A wedding in Wessex. . . and you’re all on the guest list!

Map of Wessex showing the location of Moreton

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In a bygone day, long ago and far away, my indispensable partner, Jane Iredale, her Mom and I were vacationing in Dorset County, Southwest England, a land of towering white cliffs, ruined castles, and a graphic hill figure called the Cerne Abbas Giant. (You may want to Google this. I won’t embarrass The Edge.)

The countryside was made further famous by the novelist and poet Thomas Hardy (1840-1928). He had reached back into Anglo-Saxon history and applied the antique regional name Wessex as the setting for his books including him Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

My partner was someone Hardy would have described locally as a “Pret-ty De-urr!” (See video link below), and one day, out of curiosity, we turned down an unmarked road and came upon a tiny village called Moreton. There was a manor house, a country church, and a small graveyard with one headstone slightly larger than the rest. . . in historical terms, hugely larger than the rest. . . TE Lawrence: Lawrence of Arabia.

That unexpected discovery dramatized what was to be a life-long attachment to Moreton and a decision to bring a film crew back to create “A Wedding in Wessex”, poetry compliments of Thomas Hardy.

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Grave site of Lawrence of Arabia
Grave site of Lawrence of Arabia

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Here are excerpts from several fine poems that Hardy wrote about Wessex and Weddings. A fiddler recalls the music they played.

Little fogs were gathered in every hollow,
But the purple hillocks enjoyed fine weather
As we marched with our fiddles over the heather –
How it comes back! to their wedding that day.

Our getting there brought our neighbors and all, O!
Till, two and two, the couples stood ready.
And her father said: “Souls, for God’s sake, be steady!”
And we strung up our fiddles, and sounded out “A.”

The groomsman has stared, and said, “You must follow!”
But we’d gone to fiddle in front of the party,
(Our feelings as friends being true and hearty)
And fiddle in front we did all the way.

Yes, from their door by Mill-tail-Shallow,
And up Styles-Lane, and by Front-Street houses,
Where stood maids, bachelors, and spouses,
Who cheered the songs that we knew how to play.

I bowed the treble before her father,
Michael the tenor in front of the lady,
The bass-viol Reub and right well played he! –
The Serpent Jim; oh, to church and back.

I thought the bridegroom was flurried rather,
As we kept up the tune outside the chancel,
While they were swearing things none can cancel
Inside the walls to our drumstick’s whack.

“Too gay!” she pleaded. “Clouds may gather,
And sorrow comes.” But she gave in, laughing,
And by super-time when we’d got to the quaffing
Her fears were forgot, and her smiles weren’t slack.

A grand wedding ’twas! And what would follow
We never thought. Or that we should have buried her
On the same day with the man that married her,
A day like the first, half hazy, half clear.

Yes: little fogs were in every hollow,
Though the purple hillocks enjoyed fine weather,
When we went to play ’em to church together,
And carried ’em there in an after year.

And what is a wedding without dancing?

The cold moon hangs to the sky by its horn,
And centers its gaze on me;
The stars, like eyes in reverie,
Their westerning as for a while forborne,
Quiz downward curiously.

Old Robert draws the backbrand in,
The green logs steam and spit;
The half-awakened sparrows flit
From the riddled thatch; and owls begin
To whoo from the gable-slit.

And it is; far and night things seem to know
Sweet scenes are impending here;
That all is prepared; that the hour is near
For welcomes, fellowships, and flow
Of sally, song, and cheer;

That spigots are pulled and viols strung;
That soon will arise the sound
Of measures trod to tunes renowned;
That She will return in Love’s low tongue
My vows as we wheel around.

* * *

The name “Wessex” appears not just as a place name in Hardy’s novels, but also as the name of his dearest friend, his dog of 13 years, “Wessex,” who is playfully credited with writing this poem. It’s playful perhaps but clearly not doggerel. (ouch!)

‘I live here: “Wessex” is my name:
I am a dog known rather well:
I guard the house but how that came
To be my whim I cannot tell.

‘With a leap and a heart elate I go
At the end of an hour’s expectancy
To take a walk of a mile or so
With the folk I let live here with me.

‘Along the path, amid the grass
I sniff, and find out rarest smells
For rolling over as I pass
The open fields toward the dells.

‘No doubt I shall always cross this saddle,
And turn the corner, and stand steady,
Gazing back for my Mistress till
She reaches where I have run already,

‘And that this meadow with its brook,
And bulrush, even as it appears
As I plunge by with hasty look,
Will stay the same a thousand years.’

Thus ‘Wessex.’ But a dubious ray
At times reports his steadfast eye,
Just for a trice, as though to say,
‘Yet, will this pass, and pass shall I?’

Thomas Hardy, bicycling though Wessex
Thomas Hardy, bicycling though Wessex

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side note. Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet Anthony Hecht was greatly attracted to the verse of Thomas Hardy and wrote this splendid piece embracing his style.

These are the weathers Hardy praised
In his best tongue;
When spring comes uttered forth unphrased,
Straight from the lung;
And the deep, bearded roots unfreeze,
And soapsuds shake in the flimsy breeze,
And girls find cause to show their knees,
And a warm rain riddles the alders: these
He’d chiefly sung.

As he was one whose leaning made
Note of such things,
I read him still in the primest blade
The weather brings;
And I doubt not, as the snails appear,
And the light is blonde as a glass of beer,
And the songbird ravishes every ear
It is for someone who cannot hear
I have chiefly sings.

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VIDEO. Springtime in Wessex. It’s the day before the wedding, but the members of our First Poetry Quartet aren’t aware of it. They are just planning to meet in Moreton for a few days in the countryside. Guest star Roger Hammond, as a local who greets them, has other plans.

CLICK ON THIS LINK FOR VIDEO: A WEDDING IN WESSEX

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