On one of Hardy’s classic ‘Poems of 1912-13’ – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Beeny Cliff’ is one of Thomas Hardy’s best-loved poems, and belongs to the ‘Poems of 1912-13’ which he wrote in the wake of the death of his first wife, Emma. Although he and Emma had been estranged for many years when she died, her death provoked Hardy to revisit his memories of their life together and to pen some of the finest poems about loss and longing in the English language. ‘Beeny Cliff’, which deserves closer analysis than it usually receives, is one such poem.
O the opal and the sapphire of that wandering western sea,
And the woman riding high above with bright hair flapping free –
The woman whom I loved so, and who loyally loved me.
The pale mews plained below us, and the waves seemed far away
In a nether sky, engrossed in saying their ceaseless babbling say,
As we laughed light-heartedly aloft on that clear-sunned March day.
A little cloud then cloaked us, and there flew an irised rain,
And the Atlantic dyed its levels with a dull misfeatured stain,
And then the sun burst out again, and purples prinked the main.
– Still in all its chasmal beauty bulks old Beeny to the sky,
And shall she and I not go there once again now March is nigh,
And the sweet things said in that March say anew there by and by?
What if still in chasmal beauty looms that wild weird western shore,
The woman now is – elsewhere – whom the ambling pony bore,
And nor knows nor cares for Beeny, and will laugh there nevermore.
There is a vague sense of incompleteness about the series of triplets which Thomas Hardy employs for ‘Beeny Cliff’, with each stanza comprising three lines containing the same rhyme. We are given more than the rhyming couplet – that perfect poetic encapsulation of couples and relationships, with the rhyme serving to suggest the mutual complementarity of the two units – and yet less than the even quatrain, which would round things off neatly.
In summary, ‘Beeny Cliff’ sees Hardy recalling the time when he and Emma visited the titular cliff, very early on in their courtship, in March 1870. (In some printings of the poem, the dates ‘March 1870 – March 1913’ follow the title ‘Beeny Cliff’, marking the date the poem recollects and the date when Hardy wrote the poem.) Beeny is a small hamlet in north Cornwall, near where Emma’s family lived and where she grew up, so the poem has its origins in a very particular place, a particular time, and a particular memory. Hardy remembers Emma riding her pony along the cliff and how the two of them laughed (this event would have happened very early on in the courtship), enjoying a day out in early spring, the sun shining. Even when the clouds appeared and the rain began to pour, their spirits could not be dampened: the rain was ‘irised’, revealing that it was accompanied by a rainbow (because it had also been sunny too).
Over forty years later when Hardy is an old man looking back on that March day and Emma is no more, Hardy reflects that although Beeny Cliff remains, this does not matter to him, since the woman who accompanied him on that day all those decades earlier is no longer around. Such a sentiment is simple enough to apprehend, and the poem’s meaning perhaps doesn’t require much further analysis in this respect. However, as so often in a Thomas Hardy poem, ‘Beeny Cliff’ is laced with unusual words, peculiarly Hardyan (Hardyesque?) coinages: irised, misfeatured, and that wonderfully underused word (not itself a Hardy coinage), ‘prinked’, in ‘purples prinked the main’, which means ‘to make minor adjustments to one’s appearance’ and so personifies the purple, but, given the proximity to ‘purples’, ‘prinked’ almost wants to be misread as ‘pinked’, especially under pressure from those colourful words ‘irised’ and ‘dyed’ earlier in the same stanza. It’s as if the colour’s dancing before Hardy’s eyes in his memory, as the scene comes vividly back to him.
The final stanza sees Thomas Hardy reject any notion of an afterlife: Emma, being dead, neither knows nor cares about Beeny Cliff, or, by extension, Hardy or anything else in the world. Hardy became an atheist as a young man, and could not entertain the notion of an afterlife.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Beeny Cliff by Tony Atkin, via geograph.org.uk.