TTHA Poem of the Month » 2012 » August
After a summer pause for July, the August Poem of the Month (by request) is ‘A Commonplace Day’, published among the ‘Miscellaneous Poems’ in Poems of the Past and the Present, and number 78 in Jim Gibson’s edition. Like many of the poems in this group, it seems to set out a ‘philosophy’, in an idiosyncratic pattern of alternating trimeters and heptameters rhymmed ababb. Hardy included it in both Selected Poems and Chosen Poems. The only significant variant reading is to line 15, where the manuscript before revision has ‘Flattest of flat-pitched Days’, with an awkward musical metaphor. Elsewhere the diction is unmistakably Hardy’s: impends, undiscerned, upstole, ardency, are all Hardyan, or perhaps Hardyesque.
The poem is usually cited in one of two contexts: as an example, especially in the reference to ‘The world’s amendment’ in line 30, of Hardy’s ‘evolutionary meliorism, though one might then also note that this is a poem which perhaps unusually for Hardy slights the commonplace, suggesting that it needs redeeeming rather than that there is much to celebrate in the ordinary or homely; and as the poem singled out by F. R. Leavis in the 1940 Southern Review Hardy issue, as a typical Hardy poem: ‘As the product of a genuinely individual sensibility it has a certain obvious impressiveness.’ But to Leavis a typical Hardy poem was not a very good one. He thought ‘scuttles’ insufficiently ghostly, and at odds with the slow-moving ‘extends’ in the following stanza, and the linguistic ‘violence’ and ‘grotesque’ of the poem inconsistent with the idea of the commonplace. The best he could say for it was that ‘the final two lines might have been the close of something better’.
Is this a representative Hardy poem? Is Leavis’s grouchy account of it justified? What is the mood of the poem, and how much hope do the closing stanzas offer?
A Commonplace Day The day is turning ghost, And scuttles from the kalendar in fits and furtively, To join the anonymous host Of those that throng oblivion; ceding his place, maybe, To one of like degree. I part the fire-gnawed logs, Rake forth the embers, spoil the busy flames, and lay the ends Upon the shining dogs; Further and further from the nooks the twilight’s stride extends, And beamless black impends. Nothing of tiniest worth Have I wrought, pondered, planned; no one thing asking blame or praise, Since the pale corpse-like birth Of this diurnal unit, bearing blanks in all its rays – Dullest of dull-hued Days! Wanly upon the panes The rain slides as have slid since morn my colourless thoughts; and yet Here, while Day’s presence wanes, And over him the sepulchre-lid is slowly lowered and set, He wakens my regret. Regret – though nothing dear That I wot of, was toward in the wide world at his prime, Or bloomed elsewhere than here, To die with his decease, and leave a memory sweet, sublime, Or mark him out in Time . . . – Yet, maybe, in some soul, In some spot undiscerned on sea or land, some impulse rose, Or some intent upstole Of that enkindling ardency from whose maturer glows The world’s amendment flows; But which, benumbed at birth By momentary chance or wile, has missed its hope to be Embodied on the earth; And undervoicings of this loss to man’s futurity May wake regret in me.