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“The Place on the Map”: Geography and Meter in Hardy’s Elegies

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 16, Number 3, September 2009
pp. 553-574 | 10.1353/mod.0.0124

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In 1884, while workers were digging the foundations and well for Thomas Hardy’s future home, Hardy found the remains of several urns and skeletons that appeared to be from the Roman period. This was a discovery that delighted him because, he wrote in his autobiography, “the only drawback to the site [had] seemed to him to be its newness.”1 Eager to share these findings, Hardy presented a paper to the Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club (which he had joined in the early 1880s) on “Some Romano-British Relics found at Max Gate.”2 By this point Hardy was known for his interest in the southwestern region of England, which was already being called “Wessex,” the name he had given it in his novels. Hardy had grown up only a few miles away from the Max Gate site, and he describes in his preface to the “Wessex Edition” of his writing how his literary depictions of “landscape, prehistoric antiquities, and especially old English architecture” (Hardy was trained as an architect) were “done from the real.”3 As biographer Michael Millgate notes, Hardy’s nineteenth-century rural upbringing led him “to know his own district with an intimacy which is today hard for most people to imagine,”4 and early on he was aware of the imbrication of past and present in landscape. One poem, “The Roman Road,” points to the origins of this understanding, as Hardy relates how, with his mother “Guiding [his] infant steps,” they “walked that ancient thoroughfare.”5 For readers of his novels, Hardy’s curiosity about the juxtapositions of past and present in specific places is evidenced by the death of Tess at Stonehenge or, in The Mayor of Castorbridge, the ancient Maumbery Rings—a Roman amphitheater, then town gallows, which becomes a site for pivotal narrative events.

Hardy explores such spatio-temporal layering—the sense that past and present coexist in certain places—not only in his novels, but also in his poetry, and especially, I argue, in his elegiac verse. In fact, Hardy’s experiments with meter in his later elegies demand a turn to geography because of the spatio-temporal relationships the prosody proposes.6 As Marjorie Levinson has recently claimed, “something funereal, melancholy, and haunted defines Hardy’s entire corpus,” and critics such as Ralph Pite and Wesley Kort have argued for a reconsideration of the role of place and geography in Hardy’s fiction.7 In this essay, I bring these two foci together to show how we can understand Hardy’s elegies more thoroughly through attention to their use of geography—the science of the description of the physical features of a place or region. This use allows Hardy to articulate loss as spatially bound and temporally shifting. Hardy’s elegies, as Jahan Ramazani has noted, are characteristic of modern elegies in their performance of a “melancholic mourning,” a label that points to the unresolved nature of his poetics of loss.8 One way that Hardy both expresses and contains this ambivalence is through geographic elements (maps, topographic features, toponymic references) as mediators of loss and presence. His poems thereby set up a relationship between the space of the verse and the charted places of Hardy’s England, effectively challenging the parameters of both elegiac poetry and geography.9 His prosodic and geographic experiments also point, I will suggest, to Hardy’s development of a particularly modernist form of mourning.10

Hardy’s lifelong interest in geography originated in primary school where, he reports, he “excelled” at the subject (LI, 20). Until late in the nineteenth century, in fact, primary school was the only place where geography was taught. Their field not yet recognized as a university subject, early-nineteenth-century geographers became increasingly defensive about biological and geological sciences encroaching on their terrain.11 One of the main developments that grew out of the resulting efforts to define and expand the scope of geography was the thematic map, created by cartographers like Alexander von Humboldt, which departed from the topographic map in its presentation of “an argument about invisible phenomena, or phenomena undergoing change, or about interactions between phenomena” (HVT 250). One primary project in these...

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