Which poet grieved most selflessly for the death of his wife? John Milton, Thomas Hardy, Douglas Dunn or Ted Hughes?by Kate Kellaway / June 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
I remember at a party playing a maudlin game: make up your own epitaph. It wasn’t as funny as intended, although it was revealing (one man wanted his to read: “He did better than his father”). Fortunately, we are not in charge of composing our epitaphs. But memorialising others is a responsible affair-especially in poetry. I was looking at Faber’s enticing new editions of modern poetry that include Douglas Dunn’s Elegies and Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters, when the dead wives first came to mind. I started to think of Lesley Balfour Dunn (d.1981), Sylvia Plath (d.1963) and Emma Hardy (d.1912 )–each woman with an afterlife in poetry written by her husband. The more I thought about it, the more ambiguous this dead wives’ society became.
Milton could have set them all an example. He opted for unambiguous canonisation. “On His Deceased Wife” begins: “Methought I saw my late espoused saint” and he continues: “Her face was veiled, yet to my fancied sight/Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shined/So clear, as in no face with more delight./But oh! As to embrace me she inclined,/I waked, she fled, and day bought back my night.” Bereft poets often renew their marriage vows in death and Mrs Milton, looking down from heaven has nothing to complain of–the lament is perfect: beautiful, exaggerated, blissfully unrevealing.
Thomas Hardy’s poems written after the death of Emma are trickier. They are not about saintliness but failure. In the poems–among his best–he berates himself for not loving his wife better in their last years together. Her presence did not move him then as much as her absence does now. His reaction to Emma’s death was as if to one of “life’s little ironies”: a love that comes too late. His emotion may not have been insincere, but he recognised its irony and dramatic force.
I don’t think that, were Emma able to read his poems, she would be unreservedly gratified. She might have felt indignant at the poetic mileage her husband derived from her death, all those journeys they never took together–and now this grand literary journey in her name. And she might feel a little hurt, too, by the superior value he places on their youthful times together.
Hardy is mourning twice over, for the end of youthful romance as well as for extinction in old age. Death permits the young Emma to step forward once more…