Last week I visited my home in the North East of England with my family, and one of the trips we made while we were there was down to Ripon in North Yorkshire, on the A1, which is, as the name suggests, one of Britain’s older highways. The A1 shows its age in particular because many of its northern stretches are mere dual carriageways, ‘A-roads’ rather than fully blown ‘M-roads’ (and between Newcastle and Berwick on Tweed, the east coast road to Scotland, much of the way is still single track), having been built back when planners simply didn’t imagine the extent to which motorcars would take over the country and landscape. Ripon, anyway, is an old-fashioned kind of town, and, coincidentally enough, on the way there we saw a great load of old-fashioned cars like the one my wife photographed below. There seemed to have been some kind of classic car event in the region that weekend. When we weren’t stuck behind the old things, or stuck behind a lorry that was overtaking such a jalopy, they were quite a sight to enjoy.
And I thought of this Thomas Hardy poem, where he doesn’t enjoy the sight at all!
Tree-leaves labour up and down,
And through them the fainting light
Succumbs to the crawl of night.
Outside in the road the telegraph wire
To the town from the darkening land
Intones to travellers like a spectral lyre
Swept by a spectral hand.
A car comes up, with lamps full-glare,
That flash upon a tree:
It has nothing to do with me,
And whangs along in a world of its own,
Leaving a blacker air;
And mute by the gate, I stand again alone,
And nobody pulls up there.
Hardy grew up in the age of the horse and cart, and here he is walking through a country of telegraph wires and cars. He is obviously not much of a motorhead however, and aesthetic appreciation of the car is the last thing on his mind. He is not overlly impressed with the dawn of the mechanical age. His primary feeling is not one of awe, or hope, or even of dread or fear – though that hums in the background, I think – but of alienation.
Of course, on one level, it is just a poem about individual loneliness, Hardy’s loneliness. As in so many of the old Hardy’s poems, there is a keen sense of his solitude, always contrasted – often explicitly, here implicitly – with a past companionship (that, of course, he took for granted at the time). Hardy feels as someone who has been left behind.
But there is a wider significance to this feeling. We are at the gates of the world of Larkin’s ‘Going, going…’ of forty years later, where the poet fears for an older England that is giving way to a new age. In Hardy’s poem, we get mere glimpses of the car – lamps, the flash on a tree, the darker air left behind. But what starts as one lone Mr Toad, scooting by in his motorcar, leaving us in a cloud of fumes, will lead to a world where ‘The crowd /Is young in the M1 cafe; /Their kids are screaming for more’.
The ‘spectral lyre’ may bring to some reader’s minds another of Hardy’s great poems, ‘The Darkling Thrush’, whose first stanza starts with a similarly desolate scene, where ‘frost was spectre-gray’, and
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres
‘The Darkling Thrush’ starts with a gloomy winter scene that evokes gloom and pessimism that Hardy felt at the beginning of the new century, before he is delivered from this gloom by the beautiful strains of a song bird. In ‘Nobody Comes’ there is no such upbeat ending. It is interesting that Hardy sees lyres in bine-stems and telegraph wires, and it is surely significant that they are broken or haunted. A lyre is an instrument associate with classical Greece, with music, and beauty, and poetry and the muses. A broken lyre, or that ‘spectral hand’, seems to me to be suggestive of mourning for the passing of a poetic age, as a more mechanistic one looms. Hardy was perhaps more ambivalent about the modern age than this reading suggests. He liked trains, at least, and – as some of his other writings show, he was clear-eyed enough about the unpleasant aspects of the older ways of life. But nothing, it seems, made him feel as gloomy as the sight of a motorcar.
No doubt if he had been in Ripon with us, he would have eschewed the classic car show in favour of the glories of its ancient cathedral, or perhaps the annual Ripon duck race, which was held the same weekend.
Talking of cars though, a couple of years ago, I wrote a series of blogs on the theme of motorcars and modern alienation (and other such nonsense) for a friend’s blog. New readers may enjoy them here, here and here!