Tess of the D’Urbavilles and Stonehenge

Within English literature, Thomas Hardy provides perhaps the best known historical evidence for acoustic features at Stonehenge. Living in Wessex, he refers to the monument in a number of ways. In his The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy,[1] Hardy describes having revisited the monument in 1897, and Millgate discusses Hardy visiting it a third time in 1899.[2] Hardy also appears to have had two Sarsen stones in his garden,[3] and his works have a number of ‘pagan’ references.[4]

Hardy refers to ‘the night wind blowing through Simon Burden’s few teeth as through the ruins of Stonehenge.[5] Here, in 1880, Hardy is discussing the sound made by wind rushing through the gaps between Stonehenge’s Sarsen uprights. He makes more detailed reference to echoes and resonances within Stonehenge in his 1891 novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles. In it he writes,

All around was open loneliness and black solitude, over which a stiff breeze blew …

 ‘What monstrous place is this?’ said Angel.

 ‘It hums,’ said she. ‘Harken!’

 He listened. The wind, playing upon the edifice, produced a booming tune, like the note of some gigantic one-stringed harp. No other sound came from it … At an indefinite height overhead something made the black sky blacker, which had the semblance of a vast architrave uniting the pillars horizontally. They entered carefully beneath and between; the surfaces echoed their soft rustle; but they seemed to be still out of doors …

 ‘What can it be? … A very Temple of the Winds’ … ‘It seems as though there were no folk in the world but we two’ … they … listened a long time to the wind among the pillars … Presently the wind died out, and the quivering little pools in the cup-like hollows of the stones lay still.[6]

Hardy describes the sense of solitude at the place, and the sense that the outside was shut out. He describes a sense of envelopment and enclosure. He says that the wind was blowing strongly, and that the wind made the site hum, and produce a ‘booming tune’. This could be evidence of low frequency resonance, standing waves set into sympathetic vibration by the wind, this could also explain the vibrations in the pools of water in the hollows of the stones. Without the nearby road built nearby in modern times, this kind of resonance may have been more readily audible in the 19th century. Indeed the road noise may now mask such a sound, and a low hum on windy days may be missed or mistaken for passing traffic. It seems very likely that Hardy had visited the site, had heard this sound, and decided to use it in his work. Shrewdly Hardy hardly describes what Stonehenge looks like, and focuses on what it sounds and feels like, giving a stronger impression of the site than could be provided by a visual image.

Hardy also references echoes made when first entering the space, at the edge of the circle, another interesting acoustic feature. He implies that the space seems at first, on entry, as though it were an indoor stone built space, with echoes, but that one was actually outdoors. Tess, the lead female character, lies on a central ‘altar’, (probably the central ‘altar’ stone, the place where the audio effects would have been most prominent), listening to the wind in the pillars.

Hardy refers to the humming sound as like the note of a one-stringed harp. He is referring to the sound of an Aeolian harp. This is a wooden box with metal strings, which is placed so that the wind blows on the strings, and produces varying pitches. It is known that such instruments were made in ancient Greece, and they also became popular household items in the romantic era. Coleridge wrote a poem entitled The Aeolian Harp, and Hardy has one of his characters build one in The Trumpet Major.[7] Indeed Hardy was especially interested in the sonic, in the sounds made by nature in general, and sounds made by the interaction of the wind with nature in particular. He describes the wind activating the trumpets and bells of flowers on the heath in Return of the Native.[8] He also describes the different sounds of the wind in various trees in The Woodlanders.[9] Both texts were written before Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Hardy was a violin player, and was very interested in music and sound. As Michael Irwin writes:

The noises in Hardy`s novels, like the visual descriptions, are there to remind us that human beings are surrounded by contingent phenomena, overwhelming in scale and diversity, which are sometimes an influence on us, sometimes a distraction, always a source of information and analogy. More specifically … sound stands for something beyond itself. It is produced by action, something happening, something being done. It affirms that we live in a world of endless, restless movement.’[10]

Irwin describes in a chapter of his book, the use of natural sound within Hardy’s novels as being cinematic, being used to bring the text alive in the present.

