‘Ah, Are You Digging My Grave?’:
Graves, Life, and Death in Thomas Hardy’s World

Oindrila Ghosh

What Hardy once wrote in one of his notebooks in 1917 has been quoted repeatedly by scholars and critics and become famous: ‘I have a faculty . . . for burying an emotion in my heart or brain for forty years, and exhuming it at the end of that time as fresh as when interred” (qtd. Ousby 51). Critics have cited that line as evidence of the poet’s unique capacity to understand “the mind as grave, or of the heart as a tomb” (Gadoin n.p.). Hardy’s encounter with death or near-death began from the moment of his birth when he was left aside for being born “apparently lifeless” (Tomalin 3).[i] Perhaps this event, coupled with his sense of the natural world as chaotic, where unfairness, suffering, and death abound, indicate why graves and graveyards are important symbols in Hardy’s work while also instancing his ability to unveil entombed emotions. This essay will attempt to highlight some of the more prominent motifs of death and graves in Hardy’s world. I study this reiteration of the grave as a site for the communion between life and death, between injury and atonement, which unleashes entombed and buried emotions and memories, in Hardy’s works. He often seems to be arguing that the emotions which are often ignored or which lay buried in the hearts of real people, suffering from the lack of acknowledgement or expression, are ironically often unleashed when people they valued are dead and entombed. It is entombment and being buried that allows for the emotions of the survivor to be un-tombed and unburied – a motif that runs through Hardy’s elegies of 1912-13 dedicated to his first wife Emma, whose death unleashes remorse, regret, and the desire to atone for his neglect of her. Her death becomes the occasion for the startling revelation of the buried emotions within the poet’s heart which he had perhaps never explored before.

Opinions may be divided about Hardy being a dark or pessimistic writer but what is unanimously agreed upon is that death, namely untimely tragic deaths, are significant features of the Hardy universe, so much so that, when Hardy’s Collected Poems appeared in 1919, one of his critics wrote, “If only Mr. Hardy would leave his graveyards and ghosts and give us more lyrics” (qtd. 39). Often, gravesites even act as Nemesis. In an early novel like Far From the Madding Crowd (1874), with its apparent pastoral setting, it is difficult to forget the scene of a vengeful Nature washing away the flowers placed on Fanny Robin’s grave by a repentant Troy. Fanny, abandoned in her lifetime by a fickle Troy, made to suffer the fate of an unwed mother, finally has her revenge at her gravesite, which symbolically seems to drive home the lesson—not all sins can be atoned for. The bed of flowers lovingly planted for Fanny by Troy is washed away by the violent onrush from the Gurgoyle: “The persistent torrent from the gurgoyle’s jaws directed all its vengeance into the grave. . .the flowers so carefully planted by Fanny’s repentant lover began to move and writhe in their bed” (341). And the narrator is careful to point out “[t]he planting of flowers at Fanny’s grave had been perhaps but a species of elusion of the primary grief, and now it was as if his intention had been known and circumvented” (343), suggesting Nature’s will to deny Troy the possibility of atoning for his crime of indifference.

The repeated presence of graves as the threshold and sealing point between life and death is a hallmark of not only Hardy’s fiction but also of his poetry. In “Ah, are you digging my grave?,” from his collection Satires of Circumstance (1914), which is apparently about death and the remembrance after death, an ironic twist by the poet renders the expectations of the grave’s inmate null and void. The poem, written in the form of a dialogue, is a good illustration of Hardy’s often grim sense of humor, and of his tendency to expose romantic or sentimental illusions about love, life, and death:

Then who is digging on my grave?
My nearest dearest kin?’
—“Ah, no; they sit and think, ‘What use!
What good will planting flowers produce?
No tendance of her mound can loose
Her spirit from Death’s gin.’” (7-12)

From her husband and her kin, to her worst enemy and loyal animal friend, the woman finds out little by little that none of them care enough to come to her grave. The dog does, however, come to her grave but, mistakenly, only to “bury a bone” (32). It seems as though the woman has not lived on in their memories; rather, everything that she was to them was sealed, like herself, in the grave. Another poem “Rain on a Grave,” in the same collection, under the famous group of elegies of 1912-13, written in memory of Hardy’s first wife Emma, also deals with the living world’s engagement with the life beyond the grave. Quite reminiscent of a repentant Troy at Fanny’s grave, the bereaved lover wishes they were both laid inside the grave together, on which the saplings of grass and flowers will soon show up:

Soon will be growing
Green blades from her mound,
And daisies be showing
Like stars on the ground,
Till she form part of them—
Ay—the sweet heart of them,
Loved beyond measure
With a child’s pleasure
All her life’s round. (28-36)

The rain on her grave rekindles within the poet his entombed emotions, those which he had perhaps allowed to lay dormant and been loath to express while in her lifetime. The site of her grave, washed with rain, opens the seals of his memory and emotions, buried for all those years of their estrangement. The comparison of the daisies with the twinkling stars of heaven reinforces the myth about dead people becoming stars, as believed in some cultures. Also, the dead wife who was neglected, and ignored during her life time will now perhaps be the “sweet heart” she never was during her life time. The gravesite thus becomes at once a site of obliteration of a life, as well as the place from which old life springs in a new form—the possibility of loving anew, of atoning for neglect and making a new beginning are all hinted at in the lines.

