Poem Guide

Thomas Hardy: “The Shadow on the Stone”

After the poet lost his wife, he found his voice.
Black and white photograph of Thomas Hardy

Emma Hardy lay dead in a coffin at the foot of Thomas Hardy’s bed for three nights before her disconsolate widower finally had her buried. By the winter of 1912, with Modernity swiftly colonizing English culture, such an operatic gesture was something of a throwback. But while Hardy grieved in the 20th century, he grew up in the 19th. When he wrote about losing Emma, he was dwelling on the Victorian era, when they fell in love—and when Romanticism was still tempering into realism. Decades later, their marriage had long since cooled into neglect and estrangement, not a little due to Hardy, who slept by her coffin out of enormous regret over lost time: their bedroom was no warmer when Emma was alive (in fact, Emma had taken to sleeping in the attic). Yet her death rekindled an affection that thrived—and despaired—in nostalgia, and in the two years after, Hardy, who is still mainly famous for his novels, wrote one of the greatest elegiac sequences in English. Plainly titled Poems of 1912–1913, Hardy’s poems about Emma show two eras reaching into each other in every way. He views the springtime of their courtship from the winter of her death, and he grounds the intense sentimentality of Victorian poetry in the more cynical style of a Modernist. Allusive yet direct, lyrical yet understated, elegant yet clear, the poems brilliantly straddle the end of one century and the beginning of another.

Hardy published “The Shadow on the Stone” in Moments of Vision (1917), but he began the first draft in 1913, and its themes, no less than its timing, place it comfortably alongside the Poems of 1912-1913 sequence. It is one of Hardy’s finer short lyrics, and its plot is true to its title: “I went by the Druid stone, / That broods in the garden white and lone,” Hardy begins, when suddenly a few trees in his garden, bent in the wind “with a rhythmic swing,” make a pattern of “shifting shadows” that he imagines are cast on the stone by some ghostly form of Emma. Hardy is anything but cavalier with word choice, so it’s worth pausing over the specificity of “the Druid stone.” Druid stones can be small or huge structures; though often natural, they’re also thought, with varying degrees of whimsy, to have been made by the Druids, who lived in Celtic Britain. Britain’s landscape has its share of rocky mysteries (such as Stonehenge), but sometimes a stone is just a stone. That is why a Druid stone is so fitting in Hardy’s poem. It reminds us how easily the work of nature can seem like the work of people—just as the shadow made by some branches can seem like the shadow made by a wife. This stone, “brooding white and lone,” serves as a canvas for Hardy’s own brooding when the shadows flit across it. What’s more, some traditions hold that Druid stones have magical powers, so it makes sense that this stone brings the supernatural to mind, or at least the suspension of disbelief.

Notice how oddly Hardy describes his wife: The shadows “shaped . . . / . . . the shade that a well-known head and shoulders / Threw there when she was gardening.” To call one’s dead wife “well-known” is conspicuous understatement; to describe her merely as “a well-known head and shoulders” is not just understated but flatly abstract, limiting her memory to the vagueness of a shadow. One reason to describe Emma this way is to narrow, if only a little, the gulf between what was real about her and what is now being imagined. This is not, after all, an elaborate illusion. In fact, it was only when a moment’s wind swung the branches that this shadow appeared, which means that the shape would have disappeared once the wind subsided. Shifting the burden of proof to speech, Hardy says aloud, as if to Emma, “‘I am sure you are standing behind me, / Though how do you get into this old track?’ / And there was no sound but the fall of a leaf / As a sad response.’” Hardy’s poem is quickly becoming less about an illusion than about the discouragements that follow it.

By 1912, at the age of 72, Hardy had little use for Christian consolations, and his reference to a Druid stone is only the first pagan image in this poem. More important is his description of Emma as “shaped in my imagining” from the “shade,” a play on words that alludes to the ancient Greek underworld of Hades, home to the “shades,” or souls of the dead who are now shadows of their former substance. If the classical afterlife is far below and beyond, then perhaps the modern one is here on the surface, in the frustrated imaginings of a man in his own garden. Just as Hardy sees a shadow of the woman he once saw clearly, the barren garden—unable to produce her or to provoke more than her barest outlines in his mind—is itself a shadow of its former vitality. One early hint toward color, “the garden white and lone,” suggests a solitary blankness more than anything else, while the only mention of growth is those shade-casting trees and a dead leaf (presumably a dry autumn one, since it makes enough noise to count as “a sad response”). So we can hardly ignore that Hardy’s one memory of Emma in this poem is of her gardening: the place was alive when she was, and now that season has ended.

