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The International Writers Magazine:Literary Memories

Hardy's Ash
Reuben Message
In the churchyard of St. Pancras Old Church there is a tree known as Hardy’s Ash. It grows out of a pile of old headstones, once neatly packed, now squeezed and broken by its great roots. It is hard to make out any writing on the stones; the names and dates of the departed have been effaced by time.


Nearby stands the small church, a quaint, relic in a corner of the city. From over the churchyard wall you can hear the endless clatter of trains leaving and arriving at the busy terminus of London’s Kings Cross station.

The name of the tree commemorates the writer Thomas Hardy’s association with this place. As an architect’s apprentice overseeing some part of the expansion of the railway line around 1865, Thomas Hardy (1840 – 1828) was seconded to supervise the exhumation of some of the graves and, so a local legend says, contributed to the pile of tombstones, with their faded epitaphs, upon which the tree now grows.

Epi – ‘upon’: taphos – ‘tomb’. I think he would have liked this coincidence, as he would have the scene of the living tree growing out of the grey, cracked stones.
You see, Thomas Hardy, as a poet more than a novelist, understood how peculiar time is. In the old churchyard, the young poet-to-be moved consecrated earth to make way for the 6:45 express. The old and the sacred made way for the profane and new. Indeed, Hardy would seen how indifferent time can be to human decorum. Nature worries herself over things. A dog in Hardy’s poem ‘Ah, are you digging upon my grave’ thinks only of his belly:

‘Mistress, I dug upon your grave
To bury a bone, in case
I should be hungry near this spot
When passing on my daily trot.
I am sorry, but I quite forgot
It was your resting-place.’

Life goes on, sometimes a little callously.
But Hardy’s poems tell us more than that: they show changes wrought by time, certainly, but they never simplify this process. Time for Hardy was complicated and intricate, the present moment always haunted by voices of the past, memories and references buried in rhyme structures or embedded in the world-material. In fact, with all the change that goes on, the miracle is that things, ourselves’ included, stay the same. As Hardy put it upon ‘Wessex Heights’, we are “strange continuators”, always keeping time with the crass causes and the beings who one fellowed with in days gone by.

The tree itself has long been a symbol of continuity. It is emblematic of the conversion of death into life, inorganic material into the organic life, and, since Darwin used the image of the Tree of Life, the flow of sap that connects all living things. Because of the tree we are brutes that read poetry.

It is not too far fetched to see that Hardy himself contemplated a similar alteration of things into other things a long time ago. In ‘Transformations’ he wrote: 

Portion of this yew

Is a man my grandsire knew,
Bosomed here at its foot:
This branch may be his wife,
A ruddy human life
Now turned to a green shoot.

As though it were a metaphor for evolution – the bridge between life and nonlife – Hardy’s tree transmutes the dead into the living, the passing matter of humanity, bodies, and friendships, into new growth. There is continuity between man and leaf in the form of a transformation of life, but also discontinuity and change, as man has become leaf. The time of leaf and the time of man are both the same and different. Evolution, requiring both continuity and variation, is the play of sameness and difference.

In a different way, standing in the churchyard, one can be continuous with the ages, with the leaves under foot, the lichens and the old masonry, and, wrapped up alone in one’s thoughts with the hubbub of the city all around, quite out step them. If it is impossible to be in two places at one time, it is certainly not to be in two times at one place.

Today, with the Kings Cross area on the cusp of redevelopment once again, this is a good place to think about time and trees and the poetry of Hardy’s later years. The station is being overhauled once again (a new platform was added in 2010 – by 2013 the entire station will have been redeveloped, as they say, “for the 21st century”) and, amongst a number of building projects, an initiative to build a state-of-art biological sciences research centre nearby has been given the go ahead.

If there are students swatting for an exam on the poetry of Thomas Hardy, I suggest they leave their books in the library a while and come and pay this tree a visit.

The exact history of who piled up the old head stones has been lost – indeed, some reports indicate the stones themselves came not from St Pancras but from the nearby St Giles yard. Whether Hardy contributed directly to the shape of the stack of stones seen there today or not, it is at least certain that he did oversee the excavation of graves in the cemetery at the time. He must have known St Pancras Churchyard well.

