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“At the Draper’s”: “the last new note in mourning. . .”

May 22, 2012

Detail, title page of the second edition (1915). Partly visible is the seal of the University of Toronto, where this copy resides.

“At the Draper’s” appeared first in the Saturday Review for 16 May 1914, under the title: “How he looked in at the draper’s. . .”

When Thomas Hardy prepared Satires of Circumstance: Lyrics and Reveries With Miscellaneous Pieces, later the same year, he added the poem to a suite of twelve short lyrics published, in the Fortnightly Review for April 1911, under the title “Satires of Circumstance.” In fact, “At the Draper’s” was among four poems Hardy added to the original twelve, from which he omitted one, for a total, now, of fifteen, lodged in the middle of the 1914 volume under a heading that gave (again) the book its title: “Satires of Circumstance in Fifteen Glimpses.”

For the Wessex Edition of his collected works (issued in 1919), Hardy relocated the fifteen poems, placing them at the end of the volume. They’d proved something of an embarrassment to him. Their mordant wit courts (or anyway can satisfy) misanthropy. Certain reviewers had (with justice, given how the book is titled) dwelt on the sequence unduly, to the exclusion of (say) the great elegiac poems Hardy wrote after his first wife, Emma, died on 27 November 1912. That the Great War began just before the book was published likely didn’t help. Such comedy as this sequence entails was eclipsed by circumstances both personal and national.

I reprint here “At the Draper’s,” the twelfth of the fifteen satires, as a lesson in rhyme.

From the second edition of Satires of Circumstance (1915).

A draper, of course, deals in fabrics; “the draper’s” is a clothing store. In many of the fifteen “glimpses” that constitute this bitter suite of poems, a man or a woman is observed unwittingly, so “circumstanced” as to highlight his or her vanity, spite, avarice, philandering, etc. And so it is here. A husband nearing his death—from consumption, perhaps, given all the coughing—chances to walk into the draper’s just as his wife is picking out cloth for her mourning dress. (Had he been trailing her? What was he there to do?) The wife doesn’t notice him. The husband overhears the draper’s unseemly sales-chatter, about the latest fashions in widowhood, and so on. He turns round and leaves. He might have said nothing. But of course he can’t keep mum.

“I stood at the back of the shop, my dear,
—-But you did not perceive me.
Well, when they deliver what you were shown
—-I shall know nothing of it, believe me!”

He shall know nothing of it because, by God, he’ll be dead when she calls for delivery. Then the husband coughs and coughs, and though he’s doubtless pallid, the wife goes pale. As well she should. One of the poem’s little ironies: how mortifying it is to be caught basking in widowhood!

She asks, “Why couldn’t you speak?” But he answers, “Well, I didn’t.” He could have; he might have; he chose not to. Why? The reasons he gives aren’t convincing, or anyway aren’t to be taken at face value: “I left / That you should not notice I’d been there,” he says. Or he left so as not to “distress” her. What are we to conclude? Well, that he wanted her to carry her vanities through to perfection and then reproach her for them later. Because that’s exactly what he does, with evident satisfaction: “Well, when they deliver what you were shown / I shall know nothing of it, believe me!”

Had he wished not to distress his wife, he’d have kept his mouth shut. Though who can blame him? His wife sees in his on-coming death yet another occasion to preen. She intends to cut a figure—”in the last new note in mourning.” Who knows but that she aims to make a catch?

Thrift, thrift, Horatio! The funeral bak’d meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.

Whatever the case, no party to this petty satire in circumstance comes clean. The widow-to-be is vain to the point of callousness (and calculation). Our vulturine draper gets up all the right talk; he makes a market out of mourning. The husband serves his revenge up cold (such as it is).

The finest things in the poem are its rhymes. In stanzas one and two we have polysyllabic rhymes terminating in repetends (“perceive me”/ “believe me”; “in there” / “been there”). There are also a number of un-rhymed lines (I’ll get to those shortly). But whatever poverty of rhyme attends the opening of the poem is well compensated in its closing. Stanzas three and four yield richly ironic (or disjunctive) rhymes: “fashion” / “ashen,” “dress you” / “distress you,” “in mourning” / “adorning.” All the better that the last five elements (of the six) fall in a single damning clause strung over four and a half lines:

“You were viewing some lovely things. ‘Soon required→
—-For a widow, of latest fashion‘;
And I knew ‘twould upset you to meet the man→
—-Who had to be cold and ashen→

“And screwed in a box before they could dress you
—-‘In the last new note in mourning,’
As they defined it. So, not to distress you,
—-I left you to your adorning.”

