14) seemed to fall under this spell. Yet, the use of “Till” (14) indicates a process and a persevering temporal structure, albeit minute and subordinated. Even in this epiphany, whose supposed goal is to transcend time personified and its forces, a temporal progression can still be observed. Thus, Hardy seems to have found a more successful, or at least a more realistic approach in facing time. Instead of trying to defeat or abandon the inevitable and omnipresent nature of the concept, the poet character achieves a special temporal connection in this couplet, praised by Ian Ousby as “[...]a rapt and ecstatic communion with even the remotest past.” (55)
Though, therein Ousby neglects to mention the similarly rapt connection that precedes this final communion. The Strauss waltz that created the finale of the poem in the first place is effectively a third temporal factor and active agent in forming this connection. While time is never subdued or defeated, the flurry of rather different but all very human achievements and creations that span centuries but still survive to remain as vivid as in their inception, make the more grim aspects of time seem insignificant in comparison. Its ravaging nature, while effectively still as strong as ever, is forgotten for a moment. In this approach, Hardy manages to come close to a satisfying treatment of the insurmountable horrors of time. While he does antagonise the concept and its devastations on occasion, he never claims to have a simple solution for conquering or overthrowing it. Instead he offers solace in small increments by creating works that detail a momentary transcendence from time's negative aspects. This very human and practical take on such a ubiquitous and complicated issue seems to fit in with Hardy's clear and approachable way of writing as well.
The reoccurrence of evidence for a moment of vision is also apparent in this work. It is obvious in the minute yet central point in time where the poet character makes the complex connection through distinct temporal, cultural images and their corresponding associations. However, this poem exhibits various other temporal devices and connotations outside this central moment. It also incorporates three distinct elements into the scenario to combine them before detailing the event, as opposed to the duality of the visionary moment in “The Roman Road” (Hardy Collected Poems 248). Thus, it can be ascertained that, while the previously discussed intersection of different elements creates a specific moment to be the focal point of the poem, the versatile and indispensable nature of temporal instrumentality is, in fact itself the most pervasive and overarching motif throughout “Rome: On The Palatine's” (Hardy Collected Poems 93) various layers of meaning, surpassing even this moment of vision's centrality in import.
2 Nature and Natural Imagery Conceptualised through Temporal Processes
A significant factor when discussing the influence of time in poetry in general is the concept of nature. Both subjects pervade most poetry collections thanks to their universal qualities, especially in the Romantic period's elevated appreciation of natural imagery. The perceived innocence and beauty in nature has to be taken into account when evaluating Hardy's examination of this subject. However, he was also actively involved in the subversion and challenge of these norms during the turn of the century, as well as in the contemporary scientific developments and the general shift in aesthetics therein. Therefore, lots of his poems discuss nature and its intersections with temporal processes and imagery in diverging manners. This chapter will discuss two of these poems in detail, to examine the mindset with which Hardy perceives their relations and what conclusions he might have come to regarding their significance for humanity. Consequently, the results of this examination will also grant us insight into Hardy's perceived role of time in his worldview.
2.1 The Last Chrysanthemum
The first poem in this chapter is called “The Last Chrysanthemum” (Hardy Collected Poems 136) and was published in the collection “Poems of the Past and the Present” (Hardy C ollected Poems 91 ff.) in the section “Miscellaneous Poems” (Hardy Collected Poems 10 ff.) where a lot of Hardy's most discussed and lauded poems were included. Situated right before the seminal poem “The Darkling Thrush”, which is the second poem discussed in this chapter, “The Last Chrysanthemum” is often overlooked when combing through Hardy's various lyrical works. Yet, the way in which Hardy approaches this plant's untimely behaviour and its wider implications for nature's temporal processes can offer great insights into his views on time and nature as essential concepts for poetry. As William H. Pritchard notes in his critical essay “Hardy's Winter Words”: “[...] it is not surprising that when Hardy chose to write about a flower he would find one that came too late, had no business being there at all, and was in for a hard season of shivering.” (54)
Why should this flower delay so long
To show its tremulous plumes?
Now is the time of plaintive robin-song, When flowers are in their tombs.
Through the slow summer, when the sun
Called to each frond and whorl
That all he could for flowers was being done,
Why did it not uncurl?
It must have felt that fervid call
Although it took no heed,
Waking but now, when leaves like corpses fall,
And saps all retrocede.
Too late its beauty, lonely thing,
The season's shine is spent,
Nothing remains for it but shivering
In tempests turbulent.
Had it a reason for delay,
Dreaming in witlessness
That for a bloom so delicately gay
Winter would stay its stress?
- I talk as if the thing were born
With sense to work its mind;
Yet it is but one mask of many worn
By the Great Face behind.
(Hardy Collected Poems 136)
The whole poem thoroughly follows an alternating rhyme scheme wherein each stanza contains two unique end rhymes, resulting in the overall structure abab cdcd efef ghgh ijij klkl. The almost monotonous base structure is infused with a sense of novelty due to the diverse end rhymes the reader encounters from stanza to stanza. The naturalistic themes are mirrored in the picturesque language used to describe the eponymous flora. In addition, the alternating structure can also be observed in the length of each line whose repeated rotation is further indicated by indentations in every other line throughout the poem. This structure motivates the reader to recognise each half-stanza as a complete thought, which is reinforced by the metric and textual pause every indented line ends on. Each of these groupings flow into one another thanks to the overarching, alternating rhyme structure and give the reader a similarly easy progression through the poem despite its many pauses.
The poem starts with the causal “why” (1), which immediately introduces an inquisitive, uncertain narrator perspective. The use of a temporal verb can also be observed in the first line. The whole phrase, “delay so long” (1), even follows it up with another temporal adverb that indicates impatience and confusion. The chrysanthemum is first referred to as “this flower” (1), leaving no room for a romantic introduction of its characteristics of beauty and form. The divergence in diction from floral terms to other, more general or fauna-related words also indicate a certain removal from the conventional, contemporary usage of grandiosely romanticised imagery of flowers.