It is further certain that Hardy often wrote about graveyards, and ghosts and haunting are a central theme of his. (In another legend, the ghost of Boudica stalks the passages under the platforms at Kings Cross, the station having been built on the site of her last battle). It seems likely that his time exhuming bodies amidst the grave old stones in the churchyard influenced his lyrical consciousness. In ‘The Levelled Churchyard’, this is surely true:

‘O passenger, pray list and catch
Our sighs and piteous groans,
Half stifled in this jumbled patch
Of wretched memorial stones!

And there are other passages that are hard to read without thinking in particular of the tree in the yard at St. Pancras’ Old Church. In ‘While drawing in a churchyard’ he wrote:

‘If the living could but hear
What is here by my roots as they creep
Round the restful flock, and the things said there,
No one would weep’

Hardy of course could never have seen this tree as we see it today. As he died in 1928, there can be no question of it being a literal source for his writing. But in some way or another the churchyard as whole is, and the tree which bears his name is its focal point. Anyone acquainted with his poetry cannot help feeling drawn to this place, as though being here alone is an education in his themes.

Hardy only began to write poetry seriously late in life. Already a famous writer, he gave up novels in favour of verse. By then, as his editor Samuel Hynes put it, he was a nineteenth century poet “cast adrift in the next century”. His sensibility was an essentially religious one and his vision of social order Victorian. But, like many who lived through the great insurrections of the long nineteenth century, it was a vision that betrayed him, and a sensibility no longer in accord with the world he saw around him. He was, Hynes writes, a poet “out of his age”.

Hardy was incapable of ignoring the present. He accepted the truths of scientific rationalism, the reality of geological time, and was deeply impressed by Darwinism in particular. In ‘God-Forgotten’, Hardy’s God struggles to remember having created the earth and, when reminded of it, claims that “Of its own act the threads were snapt whereby/ Its plaints had reached mine ear.”

Although it may have worried him, Hardy was not like, so many Victorians, terrified at the thought of losing his faith, and the age of the earth did not make human life meaningless for him. Although he may never have entirely reconciled his visions of God and nature, he found ways of dealing with them.

For Matthew Arnold, amidst the grit and the fossils of Dover, Lyell had left man naked and directionless on the shingles of the world. For him, the Sea of Faith, withdrawn, revealed

… a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night. (‘Dover Beach’, 1867)

Unlike Arnold, while humans may be “strange ephemeral creatures”, as God calls them in ‘New Year’s Eve’, Hardy, I think, found some kind of meaning in their fleetingness – that is, in that peculiar kind of time one carries around with one, the truth of ones own thoughts and memories. While Hardy did not take flight into subjectivity entirely, the way so many early 20th century poets did, it is nevertheless these moments that frequent his best poetry. Buried under the sediments of history and the passage of civilisations of which Hardy so often talked, they often remain quite inscrutable. While the objective world that surrounds them can be read, the private recollection locked within it often remains enigmatic.

Primaeval rocks from the road’s steep border,
And much have they faced there, first and last,
Of the transitory in Earth’s long order;
But what they record in colour and cast
Is – that we two passed. (‘At Castle Boterel’)

We may know that Hardy is recalling a moment he passed in a specific place in the company of a lost lover – but the content of that moment is utterly hidden from us. The rocks on the verge stand vigil, as they always will, while we pass. From the point of view of the rocks, we are ephemeral. But we also hold in our minds some secret, something utterly singular, even as we are cast adrift, like all animals, upon totalitarian timescales. In the yard at St Pancras Old Church, one feels this in one’s bones.

The church rests upon one of the oldest site of Christendom in Britain. Who has prayed here? Who has married here and been buried in its grounds? Who has been folded into the earth, in renovations following reformations? Saint Pancras was a Roman martyr, killed at the age of fourteen. But all about now, as one walks around the low the hedge that guards the trees’ clutching roots, is the rising hum of the city and the regular thundering of the trains from behind the high wall that shields the cemetery from the Kings Cross line. 
As the churchyard is, so Hardy too saw the world as a palimpsest of times, a road upon which successive generations leave their scratches. In April 1914 he wrote:

Again the guns disturbed the hour,
Roaring their readiness to avenge,
As far inland as Stourton Tower,
And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge. (‘Channel Firing’)

Hardy obsessed on differences in time: natural time, the time of rocks and evolution, and human time, of eras, lifetimes or instants. He was preoccupied with the interplay between scales, between continuous change and the persistence of forms. He lived, after all, in a time itself out of joint: rapid scientific and industrial development lay, throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in tension with the Victorian affirmation of precedent and the preservation of ‘English civilization’.

