1 March 2020 Susannah

Thomas Hardy & ‘Beyond the Last Lamp’

One of the very first poems I discussed in this newsletter was a Thomas Hardy poem. He is best known today as a novelist, but he was a superb poet, so I think it is time to celebrate his poetry again. I really love this one:

Beyond the Last Lamp by Thomas Hardy
(Near Tooting Common)

I
While rain, with eve in partnership,
Descended darkly, drip, drip, drip,
Beyond the last lone lamp I passed
Walking slowly, whispering sadly,
Two linked loiterers, wan, downcast:
Some heavy thought constrained each face,
And blinded them to time and place.

II
The pair seemed lovers, yet absorbed
In mental scenes no longer orbed
By love’s young rays. Each countenance
As it slowly, as it sadly
Caught the lamplight’s yellow glance
Held in suspense a misery
At things which had been or might be.

III
When I retrod that watery way
Some hours beyond the droop of day,
Still I found pacing there the twain
Just as slowly, just as sadly,
Heedless of the night and rain.
One could but wonder who they were
And what wild woe detained them there.

IV
Though thirty years of blur and blot
Have slid since I beheld that spot,
And saw in curious converse there
Moving slowly, moving sadly
That mysterious tragic pair,
Its olden look may linger on –
All but the couple; they have gone.

V
Whither? Who knows, indeed . . . And yet
To me, when nights are weird and wet,
Without those comrades there at tryst
Creeping slowly, creeping sadly,
That lone lane does not exist.
There they seem brooding on their pain,
And will, while such a lane remain.

This is a poem about memory. The poet had once encountered an unhappy couple, out in the rain, in a lonely spot, and wondered what sort of unhappiness had driven them to that place and held them there. Thirty years later he still remembers them. Yet the poem is also about the poet’s own sense of hauntedness. Why was he out there in the rain on his own, why did the two lovers make such a deep impression on him? We all know the way in which a particular scene or place or smell can be very deeply imprinted on the memory – why do we remember some places so vividly, while others are quickly forgotten?

In his fiction, Hardy often deals with the theme of regret. For him, it is often the great tragedy of life that we turn away at the wrong moment. This was a poem he wrote after his first wife Emma had died in 1912 and he had come to deeply regret the way he had treated her.

The lovers in the lane have come in his mind to stand for all lovers who have misunderstandings, himself and Emma included. Critic Lytton Strachey wrote of Hardy’s poems: “A flashlight is turned for a moment upon some scene or upon some character, and in that moment the tragedies of whole lives seem to stand revealed.” The lamp of course symbolises clarity and light, but beyond it is darkness – the darkness of not understanding, and of human misery.

Hardy can be an ‘awkward’ poet, in the way in which he sometimes contorts words and uses them oddly. The language of the poem is old-fashioned (words such as ‘orbed’, ‘the twain’, ‘droop of day’), and often Hardy places words in an unusual order or uses phrases that catch our attention (“the lamplight’s yellow glance”, “in curious converse there”, etc), but I think his use of language is brilliant and he creates such a memorable picture. We feel the rain and darkness, see the damp lovers, and share in their unhappiness.

You can listen to the divine Richard Burton read the poem:

Or maybe this version?

Have you enjoyed this poem? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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Header image credit- A Lamp in the Night, https://pixabay.com/photos/park-night-path-lamp-posts-lights-690533/

Comments (6)

  1. David Castle

    Wonderful, you have done it again. A great poem and brilliantly read by Richard Burton. Do you know the short Hardy poem: “Only a man harrowing clods”?

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I have just reread the poem – thanks for reminding me how fabulous it is. Oh what a truly great poet Hardy was!
      So glad you enjoyed this month’s selection.

  2. Carol Reid

    Having first listened to Richard Burton’s reading, poor Guy Mulinder didn’t stand a chance! Thank you for the background on Hardy’s loss of his first wife; it makes this poem all the more poignant.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Richard Burton’s voice reading poetry is just one of the best sounds in the entire world, in my view! Yes, Guy had no hope! Glad you enjoyed my explanation for the poem.

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