Thursday, February 25, 2021

At Castle Boterel


At Castle Boterel

As I drive to the junction of lane and highway,
  And the drizzle bedrenches the waggonette,
I look behind at the fading byway,
  And see on its slope, now glistening wet,
    Distinctly yet

Myself and a girlish form benighted
  In dry March weather. We climb the road
Beside a chaise. We had just alighted
  To ease the sturdy pony's load
    When he sighed and slowed.

What we did as we climbed, and what we talked of
  Matters not much, nor to what it led,--
Something that life will not be balked of
  Without rude reason till hope is dead,
    And feeling fled.

It filled but a minute. But was there ever
  A time of such quality, since or before,
In that hill's story? To one mind never,
  Though it has been climbed, foot-swift, foot-sore
    By thousands more.

Primaeval rocks form the road's steep border,
  And much have they faced there, first and last,
Of the transitory in Earth's long order;
  But what they record in colour and cast
    Is--that we two passed.

And to me, though Time's unflinching rigour,
  In mindless rote, has ruled from sight
The substance now, one phantom figure
  Remains on the slope, as when that night
    Saw us alight.

I look and see it there, shrinking, shrinking,
  I look back at it amid the rain
For the very last time; for my sand is sinking,
  And I shall traverse old love's domain
    Never again.

In March of 1913, Thomas Hardy took a trip to Cornwall and visited the places he'd been with his first wife, Emma, when they were young. Emma had died the previous year, and while the marriage had been difficult, it would seem there had been at least some good times in it. (Whatever it was that filled but a minute...) Castle Boterel (Cornish: Kastel Boterel; English, Boscastle) is a picturesque fishing village on the northern Cornish coast. 

This is probably standing in for anything I might say of Shirley Hazzard's The Transit of Venus, which I read recently. The novel takes place among a set that read and quote poetry: Kipling, Yeats, Nicanor Parra, Beaumont and Fletcher, Hardy. Caroline Bell reads the stanza that begins 'Primaeval rocks...' to her husband Adam, and weeps. The novel is pretty great, subtle, with intricate, half-hidden plotting, and I'm probably not up to writing about it. Francis Steegmuller, the novelist and Flaubert scholar, wrote, "No one should have to read The Transit of Venus for the first time." But since he was Shirley Hazzard's husband, he may very well have been the only one who didn't have to.

But how about that Ted Tice? I'm not sure whether that's romantic or excessively heroic torch-carrying.


  1. good poem i guess, but sort of egoistic in a way that rankles my feelers... but i have felt that way about most of the Hardy i've read except Desperate Remedies. maybe i'm the one that's over-egoistic...

    1. It's true: you wouldn't really know anything about Emma from that.

  2. I always forget what beautiful poetry Hardy wrote until I read another one of his poems.

    1. He really is pretty good. A bit of a gloom-puppy, and egotist (see above), but still...

  3. Haha What a curious comment to make about your spouse's novel!

    1. It is, isn't it? I found it out of context, but I suspect he was joking. At least I think I hope so! But it is true, to know what happens at the end you really do need to remember several clues from earlier in the book.

  4. He may not have been able to think of much good to say about her. Theirs belonged with the very worst nightmare marriages of English literature: Eliot, Coleridge, Byron, I think, though I really know little about this last. As I think is usually true of failed marriages, both Hardy and she were about equally innocent victims of their own youthful innocence, realizing too late how disastrously wrong they were for each other, and at the time, of course, that really did mean too late. Like most readers, I think, I find the vast majority of Hardy's poetry poor to truly awful (having diligently read all if it in a period of enthusiasm), but love a few of the small handful that have been deemed worthy of anthologization, like this one, which I don't much like. I find him deeply unmusical, and have to suspect that his fascination with complex metres and stanzas was a familiar kind of compensatory obsession with a conscious deficiency. I suppose it must just be my nasty, dirty mind that has always made "It filled but a minute" one of Hardy's moments of unintentional hilarity for me, like "As soon as your trunks were down" in another poem from this same elegiac series.

    1. It really seems like he liked Emma better after she was dead. Which doesn't necessarily say that much for Hardy. But I'm not too well up on the details.

      I don't really know Hardy's poetry very well, though I'm up on his novels, but I've liked the poems I've read, including this one. I'm assuming Hardy is being--as he often was--darkly ironic with 'filled but a minute.' It was probably just a kiss; they *were* Victorians. But I have to assume that even a Victorian reader might wonder if she was up against a tree with her knickers around her ankles and that Hardy liked the fact that he was crossing boundaries. Anyway, I'm giving him credit for it being intentional.