While preparing for class today, I ran across this 1914 poem by the English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy. Hardy trained as an architect, and while he was not himself a woodworker, he worked closely with carpenters and joiners early in his life. The poem relates a fictional conversation between a young joiner who is presenting his wife with a sewing box that he has made for her.
‘See, here’s the workbox, little wife,
That I made of polished oak.’
He was a joiner, of village life;
She came of borough folk.
He holds the present up to her
As with a smile she nears
And answers to the profferer,
‘ ‘Twill last all my sewing years!’
‘I warrant it will. And longer too.
‘Tis a scantling that I got
Off poor John Wayward’s coffin, who
Died of they knew not what.
‘The shingled pattern that seems to cease
Against your box’s rim
Continues right on in the piece
That’s underground with him.
‘And while I worked it made me think
Of timber’s varied doom;
One inch where people eat and drink,
The next inch in a tomb.
‘But why do you look so white, my dear,
And turn aside your face?
You knew not that good lad, I fear,
Though he came from your native place?’
‘How could I know that good young man,
Though he came from my native town,
When he must have left far earlier than
I was a woman grown?’
‘Ah, no. I should have understood!
It shocked you that I gave
To you one end of a piece of wood
Whose other is in a grave?’
‘Don’t, dear, despise my intellect,
Mere accidental things
Of that sort never have effect
On my imaginings.’
Yet still her lips were limp and wan,
Her face still held aside,
As if she had known not only John,
But known of what he died.
The few details given about the box itself are significant. The box is made of “polished oak,” and the joiner points out the “shingled pattern,” which is probably some close-set ray flecks in the quarter-sawn grain. The description of the grain as “shingled” reminds us that poets like Hardy and Emily Dickinson occasionally describe coffins as houses for the dead. Shingles were often made of riven oak, so the species is appropriate to the situation.
The poem is not, of course, so much about woodworking as it is about a past relationship and a moment of bitter irony. The joiner perceives the box in one way, whereas his wife perceives it in quite another. To him, it is a parable about “timber’s varied doom,” the curious juxtapositions of life and death, refined and vulgar, plain and ornate, evoked by the division of a single board. To her, it is a grim reminder of a man she knew, and probably loved, but about whom she can never tell her husband. The gift that should have united the joiner and his wife instead begins to separate them.
Or, maybe the point is just that woodworkers shouldn’t talk shop to their wives.