Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?
Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?
Thomas Hardy 1913
“Ah, Are You Digging On My Grave?” was first published in the Saturday Review on September 27, 1913, then in Thomas Hardy’s 1914 collection, Satires of Circumstance: Lyrics and Reveries with Miscellaneous Pieces. The poem reflects Hardy’s interest in death and events beyond everyday reality, but these subjects are presented humorously, with a strong dose of irony and satire. This treatment is somewhat unusual for Hardy, who also produced a number of more serious poems concerning death. In “Ah, Are You Digging On My Grave?” a deceased woman carries on a dialogue with an individual who is disturbing her grave site. The identity of this figure, the “digger” of the woman’s grave, is unknown through the first half of the poem. As the woman attempts to guess who the digger is, she reveals her desire to be remembered by various figures she was acquainted with when she was alive. In a series of ironic turns, the responses of the digger show that the woman’s acquaintances—a “loved one,” family relatives, and a despised enemy—have all forsaken her memory. Finally, it is revealed that the digger is the woman’s dog, but the canine, too, is unconcerned with his former mistress and is digging only so it can bury a bone. Though the poem contains a humorous tone, the picture Hardy paints is bleak; the dead are almost completely eliminated from the memory of the living and do not enjoy any form of contentment. This somber outlook is typical of Hardy’s verse, which often presented a skeptical and negative view of the human condition.
Hardy was born in 1840 and raised in the region of Dorsetshire, England, the basis for the Wessex countryside that would later appear in his fiction and poetry. He attended a local school until he was sixteen, when his mother paid a substantial amount of money for him to be apprenticed to an architect in Dorchester. In 1862 he moved to London, where he worked as an architect, remaining there for a period of five years. Between 1865 and 1867 Hardy wrote many poems, none of which were published. In 1867 he returned to Dorchester and, while continuing to work in architecture, began to write novels in his spare time. Hardy became convinced that if he was to make a living writing, he would have to do so as a novelist. Drawing on the way of life he absorbed in Dorsetshire as a youth and the wide range of English writers with which he was familiar, Hardy spent nearly thirty years as a novelist before devoting himself to poetry. In 1874 Hardy married Emma Lavinia Gifford, who would become the subject of many of his poems. They spent several years in happiness until the 1880s, when marital troubles began to shake the closeness of their union.
Hardy’s first book of verse was published in 1898, when he was fifty-eight years old and had achieved a large degree of success as a novelist. Although his verse was not nearly as successful as his novels, Hardy continued to focus on his poetry and published seven more books of verse before his death, developing his confidence and technical competence. With the composition of The Dynasts: A Drama of the Napoleonic Wars (1904-08), an epic historical drama written in verse, Hardy was hailed as a major poet. He was praised as a master of his craft, and his writing was admired for its great emotional force and technical skill. Hardy continued to write until just before his death in 1928. Despite his wish to be buried with his family, influential sentiment for his burial in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey instigated a severe compromise: the removal of his heart, which was buried in Dorchester, and the cremation of his body, which was interred in the Abbey.
“Ah, are you digging on my grave
My loved one?—planting rue?”
—“No; yesterday he went to wed
One of the brightest wealth has bred.
‘It cannot hurt her now,’ he said, 5
‘That I should not be true’.”
“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? 10
No tendance of her mound can loose
Her spirit from Death’s gin’.”
“But someone digs upon my grave?
My enemy?—prodding sly?”
—“Nay; when she heard you had passed the Gate 15
That shuts on all flesh soon or late,
She thought you no more worth her hate,
And cares not where you lie.”
“Then, who is digging on my grave?
Say—since I have not guessed!” 20
—“O it is I, my mistress dear,
Your little dog, who still lives near,
And much I hope my movements here
Have not disturbed your rest?”
“Ah, yes! You dig upon my grave … 25
Why flashed it not on me
That one true heart was left behind!
What feeling do we ever find
To equal among human kind
A dog’s fidelity!” 30
“Mistress, I dug upon your grave
To bury a bone, in case
I should be hungry near this spot
When passing on my daily trot.
I am sorry, but I quite forgot 35
It was your resting place.”
These first two lines of the poem present a certain mystery to the reader. Who is asking this question? Is it indeed a person in the grave, or is it a person imagining an experience that might happen after they die? This mystery helps to draw the reader into the poem, though we will soon understand that the speaker is indeed a woman who is dead and buried. Hardy will continue to make use of an anonymous voice in the poem, however, when he introduces the second character in the work.
These lines also suggest some underlying elements that can help us to better understand the situation. The reference to the “rue” being planted by the woman’s loved one seems an important detail. The word rue has two essential meanings and both can be applied to the poem. First, rue means sorrow or regret, so the woman might be indicating that her loved one is experiencing these emotions. Initially, the speaker seems to feel that her death has caused sorrow for the loved one and that she remains strong in his memory. In this sense, he would be “planting rue” by mourning her death. In the following lines, however, we learn he is not full of sorrow, so if she has this idea, it proves to be a mistake. Rue is also the name of a shrub having bitter, strongly scented leaves. This definition of rue seems to hint at the true nature of the relationship between the woman and the loved one. The bitter plant contrasts with the beautiful flowers that are often placed on graves, and this contrast becomes stronger when we remember that flowers are a traditional symbol of love and purity. In other words, the speaker doesn’t imagine the man offering a remembrance of beauty and affection, just one of bitterness.
