This blog is subtitled ‘walking, poetry, reading the land’, and in it I’ll be trying out (tentatively) new ideas, visiting the places where landscape and poetry meet. I’ll be blending the text of the page with the texture of the landscape, and investigating how landscapes can be poetry, and how some poems can be landscapes, too.
In this first post I want to look at a poem that started me thinking, several years ago, about the relationship between poetry and walking, landscapes and literature. It all took a while to settle, for the river of my thinking to alter into its new course. The change came with Thomas Hardy, and his poem ‘The Walk’ (from Poems of 1912-13).
You did not walk with me Of late to the hill-top tree By the gated ways, As in earlier days; You were weak and lame, So you never came, And I went alone, and I did not mind, Not thinking of you as left behind. I walked up there to-day Just in the former way; Surveyed around The familiar ground By myself again: What difference, then? Only that underlying sense Of the look of a room on returning thence.
It’s a simple poem on first sight: two stanzas, sixteen lines, rhyming couplets. Superficially, it seems to be about two familiar walks in the same location. But even this is misleading. The title is ‘the walk’, singular. The poem is about grief, absence, regret and remorse, which are articulated through a solitary experience—a lone walk. The route is haunted, you see, because the meaning of the walk—its reason, its identity— is derived from the experience of two people.
Some readers will know about Hardy’s estrangement from his first wife, Emma, and his guilt and grief following her death. In fact, Hardy subsequently revisited some of the locations where they had shared time together. This poem dates from the time of Emma’s death, but here I’m deliberately steering clear of Hardy scholarship, or Hardy biography, to examine the poem closely.
The walk in the poem—to the hill-top tree, through the ‘gated ways’— is a familiar one for the speaker and an absent co-walker. They have come this way many times. In addressing the absent other, it is enough to mention sketchy details of the topography of the land, the features passed though. The walk is also a shared internal experience, one worn into the speaker’s psyche, a symbol of togetherness, something created by the repeated act of walking the route as one of a pair. The path has been laid down over a period of time, a route that is at once internal experience and external path, something like Richard Long’s ‘line made by walking’ (1967).
Like Long’s path, however, the experience is ephemeral (as all walks are). In the first solitary walk, the speaker ‘did not mind’ the partner’s absence as he was ‘not thinking of you as left behind.’ The route has been sufficiently travelled by them both as a pair, that she is carried with the speaker, as though actually present. The walk is made, one might say, almost to demonstrate his commitment to the partnership. The partner being ‘lame’, the speaker walks out on her behalf; a kind of fidelity to unity.
The break before the second stanza is visually and semantically a ‘gated way’ in itself, though. On the other side, a different time and a different walk, again alone. We’re told the speaker ‘surveyed around / the familiar ground’ but the rhyme betrays that his heart is no longer in it. It’s a different impulse that has sent him up the hill this time. He needs to get out of the house. What he fears is the inevitable return and ‘the look of a room on returning hence’. There is no human gaze awaiting him, and the line’s multiples stresses indicate the speaker’s stress. The house is now empty. But the walk provides no escape, because it is genuinely haunted. The absent companion on the first walk is now absent even from the house. Is the look of the room to which he must return a reminder of grief, or a rebuke, or both? The walk is set, though, a line made by walking, and the speaker must suffer it without alternation, which makes return inevitable. Is he now the one haunting his own walk? The walk must be completed, but now it is forever incomplete; nevertheless, the condemned man walks it.
One might say the speaker is trapped. He must have left from the house to take the walk in the first stanza, and in the second fears returning. The poem begins and ends in the same location, then, but at two different points in time. The circle of habit is held in the form of the poem. And so is the walk. Visually, both stanzas are similar, a visual depiction of the walk, a gate at either end, two pairs of couplets representing the climb up the hill and back. The features of the landscape, the ‘gated ways’ and the ‘familiar ground’, are rendered in couplets because these are paired rhymes, each line performing only because it stands beside a co-walker, or partner. Even the form of the poem enacts what has been lost, and the absence, the ghost, which gestures at all the walks that lead up to the poem’s composition.