When speaking about the occurrence and recurrence of graves in Hardy’s works, one cannot forget to mention his poem, “Drummer Hodge,” in which he points out the futility and meaninglessness of war. War, for Hardy, only alienates and destroys, pushing a human entity to anonymity: “They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest / Uncoffined—just as found…” (1-2). These lines express Hardy’s horror at the disrespect shown to the dead body of a young drummer, his corpse having been thrown into an unmarked grave somewhere on the African plain and forgotten about, as though his existence had no value other than as cannon fodder. The drummer boy had long played a significant part in war literature and Hardy’s Drummer Hodge is a Casterbridge boy, reported killed in the Boer War, and about whom Hardy claims he had read in the newspapers (there are no such accounts discovered). Imagining his death, empathizing with him, Hardy finds it difficult to accept that the boy‘s body will have been thrown “uncoffined” into foreign soil “under foreign constellations.” A similar view expressed in another of Hardy’s war poems, or rather anti-war poems, is “Channel-Firing,” revealing his view of man’s bellicose stupidity. A black humour permeates the poem as the dead are awakened by the sound of gunnery practice at sea and sit up thinking that it is Judgment Day, until God assures them that it is merely the same old human madness which perhaps claimed their lives too. The speaker is one of the skeletons, who in the opening line of the poem addresses the reader and includes him when blaming humanity of its mindless blood-thirstiness which does not even spare rest for the dead in their graves:

That night your great guns, unawares,
Shook all our coffins as we lay,
And broke the chancel window-squares,
We thought it was the Judgment-day
And sat upright. . . . (1-4).

In a world driven by the madness of war and nations by desire for self-aggrandizement, the sanctity of death and graves are no longer viable. It is interesting to note the slightly different use of “coffins” in the two poems. “Drummer Hodge” accentuates the repugnance of the narrator at the missing rituals of burial for the Drummer boy slaughtered in an alien land, implying thereby that ritualistic burial and an earmarked grave is every individual’s due. However “Chanel Firing,” the later poem, reveals a sardonic acceptance of a world disrespectful towards its dead, where their hours of eternal rest are sacrificed to the selfish needs of the living. This is as much true about human thirst for war as much as for development (See below for the discussion on “The Hardy Tree”)

In this connection it would not be out of place to refer to a rather bizarre episode in Hardy’s life as an architect, the story of the famous Ash tree, better known now as the “Hardy Tree,” which is still located at the Old Church at St. Pancras in London. The cemetery alongside London’s St. Pancras Old Church is considered by many to be one of England’s oldest places of Christian worship and is the site of a number of fascinating stories. But perhaps one of its most striking oddities is the Hardy Tree, an ash tree surrounded by hundreds of weathered gravestones, layered practically on top of one another.[ii] In the mid-1860s, Britain’s railway system was growing rapidly and immensely, and London was outgrowing its existing lines. In order to accommodate the growing population of commuters, an expansion was planned, which was going to directly affect the graveyard at St. Pancras. In order to make way for the new train lines, in 1866 an architecture firm, under Arthur Blomfield, was contracted to perform the sensitive task of exhuming the remains and then reburying them at another site (Tomalin 80). The job was promptly assigned to the firm’s young employee, Thomas Hardy. After the essential duty was completed, there remained hundreds of headstones, and the looming question of what was to be done with them. The solution was, as is evident, to place them in a circular pattern around an ash tree in the churchyard, a spot that would remain untouched by the railway-expansion. One can only speculate if it was Hardy who arrived at this decision, but over the years the tree has absorbed many of the headstones, life and death melding into one image of grotesque beauty, preserved for centuries, and the tree has acquired the name of the young architect who supervised the macabre task (Atlas Obscura). This episode may sound like a puzzling digression, but it may be strongly argued that it is rather useful in speculating how much this contributed to his views on life and death and how the needs of the living world constantly encroach upon the rights of the dead.

