Pictures of Poems: “Ah, Are You Digging at my Grave,” Thomas Hardy

Poems, Ah Are You Digging

The news this week is very, very bad. I don’t think I need to recap it here, but I guess basically we are looking at a lot more poverty, pollution, guns, and tanks over the next four years, thanks to that skinny budget. No good, no good at all. Poetry is a balm for the soul, or something like that, so I thought I would add a new section to the blog: Pictures of Poems. So here we go!

“Ah, Are You Digging on my Grave,” by Thomas Hardy, 1913:

Ah, are you digging on my grave
My loved one?–planting rue?”
–“No; yesterday he went to wed
One of the brightest wealth has bred.
‘It cannot hurt her now,’ he said,
That I ‘should not be true.'”

Then who is digging on my grave?
My nearest dearest kin?”
–“Ah, no; they sit and think, ‘What use!
What good will planting flowers produce?
No tendance of her mound can loose
Her spirit from Death’s gin.'”

But someone digs upon my grave?
My enemy?–prodding sly?”
–“Nay; when she heard you had passed the Gate
That shuts on all flesh soon or late,
She thought you no more worth her hate,
And cares not where you lie.”

Then, who is digging on my grave?
Say–since I have not guessed!”
–“0 it is I, my mistress dear,
Your little dog, who still lives near,
And much I hope my movements here
Have not disturbed your rest?”

Ah, yes! You dig upon my grave . . .
Why flashed it not on me
That one true heart was left behind!
What feeling do we ever find
To equal among humankind
A dog’s fidelity!”

Mistress, I dug upon your grave
To bury a bone, in case
I should be hungry near this spot
When passing on my daily trot.
I am sorry, but I quite forgot
It was your resting-place.”

What? You were expecting a poem about rainbows, kittens, and moving to California? Good poetry is not about how nice California is. You might be reading the wrong blog.

Thomas Hardy wrote this poem just before World War One. Those were some bad times, much like our own. Of course those bad times came just before way, WAY worse things began to happen: a war, the invention of the machine gun, and then more war and the Holocaust. Should we learn from history? Nah. Why start now? BTW this poem is a satire – of the sentimentality that masks the general shallow selfishness that is human nature – much like how “Make America great again” masks “Make America white, polluted, uneducated, library-less, and enclosed by a very expensive wall again!” Dark times call for dark humor.

I think it is safe to say that most people do not like Thomas Hardy. He was a grim fatalist, and as a Professor I once had said to me, “But with Hardy, isn’t it just ship-iceberg?” (He said, smashing one hand into the other.) When I told him I was going to write a paper about Hardy anyhow, he said cheerfully, “Well, I can give you the rope to hang yourself with!” I misunderstood this as a rousing challenge, but oh no, it was a warning. It is very hard to make anything more than “people are mostly stupid and selfish” out of virtually anything Hardy wrote. Moreover, in Hardy’s work, if you are not stupid and selfish you will definitely have your life ruined by someone who is, which is more or less what is happening to America right now.

The thing is, there are some beautiful – and devastatingly funny – moments in Hardy’s poetry and novels. In the novels, these profound moments of beauty often come when a character takes a long view  (like literally, on top of a hill) and then usually dies almost immediately, because in case you forgot, you are reading Thomas Hardy. Still, I like to think that he is telling us something more than ship-iceberg, which might clumsily be said to be: For the love of kittens, rainbows, California, and all that is good, get your head out of your troll-hole and look around, you imbecile, goddammit. Shed your delusions and do something worthwhile now, because no one is going to care about you once you are dead, not even your dog, and definitely not your cat. Also, it is kind of funny how much you think you matter.

So… Don’t you feel better now? Poetry is so uplifting. For what it’s worth, I think just being a decent and kind human being is a worthwhile thing to do and would make Thomas Hardy’s ghost (almost) smile, because Thomas Hardy is definitely haunting somebody somewhere.

Did you know that Hardy had his heart cut out and buried at Wessex, and his cremated, heartless body interred in the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey? Badass. There was a rumor that a cat ate Hardy’s heart, so a pig’s heart was buried instead. I am willing to bet that before his death Hardy started this rumor himself.

I really am sorry that I rambled so much today… Thomas Hardy is my favorite.


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