Because they usually deal with brief moments in time, we sometimes think of lyric poetry as making do with simple thoughts, singular emotions felt distinctly. Today’s piece, English poet Thomas Hardy’s “The Shadow on the Stone” shows us it can be otherwise.
I suppose one can say it’s a poem about grief, or you could say it’s another ghost story. If it’s a ghost story, it’s poised entirely between belief and disbelief in such afterlife visitations. If it’s a grief poem, and it is that I think, it points out that grief doesn’t mean simple, singular, feelings.
Let me summarize a few things that are biographically behind this poem, even though I think some of its ambiguity can be sensed, felt, and to a degree understood without them.
The poem’s author, Hardy, was married in his thirties* to another woman of the same age. There was something of a romance in their courtship story. She was beautiful, looked younger than her suitor, and loved to ride around the English countryside on horseback. She was a doted-on daughter from a well-borne family that had had some financial setbacks. Hardy was from a tradesman’s family and was not established successfully in a trade or as the controversial author of novels he would become. Not long into the marriage, the wife began to think of this as what would have been called then “a misalliance.” He was beneath her standing after all — and Hardy’s eventual emergence as a novelist of note if anything made her more estranged. She considered herself a writer, while others dismissed her work as all the while Hardy’s began to succeed.
Eventually she moved to the attic of their house, and their emotional separation was an open secret among their acquaintances. In 1912, after more than 35 years of marriage, most spent in estrangement from her husband, she died.** In going through her attic quarters they was found a manuscript she had been writing. Some accounts give its name as Why I Hate My Husband and others What I Think of My Husband.***
For Emma, Forever Ago. Thomas Hardy and pre-ghost-wife wife Emma back in the 19th Century.
So, what happens in the moment of this poem, after her death, and after that life-history? Here’s a link to the poem’s text if you’d like to follow along. The poem’s speaker (I’ll just say “Hardy,” as Thomas Hardy was forthright about the subject of his grief poems) is working during the autumn in his garden and sees cast across a “Druid stone”**** a shadow shape which he says in his imagination brings to mind the shadow of his dead spouse when she would garden there. While he says this was “imagining” he’s not completely sure. Those aware of Hardy’s marriage history will hear a particular salience in the statement that the ghost of his dead wife is one “I long had learned to lack.” But this phenomenon, of intimates appearing in the imagination of the grieving is commonplace, and I can say in the experience of myself and my dead spouse, it’s not a simple wistful visitation. If one’s world has been turned upside down, you may not want it to spin some more, even backwards.
In the second stanza this “Is she really here, or my imagining” state is interrogated. Hardy speaks to whatever is behind him casting shadows, and says (perhaps just in case it’s a real, and maybe even a vengeful, ghost) “I’m sure you are standing behind me.” As if he’s conjured up a spirit and he’s letting them know he knows who/what they are, knows their name, and can query it.
The spirit doesn’t respond. I love the ambiguous skeptic’s final two lines here: “I would not turn my head to discover/That there was nothing in my belief.” Hardy wants to not face it if the spirit is real, not an imagining, and we don’t even know if from fear or love.
Continuing in ambivalence, Hardy says next that he wanted to look and disprove, a statement that he in action doesn’t do.***** Instead he leaves the garden without seeking to disprove or confront the spirit or imagining he believes is representing his dead wife. Best as I can tell, the idiomatic expression “throwing shade” is of Afro-American origin. This Merriam Webster note says it was popularized on Ru Paul’s Drag Race circa 2010, though I’m pretty sure I heard and used it before then. In my performance, I speak it in that meaning, even if Hardy didn’t mean it that way in his time. As in life, Hardy seems to say he must endure and miss his spouse, and so this ambivalence with a possible ghost resonates with his grief.
I mentioned performance above. I started composing here thinking about the Afro-American musical influences on the Velvet Underground, both in rhythm guitar figures and in Moe Tucker’s spare drum kit and approach. If I would have written the drums in this as a jazz-influenced piece, the high-hat would have marked the beat, but there’s no high-hat in this piece’s drum kit, though the tambourine playing does stand in for it somewhat. This didn’t turn out to be a Moe Tucker style drum part after all, but that’s where I started.
My original take had things ending on Hardy’s poem’s final word: “fade” — but overnight I decided it needed a reprise after that hung resolution, and while playing that I decided to riff on some other famous lyrical uses of the word “fade” as a trope of death and persistence. A player gadget is below for some to hear my performance, but if not, this highlighted hyperlink is another way to hear it.
*This is fairly late for a first marriage in the mid-19th century.
**She and Hardy were 72 in 1912. This is not one of those stories of the stricken young bride who died long before her time.
***We may wonder just what the real deal was with their relationship, who was meaner or more dismissive to who — and well, the patriarchy and all that may have colored within the lines, as most accounts by men and women seem to paint Thomas Hardy as the aggrieved party in the marriage. Interesting matters — but for the purposes of presenting this poem, beside the point. Flip a few gendered words in the poem, and imagine it being written by a widow who thinks of her abusive or belittling husband after his death.
****I wondered about this peculiar detail. Was this a characteristic English garden decoration, like a birdbath or garden gnome statue? No. A large flattened top stone was found during construction which Hardy thought was an actual Druid stone, perhaps used as an ancient altar. More evidence that while Hardy was a skeptic, the realness of a supernatural “apparition” is meant to be in question — and this may also allude to some metaphoric bone and ash sacrifices the marriage brought to their lives.
*****In a short essay on this poem, Jeremy Axelrod sees an allusion to the story of Eurydice and Orpheus in the underworld. Hardy doesn’t usually use classical Greek allusions in the poems I’ve read, but even if unintended, well, “death of the author” and “archetypes.”