ARTICLES

Some Thoughts on Wind and Rain

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When beginning to think about the poem “During Wind and Rain” by Thomas Hardy, I thought it might be useful to go back for some context to the old pessimist Yvor Winters, who always had provocative things to say about form. If he was a pessimist, well, so was Thomas Hardy.  In his book Defense of Reason, Winters speaks of form as being in some way equivalent to moral content:

“Form is not something outside the poet, something “aesthetic,” and superimposed upon his moral content; it is essentially a part, in fact it may be the decisive part, of the moral content, even though the poet may be arriving at the final perfection of the condition he is communicating while he communicates it and in a large measure as a result of the act and technique of communication.” (Page 22)

This may sound today like too grand a claim for the formal aspect of a poem, and the word “moral,” cheapened as it has become in political and religious discourse, requires careful handling.  But let’s see how Winters’ idea might apply to “During Wind and Rain”:

       They sing their dearest songs—
       He, she, all of them—yea,
       Treble and tenor and bass,
            And one to play;
      With the candles mooning each face. . . .
            Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

       They clear the creeping moss—
       Elders and juniors—aye,
       Making the pathways neat
            And the garden gay;
       And they build a shady seat. . . .
            Ah, no; the years, the years,
See, the white storm-birds wing across.

       They are blithely breakfasting all—
       Men and maidens—yea,
       Under the summer tree,
            With a glimpse of the bay,
       While pet fowl come to the knee. . . .
            Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.

       They change to a high new house,
       He, she, all of them—aye,
       Clocks and carpets and chairs
          On the lawn all day,
       And brightest things that are theirs. . . .
          Ah, no; the years, the years
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.

The poem is made up of four seven-line stanzas, each one beginning with a tableau of conviviality and domestic concord among members of a family.  These cheerful pictures, outlined with the simplest efficiency, are carried in the first five lines of each stanza.  The last two lines of each stanza (the sixth and seventh) act as a ballad-style refrain that looks away from the happiness to the inevitability of time’s erosion.  Let’s look at the second stanza as an example of the recurring structural unit.

       They clear the creeping moss—
       Elders and juniors—aye,
       Making the pathways neat
            And the garden gay;
       And they build a shady seat. . . .
            Ah, no; the years, the years,
See, the white storm-birds wing across.

The first five lines show family members of different generations clearing and preparing the lawn, perhaps for a garden party.  The scene is festive.  Young and old, “elders and juniors,” are clearing away moss from the pathways and building a shady seat amid the garden’s trees.  It’s a glad state of affairs, but then the last two lines of the stanza turn bleak:

            Ah, no; the years, the years,
See, the white storm-birds wing across.

The storm-birds are harbingers not only of a particular storm but also of the general work of wind, rain, and time, which will erase the joyful moments in the garden along with the garden itself and the cherished people in it.  Hardy’s double-looking stanza points to both life and oblivion.  This rhetorical pattern, replicated in all four stanzas, contains two thematic perspectives, where the first five lines point one way and the last two point another.  It acknowledges Hardy’s understanding of the duality inherent in the nature of things.  We are here for a while, and then we are gone.  In his stanza, the heedlessness and the impending dissolution don’t cancel each other out.  They exist together in tragic equipoise, symmetrically bound together by the structure.

Another formal element that serves the meaning is the shortened fourth line of each stanza. While the first five are mostly in iambic trimeter, the fourth contains only two feet and two stresses.  When you come upon that fourth line, the change in sound pattern creates a sonic effect of falling short, a disappointment in the ear when the expected third stress fails to sound.  We can think of it this way: the rhythmic deflation of the fourth line hints at the inadequacy of gardens, nice houses, and families to save us in the grand scheme of nature and time.  Listen to how it plays out in the third stanza:

       They are blithely breakfasting all—
       Men and maidens—yea,
       Under the summer tree,
            With a glimpse of the bay,
       While pet fowl come to the knee. . . .
            Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.

There is a distinct note of sadness in the metrically truncated fourth line (“With a glimpse of the bay”) despite the fact that it conveys the pretty image of water seen in the distance across a summer lawn.  How does this happen?  It may have something to do with psycho-acoustics, but I would explain it this way: the shift from a quick, tripping three-beat line to the shortened two-foot line with only two beats falling at the end of two anapests imparts a sense of the fleeting and fragile.  By sonically suggesting things that will not endure, the line itself embraces the binary view inherent in the whole poem—the lovely image and the note of sadness.  Ezra Pound, remarking on Hardy’s poetry, called this quality “expression coterminous with the matter.” The minor key in this case is achieved not only by the rhythmic change-up, but also by the way the image is set in the overall context of the poem.

What about the rhyme scheme?  It does not vary: a b c b c d a.  In each stanza, the end of the first line, which is part of the happy tableau, rhymes with the end of the last line, seven away, where the doomful message sounds.  In a well-wrought poem, this kind of sonic equality will suggest a relationship beyond mere sound.  In this case, the equivalence points up the radically ironic contrast in meaning:

They sing their dearest songs— … /
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

They are blithely breakfasting all— … /
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.

