by Thomas Hardy
Here is the ancient floor,
Footworn and hollowed and thin,
Here was the former door
Where the dead feet walked in.
She sat here in her chair,
Smiling into the fire;
He who played stood there,
Bowing it higher and higher.
Childlike, I danced in a dream;
Blessings emblazoned that day;
Everything glowed with a gleam;
Yet we were looking away!
If Thomas Hardy wrote this poem today, he might title it, “The Self Unrecorded” and change the last line to “Yet we forgot to press play!”
The mania for documenting even the most private events on social media may be a tired theme of editorials and parent-to-parent conversations, but this old poem provides a fresh look at the issue. Once upon a time when memory was human and not digital, charming scenes like the one in the poem had to be experienced and reflected upon before they could be re-created in literature, music or art.
Hardy, in this jewel of a poem, laments, or pretends to lament, that he was so wrapped up in the moment that he didn’t realize how precious and passing his domestic paradise was. A little boy dances by the fire to the music of his father’s fiddle. Even at the distance of a hundred years we can see how darling this dreamy boy is. No one is watching him, not his mother, who looks into the fire, and not even himself from his mind’s eye. He’s not performing: he’s living.
For Hardy, the self unseeing is both the child who didn’t see how good and sweet his home life was and the grown man revisiting the scene who can’t see, in a literal sense, what has passed. The door, the fire, the music, the people, all gone.
In an age when people document, record and stage every event and non-event of their lives—even giving birth and having sex, the two moments of our greatest abandon–—is the self unseeing even possible?*
But poem’s lovely re-creation of a childhood memory suggests a question that’s still valid today: if the child weren’t so wrapped up in a dream, that is if he were acutely aware of the value of his family life and the fleeting quality of the moment, would he even dance? Would his dance be less pure, less sweet for being self-conscious?
The choice is to be in the moment or to remember it. If a moment glows with a gleam, and you stop to tell yourself, remember this always, haven’t you ruined it just a little? Added a drop of mortality and loss before any loss has occurred?
To put it in the language of the poem, is it better to daydream, to dance and make music, or to be the self seeing?
I’m on the side of dancing and daydreaming, of unseeing, of abandon, though perhaps as a mother who never owned a video camera, I’m renaming my own neglect.
I left the poem in an old bar in southwest Detroit, a favorite of a friend whose grandparents once lived across the street. As a little boy, my friend used to come here with his grandfather and sit at the bar with a coke and bag of chips.
Talk about floors that are footworn and hollowed and thin. Men came here after working at the nearby Ford or Cadillac plants to relax before heading home. The clientele and décor have changed somewhat since then, but the bones are the same, the bar is the same, the neighborhood feeling is still a draw. The same family has been running the bar since 1910, and the vigorous 88 year-old owner still chats with her customers as she pours a stiff drink. Much of the pleasure of going here is the strong sense of the past, of the working men of Detroit, their small pleasures and relief from the factory floor.
Thomas Hardy (1849-1928) was born in a rural village in England. His father was a stonemason and fiddle-player, and his mother was a former cook. She loved literature and taught him to read when he was four.
Hardy wanted to go to university but couldn’t because his family was poor. At age 16 he apprenticed to an architect and had a career working on the restoration of churches. He didn’t marry till he was 30. After a few years he and his wife became estranged, probably because of his frequent infatuations with other women and the isolation he needed to write. Even so, he was traumatized when his wife died in 1912. He later married a woman 39 years younger than he was.
A prolific writer, Hardy wrote 14 novels, long ones, and 900 poems. If you’re looking for summer reading, Hardy’s novels are bleak but they’re all-absorbing, and will pull you away from your Twitter feed into a way of life as long gone as the possibility of a self-unseeing.
*Oh dear. Is this is what Carrie Bradshaw would sound like if she wrote about poetry and not sex?