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‘At Castle Boterel’ and the short story ‘The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion’ by Thomas Hardy

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Thomas Hardy’s works often explore the subjects of relationships, mortality, love and the ‘unflinching rigour’ or pattern of time. He uses the image of a landscape to great effect in both the poem ‘At Castle Boterel’ and the short story ‘The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion’. The poem is quite personal and is probably about his first wife Emma (because of the date it was written) and is most likely to be autobiographical where as the short story- ‘The Melancholy Hussar’ is not personal because it has many different layers of narrative and it is not his own story- it is Phyllis’s.

Large gaps in time between the events of the story and the story being told and this also allows him to manipulate time. In both the poem and the short story, Hardy introduces the idea of the transitory, fleeting nature of human life. He compares the brief moments which are regarded as ‘important’ in people’s lives against the everlasting backdrop of time and the eternal landscapes. Hardy also compares the intensity of love (even though it is short lived in the case of ‘The Melancholy Hussar’) with the abstract of time.

Hardy uses the effect of pathetic fallacy to great effect in both ‘The Melancholy Hussar’ and ‘A Castle Boterel’. In ‘At Castle Boterel’, when Hardy is writing about the present, he describes ‘the drizzle bedrenches the waggonette’. The drizzle is used to demonstrate Hardy’s own depression at the death of his wife Emma. In ‘The Melancholy Hussar’, Hardy uses the seasons to the same effect. Before Phyllis becomes engaged to Mr Humphrey Gould and she is living with her father, it is autumn.

When she meets Humphrey and becomes engaged to him, it is then summer, however when Humphrey has to go to look after his father, it is winter. When Phyllis meets Mattheus, it is then summer again. This is used to great effect and the mirroring of nature with the events of human life works well. Hardy also implies that single moments are taken away by time’s unflinching rigour but writing and memories defy time as they cannot be erased and mean that even a short-lived relationship can live on in memories even if the person the experience was shared with is deceased as is the case in both the poem and short story.

Phyllis’s failed engagement also serves to identify the point that a relationship without love will not be strong. Hardy has made both Phyllis’s and his own personal experiences eternal through his writing as they cannot be erased. Hardy also shows that time takes away moments but can be relived in memory but also that all people are mortal and if not relayed to someone else, the story and experiences will also be lost forever.

Hardy also describes that although there was no headstone or memorial to mark the place where the two Hussars were buried, she tended their graves until she died which wasn’t until many years later and shows that in a way, this act showed that although she was physically separated from the Hussar (Mattheus), she ‘relived’ the memory by tending the graves.

Hardy mentions the landscape in both ‘At Castle Boterel’ and ‘The Melancholy Hussar’ and uses the unchanging landscapes to show the eternity of time: “A plough has never disturbed the turf, and the sod that was uppermost then is uppermost now. and: “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. ”

Both these extracts from the poem and short story demonstrate Hardy’s idea that human life is transitory and ephemeral against the backdrop of prehistoric landscapes that have been unchanged for thousands of years. With the landscapes as the backdrop, Hardy implies that the story of the ‘Melancholy Hussar’ could have occurred at any time in history because he does not actually tell you a date during the course of the story.

Although you can guess the period that the story is set in, you only discover the date of the story at the end of it when Hardy inserts an extract from the Parish burial records. In ‘The Melancholy Hussar’, the date is not mentioned until the very end of the story. The events of the story occurred in 1801. Between that time and the time that the story was written, there were many changes. There were three major acts passed which affected the rights of women. These acts were: ‘The Divorce and Matrimonial causes act’ of 1857 and ‘The Married women’s property acts of 1870 and 1882.

At the time of the story, it was very rare for women to break from convention. Phyllis did just this by following her heart and starting a relationship with a foreign soldier even though she was already betrothed to a local gentleman. The events grow out of the social circumstances of Phyllis at the time. This is another point that shows how time controls the story. If the love affair had happened ninety years later, the story would have been very different because by that time, the role of women in society had changed drastically.

Both ‘At Castle Boterel’ and ‘The Melancholy Hussar’ tell of a relationship which happened in the past. At the end of the poem ‘At Castle Boterel’, Hardy says ‘And I shall traverse old love’s domain Never again. ‘ and ‘I look back at it amid the rain For the very last time; for my sand is sinking. ‘ This shows that he thinks that he will not live much longer because he feels his world is falling apart. In both the story and the poem, Hardy mentions ghosts: ‘a girlish form’, ‘one phantom figure’ and he also mentions that ‘echoes’ of the soldiers can be heard on the downs.

This can be interpreted in many ways. The ghostly figures may be a reminder of the love that once was or it may be the ghost of the departed lover. Either way, it is used to signify an event which happened in the past. Between the beginning and end of ‘At Castle Boterel’, there is a passing of time because; in the first stanza, Hardy says that he is driving ‘to the junction of lane and highway’ and in the final stanza he says, ‘I look and see it there, shrinking, shrinking,’ which (in my opinion) is implying that he has left the castle.

Incidentally, the name ‘Castle Boterel’ is not actually mentioned in the poem and I believe that the title is just informing where the events took place and nothing more as it would have been as special to Hardy if it had been anywhere else. I think that he is revisiting all the places of his courtship with his first wife Emma (who at this time is dead) as a pilgrimage back to the place where the memory occurred. Hardy as a writer is good at manipulating time and defeating ‘time’.

He spends a lot of time describing seemingly insignificant things: ‘Ever since her childhood it had been Phyllis’s pleasure to clamber… the walls in this district being built of rubble without mortar, so that there were plenty of crevices for small toes. ‘ But he spends very little time describing events that other people may view as important and makes them seem simple and trivial: ‘This bachelor of thirty found his way to the village on the downs… and she sufficiently inflamed his heart to lead him in that direction daily; till he became engaged to marry her.

Even though ‘At Castle Boterel’ and ‘The Melancholy Hussar’ have similar themes but have different content and are written in different ways, Hardy succeeds in defeating ‘Time’s unflinching rigour’ by recording the memories and this serves to remind us of human mortality because if Hardy had not sat down to write down these memories over a hundred years ago, the memories of the experiences would have been lost forever and although there are many millions of similar memories, these are two examples which have been preserved for eternity.

Also, the facts of Mattheus’s life are recorded in the burial records of the parish but his love affair with Phyllis is not but this is what the story does.

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