The Shadow on the Stone

      I went by the Druid stone 
   That broods in the garden white and lone,   
And I stopped and looked at the shifting shadows   
   That at some moments fall thereon
   From the tree hard by with a rhythmic swing,   
   And they shaped in my imagining
To the shade that a well-known head and shoulders   
   Threw there when she was gardening.

      I thought her behind my back,
   Yea, her I long had learned to lack,
And I said: ‘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; and to keep down grief
I would not turn my head to discover
   That there was nothing in my belief.

      Yet I wanted to look and see
   That nobody stood at the back of me;
But I thought once more: ‘Nay, I’ll not unvision   
   A shape which, somehow, there may be.’   
   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.
Thomas Hardy, "“The Shadow on the Stone”" from (: , )
Source: The Complete Poems (2001)

Writing Ideas

  1. Try paraphrasing each stanza into a single sentence. Aim for as much clarity and simplicity as possible. Now take your sentences and break them into lines. As you’re considering where to break your sentence-stanzas, think about Hardy’s own line-endings: while rhyme scheme accounts for some of his breaks, do his lines occur as phrases or fragments? End on nouns or verbs?
  2. Circle all the verbs in Hardy’s poem. Use them to write a new poem. Then, look up their antonyms (or opposite meanings, in a thesaurus) to write a second new poem.
  3. Hardy’s poem of equivocation eventually becomes a denial: “Nay, I’ll not unvision / A shape which, somehow, there may be.” Taking inspiration from the new word “unvision,” try coining a few new “un” words and use them in a poem that similarly betrays complicated and unresolved feelings (or visions).

Discussion Questions

  1. As Jeremy Axelrod notes in his poem guide, Hardy’s poetry “straddles the end of one century and the beginning of another.” How does this poem perform against your expectations of 19th century poetry? How does it seem more like a Modernist poem from the early 20th century, like those of Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot? Think about elements such as rhyme scheme, meter or tempo, and imagery. Try to find other poems from 1913, the year Hardy wrote this poem, and compare their form and content.
  2. Track the speaker’s movements and evasive or ambiguous comments in the poem: where does he begin (physically and emotionally) and where does he end up? How do word choices, line breaks, and the poem’s form contribute to the drama?
  3. Hardy’s speaker wants to “look and see / That nobody stood at the back of me.” How does the speaker’s desire—and negation of that desire—to grant the immaterial a kind of physical presence get figured in the language of this poem? What might haunting have to do with poetry in a general sense? 

Teaching Tips

  1. Hardy’s poem is above all equivocal about the occult: the “nothing in my belief” the poem’s speaker at once desires and despairs of. Use Hardy’s poem to frame a larger discussion of ghosts and poetry. What do ghosts and poems have to do with one another? In what way are all poems “haunted” by the ghosts of previous poems? Why do certain poets return to occult themes so frequently? After reading other ghost poems, perhaps including James Merrill’s “Voices from the Other World,” Li-Young Lee’s “Nocturne,” and Graham Foust’s “And the Ghosts,” have students develop their own accounts of being haunted. These might be narratives of real or imagined encounters. Ask students to think about language itself as a site of haunting through effects like rhyme, repetition, and quotation.
  2. Have students create a set of “instructions” for someone interested in writing Hardy’s poem. These instructions should be as detailed as possible and, ideally, lead someone who has never read the poem to produce it word for word. Ask students to give their “instructions” to someone outside of class and return the next day with the results. Lead a follow-up discussion on how students formulated their instructions, what they chose to emphasize in the poem and why, as well as on the difficulties and unforeseen results of “writing” this way.
More Poems by Thomas Hardy