Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

Reading Poetry in an Epidemic Time

2nd April 2020

Days of heart-breaking beauty – lipstick-red camellias and washes of green-white blossom; hours of panic when I roam the house; and moments of lucidity when I pull down books from my bookshelves, thinking, Well, if I can’t read poetry at the end of the world (at least as we know it), when can I?

So here is a small but enormous poem by Thomas Hardy, called ‘In a Museum’.  You have to read it aloud to get the rhythm.

Here’s the mould of a musical bird  long passed from light

Which over the earth before man passed was winging.

There’s a contralto voice I heard last night

That lodges in me still with its sweet singing.

Such a dream is Time that the coo of this ancient bird

Has perished not but is blent, or will be blending,

Mid vision-less wilds of space with the voice that I heard,

In the full-fugued song of the universe unending.

He wrote it in 1915 when he saw a cast of a fossil in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter.  The fossil was an Archaeopteryx, a creature somewhere between a dinosaur and a bird, which caused great excitement when it was found because it seemed to prove Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.

So picture Thomas Hardy, an old man of 75, with a toothbrush moustache, a buttoned-up waistcoat and a hat with a deep furrow in the crown. He is standing in front of the showcase staring at the Archaeopteryx, with a new, young wife called Florence at his side – though his thoughts are somewhere else, specifically on his first wife Emma who has recently died and from whom he had been estranged for years.  Emma died alone in his attic. Afterwards he was overcome by remorse and out of him flooded dozens of grief-stricken poems. The contralto voice in the poem is Emma’s.   She only gets a voice after death.  Florence doesn’t get a voice at all.  She was by all accounts bitter, being bested by the ghost of a dead, first wife.

So what drew Thomas Hardy to Exeter museum?  It might have been his close friendship with Sydney Cockerell, who was the director of the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge and who maybe taught him about museums?  Though it might also have been because museums are about Time and Memory, and Time and Memory are what haunted Thomas Hardy. And it might also be because there’s an affinity between things and poems, each of them being something small and intense and packed with meanings.

But the reason I like this poem is because it answers the question I was wondering about in my last blog – namely, what is the relationship between the ‘real’ museums that we visit and the museums we all make in our minds out of our own memories?  To which Thomas Hardy answers that whether it is the Archaeopteryx fossil or his dead wife’s sweet singing voice, these things are all equal and will one day mingle in the ‘full-fugued song of the universe unending’.

And the image at the top of the page?  That’s the view from the back of our house on these beautiful, sunlit, plague mornings.

Also, if you are interested in the intense meanings that attach to small things try the two articles below –