As is usual with Claire Tomalin biographies this is a wonderful evocation of a life. She deals with Hardy’s complexity both as a man and a writer without ever being judgemental. It is hard to reconcile the man who wrote to Rider Haggard, ‘sympathy with you both in your bereavement. Though, to be candid, I think the death of a child is never to be regretted, when one reflects on what he has escaped.’ with the man who wrote such wonderful poetry in mourning of his first wife. Emma Hardy is a fascinating character in her own right and one who it seems has been unfairly demonised throughout the years, Tomalin writes that ‘she had many faults, but her courage was unflinching and she remained stoic.’
I first studied Hardy years ago when I was studying for my English Literature O’level, The Mayor of Casterbridge as well as his Selected Poems. I had a wonderful teacher called Mrs Sampson, who was probably Hardy’s biggest fan, but I didn’t appreciate his writing. She also taught me for my A’Level Literature, when we studied Tess of the D’Urbervilles and took us all to Dorchester to see Hardy’s birthplace at Bockhampton as well as Maxgate. I was just too young to appreciate Hardy’s writings and so she had a hard time convincing us of his merit. I came to appreciate Hardy’s novels in my twenties and his poetry, which I feel is greater than his novels, in my thirties, so Mrs Sampson, I am so sorry, you were right Hardy is one of the great English writers.
Tomalin’s biography had me searching on the net for this poem, which Hardy wrote in reminiscence of his visit to the churchyard the day before his friend Horace Moule’s funeral (Moule was a depressive who committed suicide):
Before My Friend Arrived
I sat on the eve-lit weir,
Which gurgled in sobs and sighs;
I looked across the meadows near
To the towered church on the rise.
Overmuch cause had my look!
I pulled out pencil and book,
And drew a white chalk mound,
Outthrown on the sepulchred ground.
Why did I pencil that chalk?
It was fetched from the waiting grave,
And would return there soon,
Of one who had stilled his walk
And sought oblivion’s cave.
He was to come on the morrow noon
And take a good rest in the bed so hewn.
He came, and there he is now, although
This was a wondrous while ago.
And the sun still dons a ruddy dye;
The weir still gurgles nigh;
The tower is dark on the sky.