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September 20, 2017

New Year's Poetry: Thomas Hardy, Sylvia Plath

This edition of New Year's Eve poetry features two poems, Thomas Hardy's "New Year's Eve" and Sylvia Plath's "New Year on Dartmoor." Beneath the difference in style and perspective -- Hardy's poem was written in 1906, when he was approaching seventy; Plath's is believed to have been written at the end of 1961, some thirteen months before her suicide at the age of thirty -- is the same pause over the mysteriousness of the moment.

Hardy's "New Year's Eve" was first published in his 1909 collection, Time's Laughingstocks. This is the only introduction the poem needs, though it is worth remembering that for all Hardy's bleakness and "Wessex fatalism" his fiddles are in the Dorset County Museum:
    "I have finished another year," said God,
    "In grey, green, white, and brown;
    I have strewn the leaf upon the sod,
    Sealed up the worm within the clod,
    And let the last sun down."

    "And what's the good of it?" I said.
    "What reasons made you call
    From formless void this earth we tread,
    When nine-and-ninety can be read
    Why nought should be at all?

    "Yea, Sire; why shaped you us, 'who in
    This tabernacle groan' -
    If ever a joy be found herein,
    Such joy no man had wished to win
    If he had never known!"

    Then he: "My labours -- logicless --
    You may explain; not I:
    Sense-sealed I have wrought, without a guess
    That I evolved a Consciousness
    To ask for reasons why.

    "Strange that ephemeral creatures who
    By my own ordering are,
    Should see the shortness of my view,
    Use ethic tests I never knew,
    Or made provision for!"

    He sank to raptness as of yore,
    And opening New Year's Day
    Wove it by rote as theretofore,
    And went on working evermore
    In his unweeting way.
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The "unweeting" (unwitting or unknowing) in "New Year on Dartmoor" was occasioned by an ice storm. Plath, nearly full-term with her second child, was out for a walk with her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter near their home in North Tawton, on the north edge of the moor:
    This is newness: every little tawdry
    Obstacle glass-wrapped and peculiar,
    Glinting and clinking in a saint's falsetto. Only you
    Don't know what to make of the sudden slippiness,
    The blind, white, awful, inaccessible slant.
    There's no getting up it by the words you know.
    No getting up by elephant or wheel or shoe.
    We have only come to look. You are too new
    To want the world in a glass hat.
Ted Hughes and Plath had moved to Devon a few months earlier. Their relationship was fragile at this point, but not yet shattered. The new year would bring pleasure and plans -- further renovations to their 11th century manor house, so many daffodils on their three acres that they would sell them in the village market, new bee hives for their apple orchard, painted and decorated by Plath -- but it would also bring whatever drove Hughes to others and drove Plath to her best poetry, and her death.

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