Thomas Hardy wished to be remembered as a poet, but most people know his novels best. His poems are some of the finest in the English language: imaginative, evocative, and redolent of lost summers.
Commentators seem to have ignored when the poem “Regret Not Me” was written or who its subject was. Published in 1914 in Satires of Circumstance, it is not one of those to which the book’s title refers and which Hardy’s biographer Claire Tomalin labelled “short, harsh poems, vignettes describing people behaving badly.” Hardy himself called the collection a “mixture, as before, of unstable fancies, conjectures, and contradictions.”
If the scene is real, “Regret Not Me” may be set in Stinsford churchyard, which was a favourite haunt and where Hardy was later buried. It may refer to a young woman with whom Hardy was acquainted, although this is all conjecture. The poem, airy as it is, deserves to be better known among the 918 that Hardy wrote in the course of a long life. Edmund Blunden, another English writer, got to know the eighty-year old Hardy and later published a short study of the man. In his opinion, “As an artist of country life and occasion, he has not many superiors among English poets.”
The British composer Gerald Finzi (1901-56) used Hardy’s poem “Regret Not Me” in his song-cycle “A Young Man’s Exhortation”, looking back on life from the perspective of old age. The music reflects the bittersweet tone of the poem: joy tinged by resignation, but not regret. Hardy was Finzi’s favourite poet. His volume of Hardy’s Collected Poems was a treasured possession and, as he wrote to a friend, “If I had to be cut off from everything, that would be the one book I should choose.” Finzi greatly admired Hardy’s bleak fatalism and his sense of transience.
“Regret not me;
Beneath the sunny tree
I lie uncaring, slumbering peacefully.
Swift as the light
I flew my faery flight;
Ecstatically I moved, and feared no night.
I did not know
That heydays fade and go,
But deemed that what was would be always so.
I skipped at morn
Between the yellowing corn,
Thinking it good and glorious to be born.
I ran at eves
Among the piled-up sheaves,
Dreaming, ‘I grieve not, therefore nothing grieves’.
Now soon will come
The apple, pear, and plum,
And hinds will sing, and autumn insects hum.
Again you will fare
To cider-makings rare,
And junketings; but I shall not be there.
Yet gaily sing
Until the pewter ring
Those songs we sang when we went gipsying.
And lightly dance
Some triple-timed romance
In coupled figures, and forget mischance;
And mourn not me
Beneath the yellowing tree;
For I shall mind not, slumbering peacefully.”