With these dreary prospects in mind, Hardy presents the dilemma: should he turn around to see if Emma is there, or leave the illusion unspoiled? “To keep down grief,” he reasons, “I would not turn my head to discover / That there was nothing in my belief”: “‘I’ll not unvision / A shape which, somehow, there may be.’” He may have a fanciful hunch that Emma is there (“A shape which . . . there may be”), but it would be risky to check. He can’t “keep down grief” if he has to face Emma’s absence head-on. Hardy also argues on the other side: “Yet I wanted to look and see,” he counters, “[t]hat nobody stood in back of me.” Wanting to see that nobody stood there is Hardy’s impulse to confirm his sad understanding that ghosts aren’t real: a distinctly modern urge to dispel sentiment in favor of substance. Yet what keeps Hardy from turning around is also that same suspicion that he would find himself alone. Doubt dominates both Hardy’s temptation to look and his temptation not to look. As early as the first stanza, Hardy acknowledges that the shadows had merely “shaped in my imagining” the figure of his wife. He knows the truth, but he can’t bear to confront his wife’s absence with his eyes: better a trick of light than a grief laid bare as that white, brooding stone.

The predicament of “The Shadow on the Stone” poses a larger question: where—in the past or the present, in the mind or the world, in belief or disbelief—does a fantasy like Hardy’s belong? It helps to remember that the tension between reason and imagination is a big part of Hardy’s background. During the first half of Hardy’s life, the Victorian era saw the trot of science shift to a gallop, and modern life kept pace. Not only did secular and historical scrutiny of the Bible grow in popularity, but Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published to astonishing effect in 1859. Yet while Hardy’s youth was a time of new ideas, it was not yet a time when young men in small English towns (such as his in rural Dorset) would have been exposed to them. Born in 1840, he learned Christian values and cosmology, Latin classics, and he considered becoming a priest. When Hardy showed up in London at age 22, he quickly acquired a quintessentially late-Victorian attitude: the sober gloom of doubt. That shift of perspective guides Hardy’s bleakly Modern poetry, and it figures into “The Shadow on the Stone” as an impasse between modern sensibilities and the wishful thinking of grief.

Sometime before 1901, in conversation with the critic William Archer, Hardy said of ghosts, “I am most anxious to believe in what, roughly speaking, we may call the supernatural. But I find no evidence for it!” Even before Emma died, he seems to have been primed for wishful thinking. “My nerves vibrate very readily,” Hardy explained. “My will to believe is perfect.” It’s easy to see why Hardy’s elegaic poems make such wide and imaginative use of haunting as a motif, especially for a poet who wants so badly to be haunted. But want is not enough in “The Shadow on the Stone,” and Hardy’s sense that “evidence” will fail him is what bolsters the decision sealed by these last four lines:

So I went on softly from the glade,
And left her behind me throwing her shade,
As she were indeed an apparition—
My head unturned lest my dream should fade.

Hardy knows it is his “dream,” not an “apparition,” and his choice to walk away reflects two kinds of resignation—not only to Emma’s absolute death but also to a grief that can live only in his imagination, and to which the world is indifferent.

Readers of Greek mythology will recognize a story about a gifted lyricist who is tempted to turn and look at the ghost of his dead wife. That is the myth of Orpheus, greatest of mortal singers, whose wife, Eurydice, dies after stumbling into a nest of snakes. Orpheus, whose songs could tame beasts and overwhelm the Sirens, sings so sadly that the gods lead him to the underworld, where his weepy music persuades Hades, the god of the dead, to let Eurydice follow him back to the surface. The catch is that Hades forbids Orpheus to look back at his wife during their trek to the surface. As Orpheus nears the world of the living, his worry overcomes him and he turns around—only to see Eurydice fade back to Hades forever. Hades, poignantly enough, is Greek for “unseen,” which is exactly what Hardy fears will become of Emma if he turns around.

Orpheus had his lyre, Hardy has his lyrics. Yet as a modern poet Hardy identifies with the limits of Orpheus’s songs, not the triumphs. More important than the power of Orpheus’s lyre is the story of his doubt. The man who moved Hades still couldn’t sing well enough to convince himself that his art had the currency of actual life. What Orpheus couldn’t resist was the temptation to defer to the artless work of his eyes—to know Eurydice’s return on the terms of the real and literal rather than the felt and figurative. To hear Eurydice behind him was to encounter her as others encountered his song, while to see her was to abandon his medium for the real thing. As an artist, Orpheus could have the shade of Eurydice, but as a man he could only lose her. And it is because Hardy knows the sad truth of Orpheus that he is unwilling to turn his head. He is wise enough to leave his memories to a realm that can never disappoint only because it can never satisfy.

Originally Published: May 19th, 2010

Jeremy Axelrod is a writer living in New York. He has written articles for Parnassus, the New York Sun, Commentary Magazine, and other publications. His poetry has appeared in Parnassus and the Yale Review. He is also the assistant editor of Contemporary Poetry Review. He lives in the East Village.

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