Thomas Hardy and his Choirmaster

Thomas Hardy by William Strang 1893

Today is the anniversary of Thomas Hardy’s death in 1928. Perhaps you’ve read some of his wonderful novels, like The Mayor of Casterbridge (my own introduction to the Victorian master) or Tess of the d’Urbervilles, or my personal favorite Jude the Obscure (which I’ve posted about here and here). But did you know the novelist was also a poet? After Jude the Obscure, he was principally a poet.

Right now, I’m going through his massive volume of poetry as I construct a reading list for the program I’m in, and I would like to share with you one of his poems that resonates with this anniversary. Of course, most Hardy poems resonate with this anniversary, but perhaps you haven’t come across this one before, “The Choirmaster’s Burial”:

He often would ask us
That, when he died,
After playing so many
To their last rest,
If out of us any
Should here abide,
And it would not task us,
We would with our lutes
Play over him
By his grave-brim
The psalm he liked best—
The one whose sense suits
‘Mount Ephraim’—
And perhaps we should seem
To him, in Death’s dream,
Like the seraphim.

As soon as I knew
That his spirit was gone
I thought this his due,
And spoke thereupon.
‘I think’, said the vicar,
‘A read service quicker
Than viols out-of-doors
In these frosts and hoars.
That old-fashioned way
Requires a fine day,
And it seems to me
It had better not be.’
Hence, that afternoon,
Though never knew he
That his wish could not be,
To get through it faster
They buried the master
Without any tune.

But ’twas said that, when
At the dead of next night
The vicar looked out,
There struck on his ken
Thronged roundabout,
Where the frost was graying
The headstoned grass,
A band all in white
Like the saints in church-glass,
Singing and playing
The ancient stave
By the choirmaster’s grave.

Such the tenor man told
When he had grown old.

Want to know what those ghosts were playing? Click here for Benjamin Milgrove’s “Mount Ephraim” tune.

The lines, “That old-fashioned way / Requires a fine day” stick with me. I would hope that Hardy’s wishes were respected more than the choirmaster’s, but it seems only his heart rests where he wanted it, while the rest of him was interred befitting a poet of England in Westminster Abbey.

Burial site of Thomas Hardy’s heart. Photo by Gary Watson CC BY-SA 3.0

2 Responses

    • I’m glad you liked it! I haven’t read “Afterwards” yet. Thank you for introducing me to it. As I’m going through Hardy’s poetry, I’m very interested in the way he treats time, and this one is great for that.

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