In these lines, the speaker’s first question is answered by the “digger” of her grave, though the digger’s identity is unknown at this point in the poem. The anonymous speaker becomes an important factor in the poem, urging the reader to push on and discover who is talking to the woman. What’s made clear in this first stanza is that this voice does not belong to the loved one that the woman thought she was addressing. This is indicated by the use of the third-person “he” to refer to the man. The voice explains that the woman’s loved one—perhaps a husband or lover—has married another woman. What’s more, he has married a very wealthy mate and appears to be doing quite well without the woman in the grave.
Here, the digger quotes the words of the loved one, and the man states that his recent marriage will have no effect upon the deceased woman. With this, the poet completes the first of several ironic passages that continue throughout the poem. In all of these, the woman in the grave wants to believe that others are thinking of her following her death. In reality, however, she has been largely forgotten. Hardy uses these ironic reversals to create a somewhat humorous tone, and this type of unexpected switch is often used to make people laugh. In this poem, Hardy’s writing becomes a kind of “black humor” because it centers on death—a grim event that is not usually associated with merriment. This effect is intensified because the humor of the poem reveals a sad message: the dead woman is forgotten and eternally lonely.
This stanza again begins with a variation of the refrain, “Who is digging on my grave?” The “Then” moves the poem forward as it enables the narrator to discount the lover and move toward other possibilities. She chooses members of her family and imagines that they are remembering her by caring for her grave.
Again, the voice answers the woman, telling her that her relatives are not the ones she hears digging. Instead, they think that it’s pointless to tend her grave, as no amount of care will raise her from the dead.
Again there is the variation of the refrain “Are You Digging On My Grave?” but this time it is not as definitive. The speaker is more hesitant, as if she doubts herself. She also seems to be more desperate to find someone who remembers her. Since her loved one and her relatives have forsaken her memory, she imagines that the digging is being done by a woman she disliked in her life, perhaps a rival. While there was ill feeling between the two, it seems that the buried woman finds some solace in the idea that her enemy is still concerned enough with her presence to cause some kind of harm to her grave.
The reference to passing “the Gate” is another term for the woman’s death. Hardy’s use of the phrase seems to allude to the idea of the pearly gates that theoretically mark the entrance to heaven. He does not present a glorified picture of this passageway, however, as is typically the case with such an image. Instead, “the Gate / … shuts on all flesh,” a phrase that suggests death is like a trap, not a place where one receives heavenly rewards. This image reinforces the one in line 12, where the unknown speaker made reference to “Death’s gin”—gin meaning a type of snare or trap that is used to catch animals.
Here, the unknown voice presents one of the most direct, and most chilling, statements of the poem’s central idea: the deceased woman has been forgotten by the living and does not concern them at all.
In this stanza, the woman finally gives up her game of trying to guess who is digging on the grave and asks a direct question of the unknown voice.
Here, the identity of the unknown speaker is revealed. This is a key turning point in the poem. Until now, the reader has been involved in the mystery of who might be speaking to the woman, and this puzzle has been one of the elements that has kept the reader caught up in the developing narrative. Now that this mystery has been solved, the poet must find a new way to hold the reader’s interest. He does this in two ways. First, he uses the unexpected and humorous twist of having a dog be the individual who is speaking. Second, he creates another ironic set-up in the following stanzas to once again show that the woman has little importance in the living world.
The fifth stanza is given over completely to the woman who talks of the dog’s loyalty. This is the woman’s longest stretch of unbroken commentary in the poem, and it serves to build up the reader’s expectations for the ironic conclusion in the final paragraph. In a sense, this final situation is exactly the same as the ones that have preceded it: the woman’s explanation for the digging shows that she wants her former acquaintances to remember her and be touched by her death; the reality is the opposite—they have little concern for her now that she is gone. By lengthening the woman’s explanation in this paragraph, as well as the dog’s subsequent reply, Hardy gives more zing to this last incident and brings the poem toward its conclusion.
In the final stanza, Hardy takes the poem to its highest level of satire as the dog indicates that the bone is a more important than his former mistress. The mention of the bone also suggests the way in which those in the living world now view the woman; she is simply a pile of bones buried in the ground and no longer has importance to those she used to know.
With the final lines, Hardy drives home his central point: the woman has been forgotten by those she once knew.
The Human Condition
Despite its not-so-subtle humor, Thomas Hardy’s “Ah, Are You Digging On My Grave?” paints a bleak picture of human nature. Human feelings, according to the poem, are utterly transient. Death means not only the end of physical existence, but extinction in the hearts of the living as well. The tone of the poem is set immediately in the first line. In typical Hardy fashion, it is spoken by a dead woman, who is awakened in her grave by the sound of someone scratching at the dirt above. Which of the people she knew in life could be visiting her grave site? Is it her lover, her family, her enemy? One by one her illusions are shattered. None of them seem to care for her anymore. Even her dog, who is digging there, chose the spot by chance, not because his former mistress was buried there.
