Wednesday 21 March 2018

Heaney's choice

The Voice by Thomas Hardy

Brian Lynch

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,

Saying that now you are not as you were

When you had changed from the one who was all to me,

But as at first, when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,

Standing as when I drew near to the town

Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,

Even to the original air-blue gown!

Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness

Travelling across the wet mead to me here,

You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,

Heard no more again far or near?

Thus I; faltering forward,

Leaves around me falling,

Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,

And the woman calling.


This is the poem in the book chosen by Seamus Heaney. Down to earth as ever, the Nobel laureate begins his comment by saying, "I can't honestly say that I break down when I read The Voice."

Hardy wrote the poem in December 1912, a month after the death of his first wife, in grief and in guilt because he had been cruel to her. Heaney uses a metaphor from fishing to say how Hardy affects him: "What renders the music of the poem so moving is the drag in the voice, as if there were sinkers on many of the lines." It's interesting that Heaney doesn't refer to the poem's most famous and startling image, the dead wife's "original air-blue gown". Instead, he points to the last verse.

He admits when he reads it "the tear ducts do congest a bit". This happens because "in that landscape of falling leaves, wind and thorn, and the woman calling, there is a banshee note that haunts 'long after it is heard no more'". That misquote from 'The Solitary Reaper' – Wordsworth wrote "was" rather than "is" – seems clearly deliberate. And the reference to the "banshee" is made all the more haunting now that Seamus is gone from us.

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