The grammatical variations that underlie them, and the spritely pace of the run-on lines, enrich the rhymes. And I think these rhymes are somehow better for not being dwelt upon, as rhymes tend to be, say, in end-stopped lines. (I place arrows where effects of enjambment, strong or moderate, carry the voice right along.) Hardy’s rhymes steal a march on the reader, falling in, consolidating themselves in stanza four, after those first three (relatively blank) stanzas—with striking effect. As we come to see just how un-partnered this couple is, the rhymes “partner” ever more closely and savagely. What a marriage this must have been! And what marriages in rhyme this poem makes!

Ashen-fashion: we are talking about the color black, of course. And the husband secrets himself away, saving his little anecdote for later, all the better to appall his wife (“she paled…). Hardy sets an abstract noun (“fashion”) a-jingling with an adjective that is part of a highly mortuary series: “cold and ashen and screwed in a box.” True, she’ll be all buttoned up in black; but he’ll be be just as snug, screwed down in ashen white. Also nice is the association of “cold” and “ashen”: this fire’s dying.

Dress you-distress you: our aspiring widow dresses herself up only to find herself thoroughly dressed down. The phrase “not to distress you” bears an inverse relation both to its intention and to its effect. The partners to the rhyme mirror one another grammatically (verb→object), but the result is one heck of a back-handed slap.

In mourning-adorning: “bereft” this widow will certainly not be. She looks forward to burying that husband of hers. The occasion will distinguish her. ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Best of all, however, is a rhyme-word that goes unspoken, unused, even as the poem everywhere evokes it. Surely “dead” should follow “said”—which, alas, is a widow of a line-end: no partner anywhere. No partner anywhere except in its rhyme-widowhood, I should say: five other lines find their end unmarried—the first (“my dear”), the third (“you were shown”), the seventh (“I left”), the ninth (“required”), and the eleventh (“man”). Sometimes we call un-rhymed lines in otherwise rhyming contexts “orphans.” Better to say that Hardy widows these.

But the queer decorum of the poem, like the queer decorum of drapers who deal in mourning dresses, forbids that we should utter the word “dead.” Let that go un-“said.” Give us arch euphemism on the one hand (“I shall know nothing of it, believe me”), and sneering dispatch on the other: “I knew ‘twould upset you to meet the man / Who had to be cold and ashen / And screwed in a box before they could dress [and adorn] you.”

The phrase “the man” is, of course, perfect: when most he would make his claim felt, the husband speaks of himself quite objectively. But that “dead” never falls on our ears and never crosses our lips—or the lips of the husband and wife—is a keen lesson in disingenuity.

I note in closing a matter of some interest to me. Most of the poem consists of the husband’s speech; he also quotes the draper to good and wicked purpose. And so I ask: to what extent are the sardonic effects of the rhymes “his” and to what extent are they exclusively the poet’s? May we assume that the husband himself enjoys the benefit of answering “fashion” with “ashen” and “dress you” with “distress you”? Or is that sort of chill pleasure the poet’s and ours alone? I, for my part, should like to think not. The voices of the poet and of the husband cross—and are cross. Come to that, what are these rhymes if not crossings?

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N.B.: For another entry in The Era of Casual Fridays devoted to rhyming, click here. For other entries devoted to the poetry of Thomas Hardy, click here.

I should mention that Hardy revised the text of the poem when he brought it into Satires of Circumstance. The Saturday Review text is, to my mind, slightly colder. For “latest fashion” we have, there, “next month’s fashion”: this puts a highly imminent, and exacting, date on the husband’s demise. The serial text also has “‘twould be awkward” for “‘twoud upset you“: as if the husband had the draper in mind, too. Finally, the earlier text has “As you defined it” for “As they defined it”: I find it more savage when the words are put into the wife’s mouth, as against the draper’s.

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