|Thomas Hardy's poetry - study guide|
I have written this study guide for students taking GCE Advanced level (AS and A2) courses in English literature, and other comparable literature courses. It is suitable for undergraduates and the general reader who is interested in the study of poetry. This guide was originally written to cover a selection of poems prescribed as a set text for exams at GCE Ordinary and GCSE level. But it can be used as a way in to the study of Thomas Hardy's poems generally.
About Thomas Hardy
Hardy lived from 1840 to 1928. He was the son of a mason, from Dorset, in the south west of England. He studied to be an architect, and worked in this profession for many years. He also began to write prose fiction. His first effort (The Poor Man and the Lady) was never published, but his second novel was published in 1871. This was Desperate Remedies. It was not well-received, but the next book, Under the Greenwood Tree (1872), did better. Hardy eventually published many novels - these vary in merit but include many which are established as masterpieces of English fiction: Far from the Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Woodlanders, Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure.
Hardy enjoyed commercial success, but his work proved controversial, and his publishers continually tried to tone it down. Critics savagely condemned his last two novels, Jude and Tess (as they are abbreviated for convenience). Hardy no longer needed to write prose fiction for a living - the royalties from his existing work gave him more than enough security. He had always preferred poetry - and believed that he was better as a writer in this form. He wrote verse throughout his life, but did not publish a volume until Wessex Poems and Other Verses (for which he did his own illustrations) appeared in 1898. Hardy certainly made up for lost time, eventually publishing six collections of verse as well as the huge poetic drama, The Dynasts, of which the first part appeared in 1904.
Thomas Hardy was married twice - his first marriage, long and mostly unhappy, was to Emma Gifford. They married in 1874. Emma died in 1912, and in 1914 Hardy married his secretary, Florence Dugdale, who later became his biographer. Hardy died in 1928, aged 87. He had asked to be laid beside Emma, but his body was buried in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey. Only his heart was placed in Emma's grave - or was it? There is a curious story that his housekeeper placed the heart on the kitchen table, where his sister's cat seized it, and ran off into the nearby woods. In this version of events, a pig's heart was duly buried beside Emma.
Hardy wrote poems at the times of the second Boer War of 1899-1902 and the Great War of 1914-1918. Some poems obviously reflect these particular conflicts (Drummer Hodge and Channel Firing, for example). But others, though written at the time, have a more general relevance - such as The Man He Killed and In Time of The Breaking of Nations. This is not accidental - Hardy explicitly tried to relate specific historical conflicts to a wider historical scheme. He attempted to do this in a grand or epic poetic drama of the Napoleonic Wars - The Dynasts (which has three parts, nineteen acts and one hundred and thirty scenes). In this he also relates the great moments of history to the lives of ordinary people.
Hardy's war poems show a great diversity of attitude. We cannot, on their evidence alone, identify a clear-cut opinion of war to which Hardy keeps consistently. Channel Firing presents a horribly pessimistic view of man's bellicose stupidity. In Time of The Breaking of Nations is triumphantly optimistic in asserting the fact that the good things of everyday life will survive when wars are long forgotten.
The Going of the Battery captures the sadness (for those left behind) that war brings, but no criticism of war is stated or implied. The reference to Honour in the fourth stanza suggests that the soldiers' cause is worth fighting for.
In Drummer Hodge, while he shows the tragedy and waste of war, and perhaps implies that Hodge's sacrifice is rendered futile by his ignorance of the land over which he is fighting, yet Hardy makes no explicit criticism of war.
In The Man He Killed, on the other hand, Hardy's skilful device of the narrator's vain attempt to justify his action is an obvious indictment of war, as it is clear that he has no reason to kill his foe.
The Going of the Battery
This poem is about what happens when a group of soldiers and their field guns leave for service overseas. The guns collectively are the battery of the title, though this noun normally includes also the men who operate them - an artillery company. They are travelling by train to a port of embarkation for service overseas - probably South Africa, and the poem appears to have a setting at the time of the second Boer War.
The sub-title points us to the fact that a narrator (who is one of the deserted wives) speaks the poem. Hardy's concern in this poem is not really with war as such, so much as with the effect on the wives of the departure of their men folk. The poem is written in the first person as if spoken by the wife of a soldier: this is evidence of Hardy's trying to see the situation through the eyes of the women so deeply affected by the leaving of the men.
