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Thomas and Emma:
Poems by Thomas Hardy about his first wife, Emma Gifford

Thomas Hardy met his first wife, Emma Gifford, while he was working as an architect on St. Juliot's church, just outside Boscastle on the North Cornwall Coast. They were married in 1874 and she died in 1912. Hardy wrote several poems about their first meeting and about their marriage, most of these poems were written in the years immediately after her death. In the poems, Hardy disguises some place names as was his habit, although others remain as they were. St. Juliot and Beeny Cliff are real places near Boscastle. Castle Boterel refers to Boscastle itself, while Lyonesse is the name of the mythical land of ancient Cornwall. I have included four of Hardy's poems on this page, all of which relate Cornwall with Emma Gifford in some way, although he also wrote many poems that refer to Cornwall in other ways.


"A Dream or No"

Why go to Saint-Juliot? What's Juliot to me?
      I've been but made fancy
      By some necromancy
That much of my life claims the spot as its key.

Yes. I have had dreams of that place in the West,
      And a maiden abiding
      Thereat as in hiding;
Fair-eyed and white-shouldered, broad-browed and brown-tressed.

And of how, coastward bound on a night long ago,
      There lonely I found her,
      The sea-birds around her,
And other than nigh things uncaring to know.

So sweet her life there (in my thought has it seemed)
      That quickly she drew me
      To take her unto me,
And lodge her long years with me. Such have I dreamed.

But nought of that maid from Saint-Juliot I see;
      Can she ever have been here,
      And shed her life's sheen here,
The woman I thought a long housemate with me?

Does there even a place like Saint-Juliot exist?
      Or a Vallency Valley
      With stream and leafed alley,
Or Beeny, or Bos with its flounce flinging mist?

February 1913

"At Castle Boterel"

As I drive to the junction of lane and highway,
   And the drizzle bedrenches the waggonette,
I look behind at the fading byway,
   And see on its slope, now glistening wet,
      Distinctly yet

Myself and a girlish form benighted
   In dry March weather. We climb the road
Beside a chaise. We had just alighted
   To ease the sturdy pony's load
      When he sighed and slowed.

What we did as we climbed, and what we talked of
   Matters not much, nor to what it led,—
Something that life will not be balked of
   Without rude reason till hope is dead,
      And feeling fled.

It filled but a minute. But was there ever
   A time of such quality, since or before,
In that hill's story? To one mind never,
   Though it has been climbed, foot-swift, foot-sore,
      By thousands more.

Primaeval rocks form the road's steep border,
   And much have they faced there, first and last,
Of the transitory in Earth's long order;
   But what they record in colour and cast
      Is—that we two passed.

And to me, though Time's unflinching rigour,
   In mindless rote, has ruled from sight
The substance now, one phantom figure
   Remains on the slope, as when that night
      Saw us alight.

I look and see it there, shrinking, shrinking,
   I look back at it amid the rain
For the very last time; for my sand is sinking,
   And I shall traverse old love's domain
      Never again.

March 1913

"Beeny Cliff
March 1870 - March 1913"


O the opal and the sapphire of that wandering western sea,
And the woman riding high above with bright hair flapping free—
The woman whom I loved so, and who loyally loved me.


The pale mews plained below us, and the waves seemed far away
In a nether sky, engrossed in saying their ceaseless babbling say,
As we laughed light-heartedly aloft on that clear-sunned March day.


A little cloud then cloaked us, and there flew an irised rain,
And the Atlantic dyed its levels with a dull misfeatured stain,
And then the sun burst out again, and purples prinked the main.


—Still in all its chasmal beauty bulks old Beeny to the sky,
And shall she and I not go there once again now March is nigh,
And the sweet things said in that March say anew there by and by?


Nay. Though still in chasmal beauty looms that wild weird western shore,
The woman now is—elsewhere—whom the ambling pony bore,
And nor knows nor cares for Beeny, and will see it nevermore.

"When I Set Out for Lyonnesse"

When I set out for Lyonnesse,
      A hundred miles away,
      The rime was on the spray,
And starlight lit my lonesomeness
When I set out for Lyonnesse
      A hundred miles away.

What would bechance at Lyonnesse
      While I should sojourn there
      No prophet durst declare,
Nor did the wisest wizard guess
What would bechance at Lyonnesse
      While I should sojourn there.

When I came back from Lyonnesse
      With magic in my eyes,
      All marked with mute surmise
My radiance rare and fathomless,
When I came back from Lyonnesse
      With magic in my eyes!


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