The poem’s bitterness goes even deeper. The voice at the grave relates, with brutal honesty, how the woman’s loved—and hated—ones have will-fully excluded her from their affections and thoughts. Her loved one got married the day before to another woman, and “one of the brightest wealth,” at that. Her family refuses to tend her grave. The dead woman has even lost the “affection” of her old foe who believes a dead woman is “no more worth her hate.” By the time the poem reaches this point, Hardy’s lack of faith in human nature is complete. No ties bind. He suggests that everyone can expect the same fate. The dog’s carefree lack of fidelity is the final blow. Any hope the woman might have had to live on in the memory of the living is dashed.
The narrative of “Ah, Are You Digging On My Grave?” presents a pessimistic view of human nature. But this viewpoint is undercut to a large degree by other elements in the poem—structure and language—that Hardy uses as an ironic commentary on the sentimentality of the Victorian era. The woman draws our compassion and our ridicule, and this sets up a tug of war between high feeling and ridicule. In the end, ridicule wins out. The authenticity of the noble “emotions” is thrown into doubt. By the time the poem concludes, the dead woman’s sensibility has been exposed as a cliche and Hardy’s readers are forced to confront their own feelings in the same light.
The structure of “Ah, Are You Digging On My Grave?” is a familiar one, although not one commonly associated with poetry: the joke. A situation is established and briefly developed, then the punch line turns everything on its head. In Hardy’s bitter joke, a dead woman has high-flown expectations of the living: her loved one will remain forever faithful to her; her family will continue to look after her exactly as they did in life; and even her enemy’s hatred will not wane. The poem’s punch line deflates her hopes and reveals them as vain and ridiculous.
Hardy sets up his joke carefully, with a poet’s attention to the language he uses. The atmosphere is set in the first two lines. A sigh from the grave seems to signal a profound meditation on mortality and love. The phrasing of the two lines is almost self-consciously “poetic.” Such language is maintained throughout the first three stanzas. Expressions like “planting rue,” “Death’s gin,” “the Gate that shuts on all flesh” portray feeling that is heightened, more sensitive and authentic than everyday, run-of-the-mill emotion. They awaken a sense of tragedy and compassion in the reader. But Hardy is merely setting us up for the punch line.
The tone of the poem’s language begins to change in the fourth stanza. One hardly notices it, so great is the reader’s surprise that it was a “little dog” that was poeticizing all along. The first seeds of doubt have been planted; this poem may not be exactly what it at first seemed. The dead woman recognizes the dog’s voice and utters the article of faith she feels most deeply: a dog’s love outshines anything human. As she speaks the poem slides
Topics for Further Study
- Lytton Strachey noted that if Hardy had ended his poem after the fifth stanza it would have had a very different effect on its readers. Imagine the poem ended after the third stanza or after the fifth stanza. Discuss what different effects each would have had. How would those poems have been different from and similar to the actual poem?
- Although the poem is ultimately humorous, the humor is black. Do you agree with Hardy’s view of the human condition? Give reasons to support your answer.
- Describe the reactions you felt as you read the poem for the first time. What emotions did you feel towards the various characters? Towards the author?
- The first three stanzas suggest that the living have betrayed the dead woman? Have they? Explain.
swiftly from tragedy into bathos. Her mannered speech shows how cliched her hopes are. It climaxes in the rhetorical question that concludes the stanza. It is as cloying and hackneyed as a greeting card, so much so that one is shocked to encounter it in a work by a poet of Hardy’s stature.
But when the dog replies, the reader realizes that Hardy is up to something else. The “poetry” and sentimentality have vanished. The dog’s voice is as ordinary and plainspoken as that of the Hardy’s Wessex country folk. He deflates her last hope so offhandedly and without pretense that its effect is brutal. This brutality counterbalances the sentimentality, turns it on its head and shows it to be ridiculous. At the same time the dead woman’s expectations about her lover, her family and enemy are portrayed as products of the same ridiculous sentimental outlook.
Hardy’s use of contrasting language does two things: it portrays the feelings of the dead woman and, at the same time, evokes feelings in readers. We feel compassion in the first three stanzas. We feel critical of the living characters. We are drawn to share her feelings, largely because of the way Hardy describes them in the first half of the poem. Once he has evoked them in us, however, he turns on them and shows them to be false and artificial. If they are false in the dead woman, they are false in us as well. He is not really criticizing the dead after all. Dead people have no hopes and dreams. They are dead, a fact that all the living people recognize. “It cannot hurt her now,” her lover says. He does not wish to hurt her. “What good will planting flowers produce?” her family wonders, since they will not bring her back to life. We, the living, are the ones with expectations of how the living will remember us after we have died. Hardy forces us to look at those expectations and ask ourselves how realistic they are.
“Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?” is composed of six stanzas each containing six lines. The first line of each stanza is a variation of the question “Are you digging on my grave?” The repetition of this line gives continuity to the poem and provides a refrain that is similar to the repeated phrases that are used in songs. After this initial refrain, the final words in Lines 2 and 6 rhyme with one another, while the Lines 3, 4, and 5 also contain end rhymes. Hardy also employs a fairly regular pattern of syllables in the lines of each stanza. Though there are occasional variations, the first, third, fourth, and fifth lines in each stanza usually contain eight syllables, while the second and sixth lines usually contain six syllables. This regular pattern helps to create the lyrical sound of the poem—a musical rhythm that makes the poem sound much like a song when read aloud. The design of the first three stanzas of the poem are also identical in how the dialogue between the two speakers is presented; the first two lines of these stanzas consist of a question asked by the woman buried in the grave, while the remaining lines consist of a reply to the question. Quotation marks are used to signify the beginning and end of each speaker’s words. The last two stanzas of the poem vary this structure—each stanza being devoted to a single speaker—but the dialogue between the two characters remains the central organizational element throughout the poem.
