In June 1915, the War in France not yet a year old, Thomas Hardy visited Exeter with his second wife, Florence. They went to a concert and then, next morning, visited the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, where a particular exhibit caught Hardy’s attention and spurred him to write ‘In a Museum’. It’s a poem crying out for some context.
Here's the mould of a musical bird long passed from light,
Which over the earth before man came was winging;
There's a contralto voice I heard last night,
That lodges with me still in 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 visionless wilds of space with the voice that I heard,
In the full-fledged song of the universe unending.
The exhibit he writes about in this poem is a plaster cast (‘mould’) of a fossil of the earliest known bird, archaeopteryx. The original had been found in Germany only a few years after the publication of The Origin of Species, and was hailed as evidence to support Darwin’s theories because it was a transitional fossil, one that suggests birds may have evolved from dinosaurs.
Extinct birds aren’t unusual museum exhibits: there is a fine specimen of a stuffed dodo – fine at least if you don’t have (as I have) an aversion to taxidermy – at the Horniman Museum in South London. But this bird puts the dodo in the shade: it was flying ‘over the earth’ long before the late appearance of homo sapiens. ‘Winging’ may sound slightly precious. However, Hardy needs it to prepare for the feminine rhyme ‘singing’ at the end of the stanza; and the word also echoes the name of the bird itself: the Greek etymology of archaeopteryx is ‘ancient wing’.
The fossil, though millions of years old, is present to the poet ‘Here’ and now. Similarly, the beautiful voice he heard last night is simultaneously in the past – ‘There’ – and present because it ‘lodges with me still’. The poet is moved by song, whether it be the ‘sweet’ contralto voice of the singer or the ‘coo’ of the musical bird. He himself enjoys the music of poetry: he lays on alliteration enough in the first line (‘mould / musical … long / light) and the rhythms of the long, leisurely lines are carefully modulated, no one line quite mirroring another.
But if Hardy in the first stanza focuses sharply on the here and now, in the second he adopts a longer perspective: ‘Such a dream is Time’ that past and present are arbitrary and elastic. The ‘coo’ of the archaeopteryx has either been already ‘blent’ (a word Philip Larkin later borrowed for ‘Church Going’) - into the song of last night’s singer, or it will ‘be blending in the future. Time is as limitless as the prehistoric landscape over which the bird flies is ‘visionless’. It is as unimaginable and as incommunicable as the strange arctic birds who visit Tess of the d’Urbvervilles:
gaunt spectral creatures with tragical eyes – eyes which had witnessed scenes of cataclysmal horror in inaccessible polar regions of a magnitude such as no human being had ever conceived …. But of all they had seen which humanity would never see, they brought no account, The traveller’s ambition to tell was not theirs. (Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Ch. XLIII)
This is one of Hardy’s bleakest images of man’s cosmic insignificance. ‘In a Museum’, by contrast, is more ambiguous. ‘The full-fledged song of the universe unending’ recalls Keats’s nightingale whose singing with ‘full-throated ease’ draws the speaker towards ‘easeful death’. But is this indeed a poem about human insignificance in a universe as indifferent to man as the strange birds were indifferent to Tess? Or is ‘full-fledged’ in fact an affirmative epithet, pointing us towards the idea of celestial harmony and the music of the spheres – a harmony and a music of which man is a part?
Besides, what exactly is unending? The song or the universe? Whichever it is, does the word invite us to contemplate bleak endlessness or hopeful continuity? In ‘The Voice’ – a poem written only a year or two before ‘In a Museum’, Hardy had wondered whether the voice that was calling to him really was the voice of his dead first wife, Emma, or just a trick of the wind,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness
Heard no more again, far or near?’
In the end, though, despite his doubts he stubbornly insists the voice is that of ‘the woman calling’. My own reading of ‘In a Museum’ is that while Hardy leaves the question open, the positioning of ‘unending’ as the last word of the poem, and the stress on the prefix ‘un-’ allows at least the possibility of hope. ‘Un-’ can indicate joy, after all: unconfined, unalloyed. ‘Unending’ is a more positive word than ‘endless’, carrying none of the desolation of ‘wistlessness’ or (Hardy’s original choice of word in ‘The Voice’) ‘existlessness’.
Not everyone agrees. Some critics see this poem as a clear statement of his pessimism. But the second line of the second stanza – ‘perished not … blent … will be blending’ seems to me affirmative, a case at least of Hardy’s ‘hoping it might be so’. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking this. Seamus Heaney’s sonnet sequence, The Tollund Man in Springtime, has a remarkable poem about resurrection and recreation which ends in a homage to Hardy:
Then, when I felt the air,
I was like turned turf in the breath of God,
Bog-bodied, on the sixth day, brown and bare,
And, at the last, all told, unatrophied.
Hardy famously liked inventing adjectives prefaced by ‘un-’. (The key scene in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys , where Hector dissects Hardy’s poem ‘Drummer Hodge’, hinges on this). ‘In a Museum’ is ultimately about how ‘the coo of the ancient bird’ hasn’t atrophied either.
[photograph: cast of archaeopteryx fossil, Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter