“You will be grieved and shocked to hear that Emma died this morning shortly after nine o’clock. Her illness has been quite a slight one, and she was downstairs at tea on Monday evening. I was with her, fortunately, when she breathed her last. I am too distressed to write more.”
As 1912’s days grew ever colder, the days ever darker, Thomas Hardy lost yet another hour of light which would not return as the seasons made for warmer climbs. Although the author was the first to admit “it would be affectation to dent… the differences between us,” the sudden loss of his estranged wife in November 1912 had a profound affect upon both Hardy’s personage and in turn his work. “One forgets all the recent years and differences, and the mind goes back to the early times when each was much to the other — in her case and mine intensely much.” And thus began the drafting of some of the most beautiful verse to emerge from that eminent pen. And all due to the silence of a voice he had once ignored.
In the midst of the stream of letters sent out upon mourning stationary, Hardy set to work. His 18 poem sequence Poems of 1912-13, a progression of guilt-ridden elegies, finally entered print in the volume Satires of Circumstance (1914). Partway through these calls to loves of the past, there lies a milestone of modern elegiac poetry: ‘The Voice’.
Whereas his earlier ‘Neutral Tones’ (1867) abhors the dead lips of a living lover, one feels Hardy would give anything to give the phantom voice tormenting him an earthly body. But, like Aeneas’s attempts to embrace the vision of Creusa thrice, no matter where Hardy places the “thin ghost” of the voice echoing down the years, it remains but an echo that potentially will sound out and be heard no more.
The domesticity and intimacy of the collection evokes loss on the most personal of levels. But what differs with ‘The Voice’ is its unrelenting sound that beats from past idealised memories to the bald bleakness of Hardy’s present. Despite the oozing disintegration of the personas’ surroundings and motor faculties, the voice continues to bounce off what little remains. At points, the persona resolves that its existence on the temporal plains cannot be – “Can it be you that I hear?”
But in becoming a Poe-like disinterested gust of wind, as used in his ‘The Raven’, the voice of the dead succeeds in bounding around endlessly in mental space. As the stanzas decrease in size, Hardy proves that even the smallest space can provide a suitable memorial and epitaph. Hardy achieves in miniature what Tennyson does in over a hundred poems of ‘In Memoriam’. He forms an elegy that beautifully echoes like ringing crystal. It is both simultaneously connected to one moment whilst transcending all temporal boundaries. Although the reader cannot hear Emma’s voice, her “voice” serves as an elegiac milestone to her memory and the determination of her husband to allow her, and his guilt, to speak on.