Lockdown Poetry: Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy, ‘In Vision I Roamed’ 

In vision I roamed the flashing Firmament,
So fierce in blazon that the Night waxed wan,
As though with awe at orbs of such ostént;
And as I thought my spirit ranged on and on

In footless traverse through ghast heights of sky,
To the last chambers of the monstrous Dome,
Where stars the brightest here are lost to the eye:
Then, any spot on our own Earth seemed Home!

And the sick grief that you were far away
Grew pleasant thankfulness that you were near,
Who might have been, set on some foreign Sphere,
Less than a Want to me, as day by day
I lived unware, uncaring all that lay
Locked in that Universe taciturn and drear.

(1866; 1898)

For our series of COVID19 poems I was initially tempted to choose one of Hardy’s sequence of Cornwall poems (such as ‘At Castle Boterel’ or ‘The Going’), since the temporary ban on non-essential travel meant that I was unable to return to Cornwall in April to visit my family. However, it seems more fitting to select a poem about travel in the imagination, and of the subsequent return to home. The astronomical scope of the poem’s vision is also particularly fitting in the context of the clear night skies of spring 2020, offering spectacular views of Venus in the west, and the procession of Starlink satellites clearly visible in late April.

As an early poem (written in 1866, but not published until its inclusion in Wessex Poems (1898)), it illustrates Hardy’s growing interest in astronomy which would inform the celestial imagery of novels such as Far from the Madding Crowd, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and most explicitly Two on a Tower. Hardy’s explorations in the broadened horizons of evolutionary time are well known (most famously in the literal cliffhanger of A Pair of Blue Eyes in which Henry Knight, dangling from a Cornish cliff, comes face to face with an ancient fossil), but his awareness of an infinitely expanded physical space is sometimes overlooked.

The appearance of ‘ostent’ is worth noting, as an example of Hardy’s frequent use of archaic language. Hardy often does this to tie his texts to a sense of place, but not in a poem which is about imaginatively escaping the terrestrial. Rather, the archaism of ‘ostent’ opens up the linguistic timeframe of the poem. The Oxford English Dictionary traces ‘ostent’, as meaning ‘a portent or sign; a wonder’, back to 1570; by the nineteenth century it was a term sparingly used (indeed, the OED’s sole Victorian citation of the word is from Hardy’s poem). But there is a second meaning to ‘ostent’; as the action of showing, exhibiting. The two meanings (a wonder, an act of showing) are related but not identical; the poem itself is a kind of ostent, a display that in its title draws attention to the act of seeing, a vision (outer space as inner space). The ambiguity of ‘ostent’ echoes the ambiguity of the vision itself being described – is this an imaginative fancy, or an actual dream?

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