“Em, Em – don’t you know me?” Thomas Hardy and his ‘Woman much missed’

11th May 2016 at 18:34

Subject Genius, Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy and his ‘Woman much missed’

“Goodness! You’re quite hard on him, aren’t you?”

A colleague had asked if she could observe my teaching of Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Voice’. She was planning to revise this poem with her class in the near future and wanted to see some different approaches. I always enjoy delivering this poem - it’s usually the one I teach first in Year 10 - and I was thus quite happy to have another set of eyes on some well-worn material.

I was, therefore, quite surprised at the strength of her response.

“You really got the class whipped up against him! Don’t you can see the romance in what he is doing in the Poems of 1912-1913? You’re being very unfair on him””

I’ve been pondering her words ever since - am I too tough on Thomas Hardy? This is, after all, a writer who never seemed happy unless he could be unhappy? A poet obsessed with a nostalgic view of a world that never really existed? A man who only really seemed to fall in love with his wife after her death . . .

As a quick recap for those unfamiliar with the context, Thomas Hardy and Emma Gifford married in 1874 and seem to have had quite an unhappy relationship. Certainly, by the time of her death, thirty-eight years later (when Hardy was already in a relationship with the woman who would become the Second Mrs Hardy), there was little love lost between them. This can be no better seen, perhaps, than after her death, Hardy coming across his wife’s manuscript: ‘What I Think of My Husband’ and finding the contents so upsetting, he burnt them in the fire.

However, something extraordinary then happens.

In the months following her death, we see a huge outpouring of poetical grief which, arguably, stands the test of time as some of Hardy’s greatest work. Certainly, the Poems of 1912-1913 are ones that live long in the memory: ‘The Voice’ and ‘The Going’ feature prominently in the CIE IGCSE poetry collection alongside other, similarly wistful, poems to Emma such as ‘During Wind and Rain’, ‘On the Departure Platform’ and ‘At the Word ‘Farewell’’. Indeed, when we consider lines such as ‘woman much missed’ (‘The Voice’), ‘Why do you make me leave the house/ And think for a breath it is you I see?’ (‘The Going’) and ‘She left me’ (‘On the Departure Platform’) we can clearly see the aching, overwhelming pain for a lost love.

And yet . . . And yet . . . And yet . . .

For me, I feel we should never forget that the context of these lines is that they are composed  following Emma’s death. It is her death that makes this emotion arise - rather than the life of the woman herself. It is certainly not easy to find the intense love and need for his wife - as expressed in these latter works - in the poems he composes whilst she is alive. I always draw my pupils’ attention to the rather bleak ‘Neutral Tones’ which Hardy gave to Emma at the beginning of their relationship (it is not, crucially, about Emma, but I think it is noteworthy he chooses to present it to her). In this poem, Hardy discusses the end of a relationship in quite stark terms - describing the ‘smile’ on the woman’s face as ‘the deadest thing’ and that the sun itself lacks spark or energy due to the overwhelming sadness brought by break-up.

Hardly a romantic love poem to dedicate to your future wife!

Furthermore, in ‘The Going’, Hardy looks back on a positive moment in their relationship:

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.

We cannot help but be touched by the beauty of this description - an image he returns to in several other of the Poems of 1912-1913. (I teach ‘Beeny Cliff’ as an extension poem so the class can see how the images are consistently echoed across the ‘Emma’ poems). However, this elegiac image is immediately soured by the following lines:

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?

It is the word  ‘vanishing’ which, I think, lies at the heart of my distaste for much of Hardy’s poetry about Emma. The vast majority of these works seem to me to view her ‘leaving’ as an act of aggression - as if, in some way, her death was a, winning, strategic move. If we look at ‘The Voice’ - the poem where it was felt to be being very ‘hard’ on Hardy - I cannot seem to look past the accusatory tone that the poet seems to adopt. When he asks for Emma to: ‘Let me view you’, there seems to be the sense that she is withholding herself from him. Here, and elsewhere in the collection, Hardy seems to accuse her for leaving him. Chiding her for choosing to die.

Subject Genius, Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy and his ‘Woman much missed’

My students become particularly infuriated with Hardy when we study the poem: ‘Nobody Comes’. In this poem, Hardy bemoans his loneliness whilst he awaits the arrival of his second wife, Florence, who has been at hospital appointment. The poem is filled with stark metaphors of painful isolation; Hardy, as in ‘The Darkling Thrush’, is to be found ‘mute by the gate … stand[ing] again alone /And nobody pulls up there.’ The key issue is that Hardy only seems to appreciate Florence when she is not there, in much as the same way as he react to Emma’s death. (it goes without saying, Florence Hardy was not overjoyed that the first few years of her marriage were spent with her husband writing poem after poem to his late wife!)

Interestingly, I think it is the final words of Hardy to Emma - “Em, Em - don’t you know me?” - which best expresses why I find Hardy’s ‘Emma’ poetry so self-indulgent. At the very end of Emma’s life, his most important question is all about him . . .


Robert Frost teaches English at a school in London. You can follow him on Twitter at (@stoppingfrost).