The jaunty rhythm, internal rhyme (in the first and third line of each stanza) and frequent alliteration ( through mirk and through mire; great guns were gleaming ) echo the brisk marching pace of the soldiers. However the highly contrived rhyme and the stilted (artificial) syntax to which it leads (as in the penultimate stanza) make the narrator's mode of address seem somewhat unnatural. We do not (as we do with The Man He Killed) have a clear and immediate sense of the narrator's character.
Knowing that soldiers are light in their loving (inconstant), the narrator acknowledges how foolish she and her friends have been to choose such men as husbands, even without the additional hardship of losing them to uncertain battle in a distant country. Note the internal rhyme: sad ... mad, choosing ... loosing. This will recur in every stanza.
Undeterred by the driving rain the women walk through the blackness and through the mud underfoot. The despondency of the women as they trudge along is contrasted with the enthusiasm and eagerness of their men folk stepping steadily - only too readily! , almost as if the men do not realize that the swifter their pace, the sooner will come the parting from their wives. This fact does not apparently cross the soldiers' minds, or, if it does, they are not unduly concerned about it.
There in the first line, is not identified, but is evidently a station or point of entrainment (getting on the train). To the narrator's eye, the field guns, draped in tarpaulins, resemble monstrous animals: living things seeming there. This personification (or more precisely animation) of the guns is developed by the references to mouths ( upmouthed ) and throats: an apt image not only because they are round and open, but also because, though they are yet still (blank of sound ) they are prophetic to sight . We can see that they will, in due course, be heard.
The gas-light, obscured by the driving rain, sheds faint and eerie light on the faces of the wives ( pale both because of the faint light, and because they are chilled and fearful) as they wait for a farewell kiss and embrace their men, entreating them ( a last quest = a last request) not to seek danger which can honourably be avoided: to be brave but not foolhardy.
The use of the word court may be inadvertent on the narrator's part, but Hardy evidently is aware of the sense in which the army is a rival of the wives for the affections of their men, who court danger in battle as eagerly as they might once have in a literal sense courted their wives and sweethearts.
The train, bearing all the men of the battery, ( all we loved ) moves out, and the women sigh audibly, their eyes blinded (with tears, to say nothing of the rain and the gloom). As they retrace their steps - slowly now and alone - the women pray for the safety of their men. Note the clumsiness that the internal rhyme creates in the highly stilted third line of this stanza.
One of the women despairingly voices her fear that the men will never return, but the narrator contradicts this fear and asserts that God or benevolent fate ( some Hand ) will guard the ways of the men and bring them home safely sooner or later. This assertion suggests a confidence that the narrator wishes to have but which may not really be so assured. The first and last stanzas of the poem make it clear that the narrator is anxious about the fate of the men. She asserts her hope that they will be safe, almost as if to invoke protection over them: she must realize that soldiers are, in fact, often killed or wounded in battle.
The pathos of the women's position is shown skilfully in this stanza in the presentation of the contrasting hopes and fears of the wives. In the night, when life beats are low , the women are the prey of voices (their own imaginations or malicious spirits?) that hint at a less happy lot for their men folk. The narrator and her companions, however, try to be brave and to wait in trust (in some Hand protecting the men) to see what will happen in the end.
The poem only refers to war insomuch as it represents danger to the men and so, possible heartbreak to their wives. There is neither suggestion that war is wrong, nor patriotic celebration of battle: the cause for which the men are fighting is apparently immaterial. It is merely implied by the contrasting attitudes of the men and their wives that war is exciting to soldiers but distressing to their wives, who try to come to terms with this distress, realizing that marrying soldiers necessarily involves such risks as they now face.
Discussing the poem
This economical and very restrained poem contains no explicit (clearly stated) condemnation of war, but the implied criticism can hardly be missed. The language of the poem is for the most part simple and natural and conveys with clarity what befalls Hodge.
Drummers were usually the very youngest of soldiers, considered too young to fight. This drummer has a name that was once used as a kind of nickname or disrespectful term for people from the country (like bumpkin or yokel ). Hardy does not support this kind of prejudice, and intends no ridicule here.
The poem tells of a West Country boy, who has fallen in battle in South Africa, during the Boer War. The strangeness of the terrain, of the soil even, and of the constellations that nightly appear over Hodge's grave is repeatedly stressed. Hardy uses Afrikaans words to emphasize this strangeness. The poem is restrained but evokes great sympathy for Hodge. From clues that Hardy works skilfully into the verse account we can work out a great amount of information about what has happened.
