‘The Woman I Met’ – Thomas Hardy

Hardy image

This is an extract from Mark Ford’s ‘Thomas Hardy – Half a Londoner’ which will be published in November 2016 by Harvard University Press

Hardy’s longest London poem opens with an archetypal urban crowd scene – ‘A stranger, I threaded sunken-hearted / A lamp-lit crowd; / And anon there passed me a soul departed, / Who mutely bowed’. ‘The Woman I Met’ (CP 592-94) was published in the London Mercury in April of 1921, with its setting and date of composition indicated as its conclusion: London, 1918.[1] Hardy’s Wessex is as phantom-crowded a region as any in literature, but this ghostly prostitute is his only contribution to the history of urban poetic spectres that arcs from Baudelaire to James Thomson to T.S. Eliot – sections of whose ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, incidentally, Hardy copied into his literary notebook of 1917, with the neutral comment, ‘a poet of the vers-libre school’ (LN II 226-27). There is certainly nothing ‘vers-libre’ about the insistently rhyming ‘The Woman I Met’, but traces of Dante (whom Hardy read in 1887) that hint at the uses to which he would be put by Eliot in The Waste Land and ‘Little Gidding’, can be discerned in this revenant mutely bowing to a nocturnal urban wanderer. The poem’s schema allows past and present to engage in a dreamy dialogue that replicates that of the poet with the woman he met: he is both a ‘stranger’ in the London crowd, yet also revisiting the streets of his adventures when a ‘fresh bland boy of no assurance’; she is a female Lazarus who has ‘quitted earth’ and is ‘yet upon it’, back in her haunts of old – indeed they end up as a half-real, half-phantasmagoric version of the couple plodding through the night and rain on Tooting Common in ‘Beyond the Last Lamp’, although it is through busy Central London that they peregrinate:

 

      So walked the dead and I together
         The quick among,
      Elbowing our kind of every feather
         Slowly and long;
      Yea, long and slowly. That a phantom should stalk there
         With me seemed nothing strange, and talk there
      That winter night
         By flaming jets of light.

 

The layering of the otherworldly and the banal that makes the scenario depicted seem both extraordinary and ‘nothing strange’ is reflected in Hardy’s mixing of hallowed terms from the Nicene Creed (‘the quick and the dead’) with colloquial turns of phrase such as ‘of every feather’ – here made even more obtrusive by being rhymed with ‘together’; like so many of Hardy’s couples, the narrator and the ghost of the ‘tinselled sinner’ are ‘held in suspense’, to use a phrase from ‘Beyond the Last Lamp’ (CP 315), as they elbow their way through the busy streets of London.

The idea for the poem perhaps derived from an incident of April 1891 recorded in the Life: ‘Piccadilly at night. – “A girl held a long-stemmed narcissus to my nose as we went by each other …”’ (L 247). Hardy was, however, over 50 by then, and so by no means a ‘fresh bland boy of no assurance’. As ‘In the British Museum’ develops a dialogue not only between the speaker and the labouring man but between the older and the younger Hardy, so the spectral prostitute of this poem plunges the ‘sunken-hearted’ man of its opening line into memories of his life as a guileless new-arrival walking the city streets as innocently as Avice II:

 

         In my far-off youthful years I had met her,
         Full-pulsed; but now, no more life’s debtor,
                Onward she slid
         In a shroud that furs half-hid.

         ‘Why do you trouble me, dead woman,
                Trouble me;
         You whom I knew when warm and human?
              – How it be
         That you quitted earth and are yet upon it
         Is, to any who ponder on it,
                Past being read!’
             ‘Still, it is so,’ she said.

 

Her outlandish garb vividly transposes the characteristic self-division out of which the poem evolves, his sense of being both old and ‘sunken-hearted’ and yet in touch with his ‘far-off youthful years’. It offers a good example, too, of Hardy’s ability to make quasi-allegorical iconography assume a peculiar vivacity, almost a life of its own, through the unquestioning literalness of his imaginative habits: she is a streetwalker, and therefore in furs; she is also dead, and therefore in a shroud. In its unashamed and unselfconscious incongruity the image itself illustrates the relationship between the young Gothic architect and the older writer who had discovered how to make use of the ‘Gothic art-principle in which he had been trained’, and in particular of Gothic’s delight in ‘cunning irregularity’ (L 323). Sliding onward in her shroud and her furs, as visually distinctive as a medieval emblem, or any of the souls being punished for their sins in Dante’s Inferno, she demonstrates the ‘principle of spontaneity’ that Hardy carried over from architecture to poetry, ‘straying freakishly’, to borrow further from his discussion of the Gothic in his autobiography, into life, where she ‘had no business to be’. The puzzled wonder that her appearance evokes in the speaker, she blithely explains, is beside the point – ‘“Still, it is so,” she said’; and although she is no longer ‘full-pulsed’, or ‘warm and human’, warmth and humanity leach from these Keatsian adjectives, infusing her with the queer, suspended semi-livingness that animates so many of Hardy’s ghosts.

