"Your Last Drive": a Poem by Thomas Hardy
The Background to the Poem
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was married twice, his first wife being Emma Lavinia Gifford, whom he married in 1874. However, the marriage was not always a happy one and they became increasingly estranged as they grew older, with often violent quarrels breaking out. Towards the end of Emma’s life she lived as a virtual recluse within the same house as Thomas (Max Gate, Dorchester), having her own attic rooms that she rarely left.
It has to be admitted that Thomas was not always faithful to her, there having been several dalliances of varying seriousness, and from 1910 onwards he became increasingly attracted to his secretary, Florence Dugdale, who was 38 years younger than Thomas and was to become his second wife.
Emma died on 27th November 1912, aged 72. She had not been well for some time but her death, from impacted gallstones, was not expected and it had a profound impact on Hardy. He had always hoped to be reconciled with her but the opportunity had now gone for ever. When he found her diaries, in which she expressed her bitterness at how he had treated her, he came to realise just how bad a husband he had been to her latterly and he suffered years of remorse as a result.
One way he had of dealing with his feelings was to write a series of poems that either expressed his regrets and emotions or looked back to the happier times they had spent together many years before. One of these poems, of the former type, was “Your Last Drive”, written only a few weeks after Emma’s death.
The poem comprises five stanzas of six lines each, each having the rhyme pattern ABABCC (the same, incidentally, as that of Wordsworth’s “Daffodils”).
Stanzas One and Two
The first two stanzas set the scene:
Here by the moorway you returned,
And saw the borough lights ahead
That lit your face--all undiscerned
To be in a week the face of the dead,
And you told of the charm of that haloed view
That never again would beam on you.
And on your left you passed the spot
Where eight days later you were to lie,
And be spoken of as one who was not;
Beholding it with a heedless eye
As alien from you, though under its tree
You soon would halt everlastingly.
The reader can assume that the poet has been to visit his wife’s grave, which by coincidence is not far from the road along which she would have returned from an evening car drive, on her own, a few days before her death. The ironies of the occasion strike Hardy forcibly and form the substance of the poem. He imagines that she might have glanced sideways, with “a heedless eye” at the churchyard of Stinsford Church as she passed, little thinking that she would be buried there only eight days later. One slightly odd aspect of this is that the road in question (which is now the A35) is not close enough to the churchyard to allow it to be visible to a passer-by, although this implication is clearly intended in the poem.
Stanzas Three and Four
The third and fourth stanzas read:
I drove not with you . . . Yet had I sat
At your side that eve I should not have seen
That the countenance I was glancing at
Had a last-time look in the flickering sheen,
Nor have read the writing upon your face,
"I go hence soon to my resting-place;
"You may miss me then. But I shall not know
How many times you visit me there,
Or what your thoughts are, or if you go
There never at all. And I shall not care.
Should you censure me I shall take no heed
And even your praises no more shall need."
Hardy always claimed, and regretted, that he had failed to see the signs that Emma was in a much worse state of health than he had suspected, although it has also been suggested that he chose to ignore the very obvious indications that she was in considerable pain. Their living of parallel lives in the same house must have been a factor, because they cannot have shared many words apart from mild chit-chat such as what is hinted at in the first stanza.
The reader can imagine Emma coming into the house and passing Thomas on the way to her attic room. He might have said, “Did you have a nice drive?” to which she replied with something like, “Yes indeed – I do find the view from the moor road so charming when all the town lights are shining”.
Even had Thomas been with her on the drive he now realises that he would not have looked at her long enough to read her state of health nor the thoughts that he then imagines might have been going through her mind.
Hardy had no belief in a personal God or an afterlife, although Emma did. He therefore discounts any idea that she might still possess any sort of “knowledge” of what he is thinking or feeling. Death is a final parting of the ways, with one partner having an existence and the other having none.
The sense of finality is continued in the final stanza:
True: never you'll know. And you will not mind.
But shall I then slight you because of such?
Dear ghost, in the past did you ever find
The thought "What profit?" move me much?
Yet the fact, indeed, remains the same, --
You are past love, praise, indifference, blame.
The nearest Hardy can come to imagining an afterlife for Emma is as a ghost, and it is to her ghost that this poem is addressed. With Emma dead, any feelings of rancour for past wrongs, done or imagined, have no further meaning and there is no point in raking up past ills.
It is interesting that the wrongs for which forgiveness is now meaningless are those committed by Emma rather than by Thomas. It is Emma’s voice that says “should you censure me” and Thomas’s that says “shall I then slight you”. There is nothing here that suggests that the poet is seeking forgiveness for the wrongs that he might have committed during the marriage.
That said, the overall thrust of the poem is that none of this now matters, as is summed up by the last line. Perhaps Hardy is trying to excuse himself by claiming that he never held any grudges himself, as expressed by “in the past did you ever find the thought `What profit?` move me much?” He seems to be saying that all the arguments that Thomas and Emma had, and in which he clearly thought himself to be in the right, were of little consequence as far as he was concerned and that he forgave her errors and harsh words while she was alive, as he still does now that she is dead.
There is therefore something about this poem that leaves a slightly sour taste in the mouth. The poet is not so much pleading for forgiveness for his past mistakes and lack of kindness as stating that Emma’s faults are now wiped clean, not that they mattered much while she was alive.
Given that this poem was written so soon after Emma’s death, it would be understandable if Hardy’s emotions and thought processes were still confused and uncertain. It is known that Hardy took a long time to sort himself out and he was to feel considerable guilt for the way he had treated Emma. Any bereavement, sudden or otherwise, takes a long time to work through and Hardy had barely started the process when he wrote “Your Last Drive”. The poem should therefore be read alongside others in the “Poems 1912-13” collection to gain a deeper insight into how Hardy dealt with his loss. Had he written this poem six months later, one wonders how different it might have been.
The fact that Hardy did work through his feelings and come to realise that his love for Emma was an abiding one, despite all the difficulties in the marriage, is attested to by his strong desire to be buried alongside her when his turn came. This caused a problem in 1928 because such a great writer was due his place in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, and a compromise had to be reached whereby his heart was buried in Emma’s grave at Stinsford on the same day as his magnificent funeral in London.