1 April 2022 Susannah

Thomas Hardy & When I set out for Lyonnesse


Thomas Hardy is one of my favourite poets. He was so versatile and so brilliant, and if you listen to Richard Burton reading Hardy’s poems, you know there is little better that life can offer than that!

When I set out for Lyonnesse by Thomas Hardy

When I set out for Lyonnesse,
A hundred miles away,
The rime was on the spray,
And starlight lit my lonesomeness
When I set out for Lyonnesse
A hundred miles away.

What would bechance at Lyonnesse
While I should sojourn there
No prophet durst declare,
Nor did the wisest wizard guess
What would bechance at Lyonnesse
While I should sojourn there.

When I came back from Lyonnesse
With magic in my eyes,
All marked with mute surmise
My radiance rare and fathomless,
When I came back from Lyonnesse
With magic in my eyes!

The poem was first published in 1914 and it recalls the days when Hardy courted his wife Emma Gifford in Cornwall. Emma had died in 1912, leaving Hardy feeling deeply guilty about their unhappy marriage, and the guilt unleashed a flood of wonderful poems about Emma and the love they had once shared. According to legend, Lyonesse was an ancient kingdom in Cornwall – Hardy brings slightly magical elements into the verses with the references to prophets, wizards and “magic in my eyes”.

In the poem Hardy looks back to 1870 when he travelled to Cornwall for work (he was going to survey an old church in need of repairs), little dreaming that there he would fall in love.

There’s a superb mysteriousness to this poem. At no time does Hardy tell us what happens at Lyonesse, except that it is something magical. He takes us back 44 years to recapture the sheer magic of young love in a place where magical things are expected to happen. He was especially proud of this work, always regarding it as one of his best. He also felt it was musical in nature and it has been set to music several times.

I just love Thomas Hardy’s poetry. Does this poem appeal to you? Tell me what you think by leaving a comment.

You can listen to a sung version here, but personally I prefer a straightforward reading of its glorious lines:

As a poet, Hardy was incredibly varied in form, metre and rhyme scheme. In this poem he uses the French Roundelay form, with its repetition of rhyme pairs and the rhyming limited to two matches per stanza.

Sadly, the divine Richard Burton reading is not available on youtube and none of the ones I could find were satisfactory. You can listen to one version here, but I strongly urge you to seek out the Burton reading which captures all the poem’s magic in what has to be the world’s sexiest voice:

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Featured image credit- Land’s End, Cornwall, by mr_m, https://pixabay.com/photos/land-s-end-cornwall-ocean-sea-rock-928070/
Body image credit- Thomas Hardy by William Strang, 1893, https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw02926/Thomas-Hardy
Body image credit- The Cornish church of St Juliot, https://victorianweb.org/photos/hardy/91.html

Comments (11)

  1. Rose Frost

    Does anyone know when Hardy wrote this poem? It was published in 1914, but was it written in 1870 shortly after he returned home or did he write it much later?

  2. Faye

    Imagine reclining on a lounge, in Max Gate, listening to Hardy reciting Lyonesse[if not ,Sussanah] what heaven ! CAN happen!

  3. Wendy

    I love the poem, hadn’t thought about it for a long time. What struck me was the youthful questing in the first two stanzas. Who wouldn’t feel a great sense of adventure setting off alone with the salt spray and the starlit night. It’s all ahead of him. And to come home safely with magic besetting him. Or was it safely, when his life is now forfeit to another? Ain’t love grand.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, you really get the feeling that life and love are a wonderful adventure, don’t you. I am so glad I brought the poem back to mind for you.

  4. Diana Paulin

    I love this poem, and I will seek out the Richard Burton reading, the true magic will be captured in that voice.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      It is the most wonderful, sexy voice – I love any poetry he reads.

  5. bronwyn mcgrane

    Thank you for your Newsletters

    Can you recommend a source for Poetry readings please? I always love the readings you give us.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Thanks Bronwyn, I am so pleased you enjoy the poems. I just type the name of a poem and Youtube into Google and see what comes up. There are usually several readings – some very amateur and awful, and others fabulous. But I also have a big collection of poems on CDs and so I often, as a result of those, will look for a particular reader. In my view, there’s no one as good as Richard Burton for many poems, but Ralph Fiennes, Benedict Cumberbatch and others have done poetry readings on YouTube which can be wonderful. Good luck!

  6. Ann Davison

    Why would not feel magic in the air if you had spied someone you felt was the one you could fall in love with?The poem has an air of spiritually which would enhance that feeling. He was a great poet.Love the feeling that everything is not mundane and rather dull.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, there is a magic about falling in love, especially for the first time. I am so glad you enjoyed the poem.

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