Thomas Hardy wrote “Nobody Comes” in 1924, when he was 84 years old. He had had several careers. He was trained as an architect, and worked at that profession till he was in his thirties. For the next quarter-century, he was one of the greatest and most distinctive of British Victorian novelists. If you think of the world of long British novels from the 19th century, you often think of settings dominated by Thomas Hardy: hardscrabble farmers and shepherds, arcane half-forgotten trades, mysterious decayed lineages, blasted heaths, villages where a veneer of society covers unspeakable evils. Hardy’s novels won great popularity but also drew great criticism for immorality – criticism that scarcely makes sense 120 years later.
Hardy’s novels (including Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure) drew so much criticism that he abandoned novel-writing for fiction in other forms (including epic verse) and for lyric poetry. In the first three decades of the 20th century, Hardy wrote some of the great lyric poems in English. At a time when modernist writers like Marianne Moore and T.S. Eliot were reshaping the forms and concerns of English-language poetry, Hardy kept plugging away at the themes that had made him a great Victorian writer. It’s almost as if, long after the deaths of Hendrix and Joplin and Morrison and Lennon and Elvis and Michael Jackson, somebody like Bob Dylan were still writing and playing music in the year 2009. My God, perhaps he is 🙂
And so, “Nobody Comes,” a tremendous, tiny lyric poem. Two elements of technology stand in close contrast to the emptiness of the organic world. The telegraph wire in the first stanza should be an image of progress, of globalization, of a new information economy. Instead it’s a “spectral lyre,” a haunted instrument that suggests nothing except a kind of eerie image of dissociation. (The telegraph, an invention of Hardy’s youth,
In the second stanza, the car (not a common sight on English roads till Hardy was already a senior citizen) comes up, but instead of bringing the speaker into closer contact with the rest of his community, it merely leaves “a blacker air”: making the setting even lonelier by contrast to the brief impersonal light it’s shone on the surroundings.
“Nobody Comes” is a tiny distillation of loneliness. It’s simple. Great poetry emphatically does not have to be complicated.