The first stanza of this poem sets the scene by introducing “the ancient floor” that is “hollowed and thin.” The second stanza introduces two characters, a female and a male, who are presented in the third person. The woman sits in her chair while the man stands still. Both appear separated from the narrator who speaks in first-person, in the final stanza. Perhaps the separation is an indication that they are not real, either far away or dead altogether. The line that is particularly indicative of this separation is “Childlike, I danced in a dream.”
This poem appears to me almost Gothic in nature, especially when read out loud. The scene is set in the opening lines, “A shaded lamp and a waving blind/ and the beat of a clock from a distant floor.” Once the scene is set then creatures enter, “winged, horned, and spined/ A longlegs, a moth, and a dumbledore.” The speaker pauses his work and examines the fly that “rubs his hands” and considers, the almost absurdity, of the five of them meeting “in this still place.” Instead of considering them pests, Hardy treats them with great reverence, perhaps even as equals since he refers to them as “my guests.” In the end, Hardy goes as far as to mock people who consider them “God’s humblest.” He explains his reverence for them in the last line: “they know Earth – secrets that know not I.”
The poem discusses Gibbon finishing his lengthy book. As line in the beginning indicates, this poem was written on the 110th anniversary of the completion of the “Decline and Fall” at the same hour and place. I did not know about the significance so I looked it up. Edward Gibbon completed his masterpiece, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” on June 27, 1787 in a small summerhouse in his garden in Lausanne, Switzerland, just before midnight. This impeccably researched book has been almost 15 years in the making and consisted of six volumes, 1.5 million words, and 8000 footnotes. It spanned three continents and 1300 years of history. To mark the occasion, Gibbon made note of its completion in his memoirs and as a result gave the time and place the status of the shrine:
“After laying down my pen I took several turns in a berceau, or covered walk of acacias, which commands a prospect of the country, the lake, and the mountains. The air was temperate, the sky was serene, the silver orb of the moon was reflected from the waters, and all nature was silent. I will not dissemble the first emotions of joy on recovery of my freedom, and, perhaps, the establishment of my fame. But my pride was soon humbled, and a sober melancholy was spread over my mind, by the idea that I had taken an everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion. . . .”
“The first volumes of Decline and Fall had already been published, and as Gibbon knew, not only fame but controversy and outrage had already arrived. Gibbon’s thesis was that the intellectual rigor of the Roman Empire declined into “barbarism and religion.” Christian historians and readers did not like the idea that Christianity was a step backward, and some attacked Gibbon for his scholarship and his disbelief, with little impact on either.
Gibbon’s house was Hotel Gibbon by this point, and a spot visited by many literary travelers, but Hardy had just published Jude the Obscure, and was himself vilified by press and public for irreligion and immorality. In his commemorative poem, “Lausanne: In Gibbon’s Old Garden,” Hardy joins league not only with Gibbon but Milton, as three who have known what it is to suffer at the hands of narrow belief.
Hardy’s last two lines were his brief paraphrase of a passage in Milton’s The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. This was an argument for church reform, so that divorce might be granted on the grounds of incompatibility; it was also the appeal of a 33-year-old newlywed who had discovered that his 17-year-old wife seemed to prefer her parents to him. Faced with the strains of his own marriage, and with his wife’s own scoffs at Jude and “Jude-ites,” Hardy thought that Milton, like Gibbon, made a lot of sense about religion.”
This is an interesting poem of nature because, as the title points out, it is dominated by neutral tones. Unlike other poems about nature, this one does not focus on bright colors or scenery to evoke beautiful images. Nature is of course a metaphor for love. However, love in this case is not excessive or highly stimulating but rather a long term and pervasive. For example, “your eyes on me whereas eyes that rove/Over tedious riddles solved years ago.” Hardy also mentions smiles, ones that are “alive enough to have strength to die,” further indicating a love that is well aged.
This poem is something of a eulogy to Hardy’s dead friends. The speaker refers to them as “group of local hearts and heads.” Both of these are great synechdoches, parts that stand in for a whole. Thus “group of local hearts” refers to his friends’ inner beings and “heads” refers to his friends’ intelligence and intellectual capabilities. The speaker is in a way having a conversation with distant friends and when they speak they share the freedom they now feel. In particular, “death gave all that we possess.” This line can be interpreted to mean that they no longer fear death.