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The House of Hospitalities

Hospitality is a hallmark of the holiday season, and Kiki Petrosino describes a “hospitality that moves, in language and memory, across generations” in her commentary on Thomas Hardy’s poem, “The House of Hospitalities.” Ms. Petrosino is a Professor of Poetry in the Department of English Creative Writing Program in the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Virginia.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about hospitality. For me, these winter days in Charlottesville have been full of welcoming grace: cozy dinner parties with colleagues; a stranger holding the café door as I struggled with holiday packages; the surprise chocolate chip cookie from my graduate students on the last day of seminar. As a new UVA professor and undergraduate alumna, semester’s end feels exciting and nostalgic, an unexpectedly rich combination, like tasting cinnamon and chocolate in the same sip. I remember the feel of Finals Week on Grounds as a student. Now, I’m the one collecting projects, marking papers; marking time, I hope, with generosity and encouragement.

Thomas Hardy’s poem, below, is about hospitality’s unique link to memory. It is, fittingly, a Christmas poem. At the turning of the year, hospitality has a Janus face, looking forward to new life, and back, to celebrations past. Like Hardy’s speaker, we remember the people who have enriched our lives and taught us to share whatever bounties—of time, energy, or fellowship—we may have to give. The poet recalls singing carols before crackling fires, and it helps that the poem sounds like a song for which we (almost? still?) remember the tune. There is deep sadness here, as the poet grieves our mortal condition. The melodic “viol” and delicious “viands” must succumb to time, and the speaker seems to dread the “New Year” which “comes unlit.” The “worm” burrows through the cold earth, breaking down whatever we’ve made. While Hardy’s speaker appears to mourn these losses, I would argue the worm performs necessary, even hospitable, work in the poem. It aerates the soil, making space for new life, new music. Winter is a paradox, after all: bright stars in black skies, joy welling up from the darkest seam of the year.

In the final stanza, Hardy turns to consider the present moment (in actuality, a shimmering near-future, as signaled by “if”). He describes luminous “sheets” of moonlight on the trees where he walks in solitude. The poet anticipates the comfort his memories will bring, the “forms of old time talking,” which seem to defy death’s silencing power. In the poem’s closing movement, Hardy shows us how we might inhabit the true “house of hospitalities”—not by fearing the worm, or winter’s chill, but by engaging in regenerative acts of remembrance whose “forms” carry through to the future. Memory is the house where hospitality lives on. Here, we see that hospitality possesses a poetic quality, as it has the power to hold, in beautiful tension, present, past, and future.

Here’s a small story about time. Three years ago, in the midst of a genealogical journey, my mother and I found ourselves in rural Virginia, at a certain bend in the road. The place we were looking for, my late great-grandfather Clifton’s house, had sat empty for a long time—had, in fact, burned down, empty, a few years before. The circular drive, crowned by a single oak tree, still marked the way in. We parked at the edge of the property and hiked inward, smelling the char that emanated, faintly, from the ruined beams. My mother pointed to what she remembered of her grandfather’s home: smokehouse, chimney, window frames. The roof bent low to touch the kitchen tiles. Perhaps it had always wanted to. My mother said that Clifton had built the house himself, designing the bath especially for his wife, who always placed tiny, rose-scented soaps near the sink for guests.

I’m thinking about how the remembered scent of roses can fill a space like smoke, about the kind of hospitality that moves, in language and memory, across generations. This holiday season, as we stand together at the threshold of another year, let us make space to offer one another three priceless gifts: our time, our stories, and our hopes for the future.

The House of Hospitalities
Thomas Hardy

Here we broached the Christmas barrel,
…..Pushed up the charred log-ends;
Here we sang the Christmas carol,
………..And called in friends.

Time has tired me since we met here
…..When the folk now dead were young.
Since the viands were outset here
……….And quaint songs sung.

And the worm has bored the viol
…..That used to lead the tune,
Rust eaten out the dial
……….That struck night’s noon.

Now no Christmas brings in neighbours,
…..And the New Year comes unlit;
Where we sang the mole now labours,
………And spiders knit.

Yet at midnight if here walking,
….When the moon sheets wall and tree,
I see forms of old time talking,
………Who smile on me.