They are not identified but are evidently Hodge's fellow soldiers, members of a burial detail. The use of the monosyllabic pronoun is most economical. Hodge is thrown, not lowered with dignity and military honours, into his grave. He is not even placed in a coffin (there is no time, or inclination from his superiors, to find one) and he is buried just as found (a phrase better suited to an object than a person). It as if his body has not even been properly laid out, a suggestion confirmed by his being thrown into the ground. Hodge is given no headstone to mark the site of his burial, and the only landmark to show the position of his grave is the kopje crest/That breaks the veldt around . The foreignness, to Hodge, of his resting place is emphasised by the use of Afrikaans terms such as kopje and veldt , and by the strangeness, to him, of the stars that rise nightly over his grave. The reference to the stars recurs in the remaining stanzas of the poem, providing a kind of linking motif.
The contrast between the simple English boy, Young Hodge the Drummer, fresh from his West Country home, and his remote and alien resting-place is further developed in the references to:
Yet, despite his ignorance of his surroundings, Hodge will now be a part of the South African veldt forever. His remains will nourish the roots of some Southern tree. This stanza, too, ends with a reference to the alien constellations, which will reign forever over Hodge's grave.
The pathos of Hodge's fate is made more striking by the restrained manner in which Hardy relates his burial. The young man's innocence and youth make his premature death seem all the more wasteful.
Discussing the poem
Things to comment on
The Man He Killed
Superficially a simple, uncomplicated piece, this is, in fact, a very skilful poem heavily laden with irony and making interesting use of colloquialism (writing in the manner of speech). The title is slightly odd, as Hardy uses the third-person pronoun He, though the poem is narrated in the first person. The He of the title (the I of the poem) is evidently a soldier attempting to explain and perhaps justify his killing of another man in battle.
In the first stanza the narrator establishes the common ground between himself and his victim: in more favourable circumstances they could have shared hospitality together. This idea is in striking contrast to that in the second stanza: the circumstances in which the men did meet. Ranged as infantry suggests that the men are not natural foes but have been ranged, that is set against each other (by someone else's decision). The phrase as he at me indicates the similarity of their situations.
In the third stanza the narrator gives his reason for shooting the supposed enemy. The conversational style of the poem enables Hardy to repeat the word because, implying hesitation, and therefore doubt, on the part of the narrator. He cannot at first easily think of a reason. When he does so, the assertion ( because he was my foe ) is utterly unconvincing. The speaker has already made clear the sense in which the men were foes: an artificial enmity created by others. Of course and That's clear enough are blatantly ironic: the enmity is not a matter of course, the claim is far from clear to the reader, and the pretence of assurance on the narrator's part is destroyed by his admission beginning although
The real reason for the victim's enlistment in the army, like the narrator's, is far from being connected with patriotic idealism and belief in his country's cause. The soldier's joining was partly whimsical (Off-hand like) and partly the result of economic necessity: he was unemployed and had already sold off his possessions. He did not enlist for any other reason.
The narrator concludes with a repetition of the contrast between his treatment of the man he killed and how he might have shared hospitality with him in other circumstances, or even been ready to extend charity to him. He prefaces this with the statement that war is quaint and curious, as if to say, a funny old thing. This tends to show war as innocuous and acceptable, but the events narrated in the poem, as well as the reader's general knowledge of war, make it clear that conflict is far from quaint and curious and Hardy employs the terms with heavy irony, knowing full well how inaccurate such a description really is.
This is a rather bitter poem showing the stupidity of war, and demolishing belief in the patriotic motives of those who confront one another in battle. The narrator finds no good reason for his action; Hardy implies that there is no good reason. The short lines, simple rhyme scheme, and everyday language make the piece almost nursery rhyme like in simplicity, again in ironic contrast to its less than pleasant subject.
Discussing the poem
Things to comment on
This humorous treatment of war is savagely critical in its scornful condemnation of man's incorrigible desire for conflict.
The poem is spoken in the first person by one of the dead buried in a church, in which the windows have been shattered by the report (noise and vibration) of guns being fired for practice in the English Channel. So great is the disturbance that the skeletons believe Judgement Day (and so, the resurrection of the dead) to have come. In a gruesomely comical picture, they are represented as suddenly sitting up in readiness for the great day.