When Hardy wrote “Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?” a revolution of values was underway in the world that would shake the foundations of almost every area of life; it was a change that would influence artists and intellectuals, leaders and common man alike. The change affected how the world was perceived and how man perceived himself.
Queen Victoria died in 1900, but the attitudes and mores that characterized the period of her reign lingered a decade after. For many historians the start of the Great War signaled the close of the Victorian Age. A gentility of manners and a code of morals that is seen in retrospect as prudish and straitlaced marked the period. Hardy had challenged many of these attitudes in his novels, in which he depicted the struggles of individuals against the intolerant, hypocritical society in which they lived. The books treated controversial issues such as adultery and sexuality outside marriage with candor. Public reaction to the open treatment of topics that Victorians considered fundamentally private was hostile, and it ultimately drove Hardy to abandon novel writing completely in favor of poetry.
In the same year that Hardy’s Satires of Circumstance was published, the The Rite of Spring, a ballet by Igor Stravinsky and Vaslav Nijinsky was premiered in Paris. Stravinsky’s music broke radically with the norms of composition of the previous four centuries. Rhythm, instead of harmony and melody, was uppermost. It was marked by abrupt changes in tempo and dynamics; it was not music that could be easily hummed. Nijinsky’s choreography replaced the graceful movement of classical ballet with jerky, awkward steps that simulated the primitive rituals of the distant past that the ballet portrayed. It was so strange and different than earlier dance that when it was performed for the first time a riot broke out in the theater. The Rite of Spring initiated an era of experimentation. Arnold Schoenberg would reject harmony entirely, jazz would be absorbed, and classical balance and form of music of previous centuries would not return for decades.
A similar revolution occurred in painting. Art had moved rapidly from pure representation through Impressionism, a genre focused on light and perception and featuring experiments in color by artists like Cezanne and Matisse. In 1907 Pablo Picasso painted the Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the first work of a movement that came to be known
Compare & Contrast
- 1913: Life expectancy in advanced nations is just over 50.
Today: Life expectancy is 76 and scientists predict that over the next 25 to 50 years, U.S. life expectancy will increase by 10 to 15 years. Experimenters, using techniques of genetic engineering, claim to have extended the life of cells in the laboratory indefinitely and believe the techniques can be used to extend human life as well.
- 1913: Henry Ford sets up the world’s first assembly line at his factory in Highland Park, Michigan. His daily wage of $5 is more than double the prevailing rate for manual labor and thousands of workers come to Detroit seeking employment.
Today: More and more assembly work in factories is performed by robots. Unskilled factory jobs decrease, and wages fall as well.
- 1913: The Sixteenth Amendment is ratified, introducing the first federal income tax in the United States. Rates range from one percent for the lowest income brackets to as high as seven percent for the highest brackets. Less than one percent of the population was subject to the income tax.
Today: Since 1993 there have been five tax brackets, 15 percent, 28 percent, 31 percent, 36 percent, and 39.6 percent.
- 1913: Emily Davison, English suffragette, runs out onto the track at the English Derby as a demonstration for women’s voting rights and is trampled to death by one of the horses. Her death focuses the attention of thousands on the English suffragette cause.
Today: Widespread inequality still exists for women. For example, women continue to earn lower wages than male counterparts in the same job.
as Cubism. Cubism cut the last ties that bound painting to reproducing the real world. Picasso (and other painters after him) reduced their subjects to geometrical shapes, as seem from different points of view. They were rearranged on the canvas in a sort of kaleidoscopic view. Those three-dimensional forms, shattered and reduced to two dimensions on canvas, reflected the fragmentation of man’s view of the universe that was taking place. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was such a radical break that it was not exhibited until twenty years after it was painted.
As Hardy was writing “Ah, Are You Digging On My Grave?” another revolution was underway in the arts, one whose impact was not yet foreseen. Movies were just beginning to establish themselves as popular entertainment. Edwin S. Porter’s Great Train Robbery, released in 1903, had revealed the enormous story-telling possibilities of the new medium. Over the next ten years, movie houses sprang up everywhere in Europe and the United States. While literature was becoming more difficult and less accessible to mass audiences, film engaged them easily with its pace, visual style, and realism. Movies would eventually give way to radio, television, and recordings, media that ultimately displaced reading for many as a pastime.