In chapter 2 of the Life Hardy ‘humorously’ alluded to the late development of his sexuality: ‘He used to say … that he was a child till he was sixteen, a youth till he was five-and-twenty, and a young man till he was nearly fifty’ (L 37). The unlikely premise of ‘The Woman I Met’ is given in the five stanzas of the poem that are spoken by the prostitute: the narrator’s youthful innocence, she explains, amidst the ‘town dross’ from which she earned her living, made her fall so deeply in love with him that he became her ‘Cross’. As for many a nineteenth-century literary Magdalen,[2] life on the streets results in a longing for an unattainable purity, in her case taking the form of a violent desire for this ‘fresh bland boy of no assurance’ who would occasionally nod to her in passing; in his simplicity, however, he proved not only indifferent to her charms but unaware of her trade – even, she reminds him, after she accosted him directly and presented him with a token of erotic love, a ‘costly flower’:

 

         ‘These were my haunts in my olden sprightly
                Hours of breath;
          Here I went tempting frail youth nightly
                To their death;
          But you deemed me chaste – me, a tinselled sinner!
          How thought you one with pureness in her
                Could pace this street
            Eyeing some man to greet?

         ‘Well; your very simplicity made me love you
                Mid such town dross,
          Till I set not Heaven itself above you,
                Who grew my Cross;
          For you’d only nod, despite how I sighed for you;
          So you tortured me, who fain would have died for you!
               – What I suffered then
           Would have paid for the sins of ten!

         ‘Thus went the days. I feared you despised me
               To fling me a nod
          Each time, no more: till love chastised me
               As with a rod
          That a fresh bland boy of no assurance
          Should fire me with passion beyond endurance,
               While others all
            I hated, and loathed their call.

          ‘I said: “It is his mother’s spirit
               Hovering around
           To shield him, maybe!” I used to fear it,
               As still I found
           My beauty left no least impression,
           And remnants of pride withheld confession
               Of my true trade
             By speaking; so I delayed.

          ‘I said: “Perhaps with a costly flower
              He’ll be beguiled.”
           I held it, in passing you one late hour,
              To your face: you smiled,
           Keeping step with the throng; though you did not see there
           A single one that rivalled me there! . . .
              Well: it’s all past.
             I died in the Lock at last.’

 

A late addition to the long line of Victorian poems about prostitutes that stretches from Thomas Hood and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (whose ‘Jenny’ was first published in 1848) to the numerous fin de siècle evocations of London’s ‘Papillons du Pavé’, to borrow the title of a Vincent O’Sullivan poem of 1896,[3] Hardy’s ‘The Woman I Met’ presents an intriguing contrast to his own earlier contribution to the genre, ‘The Ruined Maid’, written when he was himself a ‘fresh bland boy’ in London. The woman’s miserable end in the Lock (a hospital specializing in patients with venereal disease) grounds the encounter in a realism wildly at odds with both the music-hall humour of the earlier poem, and the implausible fiery passion that she describes herself conceiving for the innocent young narrator, with whom she seems never to have exchanged a word. The disparity between the fantasy that the poem propounds of her unquenchable love for him, and the unflinching details that it offers of a prostitute’s life on the streets, ‘tempting frail youth nightly / To their death’, mirrors the incongruity of her visual appearance, the furs that she wears over her shroud. This lack of consistency, or failure to establish a firm, meaningful grip on the poem’s properties and narrative, extends to her imputation of his indifference to her to ‘his mother’s spirit / Hovering around / To shield him’; are we to think of Hardy’s own mother, Jemima, with her fierce antipathy to the notion of her children ever marrying or getting embroiled in sexual affairs, or of the Virgin Mary, as Frank M. Giordano has argued [4] – or is this tutelary spirit more pagan, less classifiable? The fact that she inspires ‘fear’ in the prostitute certainly lends the shielding, maternal anima hovering over the boy a visceral potency that is at odds with either an autobiographical or an allegorical Christian reading; like so many aspects of the ghostly prostitute herself, this spirit, although so briefly glimpsed, establishes herself as a being weirdly independent of the poem’s apparent contexts, requirements or concerns.

The woman’s speech reaches a climax, though it’s perhaps closer to an anti-climax, that is similarly ungraspable and unfocused, even enigmatic, in her presentation of the ‘costly flower’; it is not even clear whether or not he accepts her gift. The note in the Life allows one to feel that this stanza fulfills the raison d’être of ‘The Woman I Met’, that in it Hardy reaches the poem’s source, yet it does so without bestowing significant light or resolved meaning on the experience that inspired it. The poet smiles, but without breaking step with the ‘throng’, and she vanishes in the ellipsis that precedes the emergence of the shrug of rueful stoicism – ‘Well, it’s all past’ – that attends disasters, great and small, throughout Hardy’s poetry and prose. Her flower and his smile remain disjunct, tokens the poem presents as contiguous rather than exchanged; the two pass by each other in silence, without disrupting the flow of pedestrians on the city’s streets, and the dissolve to her afterlife, culminating in death in the Lock, allows the dramatic moment that never quite happened to be quickly dispersed in disappointment and resignation.