The humour takes an irreverent turn as Hardy introduces God to the proceedings, reassuring the corpses that it is not time for the Judgement Day but merely gunnery practice, adding that the world is as it was when the dead men went below to their graves. That is to say, every country is trying to make its methods of destruction more efficient, and shed more blood, making red war yet redder. God sees the living as insane and no more ready to exercise Christian love than are the dead, who are obviously now helpless in such matters. In other words, the living, too, do nothing for Christes sake. Note how the archaic (old fashioned) spelling adds to the humour of the piece.
God continues, observing that those responsible for the gunnery practice are fortunate that it is not the day of judgement. If it were, their bellicose (warlike) threats would be punished by their having to scour the floor of Hell. While the suggested punishment is somewhat ridiculous, and so comic, it is almost a fitting one. Certainly Hell seems the appropriate place for the war makers. With a hint of malice God suggests that He will ensure that His judgement day is far hotter. He concedes that He may not bother, though, as eternal rest seems more suited to the human condition. The scriptural image of the blowing of the trumpet that signals the end of the world seems rather comic when God Himself uses it literally.
When God's remarks are finished, the skeletons voice their own opinions of the gunnery practice, wondering if man will ever achieve sanity (that is, a rejection of armed conflict. Significantly, while many of the skeletons nod as if to suggest that man will never learn, the parson regrets having spent his life giving sermons which have had no effect on his congregation: preaching forty year has made no difference to his hearers.
The final stanza of the poem drops the somewhat surrealistic humour of the preceding lines. Instead, Hardy writes of the threatening sound of the guns, ready to avenge (to avenge what?). It resounds far inland, as far as the places he names. Hardy does not refer to these landmarks merely to provide authentic local detail: by invoking the dead civilisations of the past Hardy sets the poem in a far more expansive historical time-scale. Perhaps he further suggests that civilisations (including his own?) are doomed because man's nature never makes any moral advance.
Although the poem is comical, the humour is of a grisly kind, and Channel Firing is not a light-hearted piece. The humour is meant seriously, to show the stupidity of those who wish to make war. While the passages spoken by God are rather comically stilted, the narrator's contribution is written in an un-affected, natural and unobtrusive manner, which, with the simple iambic tetrameter and simple ABAB rhyme scheme make the argument of the poem easy to follow. It is not hampered by the kind of stylistic clumsiness from which, say, The Going of the Battery suffers, nor the affected, rather inflated vocabulary of To an Unborn Pauper Child.
Discussing the poem
Things to comment on
In Time of The Breaking of Nations
This is a simple and unpretentious piece marked by a rather uncharacteristic optimism that is in clear contrast to the resigned, almost fatalistic, character of Channel Firing. Hardy presents the reader with a series of three impressionistic glimpses or cameos of everyday, rural life and suggests that these will persist, unchanged, while kingdoms rise and fall, and long after the details of the various wars have been forgotten.
Hardy shows these three simple and everyday details of the scene to represent:
These things, the poet claims, will survive, in spite of Dynasties and wars.
This is an unusually optimistic poem, but the optimism is asserted rather than reasoned: perhaps Hardy implies that the things he describes are so fundamental and natural to human existence that they must survive, whereas kingdoms and wars are not essential to man's life - a very different conclusion from that drawn in Channel Firing.
Discussing the poem
Things to comment on
Comparing war poems
In comparing the poems together, you may, for example,
Poems about Emma
In these poems Hardy explores the guilt he feels for his neglect of Emma, his first wife, over the latter years of their marriage. He uses his writing to absolve himself of this guilt and come to terms with it.
The Going, like most of the pieces in this section, is written in the first person - here Hardy evidently speaks for himself. The poem is in the form of a monologue addressed to Emma, containing many questions. She alone can give the answers.
Hardy asks Emma why she did not alert him to her imminent death, but left him as if indifferent quite to his feelings, without bidding him farewell: neither softly speaking words of parting, nor even asking him to speak a last word to her. He notes how, as the day dawned, he was unaware of what was happening to his wife, and of how this altered all.
Hardy asks Emma why she compels him to go outside, making him think, momentarily, that he sees her figure in the dusk, in the place where she used to stand, but ultimately distressing him as, in the gathering gloom, he sees only yawning blankness and not the familiar figure of Emma.
Turning back to the days when Emma's youth and beauty captivated him, Hardy wonders why, in later years, the joys of their courtship were neither remembered nor revived. He imagines how they might have rekindled their love by revisiting the places where they met while courting.
