Tainted love

The Guardian recently devoted part of a travel article to Cornwall’s “hauntingly beautiful” The Strangles, where Thomas Hardy met his first wife, Emma Gifford, a century ago. Reading about the place sent me back to some of the many Hardy poems devoted to troubled relationships. (After a dizzying courtship and a few good years of marriage, the couple became estranged. But, it being the late 1800s, they continued to live in the same house.)

Hardy’s “Neutral Tones,” my favorite poem ever, opens and closes with the speaker and his lady love standing on the edge of a frozen pond in winter.

The sun is white, “as though chidden of God.” And the smile on her face is “the deadest thing/Alive enough to have strength to die.” Just read the poem. It’s only four stanzas — and the brittle domestic scene will be etched in your memory forever afterward. Or your money back.

I used to think “Neutral Tones” was about the poet’s relationship with Gifford, but my friend Robert Daseler points out that Hardy wrote it in 1867, before they met. Strange how the lines seem to anticipate his life.

But his poetry was not always so prescient. Sometime in the 1870′s, Hardy wrote “She, At His Funeral,” in which the deceased’s estranged “sweetheart” walks through the funeral with his “kindred,” who “stand round with griefless eye,/ Whilst my regret consumes like fire!”

If this poem embodies Hardy’s fantasy that his wife would be consumed with regret over their estrangement after his death, that dream was never realized. She died in 1912, prompting Hardy to revisit Cornwall and to mourn the death of their relationship in his writing. “Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,” he wrote, “Saying that now you are not as you were/When you had changed from the one who was all to me….”


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