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Click on the names below to hear these poets read "During Wind and Rain" (in RealAudio):

Philip Levine

Rosanna Warren

Donald Hall

(For help, see a note about the audio.)

Previously in Soundings:

Ben Jonson, "My Picture Left in Scotland" (November 25, 1998)
Robert Pinsky, Gail Mazur, and David Ferry read aloud this great poem of unrequited love. With an introduction by Robert Pinsky.

Walt Whitman, "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life" (October 8, 1998)
Frank Bidart, Marie Howe, and Galway Kinnell read Whitman's stunning poem of self-doubt. With an introduction by Steven Cramer.

W. B. Yeats, "Easter 1916" (February 4, 1998)
Richard Wilbur, Philip Levine, and Peter Davison give voice to one of the century's greatest poems. The first installment in a series of classic-poetry readings by contemporary poets, with an introduction by David Barber.

Hear more poetry readings in An Audible Anthology.

Go to Atlantic Unbound's Poetry Pages.

Join a conversation on poets and poetry in Post & Riposte.

Thomas Hardy, During Wind and Rain, read by Philip Levine, Rosanna Warren, and Donald Hall
Introduction by Philip Levine

January 6, 1999

In 1954 Robert Lowell was the living American poet whose work excited me most, so when I heard he was going to be teaching at the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, I quit my job in Detroit, drove to Iowa City, rented a room for twelve dollars a week, and, lacking sufficient funds to pay out-of-state tuition, attended his classes without registering. I thought he would admire my work as much as I admired his, for wasn't mine passionate, mysterious, full of unexplained references, as obscure as I found his to be? About midway through the semester at a private conference, Lowell suggested I stop imitating Hart Crane and instead turn to Thomas Hardy. "Hardy? 'The Darkling Thrush'?" I asked, that being the only poem of Hardy's I knew well. Poised over what I had hoped he'd find a stirring family poem (which in truth he seemed less than enthusiastic about), he said, "No, I was thinking of other poems -- 'Wind and Rain,' for example." It seemed like odd advice at the time. Wasn't Hardy the past, wasn't Hart Crane the poet pointing most directly at the future? But I decided I'd give his suggestion a try and luckily located a used copy of the old Collected Poems for $2.50 and turned first to "During Wind and Rain." Here it is:

  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.

After the third or fourth reading I began to notice things that were more than a little astonishing. Like my poem, this was a family poem, though unlike mine it named no one and spent no effort describing the family members -- unless one regards such words as "treble," "tenor," "bass," "elders," and "juniors," as descriptive. Its focus was on their activities, and always those they acted out in concert. The first thing that hit me with force was the ominous fifth line of the first stanza, "With the candles mooning each face." I heard it as a delicate, understated transition from the gaiety of the opening family songfest to the two lines of lamentation that conclude the stanza. The faces that are mooned have temporarily lost their features -- that which made them distinctive, made them what they are -- just as they will permanently lose those distinctions in the future that awaits them.

This family is composed of such a group of optimists. They begin the second stanza by clearing "the creeping moss," making "the pathways neat/ and the garden gay." They even "build a shady seat" as though they believed they could escape from the primal pursuit of the sun, which brings us all to completion -- to age, old age, and finally death. And the final two lines of the stanza once again deny the efficacy of the family's labors: "Ah, no; the years, the years;/ See, the white storm-birds wing across." We as readers hear the warning; they as participants hear nothing, for in stanza three they are "blithely breakfasting all" -- outdoors no less. They seem to think they have tamed the great beasts of time and nature as "pet fowl come to the knee." But no, the years pass, "And the rotten rose is ript from the wall." The wall of what? one naturally asks. The answer is waiting at the end of the poem.

In the final stanza we seem to be witnessing a move to grander things for this family, at least in the first five lines: their possessions outdoors, all those "brightest things that are theirs," while they move to "a high new house." How wonderfully young and trusting they appear -- and, one should add, short-sighted -- for the house that awaits them is neither new nor high and it certainly contains nothing that is bright. Of course it is the grave, and there it is at the poem's close, in what must be one of the most inexorable lines in all of English poetry, composed of eight relentless monosyllables depicting the erosion by the forces of nature -- rain and wind -- of the features of their gravestones, that same nature they thought they'd tamed and captured. Ironically we as readers have not lost them, for we never knew them; they were no more than shadows.

I am still astounded by Hardy's artistry. This stanza form, which he seems to have invented, allows for both the merry, swinging movement of the beginning lines of each stanza, with their undercurrent of futility, and the sure counterpunch delivered in the closing lines. The rhyme is effortless, and in the final stanza one might say daring; he rhymes "house" with "ploughs," or rather off-rhymes it, as well as with "years" and "chairs." What extraordinary resonance he captures merely through the music of the poem. I should not say "merely," for the music itself is sheer magic and flawless.

I never thanked Lowell for his good advice, for he was quickly gone to the University of Cincinnati. In truth Hardy, with his marvelous Anglo-Saxon diction and his stubborn monosyllables, has been of far more use to me than Hart Crane, whose verbal magic I utterly lack. Lowell was right: there was a model for me in Hardy, that teller of great tales, and I have been feeding there ever since.

Click on the names below to hear
these poets read "During Wind and Rain":

Philip Levine Rosanna Warren Donald Hall

(For help, see a note about the audio.)

Donald Hall's most recent collection of poems is Without (1998). He is the author of many other books, including the memoir Life Work (1993).

Philip Levine is the author of many books of poetry, including The Simple Truth (1994), which received the Pulitzer Prize. His new collection, The Mercy, will appear in the spring.

Rosanna Warren teaches comparative literature at Boston University. Her most recent books are Suppliant Women (1994), a translation of Euripides with Stephen Scully, and Stained Glass (1994), a collection of poems.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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