The arts were also influenced by the revolutionary view of the human mind that was being developed by Sigmund Freud early in the twentieth century. Freud’s psychoanalytic picture of humans was very different from that which had dominated the Christian era. For nearly two thousand years man had been seen as a free being. Humans might act from selfish or noble reasons, but they freely and consciously chose all their actions. Freud maintained that many of the mind’s mechanisms were not conscious. Past events left their mark on the mind in the form of repressed desires and fantasies which affected our behavior even when we were not aware of them. Freud’s view also cast doubt on the degree to which humans were ultimately responsible for their actions as well, a debate that continues today. Freud’s view that sexuality lay at the root of human behavior and had its origins in childhood and infancy also scandalized turn-of-the-century society. Freud’s ideas continued to have an impact on all areas of the arts until late in the twentieth century.
Producing poetry from the mid-1890s until his death in 1928, Hardy has been viewed as a transitional poet who combined features of traditional verse with more experimental elements. He made use of established poetic devices such as regular forms, meter, and rhyme, but critics have also been interested in the rough, common language and unpolished verse that he frequently employed in his poems. Lytton Strachey, writing in New Statesman in 1914, referred to the “clumsy” nature of Hardy’s verse, but found it to be a positive characteristic. “He fumbles,” Strachey wrote of Hardy, “but it is that very fumbling that brings him so near ourselves.” For Strachey, Hardy’s “ugly and cumbrous expressions” successfully present “the quiet voice of a modern man or woman.” This common language is evident in “Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?,” especially in the use of utterances such as “ah” and in the repeated use of dashes to indicate the hesitations that are often present in everyday conversation. In fact, the poem’s extended use of spoken dialogue is another way that Hardy emphasizes unpolished discourse.
Critic P. E. Mitchell in “Music and Hardy’s Poetry” finds that the poet’s work incorporates many elements from English folk music, especially in regard to the irregular rhythms that are found in the songs. “In his poetry, [Hardy] brings the unadorned and rugged qualities of folk song back to life,” Mitchell writes. “Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?” has some of these qualities. Its regular refrain and uniform construction give it a musical sound, but Hardy occasionally varies the rhythm by adding extra syllables to certain lines. The poem’s subject matter also seems in keeping with the style of folk songs, as death and a person’s experiences in the afterlife are frequently referred to in traditional ballads. In drawing on folk music, Mitchell believes that Hardy hoped to invoke “an ideal social existence to be held up against the modern world” and that this ideal life was taken from “the unsophisticated rural past of England.” In other words, the poet used elements of folk songs in order to remind readers of the simpler way of life that once existed in the English countryside; he believed this rural lifestyle was better than the hectic existence of modern times.
Jhan Hochman is a writer and instructor at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon. In the following essay, Hochman explores various stylistic aspects of “Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?” including its use of satire.
Thomas Hardy’s “Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?” (1913) is a dramatic and satiric dialogue between the dead and living. A buried woman asks the same question—the title of the poem—three times, first of her lover whom she mistakenly thinks is planting rue (a kind of flower symbolizing sorrow) near her gravestone, then of a member of her family, and lastly, of her enemy whom she thinks is at the burial site not to plant flowers but to desecrate the grave. After being told each time by the digger that her guesses are wrong, the buried woman gives up and asks who it is that is digging on her grave. Her interlocutor, the woman is finally told, is her little dog still living somewhere in proximity to where she is buried.
The buried woman is relieved and happy until her dog tells her he did not know that it was her grave on which he was digging and that he is there only to bury a bone, not because he misses the woman. This is a poem of surprising outcomes, both for the woman and the dog.
In “Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?” Hardy not only surprises the reader as to content, but also form. His technique, maintains Florence Hardy in The Life of Thomas Hardy 1840-1928, involves a consistent employment of “cunning irregularity” applicable to what he once learned as an architect and what he later applied to his poetry. Hardy’s interest is in “the principle of spontaneity, found in mouldings, tracery, and such like—resulting in the ‘unforeseen’ (as it has been called) character of his metres and stanzas, that of stress rather than of syllable, poetic texture rather than poetic veneer; the latter kind of thing, under the name of ‘constructed ornament,’ being what he … had been taught to avoid as the plague.”
This statement certainly applies to “Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?” which has regular stanzas of six lines and, generally, a consistent number of syllables per line—eight—except for the second and last lines of each stanza which usually have six syllables. The rhyme scheme is also regular: abcccb. Yet meter and accent are irregular, with accents falling on different syllables throughout the poem as can be heard if one reads the first lines of each stanza together and then the second lines, and so on. This is the poem’s cunning irregularity—that of rhythm—and an instance of a poet who knows “the art of concealing art.”
“Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?” is a satire, a word once thought to be derived from satyr, a creature half-animal, half-human, that appeared in the chorus of Greek drama. Now, however, it is believed to be derived from the Latin word satira, meaning medley or hodgepodge, the term being applied to early conversational pieces on a variety of subjects. However, it is the present definition of satire that applies to “Are You Digging?”; this definition indicates a verse or prose form in which prevailing vices or follies are held up to ridicule. Sometimes the word is used interchangeably with lampoon which applies to the ridicule of persons, situations, or institutions. With our definitions clear, what then is the “prevailing vice or folly held up to ridicule” in Hardy’s poem? It is Western idealism or sentimentalism associated with continual devotion to the dead. The buried woman imagines she is missed by those who were close to her, or is still hated by her former enemy. She is mistaken. The living, while remembering her, have moved on to other preoccupations.