If these moves of defence and advance reached their apotheosis amongst the mud of the Western Front, Hardy may still have got an inkling of them as he worked amongst the graves in St Pancras Old Church many years earlier. At that time, the graves needed to be moved to create space for more trains to bring passengers and goods to the city.
‘Progress’, orderly or otherwise, displaces memorials to the past. In “The Levelled Churchyard” he wrote:
‘Where we are huddled none can trace,
And if our names remain,
They pave some path or porch or place
Where we have never lain!’

If commerce rippled through St Pancras, so too did another epoch-making event: the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859. Darwin’s book, like Lyell’s before it, made a deep impression on Victorian culture, and Hardy in particular. In particular, Darwin’s work impressed Hardy because of the deep sense of time and consequent succession of forms its vision of evolution by natural selection required. The shock of Darwin’s doctrine at the time, its implication for mankind’s sense of his place within the arrangement of the universe, does not need restating.

It is notable though that, as the anthropologist Marilyn Strathern has noted, at the heart of his great book, Darwin reinserted order through borrowing a familiar trope: an image of a tree. His ‘Tree of Life’, the basis for modern phylogenetic categorisation, looks toward the brachiated lines of the family tree in order to explain how we are related and how we differ from other forms of life. Moreover, the image is also in its own way a religious one, echoing the tree of knowledge, the wood of the cross and, particularly, the great chain of being, the scala naturae, or God’s hierarchical ordering of the universe. Darwin’s tree represented a radical re-evaluation of mankind’s place on earth at the same time as reinstating a homely, safe and orderly interpretation of the succession and genesis of species. 

In Darwin’s image, the old, familiar and the religious haunt the new, the strange and the secular. As a graphic symbolisation of evolution, the tree demonstrates both continuity and change. As variation and inheritance are the motors of evolution, so are they expressions of the peculiarity of time, in poetry as in life.

Hardy pondered this strange faculty not only in his memorialisation of past lives and loves in poems like ‘At Castle Boterel’, but equally in the explicit consideration of the mechanism of evolution itself. In ‘Heredity’, his poetic voice impersonates “the eternal thing in man”, the strange thread that both binds bloodlines and skips across generations:
I am the family face;
Flesh perishes, I live on,
Projecting trait and trace
Through time to times anon,
And leaping from place to place
Over oblivion.

Like the rocks by the roadside that testify to the countless footfalls of legionaries, soldiers and civilisations, heredity ensures the succession of family resemblances. But evolution is capricious too; as the road also bares the singular passage of a pair of lovers, so do the processes of inheritance guarantee the unique feature, the individual personality or, in biological terms, the ‘sport’.
The yard at St Pancras Old Church, an argument in material form, draws these questions of change and continuity together. With Hardy’s Tree at its centre, its roots clasping the cracked and worn reminders of spent lives in an octopus embrace, the place is a patchwork of temporalities and forms woven together by the titanic forces of time and matter and by us, strange ephemeral creatures.

It is possible that we are today entering an era when the tree will no longer suffice as a metaphor for our place on earth. In the proposed biocentre near Kings Cross, scientists will certainly scrutinise genealogies and draw gene linkage maps; they will try to piece together how the biological particles we have inherited relate us to one another and to our ancestors.
But some will also redraw these maps, rewrite our genealogies, twisting and breaking and rejoining the tree’s branches. They will study the complex exchanges of genes that are increasingly being understood to take place between organisms, without the traditional intervention of sexual intercourse, the linear joining branches. Humans, as we perfect assisted conception techniques, will be increasingly included in this lot, too. Do we baulk at this? Or do we face it, as challenging as it is, as Hardy did Darwinism? Reading Thomas Hardy on change, spectral presences, and private truths has seldom been more urgent than it is today. As Hardy’s Man had to remind his God about the survival of earth, we might say of his poetry: ‘Lord, it existeth still.’
© Reuben Message April 2011
rmessage at

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