Stand at the grave's head
Of any common
Man or woman,
Thomas Hardy said,
And in the silence
What they were,
Their life, becomes a poem.
And so with my dead,
As I know them
Now, in his
And wait for, yet a while hence,
My own silence.
F. T. Prince, Collected Poems: 1935-1992 (The Sheep Meadow Press 1993).
Here is the lovely inspiration for Prince's poem:
"The most prosaic man becomes a poem when you stand by his grave at his funeral and think of him."
Thomas Hardy, notebook entry for May 29, 1872, in Richard Taylor (editor), The Personal Notebooks of Thomas Hardy (Macmillan 1978).
I'm surprised that Prince uses "common" rather than Hardy's "prosaic": the transition from "prosaic" to "poem" is wonderful. I'd wager that Hardy would have described himself as prosaic. Aren't we all? And "common" as well. Anyone who thinks otherwise hasn't faced the facts.
James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998), "Midsummer, East Fife" (1936)
The following passage perhaps provides a roundabout instance of what Hardy has in mind.
Thus did he speak. "I see around me here
Things which you cannot see: we die, my Friend,
Nor we alone, but that which each man loved
And prized in his peculiar nook of earth
Dies with him, or is changed; and very soon
Even of the good is no memorial left."
William Wordsworth, "Book First: The Wanderer," lines 469-474, The Excursion, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume V (Oxford University Press 1949), page 24.
The lines are spoken by "the Wanderer." "The Author" has found him drowsing in the sun, "the shadows of the breezy elms above/Dappling his face." Ibid, lines 440-441. The Excursion is a diffuse poem, with a tendency towards the long-winded, but one of the things that Wordsworth may be getting at is that we all have it in us to live, like the Wanderer, in our own "peculiar nook of earth." But does that nook indeed die with us? Is there "no memorial left" of how we have lived?
Hardy suggests that each of us ("prosaic" though we are), together with our peculiar nook, becomes a poem. It certainly seems that way when the departed return to visit us. A sentimental notion, I concede. But I have no quarrel with sentimentality.
James McIntosh Patrick, "A Castle in Scotland"
I suspect that the subject matter of this post may be traceable to the fact that I have been visiting Thomas Hardy's poetry over the past few weeks. As I have noted in the past, communings with the departed are a matter-of-fact occurrence in Hardy's poetry. Things are seen out of the corner of one's eye. There are tappings on windows and whispers in the boughs of trees. But these signals are never a cause for alarm. Hardy -- sunk in the past as he was -- treats them as commonplaces. Who does not think of the dead? And who's to say they are not thinking of us?
Hardy admired the poetry of Charlotte Mew, and he, along with others, helped procure a Civil List Pension for her when she was in financial straits. The departed are plentiful in her poetry as well.
Here Lies a Prisoner
Leave him: he's quiet enough: and what matter
Out of his body or in, you can scatter
The frozen breath of his silenced soul, of his outraged soul to the winds
Quieter now than he used to be, but listening still to the magpie chatter
Over his grave.
Charlotte Mew, Complete Poems (edited by John Newton) (Penguin 2000).
James McIntosh Patrick, "Downie Mill" (1962)
In the end, we all return to silence, don't we?
The Best Thing to Say
The best thing to say is nothing
And that I do not say,
But I will say it, when I lie
In silence all the day.
C. H. Sisson, Collected Poems (Carcanet 1998).
"The Best Thing to Say" is one of Sisson's harrowing final poems, a selection of which appeared here five years ago. He doesn't present a pretty picture. Thus, it falls upon Thomas Hardy -- the purported "pessimist" -- to provide us with hope. Yes, each of us returns to silence. But we each become a poem.
James McIntosh Patrick, "Braes o' Lundie"