They change to a high new house, … /
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.

This musical echo reaching across the stanza is another technique for yoking together the happy five-line unit with the dark two-line ending.  It’s yet another way that the poem’s structure embraces the double truth that Hardy understands.  This “binding secret” (to slightly misuse Seamus Heaney’s phrase) is there, too, in the repeated long “a” at the end of lines two and four.  This rhyme, repeating in those positions in each of the four stanzas, works against—and perhaps refutes—the discontinuity that the poem is about.

What does all this have to do with a moral attitude?  Robert Mezey, in his introduction to Hardy’s Selected Poems, notes that in great poetry “the moral and the aesthetic are rarely, if ever, separate things.”  What does that mean?  Well, let’s start by accepting that a poem negotiates its way between the real and the ideal. In Hardy’s poem, the real includes the fact that transitory joy is obliterated by time, wind and rain.  The ideal comes into play as language organized formally that controls time and imparts order to chaos.  Like any good poem, “During Wind and Rain” tries to rectify the real with the ideal.  Let’s say it this way.  Time passes, people perish, nature overwhelms.  This implies the futility of having a garden and a house.  Gardens and houses are the result of techne.  A house is built, a garden is shaped, and Hardy’s poem demonstrates that they come to naught.  But isn’t a poem like a house or a garden?  It, too, is born of techne.  Can it last?  Is it worthy?  Worthy of what?  I would say it should be worthy of the idea that it expresses.  It must be commensurate in its form and comportment (the ideal) with the accurately observed truth that it conveys (the real).  Such a poem at least stands a chance of outlasting the specific garden, the house, the wife, the man. 

I think this is what Yvor Winters meant when he said that a poem, even in its structure, implies a moral stance.  The fact that Hardy has arrived at an understanding of life and oblivion is important to him as a man.  That he has been able to reflect his understanding in the structure of how he expresses it makes this an important poem.  What Hardy has understood is terrifying, but he has not tried to turn from it, he has not committed suicide, he has not thrown up his hands, unmanned by despair.  He has, instead, patterned a communication that conveys in the arrangement of its parts the full, balanced meaning of the thing he has come to know.  When looked at in this way, it becomes a bit more clear, I hope, how form can be equated with moral content. Here, again, is Yvor Winters:

“… Hardy’s poetic style, in his sense of form, … is identical with the will or the ability to control and shape one’s experience.  The tragic necessity of putting by the claims of the world without the abandonment of self-control, without loss of the ability to go on living for the present, intelligently and well, is … the subject of Hardy’s poetry.” (In Defense of Reason, page 26)

If, as Winters says, “the artistic process is one of moral evaluation of human experience, by means of a technique which renders possible an evaluation more precise than any other,” then the technique Hardy used was the writing of this poem.  As a man, he subjected himself to the iron logic of his world view and accepted its logical consequences; as a poet, he subjected himself to the rigors of his chosen form.  Simultaneously, I might add, he disavowed the “jeweled line,” keeping his language within the narrow register of the plain to fit the sobering truth he had come to terms with.  In “During Wind and Rain,” Hardy has succeeded in “understanding his experience in rational terms,” as Winters writes, and has conveyed “the kind and degree of emotion that should properly be motivated by this understanding.”  In Hardy, there is no emotional exaggeration.  There are no alcohol-fueled linguistic rampages, as in Hart Crane. This is a contrast that Yvor Winters is very fond of.  He will bash Hart Crane at every turn.  Winters considered Crane’s aesthetic to be a fancy escape from reality, or an evasion of reality.  If that’s true, then we might say that Hardy’s aesthetic has done justice to reality.  But how?  “During Wind and Rain” is structurally consistent with the duality it describes.  It enacts the falling short and embodies the ironies of circumstance that it dramatizes.  In this way it both acknowledges and rectifies the real.  As a highly organized structure, it is a gesture of faith in our ability to create order.  It reflects the will and effort that shaped it, and only in this way does the poem survive its truth. 

John Foy’s first book is Techne’s Clearinghouse (Zoo Press, 2004).  His poems have appeared in the Swallow Anthology of New American Poets (Ohio University Press, 2009), Poetry, The New Yorker, The New Criterion, Parnassus, Cimarron Review, The Raintown Review, Barrow Street, Think, and other journals, and on line at Poetry Daily, Nervous Breakdown, Umbrella, linebreak, and Big City Lit.  He works as a senior financial editor at Itaú BBA Securities.  He lives in New York with his wife, son, and daughter.

When beginning to think about the poem “During Wind and Rain” by Thomas Hardy, I thought it might be useful to go back for some context to the old pessimist Yvor Winters, who always had provocative things to say about form. If he was a pessimist, well, so was Thomas Hardy.  In his book Defense of Reason, Winters speaks of form as being in some way equivalent to moral content: