HARDY STILL MOVES ME
I remember long ago, being given by a teacher, Donald Davie, two elegies for Algernon Charles Swinburne, and being asked to determine which was the better poem. One was by Ezra Pound: SALVE O PONTIFEX!: To Swinburne; an hemichaunt. The other was by Thomas Hardy: A SINGER ASLEEP (Algernon Charles Swinburne, 1837-1909). One thing I remember is the graduate students (I was an undergrad then) protesting that they had never been trained or asked to argue the merits of one poem over another. The other is that there was just, clearly, no question. The Pound poem is overwritten, bombastic, and just very very young. Still, lyrically, there are some things to recommend Pound's poem, and I wouldn't discourage anyone from reading it. But the Hardy poem is terrific, as is much of his work, which I knew nothing at all about before that exercise.
Since I haven't done a lot of blogging this week (just the Linh Dinh note), I thought I'd put the Hardy poem here. You'll have to find the Pound poem for yourself (it begins on p. 40 of Collected Early Poems of Ezra Pound, pub. New Directions in 1976). Hardy's not so much talked about as one of the great poets, but to me, he is — particularly of that time that might be considered just before modernism. And in some ways, his poems predict that modernism more than the earliest poems of Pound or the contemporary poems of Yeats. Here's the Hardy poem.
A SINGER ASLEEP
(Algernon Charles Swinburne, 1837-1909)
In this fair niche above the unslumbering sea,
That sentrys up and down all night, all day,
From cove to promontory, from ness to bay,
The Fates have fitly bidden that he should be
- It was as though a garland of red roses
Had fallen about the hood of some smug nun
When irresponsibly dropped as from the sun,
In fulth of numbers freaked with musical closes,
Upon Victoria's formal middle time
His leaves of rhythm and rhyme.
O that far morning of a summer day
When, down a terraced street whose pavements lay
Glassing the sunshine into my bent eyes,
I walked and read with a quick glad surprise
New words, in classic guise, -
The passionate pages of his earlier years,
Fraught with hot sighs, sad laughters, kisses, tears;
Fresh-fluted notes, yet from a minstrel who
Blew them not naively, but as one who knew
Full well why thus he blew.
I still can hear the brabble and the roar
At those thy tunes, O still one, now passed through
That fitful fire of tongues then entered new!
Their power is spent like spindrift on this shore;
Thine swells yet more and more.
- His singing-mistress verily was no other
Than she the Lesbian, she the music-mother
Of all the tribe that feel in melodies;
Who leapt, love-anguished, from the Leucadian steep
Into the rambling world-encircling deep
Which hides her where none sees.
And one can hold in thought that nightly here
His phantom may draw down to the water's brim,
And hers come up to meet it, as a dim
Lone shine upon the heaving hydrosphere,
And mariners wonder as they traverse near,
Unknowing of her and him.
One dreams him sighing to her spectral form:
"O teacher, where lies hid thy burning line;
Where are those songs, O poetess divine
Whose very arts are love incarnadine?"
And her smile back: "Disciple true and warm,
Sufficient now are thine." . . .
So here, beneath the waking constellations,
Where the waves peal their everlasting strains,
And their dull subterrene reverberations
Shake him when storms make mountains of their plains -
Him once their peer in sad improvisations,
And deft as wind to cleave their frothy manes -
I leave him, while the daylight gleam declines
Upon the capes and chines.