On her return as a ghost, however, they are as free as the spectral Emma and the remorseful poet of ‘After a Journey’ to ‘stalk together’ their olden haunts:
 

           She showed me Juans who feared their call-time,
                 Guessing their lot;
           She showed me her sort that cursed their fall-time,
                 And that did not.
           Till suddenly murmured she: ‘Now, tell me,
           Why asked you never, ere death befell me,
                 To have my love,
            Much as I dreamt thereof?’

           I could not answer. And she, well weeting
                All in my heart,
           Said: ‘God your guardian kept our fleeting
                Forms apart!’

 

His inability to respond to her question at the opening of the last stanza is the poem’s most telling moment: ‘I could not answer’. As in ‘Neutral Tones’, his first great poetic depiction of a couple marooned in an impossible state of cross-purposes, it is the speaker’s helplessness, his inability to rise to the occasion, that so movingly compensates for the dramatic revelation that one might expect from such a rencontre; instead they cruise the streets in a state of shared curiosity, with her presenting an insider’s account of her ‘trade’, for all the world like a farmer or factory-owner showing a distinguished guest over the premises. While the poem’s pietistic evocation of a guardian God watching over him hardly accounts for the mysterious ebb and flow of their oblique encounters amid the crowds of London, it is worth noting how in her final speech the prostitute attributes to Him a fundamental aspect of Hardy’s own muse, which again and again reveals itself as expert at keeping ‘fleeting / Forms apart!’ Being set on the streets of the city, there is no landscape like that of ‘After a Journey’ to allow her spirit to assume the role of genius loci, with promise of a further encounter – ‘nay, bring me here again!’ (CP 349). Her departure is lingering but final:

 

           She showed me Juans who feared their call-time,
                 Guessing their lot;
           She showed me her sort that cursed their fall-time,
                 And that did not.
           Till suddenly murmured she: ‘Now, tell me,
           Why asked you never, ere death befell me,
                 To have my love,
            Much as I dreamt thereof?’

           I could not answer. And she, well weeting
                All in my heart,
           Said: ‘God your guardian kept our fleeting
                Forms apart!’

 

His inability to respond to her question at the opening of the last stanza is the poem’s most telling moment: ‘I could not answer’. As in ‘Neutral Tones’, his first great poetic depiction of a couple marooned in an impossible state of cross-purposes, it is the speaker’s helplessness, his inability to rise to the occasion, that so movingly compensates for the dramatic revelation that one might expect from such a rencontre; instead they cruise the streets in a state of shared curiosity, with her presenting an insider’s account of her ‘trade’, for all the world like a farmer or factory-owner showing a distinguished guest over the premises. While the poem’s pietistic evocation of a guardian God watching over him hardly accounts for the mysterious ebb and flow of their oblique encounters amid the crowds of London, it is worth noting how in her final speech the prostitute attributes to Him a fundamental aspect of Hardy’s own muse, which again and again reveals itself as expert at keeping ‘fleeting / Forms apart!’ Being set on the streets of the city, there is no landscape like that of ‘After a Journey’ to allow her spirit to assume the role of genius loci, with promise of a further encounter – ‘nay, bring me here again!’ (CP 349). Her departure is lingering but final:

 

   
           Sighing and drawing her furs around her
           Over the shroud that tightly bound her,
               With wafts as from clay
             She turned and thinned away.

 

Returned to the emblematic Gothic status of her initial appearance to him that winter night, with the lurid added detail of her smelling of the grave, she vanishes into the limbo of Hardy’s imaginative ghost-world, the ‘olden haunts’ so vividly thronged by composites of fantasy and memory.

     

[1] London must refer to its setting rather than place of composition since Hardy didn’t visit London at all in 1918. On the manuscript, however, the date is given as ‘about 1918’, so it is possible that the poem was composed in London, but at a different date.

[2] For further discussion of the relationship between Hardy’s prostitute and the tradition of the Magdalen in Victorian culture, see Frank R. Giordano Jr.’s ‘The Repentant Magdalen in Thomas Hardy’s “The Woman I Met”’ (English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, Vol. 15, No. 2, 1972), 136-143.

[3] For further discussion of this tradition, see Peter Robinson’s ‘The Poetry of Modern Life: On the Pavement’ in The Oxford Handbook of Victorian Poetry, ed. Matthew Bevis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 254-272.

[4] Giordano, 138.

Mark Ford

About Mark Ford

Mark Ford is Professor of English and American Literature at University College London. His most recent collection is Six Children, (Faber, 2011).