Declaring one’s ignorance publically has its advantages. Among them is the opportunity to meet people better informed than one’s self and sufficiently generous to share what they know. In last Monday’s post I quoted a passage from a letter Philip Larkin wrote to Monica Jones in 1951:
“Your remark about footworn stones made me want to dig out and quote that not very original but heartwarming sentence of Hardy’s about a worn stone step meaning more to him than scenery. What a miracle of feeling Hardy was—in a sense much rarer than a genius of expression, a particular set of responses that can never be repeated.”
I asked for help in identifying the poem by Hardy, whose work I’ve never known well. On Friday I received an email from a reader in Scotland who writes: “I was in a second hand bookshop in Lochgilphead in Argyllshire and I spotted a lovely little book. It’s an anthology of poetry edited by C. Day Lewis, A Lasting Joy .” In it he found a poem by Hardy, “The Self-Unseeing,” that he suspected was the one remembered by Larkin:
“Here is the ancient floor,
Footworn and hollowed and thin,
Here was the former door
Where the dead feet walked in.
“She sat here in her chair,
Smiling into the fire;
He who played stood there,
Bowing it higher and higher.
“Childlike I danced in a dream;
Blessings emblazoned that day;
Everything glowed with gleam;
Yet we were looking away.”
My reader includes Lewis’ comment: “Thomas Hardy imagines himself as a child in the cottage at Upper Bockhampton in Dorset where he was born, sitting with his parents. His father is playing the fiddle, his mother is sitting by the fire. And the children............ the children didn’t realise the idyllic nature of the scene in which they were taking part, and they didn’t realise it because, as Hardy tells us they were looking away.” One understands Larkin describing the poem, apparently without irony, as “heartwarming.” Only a thoughtful adult can regret the occasional obliviousness of his younger self, the way we ignore what our older selves will recall as precious. It’s a variation on Nabokov’s 1925 story “A Guide to Berlin,” with its concluding sentence: “How can I demonstrate to him that I have glimpsed somebody’s future recollection?” In Hardy’s case, the “him” and the “somebody” are the same person.
In his note to “The Self-Unseeing” in Vol. I of The Complete Poetical Works of Thomas Hardy (1982), the editor, Samuel Hynes, includes an excerpt from Florence Emily Hardy’s The Early Life of Thomas Hardy (1928):
“He was of ecstatic temperament, extraordinarily sensitive to music, and among the endless jigs, hornpipes, reels, waltzes, and country-dances that his father played of an evening in his early married years, and to which the boy danced a pas seul [solo dance] in the middle of the room, there were three or four that always moved the child to tears, though he strenuously tried to hide them.”