A real downer

Thomas Hardy wrote
Thomas Hardy

I’ve been getting a lot of suggestions about poems and poets to feature in this blog. Thank you all. I’ve discovered some great poetry and rediscovered some that I had failed to appreciate earlier.

The latest is “Neutral Tones” by Thomas Hardy. This recommendation comes from someone who seems to be somewhat of a Hardy fan.  You know who you are.

“Neutral Tones” is definitely well crafted, but is it ever a sad and depressing poem!

Hardy is writing about a remembered meeting of lovers that spelled the imminent end of their relationship.  As the couple stands by a pond in winter, it becomes increasingly certain that the love is dead.  It is as if the whole world, the pond, the trees, the fallen leaves, and even the sun confirm that it’s over.

The leaves “had fallen from an ash, and were grey.”

The woman looks at the writer of the poem, but he feels her eyes on him are “as eyes that rove over tedious riddles of years ago.

Even the woman’s smile is described as “the deadest thing,” and compared to an “ominous bird a-wing” passing by.

All pretty grim, dismal stuff.  No color.  No warmth.  No sign of hope, and no relief.

The only comfort — and it is cold comfort — is that the man has gained the knowledge that “loves deceives.”

Hardy wrote “Neutral Tones” in 1867, when he was 27.   One theory is that this poem was written about his cousin, Tryphena Sparks, with whom he had a tempestuous love affair.  Not long afterwards, he fell in love with Emma Gifford, whom he later married.

Others have written extensively about how Hardy uses the poet’s craft to establish the heartbreaking atmosphere of the poem.  So I won’t go into detail here.

But Hardy knows what he is doing and uses language, meter and metaphor to create an aching sense of loneliness and despair.

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Cat poetry

Beloved cat
Pet was never mourned as you … — Thomas Hardy

Remembering our recently departed and beloved cat … and Mark Twain’s quote is hitting home:  “A home without a cat — and a well-fed, well-petted and properly revered cat — may be a perfect home, perhaps, but how can it prove title.”

It seems that poets have kept cats and written about them throughout history. On a trip to Oregon a few years ago, I picked up a book called The Poetical Cat edited by Felicity Bast.  It includes cat poems from all over the world … from the tombs of ancient Egypt … to the  works of the Haiku masters … to Swinburne, Baudelaire, Yeats, and William Carlos Williams.

It is offering some comfort.  Perhaps most apropos is Thomas Hardy’s Last Words to a Dumb Friend, which is an elegy for his beloved, departed pet.  It goes on in his quaint, Victorian way that may sound stilted to our modern ears.  But its final verse is beautiful and heartbreaking.

From Last Words to a Dumb Friend
by Thomas Hardy

Housemate, I can think you still
Bounding to the window-sill,
Over which I vaguely see
Your small mound beneath the tree,
Showing in the autumn shade
That you moulder where you played.

Pretty sad, that verse.

If I tried to write an elegy I would probably blubber on and on longer than Hardy.  So I won’t.

Instead, in honor of our dear and departed Quincy, I’ll offer a couple of cat haiku I’ve written over the years:

Cat Haiku

The old cat forgets
to groom his matted fur. But
there — on snow — feathers!

Little cat using
me for shade doesn’t care I’ve
nothing left to give

Waking with a stretch
the cat falls off the bed’s edge —
dignity wounded