Finally Hardy concedes that what has happened cannot be changed and that he is as good as dead, waiting for the end ( to sink down soon ) and, in conclusion, informs Emma that she could not know how so sudden and unexpected a passing as hers could distress him as much as it has.
The metre of the poem is surprisingly lively, though the rhythm breaks down in the disjointed syntax and brief sentences of the final stanza. The brief rhyming couplet in the penultimate two lines of each stanza exaggerate this jauntiness, which seems rather inappropriate to the subject of the piece.
Though the reader sympathises with Hardy's evident grief, it is difficult not to be a little impatient with his tendency to wallow in self-pity. He reproaches Emma for leaving him, and thinks despairingly of his and her failure to rekindle, in later years, their youthful affection. Yet we feel that this is a tragedy largely of his own making. He has, after all, had some forty years in which to seek/That time's renewal. The fact that he expresses regret at his failure to do so only when the possibility has been removed by Emma's death casts doubt upon the sincerity of his grief.
Imaginatively, and most pathetically, Hardy writes this plaintive and moving poem from the point of view of Emma. It is written in the first person, with her as the imaginary narrator. It is almost as if, in putting these words in the mouth of Emma (who, in the poem, sees Hardy as oblivious of her presence) Hardy is trying to reassure himself that she forgives him and continues to love him.
Though Hardy does not know it, Emma's phantom follows him in his meanderings, hearing, but unable to respond to, the remarks he addresses to her in his grief. When Emma was able to answer Hardy did not address her so frankly; when she expressed a wish to accompany him Hardy would become reluctant to go anywhere - but now he does wish she were with him. She is, but he does not know this, even though he speaks as if to Emma's faithful phantom.
Hardy's deep love of nature appears in his choice of the places where he walks, the haunts of those given to reverie (daydreaming or contemplation): where the hares leave their footprints, or the nocturnal haunts of rooks. He also visits old aisles - are these literally the aisles of churches or natural pathways in woods and copses? In all these places Emma's ghost keeps as close as his shade can do. Shade is ambiguous: it is used here to mean shadow (Emma is as close as his own shadow to Hardy) but the term more usually means ghost - which is evidently very appropriate here. Again, Emma notes that she cannot speak to Hardy, however hard she may strive to do so.
Emma implores the reader to inform Hardy of what she is doing, with the almost desperate imperative: O tell him! She attends to his merest sigh, doing all that love can do in the hope that his path may be worth the attention she lavishes on it, and in the hope that she may bring peace to Hardy's life. The lyrical trochaic metre and subtly linked rhyme scheme seem in keeping with the optimistic content of the poem, unlike The Going, in which the liveliness jars with the sombre, self-pitying character of the piece. In The Going Hardy reproaches Emma, for leaving him without warning. Here he celebrates her essential fidelity and benevolence, which she retains, even in death. While the idea of Emma as the faithful phantom is, of course, entirely fanciful, it is strikingly plaintive and touching.The Voice
As in The Haunter Hardy imagines Emma trying to communicate with him. The poem is in the first person, and Hardy is the speaker, imagining that Emma calls to him. She tells him that she is not the woman she had become after forty years of marriage, but has regained the beauty of her youth, of the time when her and Hardy's day was fair.
Imagining he can indeed hear her, Hardy implores Emma to appear to him, in the place and wearing the same clothes that he associates with their early courtship. Hardy introduces, in the third stanza, the mocking fear that all he hears is the wind and that Emma's death has marked the end of her existence - that she has been dissolved and will be heard no more.
The lively anapaestic metre of the first three stanzas gives way, in the final stanza, to a less fluent rhythm, capturing the desolate mood of Hardy as he falters forward, while the leaves fall and the north wind blows, as Emma (if it is she) continues to call.
The poem begins optimistically with a hope that Emma is really addressing Hardy. But by the end, a belief or fear that the voice is imaginary has replaced this hope. Though the vigorous anapaestic metre of the poem helps convey this initial hope, it proves unwieldy for Hardy, as is evident in the clumsy third stanza, where listlessness rhymes with Hardy's unfortunate coinage (invented word) existlessness, and we find the gauche and repetitious phrase no more again in the stanza's final line.
Philosophical and personal poems
During Wind and Rain
In this poem Hardy contrasts the happiness of his now dead wife's childhood with the inevitability of time's victory. The seven lines of each stanza of the four-stanza poem tell of different aspects of Emma's life with her family. The final lines of each stanza, however, speak of decay and death.