Most significant of all is information from Thomas Hardy’s Personal Writings. An interview with Hardy is reported from the Daily Chronicle, August 24th 1899, p.3, on the subject of the possible sale of Stonehenge. We are told by Hardy, ‘I have no more knowledge of the monument than is common to, or obtainable by, anybody who chooses to visit it’.[11] Speaking of research to write Tess however, we are told he ‘made special visits to Stonehenge to get his lights for the chapter’,[12] and that he ‘lives within a bicycle ride of it’.[13] He explains the low sound he describes in Tess by saying that ‘if a gale of wind is blowing the strange musical hum emitted by Stonehenge can never be forgotten’.[14] This would seem therefore to be a well known feature of the site at the time.

To summarise, Hardy notices a sense of enclosure and envelopment in the space, a sense of an indoor (yet outside) stone acoustic, echoes when entering the Sarsen circle, interesting sound at the centre, and a low booming hum that was caused by the wind. The project aimed to find evidence for any of these acoustic features.

Max Gate Hardy's Druid Stone

At his house Max Gate, a 5000 year old Sarsen was found buried in his garden near some Romano-British burials. When road building meant demolition work, this was found to be part of a 100m causewayed enclosure similar in design to Stonehenge [details in The  Thomas Hardy  Fellowship  Newsletter 24 Winter 2008], although Hardy never knew this. He had the stone put in the garden and it became known as the Druid Stone. He also wrote a poem about it. He was certainly interested in stone circles, and must have been to Stonehenge often enough to hear the low humming sound on a very windy day.

The Shadow on the Stone

I went by the Druid stone

That broods in the garden white and lone,

And I stopped and looked at the shifting shadows

That at some moments fall thereon

From the tree hard by with a rhythmic swing,

And they shaped in my imagining

To the shade that a well-known head and shoulders

Threw there when she was gardening.


I thought her behind my back,

Yea, her I long had learned to lack,

And I said: ‘I am sure you are standing behind me,

Though how do you get into this old track?’

And there was no sound but the fall of a leaf

As a sad response; and to keep down grief

I would not turn my head to discover

That there was nothing in my belief.


Yet I wanted to look and see

That nobody stood at the back of me;

But I thought once more: ‘Nay, I’ll not unvision

A shape which, somehow, there may be.’

So I went on softly from the glade,

And left her behind me throwing her shade,

As she were indeed an apparition—

My head unturned lest my dream should fade.


Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

[1] Florence Emily Hardy, The Later Years of Thomas Hardy, 1892-1928, Macmillan, London, (1930).

[2] Thomas Hardy, Michael Millgate, Florence Emily Hardy, The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy, University of Georgia Press, Georgia, (1984) pp. 400-1.

[3] ‘Thanks to Gerald Ponting for sending in this one. Gerald goes on to say, “I was at Max Gate recently, the house on the outskirts of Dorchester where Hardy lived much of his later life. There are two sarsens which Hardy had set up in the garden, not in original situ, but geophys studies when the nearby by-pass was created suggested that they had been part of a ‘Neolithic enclosure’.’ Julian Cope, (March 2005), available at http://www.themodernantiquarian.com/forum/?thread=23046&message=521491 [Accessed March 2009].

[4] Ralph Harrington, The shadow of Stonehenge: paganism, fate and redemption in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, (2006)
available at http://www.greycat.org/papers/tess.html

[5] Thomas Hardy, The Trumpet Major, Macmillan, New Wessex Edition, London, (1974), P. 178.

[6] Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Macmillan, London, (1891) pp. 501 – 504.

[7] Thomas Hardy, The Trumpet Major, Macmillan, New Wessex Edition, London, (1974).

[8] Thomas Hardy, Return of the Native, Macmillan, London, (1878), p. 40.

[9] Thomas Hardy, The Woodlanders, Macmillan, London, (1887), p. 64..

[10] Michael Irwin, Reading Hardy’s Landscapes, pp. 68 – 94

[11] Harold Orel, Thomas Hardy’s Personal Writings: Prefaces, Literary Opinions, Reminiscences (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1966), p. 196.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid, p. 200.