On a clear March afternoon in 1977 after we had decided to get married, I remember riding shotgun in Judy Birdsong’s gold-flecked Camaro headed over the Gervais Street Bridge in Columbia, South Carolina, and thinking to myself as I watched her hair fluttering in the open window wind, “Oh no, in twenty-five years she very well may be dead.”
A fairly morbid thought for a twenty-four-year-old, but it runs in the family.
And, um, duh, every organism, whether it be goldfish, hamster, kitty cat, or puppy dog– not to mention house plants and patches of Saint Augustine – is doomed to die. Healthy people repress the thought or look forward to an afterlife or rationalize that there could be no genetic diversity without death or like Wallace Stevens hail death “the mother of beauty.”
Not Thomas Hardy. For him, death is ever-present, lurking in even the most pleasant of settings. Here’s a poem he wrote shortly after his first wife Emma’s death.
During Wind and Rain
They sing their dearest songs—
He, she, all of them—yea,
Treble and tenor and bass,
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!
They clear the creeping moss—
Elders and juniors—aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat. . . .
Ah, no; the years, the years,
See, the white storm-birds wing across.
They are blithely breakfasting all—
Men and maidens—yea,
Under the summer tree,
With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to the knee. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.
They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them—aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs. . . .
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.
These lives aren’t “solitary, nasty, brutish and short” but rather pleasant. In fact, the first five lines of each stanza are positive, describe harmonious family gatherings. However, each stanza ends in a refrain that foreshadows what Andrew Marvel called “deserts of vast eternity.”
The critic John Foy describes the poem’s structure as “double-looking,” pointing “to both life and oblivion.”
“This rhetorical pattern, replicated in all four stanzas, contains two thematic perspectives, where the first five lines point one way and the last two point another. It acknowledges Hardy’s understanding of the terrible duality inherent in the nature of things. We are here for a while, and then we are gone. In his stanza, the heedlessness and the impending dissolution don’t cancel each other out. They exist together in tragic equipoise, five lines to life, two lines to dissolution, bound together by the structure”.
John Foy, “Form as Moral Content in Thomas Hardy’s ‘During Wind and Rain’”
To love a poem doesn’t mean you have to embrace the poem’s theme. For example, although I’m not a Christian, I’d haul Paradise Lost with me to the proverbial desert island (or on a spacecraft headed to Mars). Despite that sudden morbid thought in 1977, I haven’t spent my life brooding over its inevitable end. In fact, I’m fine with oblivion, didn’t mind at all my pre-existence, yet I really love Hardy’s poem, especially its last line, the music of it, the three accented final words and the image of a raindrop like a tear running down a name carved in stone.
And, as it turned out, Hardy remarried a woman named Florence Dugdale who wrote to a friend, “Perhaps you have read, if you have the English papers, that I am now the proud and very happy wife of the greatest living English writer – Thomas Hardy. Although he is much older than myself it is a genuine love match – on my part, at least, for I suppose I ought not to speak for him. At any rate I know I have for a husband one of the kindest, most humane men in the world.”
A happy ending of sorts for Hardy, a rarity in his works.
 Actually, it was 40 years later that she died.