In the first stanza the family gather round the piano to sing their dearest songs - here Hardy evokes a memory of music - and then we are reminded of how living things change and fade:
Ah, no; the years O!
The music has now been changed to the sound of the dead autumnal leaves being blown by the wind - Reel has the sense of leaves falling and being whirled by the wind, together with being a type of song suitable for a group of people gathered round a piano. The final word throngs has something of the sound of dry leaves being brushed together, or falling against one another.
In the second stanza the family - elders and juniors - work in the garden to make the pathways neat/And the gardens gay. However, these energies are as nothing in the face of time because the white storm birds wing across the sky; the birds' appearance means that the dark thunderstorm is coming.
The third stanza sees the family blithely breakfasting all but the wind removes the dead rose from the wall in line 7. The alliterative effect of rotten rose is ript, together with the harsh finality of ript, suggests the wind's strength and the decayed flower's fragility.
In the fourth stanza the happy family has prospered and is moving to a high new house. Their possessions - which indicate they live in some comfort (but not extreme luxury) are scattered on the lawn all day, during the happy confusion of the move. Although they possess the brightest things ultimately the rain-drop ploughs down the carved names on their tombstones.
In this poem Hardy adopts an almost mathematical precision in his rhythm and in his choice of words. The second line of each stanza, for instance, lists the members of the family:
The final lines of stanzas 1 and 3 can be seen as being references to the wind of the title, whilst the final lines of stanzas 2 and 4 refer to the rain.
The penultimate line of stanzas 1 and 3 ( Ah, no; the years O! ) is modified in stanzas 2 and 4 to Ah, no; the years, the years. And the final word of the second line in stanzas 1 and 3 is yea, anagrammatised to aye in stanzas 12 and 4.
At the same time the main lively business of each stanza, the first five lines, refers to times of bright happiness - times, almost always, which are spent outdoors - indicating the seasons of spring or summer. Whereas the final line invariably evokes the colder seasons of autumn and winter. Hardy uses the annual changes as a metaphor for the changes in the human condition which, in reality, take a number of years; but the inevitability of each stanza's final two lines is like the inevitability of death.
Although During Wind and Rain was written during the months after Emma's death, and describes incidents from Emma's past, it does not belong thematically to the series of poems from The Going to Beeny Cliff. In those poems Hardy is facing his guilt and remorse over the reality of his marriage to Emma, and creating a myth of their life: in the Cornwall poems he goes on an emotional journey, getting closer and closer to Emma as at first when our day was fair (The Voice, line 4) and reliving their relationship of forty years before. During Wind and Rain has a different concern. This elegy was apparently inspired by Emma's account of her childhood in Plymouth - which Hardy read after her death - and by his visit to Plymouth and her old home. But it is far more than a personal poem; it is a lament for the destruction and oblivion which time brings to everything.
The poem's universality
The poem is a series of pictures of typical incidents in the life of an ordinary family:
As in, In Time of The Breaking of Nations, it is the sense of the simple and ordinary, combined with a lack of particularity in the images, which gives the poem its universality.
In this poem Hardy's sense of structure is seen at its best. The four verses are all constructed alike.
Rhyme and metre
Rhyme is also a significant part of the construction. Each verse is rhymed a b c b c d a so the first and last lines are held together by rhyme emphasising the contrast. Each second line - the semi-refrain line - rhymes with the fourth line of each stanza, which is part of the descriptive first half, and is the same rhyme throughout the poem. This has the effect of emphasising continuity: each of the four distinct memories hands on a rhyme to the next verse - yea/play, aye/gay, yea/bay, aye/day.
The whole poem is very like a song, especially in the refrain lines and the last lines of each verse. The rhythm is broadly iambic, though the number of syllables in the corresponding lines varies.
Alliteration is important in these pictures: garden gay, blithely breakfasting, clocks and carpets and chairs and high new house capture in sound as well as sense the contentment, and perhaps the complacency, of life.
The Darkling Thrush
Questions for detailed comment
Shut Out That Moon
This poem, one of many in which Hardy explores the ideas of time and change, is among the most bitter and pessimistic: its argument is similar to that of He Never Expected Much, though the conclusion drawn is far more pessimistic.
The poem is a very formal piece, the first three stanzas reflecting on the pleasures of the past (and their loss) and arguing against the attempt to rediscover these, the final stanza offering a hard-headed advice for minimising life's pain.
The poem is written in the first person, as if spoken by Hardy to another, probably Emma, as frequent reference is made to their past shared experiences.
