On one of Hardy’s most haunting poems about the past
‘A Spellbound Palace’ is not one of Thomas Hardy’s best-known poems, but in our opinion it is one of his best. Focusing on Hampton Court Palace on the River Thames, and summoning memories of Tudor England during the time of Cardinal Wolsey and King Henry VIII, ‘A Spellbound Palace’ is a moody and evocative poem that deserves more critical attention than it has received.
A Spellbound Palace
On this kindly yellow day of mild low-travelling winter sun
The stirless depths of the yews
Are vague with misty blues:
Across the spacious pathways stretching spires of shadow run,
And the wind-gnawed walls of ancient brick are fired vermilion.
Two or three early sanguine finches tune
Some tentative strains, to be enlarged by May or June:
From a thrush or blackbird
Comes now and then a word,
While an enfeebled fountain somewhere within is heard.
Our footsteps wait awhile,
Then draw beneath the pile,
When an inner court outspreads
As ’twere History’s own asile,
Where the now-visioned fountain its attenuate crystal sheds
In passive lapse that seems to ignore the yon world’s clamorous clutch,
And lays an insistent numbness on the place, like a cold hand’s touch.
And there swaggers the Shade of a straddling King, plumed, sworded, with sensual face,
And lo, too, that of his Minister, at a bold self-centred pace:
Sheer in the sun they pass; and thereupon all is still,
Save the mindless fountain tinkling on with thin enfeebled will.
Much of Thomas Hardy’s greatest poetry was inspired by memories of his early years with his first wife, Emma, and ‘A Spellbound Palace’ is no different. It was written late in Hardy’s life, in around 1925, just a few years before Hardy’s death in 1928. (He composed his final poem on his deathbed.) However, Hardy appears to be recalling a visit that he and Emma had paid to Hampton Court in 1874-75, in the early years of their marriage, and in the early years of Hardy’s own writing career (1874 was the year his first major success as a novelist, Far from the Madding Crowd, was published).
Although Hardy’s language is often plain and relatively easy to understand, even in his poetry, he has a fondness for slightly rarer or archaic words which sometimes take us by surprise, since they appear in an otherwise straightforward sentence. The word ‘asile’ is a good example of this: it’s not a typo for ‘aisle’ in our transcription of the poem, but is there in the original (although perhaps Hardy wants us to recall the word’s anagram given the architectural context of the palace and court being described). But ‘asile’ is an early form of the more familiar word ‘asylum’, conveying ideas of refuge or solace but also madness. (‘Court’ and ‘asylum’ are also semantically linked, given the other, legal meaning of ‘court’.) The notion that Hampton Court Palace is ‘History’s own asile’ suggests not only that visitors to the palace have a chance to observe a place where English history has been preserved, but also that the history being preserved was wild and chaotic – as indeed it was, since Hampton Court immediately summons the ghosts of not only King Henry VIII but also his minister, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, whose fall from grace preceded Henry’s break with Rome and his divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (a divorce Wolsey had failed to make happen) and his subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn.
But ‘A Spellbound Palace’ also implies that something of this history remains out of reach, irrevocable, merely evoked in the minds of visitors such as Hardy: the ‘enfeebled fountain’ can tell of no secrets, and only the thrush and blackbird vouchsafe the odd word, and they can scarcely tell any more than the ‘mindless fountain’ with its ‘enfeebled will’. ‘A Spellbound Palace’ is a mysterious poem and is unusual among Hardy’s poetry precisely because its meaning remains so ambiguous.