Image Courtesy: Jacqueline Banerjee (The Victorian Web) http://www.victorianweb.org/photos/hardy/74.html

Hardy being such a death-conscious writer, one cannot help being struck by the sheer absence of children or of their untimely deaths as an important motif in his works. Not many readers of Hardy’s novels would forget the poignant scene of the bastard child Sorrow’s midnight baptism and of his later burial in unconsecrated ground without the intervention of a priest. The reproach against a society ridden with sexual and moral double standards is evident in Hardy’s narrator’s voice:

So the baby was carried in a small deal box, under an ancient woman’s shawl, to the churchyard that night, and buried by lantern-light, at the cost of a shilling and a pint of beer to the sexton, in the shabby corner of God’s allotment where He lets the nettles grow, and where all unbaptized infants, notorious drunkards, suicides, and others of the conjecturally damned are laid. (122)

And to drive home the reproach and bitterness further, the narrator describes the helpless mother’s actions at the gravesite:

In spite of the untoward surroundings, however, Tess bravely made a little cross of two laths and a piece of string, and having bound it with flowers, she stuck it up at the head of the grave one evening when she could enter the churchyard without being seen, putting at the foot also a bunch of the same flowers in a little jar of water to keep them alive. What matter was it that on the outside of the jar the eye of mere observation noted the words ‘Keelwell’s marmalade’? The eye of maternal affection did not see them in its vision of higher things. (123)

The infant’s grave in the shabby corner of the church yard and the fresh flowers in the jar denote a tragic commingling of life and death, and the antithesis between the social and the natural, which forms the very fabric of the novel. The anomalous presence of the flowers in a jar with the fading remnants a label reading “Keelwell’s Marmalade” adds a dark comic undertone to the scene. And as one critic suggests, Hardy could not have been using the name “Keelwell” insignificantly, but meant it as a pun for “kill well,”[iv] suggesting the callous butchery of nascent and promising lives that goes on in the hands of amoral Nature and relentless Society. Death, both physical and symbolical, remains an integral part of Hardy’s creative vision and is revealed amply in another significant episode in the same novel, in which Angel Clare places Tess in a coffin in the churchyard  during his somnambulistic adventures.

With the unexpected revelation of Tess’s “blemished” past on their wedding night, and of Angel’s consequent rejection to accept her as his wife, the estrangement between the couple is intense. Thus, when in his state of somnambulism Angel chooses to recognize Tess as his wife, albeit “dead” (“My wife – dead, dead!” he said) Tess chooses to play along with him:

Here they were within a plantation which formed the Abbey grounds, and taking a new hold of her he went onward a few steps till they reached the ruined choir of the Abbey-church. Against the north wall was the empty coffin of an abbot, which every tourist with a turn for grim humour was accustomed to stretch himself. In this Clare carefully lay Tess. (259)

The scene is symbolic in the sense that here in a state of hallucinatory sleep, Angel Clare is able to show the love and forgiveness to his beloved Tess, which he is unable to do in a waking state being “a slave to custom and conventionality” beneath the veneer of his eclecticism. The coffin-site thus becomes a threshold between the psychological and the actual planes of existence of Angel, where he seeks to bury and mourn his ideal view of the now dead Tess.

Quite the opposite happens in The Woodlanders, where the living Giles Winterbourne is utterly unattainable for Marty South, while in his death he truly belongs to her forever. On the surface a novel about a secluded woodland-community, it is nevertheless scarred by the instances of class injustice and divisions. The novel opens with the motif of death and its far-reaching and tragic repercussions in the life of Marty South. The death of her father, John South, is not only enmeshed in tragic phobia[v] but also ends the lease of their house of three generations, leaving Marty near-destitute. At the end of the novel, the death of Giles Winterbourne, caused partially by nature and partially by the moral prudery of Victorian social norms, brings a tragic closure to the text and brings Marty’s life full-circle. The ending is muted, but serves as a powerful tableau with Marty South, Giles’s unacknowledged and unrequited love, haunting his grave. Though her love for Giles was unexpressed and unacknowledged during his lifetime, and she was a shadowy figure marginalized in his life, and also in the plot, her position substantially changes after his death:

She stooped down and cleared away the withered flowers that Grace and herself had laid there the previous week, and put her fresh ones in their place.

“Now, my own own love,” She whispered, “you are mine and only mine; for she has forgot ‘ee at last, although for her you died. But I—whenever I get up I’ll think of ‘ee, and whenever I lie down I’ll think of ‘ee again. Whenever I plant the young larches I’think that none can plant as you planted…” (277)

Thus, for the first time, Marty expresses an exhilarated and complete sense of possession of Giles, now in his grave, and who will no longer be claimed by Grace. Her almost necrophilic sense of possession nevertheless places the gravesite or death as an all-powerful force within the context of the novel. The site of mourning, thus, also becomes the site for rejoicing. What life denies, death bestows upon her.