Depending on the genre of story in which the dead appear as characters, they are most often wise or horrific. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for example, the dead King speaks to his son Hamlet of dastardly deeds and hatched plots of which only the dead King and the murderers have knowledge. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the dead bleed the living to create more dead, who are not forever dead (as is the more pedestrian notion), but instead, forever alive. But the dead woman of Hardy’s poem is neither wise nor terrifying. She is, like a living character would be, unable to see due to her permanent enclosure. She is, however, able to hear and speak a very normal, conversational, and misguided speech like the living.
This combination of factors renders the woman, despite the fact that she is dead, a non-threatening and sentimental presence/absence; perhaps
What Do I Read Next?
- Poem XXVII of A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad was not only one of Hardy’s favorites, it was also the model and starting point for “Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?” The “Poems of 1912-1913” written in memory of his recently deceased wife stand in stark contrast to the irony in “Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?” and have been called some of the most beautiful love poems in the English language.
- Lytton Strachey’s book Eminent Victorians revolutionized the art of biography. In it Strachey casts an ironical eye on some of the icons of Victorian England.
- The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman chronicles the unstable political situation in Europe that led directly to the outbreak of the First World War.
this sentimentalism accounts for her living on in death, since hope, even when sentimental, is thought to keep one “alive.” In a phrase, it can be said—playing with the double meaning of dumb—that the buried woman is and is not dumb. In many traditional narratives of death, dead souls are thought to have learned from death. That this woman foolishly thinks she is devotedly remembered even as she lies in her grave, then, is surprising.
In this poem there is not only a dead woman but a talking dog. The dead are able to speak, so why not animals? The significance is that beings usually thought dead or unconscious are brought to life, or in the case of the dog, made to be what humans consider more fully alive. But is this wholly true? On one hand the dog is made to appear more fully alive with the “gift” of speech, but on the other, the dog is voided of what dogs are usually thought to have, something that often makes them really “alive” for humans: loyalty. While making the life of the dog more human by having the dog speak, Hardy also renders the dog a more living example of “dogginess”: the dog has his own life
“After coming to the end of ‘Ah, Are You Digging on My grave?’ the reader realizes that the title would have been more accurate—even if less interesting—if called, ‘Oh. No One Is Digging on My Grave.’”
apart from human concerns. He is too busy burying bones to worry about loyalty.
The dog is, in addition, rendered painfully honest—he does not lie to spare the corpse the hurt of not being remembered. This makes the dog seem more like an animal since humans, it is usually thought, are the creatures who lie (variously called an asset or defect), while animals, it is also thought, cannot help but be honest. Yet at the same time, Hardy makes the dog more of what is “supposedly” conceived of as human because he—like the lover, family member, and enemy—has moved on with his life. While some might call selfishness or self-involvement a trait of animals, the trait is not usually applied to what is generally believed to be the most loyal and human of pets, the dog.
Finally, there is one last surprising development regarding the dog. Though dogs are rarely thought to exhibit such behavior, the buried woman sentimentally believes that the dog tries to reach her beneath the ground. Because the woman seems so much to want to be missed, she makes a further, perhaps even bigger error in judgment after asking the main question—after all this is a dog, not some lovesick or vengeful human. All in all, the dog’s behavior is so rich and the woman’s behavior so simple-minded—even if also rather surprising in the context of that most romantic of mediums, poetry—that readers understand that Hardy’s satire is aimed at the behavior of the woman. The dog’s behavior, while made complex by Hardy, is not ridiculed as much as it is made surprising and humorous.
In his The Pattern of Hardy Poetry, Samuel Hynes calls Hardy’s poems, of which there are over 900, “antinomial.” What Hynes means is that Hardy does not, at least in his poems, present the classic elements of a syllogism: a thesis and an antithesis reconciled by a synthesis. Instead, Hardy more often presents a dramatic conflict without reconciliation. In “Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?” thesis and antithesis are represented by the buried woman and living dog, respectively. No final statement reconciles the woman to those who have not remembered her. Rather than Hardy so obviously presenting his view of remembrance of the dead, he presents a particular view. As there is nothing for the buried woman to do but accept the antithetical statements presented by the dog, there is little for the reader to do but accept that the living do, with time, abandon the dead.
Of course, the reader might also deny such human behavior, or at least denounce this subject, as one unfit for poetry, a medium more often thought to contain the best of what people think it means to be human (and less of what people think it means to be animal). For Hardy, however, this latter behavior by the reader would be missing the point. As he explained in his Apology (Late Lyrics and Earlier), Hardy composed his poems with “obstinate questionings” and “blank misgivings” in order to take a full look at the worst of human foibles and behavior. He suggests that this is not pessimism, but optimism under conditions of undeviating honesty.
Finally accepting the worst in Hardy’s poem—that the living come to forget the dead—makes readers understand the poem’s title as ironic. After coming to the end of “Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?” the reader realizes that the title would have been more accurate—even if less interesting—if called “Oh. No One Is Digging on My Grave.”
Source: Jhan Hochman, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.
David Kelly is a writer and instructor at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Illinois. In the following essay, Kelly delves into Hardy’s personal life to explore the motivation—whether ominous, humorous, or even kind—behind “Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?”
“Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?” is frequently chosen to represent Hardy’s poetry in anthologies for students, but scholars often pass it by, giving at best an embarrassed commentary on the language or pointing to its possible pedigree (the poems that may have inspired it). It is easy to see why beginning poetry readers would like this piece: unlike much of the poetry that is studied in schools, which is often chosen for study precisely because it is hard to understand—and therefore deserves some effort or concentration—, the Hardy poem seems to rely on no symbolism or “deep hidden meaning,” so the casual reader feels comfortable with understanding it after just one reading. Also, it doesn’t hurt the poem’s popularity that it is written in fairly common language. Modern American readers might find its tone a little stiff, but it is certainly more comfortable than works using complex phraseologies or archaic language of the “thou” or “whilst” variety. It is just as easy to understand why literary critics might not consider this poem worth their time, since its message—that a dead woman anxious to find out who has remembered her finds out that no one has—presents critics with no intellectual challenge. Critics also tend to shudder when they see that a poem has played out as a joke, as this one is, with the humiliating revelation at the end that the dead woman had no graveside visitor, just her dog, and that even the dog was just at her grave by coincidence. Edgar Allan Poe’s stories face the same dilemma of being popular with normal people but dismissed as “lightweight” by critics. The thinking here seems to be that a writer who as shaped her or his work to be amusing must surely have neglected its literary content. Whether or not this is true is not as important as knowing that it is believed to be true, and so humor frightens critics away.
The mistake made by both the poem’s fans and those who dismiss it lightly is that they assume the whole story is on the page, and there is nothing more to it. In most cases, a poem should be forced to stand by itself, instead of relying on how its subject coincides with facts from the author’s life. In this case, however, the piece is ten times more interesting than just its words because its first publication was in September of 1913.
Why is this significant? Because Hardy’s first wife, whom he had been married to for nearly forty years, the last thirty of them unhappily, died in November of 1912. By April of 1913 Hardy had already proposed marriage to a good friend of hers, who he would marry the next year. The implications are more chilling than most dark comedies would dare attempt: it is one thing to believe that the author invented a pathetic character, a dead woman so unloved that her friends abandon her and her husband remarries quickly, and quite another thing to believe that the pathetic creature is a person from the author’s real life, that the callous husband
“… [I]t is one thing to believe that the author invented a pathetic character, a dead woman so unloved that her friends abandon her and her husband remarries quickly, and quite another thing to believe that the pathetic creature is a person from the author’s real life.…”
is the poet himself. Even dark humor, as this poem clearly traffics in, requires some lack of sympathy for the person who takes a pie in the face or falls off the scaffold, or is abandoned by her dog. Once the suspicion has been raised that Hardy would shamelessly play such a dirty trick on his dead wife Emma, the focus of attention shifts from the subject of the joke to the teller.
In life, maybe she deserved this scorn. Accounts of Hardy’s marriage linger on the dark side of the spectrum, hovering somewhere between “cold” and “hate-filled.” They met at St. Juliot, Cornwall, in 1870, when Hardy was working as an architect and was involved of the restoration of the rectory there. In his essay in The Genius of Thomas Hardy, Geoffrey Grigson describes Emma’s father as “a failed solicitor, an impoverished idler, given to drink.” So Hardy’s future father-in-law certainly had very little to be proud of and no reason, other than family history, to think he was better than Hardy, but that did not keep him from writing a note before their marriage in 1874 calling the poet a “low-born churl who has presumption to marry into my family.” That unearned snobbishness carried over to Emma after her marriage. At first, she seemed to have been grateful to be settling down: she was thirty (Hardy was 34) and not very good looking, and her social prospects were unpromising. She went into marriage happily, and at the beginning, at least, things went well between Thomas Hardy and Emma Lavinia Gifford Hardy.
Maybe jealousy had something to do with it. Hardy was a writer when he met Emma and he had published a few minor works, but, as noted, he wasn’t successful enough to quit his day job. Nothing could have predicted the success that he was to become. His first major novel, Far From The Maddening Crowd, was published the year of their wedding, and the proceeds helped finance a honeymoon in France. Still, her own ego must have ached as his fame grew with the subsequent publication of such classics as The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure. In her book Thomas Hardy’s Women and Men: The Defeat of Nature, concerning the writer’s treatment of gender, Anne Z. Mickelson reported that “Like Zelda Fitzgerald, another woman living in the shadow of her husband’s fame, Emma tried her hand at various things and then turned to writing—with the same lack of encouragement and success that Zelda experienced.”
Maybe he disgusted her. Emma, apart from being such a snob that she would not let Hardy’s parents into their house, was a deeply religious person. Hardy offended her, and much of the reading public, by discussing matters of sexuality in his novels—not as graphically as we hear them discussed today on the average comedy program on television, but strongly enough to raise protests and force the author to speak out in his own defense. In 1890 he published an essay titled “Candour in English Literature,” an intellectual piece explaining his reasons for talking frankly and openly, stating that suppression caused, among other things, “the catastrophes based on sexual relations.” This theme would appear throughout his fiction. His next and last novel, 1895’s Jude the Obscure, was about bad marriages, and was more concerned with sexuality than any of his previous books. Emma was so scandalized that she went to London and tried, unsuccessfully, to block its publication.
