Skip to 0 minutes and 8 seconds ‘Women much missed, how you called to me, called to me, saying that now you are not as you were when you were changed from the one who was all to me, but as at first when our day was fair. Can it be you that I hear? Let me view, you, then standing as when I drew near to the town where you would wait for me, yes, as I knew you then even to the original air-blue gown! Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness travelling across the wet mead to me here, you being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness, heard no more again far or near?
Skip to 0 minutes and 51 seconds Thus I, faltering forward, leaves around me falling, wind oozing thin through the thorn from norwoord, and the woman calling’. So Jonathan, the other poet you’ve chosen for this week is Thomas Hardy. Can you talk us through the context of ‘The Voice’? Yeah, indeed. So Thomas Hardy we’re a generation after Wordsworth and Victorian period. Hardy trained to be an architect and to do church restorations. And as a young man, he went down to Cornwall to the West Country to restore a church and fell in love with the vicar’s daughter, fell in love with a local girl, Emma, she was called Emma Gifford. Wonderful early Hardy novel called A Pair of Blue Eyes that tells that story. They married.
Skip to 1 minute and 43 seconds They moved to his home in Dorchester, Max Gate. But they never had children, and they grew increasingly estranged. She, I think, was something of a depressive. She spent more and more time sort of alone in the attic. Hardy started seeing other women. They drifted apart. She died. And then of course, he was struck by tremendous guilt. He found a notebook of her’s in the attic which began, ‘When I think about my husband’ and he began to see the terrible pain that he had caused her through the disintegration of this marriage. And he thought in order to deal with that, he should go back to Cornwall, back to North Cornwall where he first met her.
Skip to 2 minutes and 27 seconds And so he revisits all the places associated with their courtship. And he writes a sequence of poems in the years 1912 to 1913. He’s quite an old man by then. And they’re subsequently published ‘Poems 1912-13’. These revisiting’s of the scenes of his love for the woman that he’s betrayed and then lost. And they are a way of dealing with his guilt, a way of bringing back the happy emotions, and a way of moving on. And the one from the sequence that I’ve chosen is called ‘The Voice’ and the voice that he hears, as if on the wind on that windswept Cornish coast, is the ghostly voice of his lost love.
Skip to 3 minutes and 14 seconds And there’s a wonderful sort of sense of ghostliness about the writing. These words like ‘wistlessness’ that he uses, and that marvellous image of the sort of semi-invisible, almost ghost-like sort of grey, bluey gown that she was wearing when he first courted her. The memory is there, but there’s a sense in which she’s become a disembodied voice. Personally, I don’t believe in ghosts. But there’s a sense in which those we have loved and lost do come back to us and they haunt us in our dreams, in our daydreams. And this, to me, is a poem that wonderfully captures her. And then at the end there’s a stylistic change.
Skip to 3 minutes and 59 seconds Having had this rather lyrical evocation of the lost wife, he then sort of deliberately stumbles in the writing. ‘Thus I’ he said, ‘stumbling forward’, and he realises there’s nothing there but the wind and the empty landscape. It’s desperately sad. It’s a very sad poem. ‘Women much missed, you call to me’ I mean, it’s a beautiful, evocative… Because you know she is never coming back. And I mean, there is a sense in which we do need to ask ourselves whether reading a poem like this might actually make you feel worse rather than better when you’re going through the experience of grief or bereavement. But I think I’m always a bit of a believer that emotion is always better out than in.
Skip to 4 minutes and 43 seconds And by sharing the emotion that the poet is feeling and managing to put into words, and managing to shape, to organise into words, to give some kind of order to the chaos of his feelings, through that act of sharing, there can be a kind of expiation, a kind of letting go. Which as far as I’m concerned, is very healthy as a way of dealing with grief. And if I think of my own experience, I mean, my father died when I was 20. It’s not quite as hard as Wordsworth, the father dying at 13.
Skip to 5 minutes and 16 seconds But for me, particularly as a young man who read a lot of poetry, it was incredibly helpful reading these poems by Wordsworth, by Hardy, knowing that there is a process of grieving we go through, that others have been through it. But also that that process of remembering and sort of keeping alive the loved one can be assisted through the act of writing. And indeed that inspired me to start writing poetry myself. And I’ve never actually published, well, that’s not true, actually, I did publish one poem about my father’s death. I’ve generally not published my poetry. And in a way that doesn’t matter, whether you publish it or not.
Skip to 5 minutes and 53 seconds But for me, poetry is a way of ordering hard feelings, difficult feelings, painful feelings, and keeping memory alive. We’ve talked time and time again about the feeling of I am not alone. One of the reasons why people read and write poetry, or particularly to read poetry is to feel not alone. That’s what I think, and that’s what I feel, but I don’t have those words. And the great poets like Wordsworth and Hardy are able to frame those feelings, emotions in a way that makes sense. But also the sense that through the ages, people have felt like this and will carry on feeling like it can offer comfort. Would you agree? Absolutely.
Skip to 6 minutes and 36 seconds One of my favourite phrases ever used about poetry, something John Keats says, where he says, ‘A great poem should strike us as a wording of our own highest thoughts and almost a remembrance’. It’s as if we read something and we say, yes, that’s the best expressed, the best imaginable version of my own best thoughts. It’s a remembrance of my own feelings. But I wasn’t able to articulate it. The poet was.
'The Voice' by Thomas Hardy
We’re now going to look together at another poem of loss, this time written by the 19th and 20th century writer Thomas Hardy.
‘The Voice’ is one of Hardy’s ‘Poems of 1912-13’, which forms part of his 1914 collection Satires of Circumstance. The poem was written following the death of his estranged wife, Emma, in 1912. The poem describes the longing we might feel to hear again the voice of a lost loved one, and suggests that this longing might even delude our senses: can Hardy’s speaker hear the woman’s voice, or is it just the sound of the wind? We can also identify in this poem a sense of regret, and of nostalgia for a happier time when their ‘day’ was still ‘fair’.
Regret, guilt, confusion, longing and nostalgia are all emotions that might be experienced following a bereavement and, in articulating these emotions, a poem like Hardy’s might help us to understand and accept these feelings in ourselves.
Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.
Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!
Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?
Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.
Thomas Hardy (1840–1928)