Having grown up in his “Wessex” in an age before rapid transition, where an ancient way of life in Dorset was giving in to industrial and scientific progress, Hardy had deeply etched memories of episodes of macabre deaths. These memories are often manifested in fictionalized accounts in his novels, poems and short stories—with the symbol of the grave as the reminder of a dark threshold between the quotidian and the eternal worlds.

The images of the melding of life and death are numerous in Hardy’s world, more numerous than the scope of engagement in this brief essay, but it is fitting that we end by narrating the very interesting and now well-known story about Hardy’s own burial. In his lifetime it was Hardy’s wish, which he had expressed, that he be buried at the cemetery of Stinsford, where his parents also were interred. However, after his death, the authorities at Westminster Abbey suggested he be buried in “Poets’ Corner,” being one of the most celebrated writers of the time. Faced with this dilemma, his second wife, Florence, decided that Hardy’s heart should be buried at Stinsford and that his ashes be interred in the Abbey. Thus lies Hardy’s heart in the grave of his first wife Emma, beside those of his parents, while his ashes are interred in Poet’s Corner at Westminster. Such unusual and sensational facts about one’s burial are perhaps fitting of an artist whose life from its inception was a close companion of death. Life and death are not separate events in Hardy’s world, but a continuum, which has lead generations of his readers and critics to misunderstand him as a pessimist, when all that he was attempting was to “ take a full look at the worst”[vi] to make the living world look “better,” less unfair.


Image Courtesy: Author’s Own Photograph.

Work Cited:

Tomalin, Claire. Thomas Hardy: The Time Torn Man. London: Penguin Books, 2012.

Hardy,Thomas. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. London: Penguin, 1994.

—-. Far From the Madding Crowd (New Wessex Ed.). London: Macmillan, 1974.

—-. The Woodlanders. Oxford: OUP, 1989.

—-. The Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy. Ed. Michael Irwin. Hertfordshire:

Wordsworth Editions, 2002.

Ousby, Ian. ‘Past and Present in Hardy’s ‘Poems of Pilgrimage’’. Victorian Poetry 17.1/2 (‘The

Poetry of Thomas Hardy: A Commemorative Issue’, Spring – Summer 1979): 51-64.

Gadoin, Isabelle. ‘Haunted Silences in Hardy’s Works: Voice from beyond the grave’.  Cycnos,

Volume 26 n°2.  11 January 2011, URL: http://revel.unice.fr/cycnos/index.html?id=6431.

Altas Obscura. ‘The Hardy Tree’. 30 December, 2017.




[i] Claire Tomalin writes in her biography: ‘Hardy’s life began like this. His mother went into labour on 1 June 1840. She sent for the midwife, a neighbor. The short hours of darkness passed, the sun rose and filled the bedroom with its light, she had a bad time, and at eight o’ clock the child was born, apparently lifeless. He was put aside while his mother was seen to. Then the midwife, turning back to the small scrap of humanity, looked closely at him and exclaimed, “Dead! Stop a minute, he’s alive enough, sure!” and so he was: tiny, weak, hardly expected to survive for long, but not dead yet(p.3).

[ii] Claire Tomalin writes “Hardy’s job was to keep an eye on things in the evening and sometimes into the night. Many coffins fell apart as they were brought out, and Hardy and Blomfield were both there when a collapsed coffin gave up one skeleton and two skulls. . . . In these circumstances even the thought that Shelley had wooed Mary at her mother’s grave there half a century earlier could not do much to cheer Hardy” (pp. 80-81).

[iii] Isabelle Gadoin, « Haunted Silences in Hardy’s Works: Voice from beyond the grave », paru dans Cycnos, Volume 26 n°2, mis en ligne le 11 janvier 2011,  URL : http://revel.unice.fr/cycnos/index.html?id=6431.

[iv] John South as he lies ill in bed develops an obsession that a tall elm tree will be blown down and kill him. To free him from his daily trauma Giles Winterbourne, on the advice of Doctor Fitzpiers, cuts the tree down. Yet, next morning at curtain draw, the blankness at the absence of the tree is too great for the old man to bear and he dies of nervous shock.

[v] Lines from Hardy’s  ‘In Tenebris II’, which support his own claims to be a meliorist and not a pessimist:

Let him in whose ears the low-voiced Best is killed by the clash of the First,
Who holds that if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst,
Who feels tht delight is a delicate growth cramped by crookedness, custom and fear,
Get him up and be gone as one shaped awry; he disturbs the order here.