From 1895 to the end of his life in 1928, Hardy’s literary output concentrated mainly on poetry, with miscellaneous essays and short stories being published along the way. He always considered himself a poet, even while his novels were praised the world over and their sales were keeping him financially comfortable. With the literary reputation Hardy had established, it didn’t matter whether his poems were critically successful, which was what allowed him to continue his poetic efforts. Even in his novels, Hardy’s use of language had always been an awkward mix of the common and the elevated, and isolated in poems, his flaws became magnified. In an essay about Hardy’s use of English in Thomas Hardy: The Writer and His Background, Norman Page included a quote from T. S. Eliot that captures the feelings of most literary critics and may tell us something about the type of man Hardy was: “he was indifferent even to the prescripts of good writing; he wrote sometimes overpoweringly well, but always very carelessly; at times his style touched sublimity without ever having passed through the stage of being good.” This sounds like the sort of man who could publish a poem about a dead woman after his wife’s death without seeing how the two might seem to be related. As noted before, he was a dedicated poet, and critics agree that the abuse he took for using “common” language probably just marked him as ahead of his time, but there is no consensus about whether we would know him today if he wrote poetry alone.
Hardy’s poetry took a turn with Emma’s death in 1912. Biographers and historians note that, just as his works during the late decades of their forty-year marriage reflected couples with little in common, living distantly from each other even when they were in the same house, his poetry started reflecting good things when she died. “One forgets all the recent years and differences,” he wrote to a friend (as noted in Timothy Hands’s book Thomas Hardy),“and the mind goes back to the early times when each was much to each other—in her case and mine, intensely much.” This is the relationship between the Hardys that literary critics like to remember: cool, aloof, estranged yet consistently so for decades, and tragically only revived too late, after her death—the poet awash in nostalgia and regret. To quote Grigson again: “Hardy once more loved and longed for his young wife, as he had first known her, in a total of 116 poems, about an eighth of the poems he ever wrote.” “Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?” would have to be an incredible piece of absentmindedness if this “renewed love” theory is to be taken seriously.
We have Hardy’s inspiration for this piece. Poem XXVII of A. E. Housman’ s A Shropshire Lad was one of Hardy’s favorites: starting with the line “Is my team ploughing?” it is structured as a question and answer series between a recently deceased man and his best friend, ending with a strong sexual suggestion (“I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart, Never ask me whose”). In The Poems of Thomas Hardy: A Critical Introduction, Kenneth Marsden points to a poem by German poet Heinrich Heine called “Ich stand in dunkeln Traumen” that both Housman and Hardy would have read and that he thinks was the basis for both their works. Maybe, just maybe, Hardy looked upon “Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?” as an intellectual exercise, oblivious to the strong similarity between his late wife, Emma, and the abandoned woman of the poem. Or maybe he was joking about callousness, an indication that he felt so secure in his love for Emma that he did not believe anyone would seriously think she lay abandoned in her grave.
Clearly, Hardy was not the type of man to worry much about the public’s perception of him, or he would have stuck to his successful career in novel writing and he might not have published the massive volume of poetry that nobody loved more than he loved himself. Given the overwhelming tenderness that he showed toward Emma after her death, it is unlikely that he would have published a poem openly slandering her, with nothing to gain but spite. The most probable answer is that he felt she would have understood this poem and its inferences, that it was something like a private joke between them, much as this seems uncommonly tender for the distant couple that the world saw them as for years.
Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.
Brooks, Jean, Thomas Hardy: The Poetic Structure, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1971.
Brown, Joanna Cullen, A Journey into Thomas Hardy’s Poetry, London: Allison & Busby, 1989.
Cox, R. G., Thomas Hardy: The Critical Heritage, New York: Barnes and Noble, 1970.
Hands, Timothy, Thomas Hardy, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
Hynes, Samuel, The Pattern of Hardy Poetry, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961.
Marsden, Kenneth, The Poems of Thomas Hardy: A Critical Introduction, New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.
Mickelson, Anne Z., Thomas Hardy’s Women and Men: The Defeat of Nature, Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1976.
Mitchell, P. E., “Music and Hardy’s Poetry,” in English Literature in Transition: 1880-1920, Vol. 30, No. 3, 1987, pp. 308-21.
Orel, Harold, in Critical Essays on Thomas Hardy’s Poetry, G.K. Hall, 1995.
Page, Norman, “Hardy and the English Language” in Thomas Hardy: The Writer and His Background, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980.
Strachey, Lytton, “Mr. Hardy’s New Poems,” in New Statesman, 1914.
Bailey, J.O., The Poetry of Thomas Hardy: A Handbook and Commentary, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1970.
A reference book whose entries briefly discuss the origins and themes of the thousand or so poems Hardy wrote in his lifetime.
Brennecke, Ernst, Jr., Thomas Hardy’s Universe, New York: Haskell House, 1966.
Brennecke’s discussion of Hardy’s poem focuses on its “cynical and bitter lack of faith in human nature.”
Brooks, Jean, Thomas Hardy: The Poetic Structure, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1971
Brooks compares the question/answer structure of in “Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?” with other Hardy poems.
Zietlow, Paul, Moments of Vision: The Poetry of Thomas Hardy, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974.
Approaches Hardy’s “Ah, Are You Digging On My Grave?” as a “grim joke.”