It’s 150 years since arguably one the most significant events in English literature. It wasn’t the writing of a book or a new play, or the birth or death of a great writer. It wasn’t a war, revolution or natural disaster. It wasn’t some political upheaval or historical phenomenon, either. Instead it was the visit of a junior Dorset architect to a small and insignificant Cornish parish church.
But what Thomas Hardy, assistant to George Crickmay of Weymouth, got was far more than a contract for restoring the church of St Juliot. He got a wife, a long and difficult marriage and the inspiration for some of the greatest love poems ever written in the English language.
Hardy’s Veteris Vestigia Flammae (Remnants of an Old Flame) was published to widespread indifference just three months after the outbreak of the Great War. The reading public clearly had other things to think about. But the story of these remarkable poems begins four decades earlier, in 1870 (March 7th to be precise), when Hardy travelled on business to a remote spot on the north Cornish coast.
The door of the St Juliot rectory was opened to him by the rector’s sister-in-law, Emma Gifford. The rector himself was in bed with gout and his wife was upstairs at his bedside.
So Hardy and Emma sat and talked. And when Emma discovered Hardy had a novel in the hands of a London publisher and another one in progress, she was entranced. She had literary ambitions of her own.
For his part, Hardy wrote that he would like nothing more than to “walk the world” with this spirited and vivacious woman. He returned to Dorset, as he wrote, with “magic” in his eyes.
Their four-year courtship was hindered by the distance separating them. It took four changes of train – a “knight’s move” as Emma called it – for Hardy to get from Dorset to Cornwall.
But by far the greatest gulf between them was social. Emma was Hardy’s superior. Her family objected to the marriage.
Nevertheless, in September 1874 they were wed at St Peter’s Church, Paddington, and their 38 years of married life began.
After a honeymoon in France, they settled in London. It was, perhaps, the first sign of strain in their long relationship. In Cornwall, Emma had loved nothing more than riding her horse with the wind in her hair, a scene vividly described by Hardy in his poem The Phantom Horsewoman. But life in London as the wife of a successful novelist, which Hardy soon became, offered few comforts for Emma. And she felt her own literary ambitions were being suffocated by her husband’s growing status.
A move, in 1885, to Dorset, to a house (Max Gate) that Hardy had designed himself, did not help matters. The two gradually became estranged, and eventually Emma took to the attic like a latter-day Mrs Rochester. Although living under the same roof, holidaying with one another and even at times going out cycling together, their marriage was soon, to all intents and purposes, over.
Emma died unexpectedly on November 27th, 1912. Her maid went to the attic room but was unable to wake her. Hardy was sent for. “Em, Em,” he whispered as he knelt at her bedside. “It’s me, Tom.” But she seems not to have heard him.
Hardy always had a penchant for the romantic backward glance. It dates back to his youth, to girls like Elizabeth-Lizbie-Browne, the “bay-red haired” daughter of a local gamekeeper who was no more than a short-lived teenage infatuation. Another crush, Louisa Harding, never married and lived a long life in Dorchester; Hardy might easily have made her reacquaintance. But he didn’t. He wrote about her in the poem To Louisa in the Lane. As Claire Tomalin says, “It was the memory of the young Louisa he cherished” – an idealised image drawn from memory and captured in poetry.
Hardy had fictionalised his courtship of Emma in his novel A Pair of Blue Eyes. But unbeknown to him Emma had written her own version of their meeting (Some Recollections) which he found after her death and read avidly. That, and his own grief, released an emotional tsunami of enormous poetic energy. Within a year he’d written a collection of love poems that resonates to this day with such fondness, passion, heartbreak and regret that it can at times make for difficult reading. It contains some of the most strikingly beautiful writing Hardy (or anyone else, for that matter) ever penned on the subject of love. It was a love lost; the poems are shot through with grief. But these “remnants”, as he called them, showed that the “old flame” burned as brightly in the aged poet as it ever had.
If It’s Ever Spring Again, a selection of Thomas Hardy’s verse chosen and introduced by Tim Atkinson, is out now, published by Dotterel Press.