When I Set Out for Lyonnesse

Commuting days until retirement: 405

View from Tintagel Castle

The stuff of myths: our view from Tintagel Castle

Another week’s escape from commuting, as we visit a part of the Cornish coast I haven’t been to before – the northeast stretch around Tintagel and Boscastle. The cliff walks are breathtaking, there are magnificent deserted beaches accessible only after a steep scramble down rocky paths, and the area is stiff with historical and mythical associations.
Lyonnesse is the kingdom of legend where King Arthur supposedly held his court. In writings of the past there is much confusion about its location, but it has mainly been associated with Cornwall, and sometimes the Scilly Isles. Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in the 12th century, names Tintagel as the place of Arthur’s conception. Along with many other sandalled, bare-legged tourists we clambered up the hill to the ruined medieval castle, and from the atmosphere and views began to appreciate why it’s a place that has generated legend.

A meeting

St Juliots

St Juliot’s church

But my title is borrowed from the poet and novelist Thomas Hardy. We had arrived at St Juliot’s, a small church outside Boscastle that we’d heard was worth visiting when I suddenly realised, having read Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography a year or two ago, that this was a highly significant place in Hardy’s life. It was here that, in 1870, as a young architectural assistant with dreams of being a writer, he had come to draw up plans for restoration to the church. Emma Gifford was the sister-in-law of the incumbent priest and was living in the rectory. We are told that she opened the door to him on his first arrival, and a piece of paper bearing a poem he’d been working on during the journey was sticking out of his pocket. This immediately attracted Emma. Love ensued, and he became a regular visitor to the rectory (a full day’s  journey from his native Dorset, Tomalin notes, involving four trains and a 16 mile ride in a trap).
The poem whose title I have borrowed celebrates that first trip – it’s short and jubilant in tone, and has him returning “with magic in my eyes”. Although not published until after Emma’s death, the manuscript is dated 1870, the time of the visit.

Rescued

Emma Gifford

Emma Gifford

Young Hardy

Thomas Hardy around the time he met Emma

They were married in London in 1874. With Hardy’s career as a novelist taking off, Emma was at first strongly appreciative and encouraging of his writing. It has been debated how far his early novel A Pair of Blue Eyes was autobiographical, and whether the character of the heroine Elfride Swancourt is based on Emma. While the setting is no doubt drawn from life – Elfride is the daughter of a parson living near the sea, and visited by admiring young men – the parallels are not otherwise close. But there is one surprising scene for the time, where on a coast walk, one of Elfride’s men friends slips on a cliff edge and is trapped, dangling dangerously. However, concealed by the clifftop, Elfride is enterprisingly removing her voluminous underwear and tearing it into strips to make a rope with which she rescues him. They embrace, but overcome with embarrassment at being naked beneath her dress, she flees home alone. Quite apart from the more obvious preoccupations of a young Victorian man, perhaps there is something symbolic of Hardy’s own fortunes here.

Later in life, when Hardy’s success as a novelist had become assured, however, Emma became more disenchanted with his writing. She had nursed some literary ambitions of her own, and perhaps there was an element of resentment. But relations became strained and distant in general, and she eventually retreated to an attic room in Max Gate, the Dorset house Hardy had built, and spent much of her time there.

Memorial plaque

Memorial to Emma

In 1912 she died suddenly, and Hardy, overcome with remorse and regret, seemed fall in love with her a second time, this time in retrospect. To the right is my photo of the memorial plaque to Emma he placed in the church. By all accounts Hardy was already close to Florence, his second wife, before Emma’s death, but his posthumous love affair with Emma persisted long afterwards, sometimes to Florence’s irritation.

An engraved window

Memorial window

A part of the memorial window to Thomas Hardy

A few years ago a window was commissioned for the church, to commemorate Hardy’s association with it. Rather than being stained glass, the window is engraved, delicately and beautifully, by the late artist, Simon Whistler. I found it almost impossible to capture its quality in a photo; here is my best attempt, which just shows a part. You can see Hardy’s name in the centre pane, surrounding an image of the church  itself, and the date of his death on the right, under a representation of his architect’s tools. As you view the whole window, symbols and episodes from Hardy’s life shimmer against the backdrop of the graveyard outside, ghostly traces of the events of a century and a half ago.

The window also bears quotations from one or two poems inspired by his experiences in this part of Cornwall. In later life Hardy was independently wealthy from his novels, and after Emma’s death he turned to poetry in a way that he hadn’t before. In his collection Poems 1912-1913 he gives vent to his regret and hopeless longing. In a bottom corner of the memorial window are two lines from one of the most well known of them – Beeny Cliff. The window also depicts the figure of Emma on the cliff, astride her pony. Beeny Cliff itself is just a mile or so from the church, and some of our walks along the coastal path took us over it.

The poem made an impression on me when I first read it, before knowing anything about the context. If you are not keen on old fashioned romanticism, or a strong formal structure, then it’s probably not for you. But I have always had a soft spot for it: I like the way the emotion is powerfully conveyed by the insistent metre, and the poem contains many examples of the idiosyncratic but precise and evocative vocabulary often found in Hardy’s work. Here’s the whole poem:

Beeny Cliff

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.

View from Beeny Cliff

“That wandering western sea” as seen from Beeny Cliff

3 thoughts on “When I Set Out for Lyonnesse

  1. Concerning the idiosyncrasy of Hardy. I totally “get” what you are saying. He catches a person unawares. Then you round a corner (or turn the page) and he has caused a “soft spot” for the rest of your life.

    • I’m not as well read in Hardy as I’d like to be – I have read his poetry a lot and agree that it can be quite unexpected in form or content. How about The Convergence of the Twain, for example, about the sinking of the Titanic. But I should really read more of the novels.

  2. It sounds like the Poems of 1912-13 would be a wonderful place to start, when reading Hardy’s poetry? A better choice than The Dynasts, probably. Thank you for perking my interest into reading more of Hardy’s poetry.

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