In the first stanza, in a series of imperatives, Hardy directs that the window be closed and the blind drawn, so that the moon is shut out: the reason for excluding the moonlight is the fact that it is the same moonlight Hardy associates with past happiness. The moon is referred to as that stealing moon perhaps (as the editor suggests) because it has stolen away youth and beauty, though a more natural and idiomatic reading would be that the moon is stealing (i.e. entering by stealth) into the room, trying to enter where it is unwelcome, forcing Hardy to remember. Lutes in the fourth line may be a metaphor for feelings of love (the lute is the traditional instrument of the minstrel of mediaeval romance) or for natural and artistic talents. These are now strewn/With years-deep dust - weakened or relinquished with the passing of time. The names of those once familiar to Hardy and Emma are now hewn on a white stone: they have died. The moonlight is unwelcome as, retaining the beauty it had in the past, it recalls to Hardy the time before these unwelcome changes occurred, a time he wishes to forget, as the memory evokes a poignant sense of loss.
The formerly enjoyable pleasure shunned by Hardy in the second stanza is that of stepping onto the dew-soaked lawn to gaze at the various constellations. The reason for forgoing this star-gazing is that this pleasure belongs to, and, in Hardy's mind, is inseparably linked with, the time when faded ones were fair, i.e. when those people were young and beautiful who are now devoid of beauty or of life, whichever it is which Hardy believes to have faded.
In the third stanza Hardy proscribes the pleasure of smelling the scent of blossom at midnight: perhaps this is another memory of those evenings recalled in the preceding stanza. Such sweet aromas are to be avoided because they may evoke, or re-awaken, tender feelings, the same ones communicated by the scent of the blossom (note the slightly anthropomorphic touch of the verb breathed ) formerly, when Hardy was able to take life less seriously. The use of a laugh to mean light-hearted seems somewhat colloquial (it has become a modern colloquialism) but is striking and unusual in a poem written as long ago as 1904. Not only did living seem a laugh, but love seemed all it was said to be: love, evidently, no longer seems to measure up to its popular reputation, and has not kept its promise.
After the negative injunctions of the first three stanzas, the final stanza contains positive advice. Hardy insists that his outlook in both the literal sense (my eyes) and the metaphorical sense (thought) be confined to the common lamp-lit room (the moonlight having been excluded) where the reader imagines him to be writing. He wishes his attention to be directed to trivial and unevocative things ( dingy details ) and would like to restrict himself to automatic, unthinking words ( mechanic speech ) only.
The reason for all this rejection of pleasure, hitherto only hinted at, is given, albeit in cryptic fashion, in the metaphor contained in the poem's concluding lines: life's early bloom was fragrant, but the fruit into which it matured was bitter. The pleasure of the third stanza has supplied the metaphor of these lines. Hardy's early experiences (the bloom ) suggested sweet fruit: fulfilment and happiness later, but instead maturity has only brought unhappiness and disillusionment, tart and unpalatable fruit.
The poem's theme
Overall, the poem shows how what once brought pleasure to Hardy now causes him pain because it elicits the memory of the lost pleasure and aggravates the keenness of its loss. The exact nature of Hardy's grievance is not made clear: he merely tells the reader that the fruit belied the promise of the bloom. How, or why, we are left to guess. The poem is obviously personal and records a profound change in Hardy's attitude to life, from youthful optimism to the disillusionment of maturity. Though this has been Hardy's experience, there is no attempt to prove that this experience is universal or even commonplace. The poem's value is of a statement of Hardy's outlook but the causes of his adopting this outlook are not forthcoming.
The refusal to enjoy the pleasures of life seems perverse, and the fatalistic outlook to which Hardy here subscribes inevitably self-fulfilling: if he determines to find no further happiness in life then he will, of course, be unhappy, but the misery will be of his, not life's making.
The style of the poem is restrained, natural and direct. The short iambic lines (alternating in length between eight and six syllables) produce a simple metre (effectively ballad-metre, with an extra pair of lines) and the rhyme scheme is simple, if slightly irregular: second, fourth and sixth lines share the principal rhyme: in stanza 2 lines 1 and 5 rhyme; in stanza 3 lines 1 and 3 rhyme, while the final stanza has a full ABABAB rhyme-scheme.
