In his Poems of 1912-1913, Thomas Hardy presents the reader with intensely personal poetic verse. Hardy addresses what the loss of a loved one means to the self; the curse that forces one to abide faithfully to the memories of the dead in light of the ambiguity with which such erections are revisited. Present also among his influences was the advent of a new millennium. The poetry that Hardy produced subsequent to the death of his sometimes estranged wife marks a point in time when Hardy reflected on the meaning in his own life. Consequently, the death of Emma, and a general insecurity in the placement of humans in that new millennium, spelled for Hardy reflection and regret. Three poems from Poems of 1912-1913, "Without Ceremony," "Beeny Cliff," and "At Castle Boterel", together represent experiences that Hardy and Emma had shared prior to their marriage. Consequently, these poems are Hardy's memory of that earlier time in connection with his recent loss.
"Without Ceremony" is about Emma's free-spirited, spontaneous nature, and alludes specifically to the last time she entertained guests. She was very ill, and her guests stayed longer than they should have. After finally retiring to her bed that night, Emma never recovered sufficiently to rise again. A few days later she slipped into a coma, and shortly thereafter, she died. Hardy, like most people in mourning, felt that he never had a chance to say good-bye to Emma. At the time of Emma's sickness and death, their marriage was not what it used to be, and Hardy had wanted to visit happy memories with Emma before she died. Unable to do this with Emma, however, Hardy did visit those happier times by traveling to places where Emma and he had visited before, and consequently, wrote of the feelings that he experienced.
In order to express his feelings beyond the specific loss of his wife and the connection of landscape to his memories of Emma, Hardy also incorporated the use of mythology and the movement and communication in an attempt to visit the subliminal world in which Emma's voice resides; and to fulfill the needed emotional healing.
"Beeny Cliff" is one such poem, in which Hardy used the waves, "engrossed in saying their ceaseless babbling say" (ln. 5) that crashed against the cliff, as a metaphor for time, which moves forward mechanically, routinely, and without any concern for people. In the poem, Hardy is again on the cliff where he and Emma had once stood, and the landscape is the same, but the waves—or time—has taken Emma to a place where she no longer "cares for Beeny, and will laugh there nevermore" (ln. 15).
In "At Castle Boterel," Hardy is visiting another place from his past with Emma, and again the merciless movement of time is a major theme. As long as Hardy is alive, the rocks on the hill will "record in colour and cast" (ln. 24) that Hardy and Emma had walked with their pony over the hill. This projection of Hardy's memory on the landscape is represented as "one phantom figure" (ln. 28) which is shrinking to nothing, because Hardy's "sand is sinking" (ln. 33). In other words, time is overtaking Hardy, and once he is gone, any record of the intimate moments between him and Emma will also be gone.
The issue of mythology has been criticized in Hardy's poems as too narrowly focused, an influence that was present early in his writing. Throughout Hardy's life, the stories of Tristan and Iseult, Aeneas and Dido, and Orpheus and Eurydice, stories about mythological figures that had loved and lost, helped to shape society's view. Hardy's poems emulated this same message and were therefore seen as brooding with what William Buckler calls "mythic subtext." By using such as "underworld", Hardy upholds this train of thought.
The next issue that criticism of Hardy's poems focuses on is movement and communication. It has been noted by Marie A. Quinn that Hardy's use of the word "haunting" is his way of communicating and moving between worlds. By including this haunting element in his poetry, he is no longer mortal and can move freely from one place to the next. Henceforth, Hardy can use this same element to communicate with his dead wife who is now on the other side and can only be spoken to by something immortal.
Finally, critics have dealt with the issue of reconciliation and renewal. Critics have noted that Hardy in writing these poems reconciled and renewed himself. By placing the voice of his poems on the same plane as his dead wife, Hardy makes himself accessible to her in death. He spiritually renewed himself by dealing with his grief through the writing of these poems.
- Buckler, William E. "The Dark Space Illuminated: A Reading of Hardy's Poems of 1912-1913." Victorian Poetry 17 (1979): 98-107.
- Millgate, Michael, ed. The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1985.
- Quinn, Maire A. "The Personal Past in the Poetry of Thomas Hardy and Edward Thomas." Critical Quarterly 16:7-28.