The poet in the museum : lost in a chamber of echoes (sight and sign in Thomas Hardy’s poetry) Article - Mai 2014

Isabelle Gadoin

Isabelle Gadoin, « The poet in the museum : lost in a chamber of echoes (sight and sign in Thomas Hardy’s poetry)  », Word and Image, numéro spécial Musing in the Museum, mai 2014, pp. 13-22. ISSN 0266-6286. 〈〉


Thomas Hardy’s extreme proximity with the visual arts is now well-acknowledged. The writer was first trained as an architect, and used his talents as a draughtsman to copy architectural motifs but also as a spur for imagination and, occasionally, to illustrate his own works with small symbolic or humorous vignettes. An impressive amount of critical literature has been dedicated to the visual quality of descriptive passages in his novels—some of them explicitly influenced by the treatment of colour and light in Turner’s late “visionary” work. When it comes to Hardy’s poetry, though, the visual impulse seems to be far exceeded by the fascination for sounds and voices. Museums and galleries as they appear in his poems are dark, silent, inauspicious places, where sight seems to be obliterated or even denied. The poet’s imaginary then seems to turn away from the canvas and the Great Masters to the fossil, the relic, the stone bearing half-erased inscriptions, as so many tantalising signs awaiting interpretation. The petrified fragments of the past suggest elusive presences that call to the viewer, on an essentially oral mode. It is the viewer’s musings which help him decipher, reconstruct, and finally revive the voices of the past, in a complex interplay of reminiscence and imagination. Hardy’s poetry thus suggests a conception wholly different from our modern understanding of the museum as a land of Cocaygne, an accumulation of goods with encyclopaedic and totalising ambitions. Hardy’s aesthetic is not that of completeness and exhaustiveness but that of the fragment. In the poet’s view, the work of art is nothing else than a tentative sign giving the impulse for the free work of memory. It is not a given but a spur to imagination and a “call to ghosts”, in the poet’s own words. Finally the museum is less a material place than a quintessence of Time, a series of “spots of consciousness” where the past emerges in the present, and lures the poet into an archaeology of human feelings and sensations.

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