As an expression of Hardy's pessimism the poem is skilfully and forcefully written, though the argument (if it can be called such) is not wholly convincing. Few poems in the selection are so negative in their outlook, though there is, to Hardy's credit, the same resolute acceptance of his lot which marks such pieces as Night in the Old Home, rather than the self-pity of, say, Nobody Comes.
For an alternative commentary on this poem, by Keith Smith, click on the link below.
To an Unborn Pauper Child
Here Hardy considers the probable fate of a child soon to be born into poverty. This is a poem which grew from an incident that he probably witnessed in the Dorchester Magistrate's Court but Hardy's sincerity and compassion for the plight of human beings makes the incident of concern to us all. The poem is worth comparing with other pieces on the birth of young children. It is very like William Blake's Infant Sorrow in its bleak view of things or Louis MacNeice's Prayer before Birth. For a more optimistic outlook we might consider Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Frost at Midnight and W.B. Yeats' A Prayer for My Daughter.
The poem begins startlingly with an opening line in which Hardy addresses the child as hid heart because it is as yet unborn in its mother's womb, and advises it not to be born - to Breathe not and to cease silently. The rest of the stanza gives Hardy's reason for this advice. It is better to Sleep the long sleep because fate (The Doomsters) will bring the child troubles and difficulties (Travails and teens) in its life, and Time-wraiths turn our songsingings to fear, that is our spontaneous feelings of joy and happiness in life are turned to fear by time. Time as usual in Hardy's writings is seen as the enemy of man and the unusual conceptions of Fate as Doomsters and Time as Time-wraiths (Spirits) suggests a conscious and deliberate process at work.
In the second stanza, Hardy develops the idea of the destructiveness of time urging the child to listen to how people sigh, and to note how time destroys all such natural positive values as laughter, hopes, faiths, affections and enthusiasms. Set against these positive nouns are negative verbs suggesting this withering process: sigh, fail, die, dwindle, waste and numb. The verse concludes by stressing that the child cannot alter this process if it is born.
In the third stanza, Hardy vows that if he were able to communicate with the unborn before their life on earth began, and if the child were able to choose whether to live or die, he would impart all his knowledge to the child and ask it if it would take life as it is.
Hardy immediately, and forcefully, rejects this as a futile vow, for neither he nor anyone can explain to the child what will happen to it when it is born ( Life's pending plan ). The stanza contains weaknesses of style: the oddity of theeward and the clumsy inversion Explain none can. But the last two lines present starkly the inevitability of birth in spite of the most dreadful events Life can bring.
In contrast to the ending of the fourth stanza, the fifth one opens very gently. Hardy speaks directly and tenderly to the child, in simple monosyllables, wishing that he could find some secluded place ( shut plot ) in the world for it, where its life would be calm, unbroken by tear or qualm. But with tender simplicity, and the absence of any bitterness, Hardy recognises that I am weak as thou and bare - he is as unable as the child is to influence fate.
The poem ends with the recognition that the child must come and live ( bide ) on earth, and the hope that - in spite of the evidence - it will find health, love and friends and joys seldom yet attained by people.
This short poem refers to a superstition about Christmas, which the author recalls from his childhood. As a child, Hardy lived in rural Dorset, and this poem has its origins in the simple beliefs of country people. In writing about it, you should try to consider both the content (what the poet has to say) and his method (how he says it). Note: barton is a West Country dialect word for a cow-shed (byre or shippen); coomb, which often appears in place names, is, like Welsh cwm, a word for a valley.
The questions below can be used for talking about the poem, or can be used as prompts for a written response.
Introducing the poem
Content - what is the poem about?
The poet's method
In Afterwards Hardy reflects on what people may say of him after his death, and represents them as remembering him for his love and observation of the natural world. The poem is characterised by a strong sense of melancholy reflection, and very precise, and sometimes surprising, imagery.
The poem opens with an image of Hardy's death, an unusual personification of the present fastening, its back gate (postern) after Hardy has departed. The adjective tremulous with its suggestions of fragility, uncertainty and brevity, emphasises the transitory nature of life itself, or Hardy's stay on earth. Hardy considers what neighbours may say of him if he were to die in May. He represents the month as a creature. The verb flaps compares its glad green leaves with the wings (Delicate filmed as new spun silk,) of a newly emerged butterfly. The simile is unexpected and embellished by alliteration. The last line, presented as direct speech, is the neighbours' imagined comment on Hardy's vivid awareness of the natural world.
The second stanza considers what may be said if he were to die at dusk. The powerful use of imagery and diction is continued ion the comparison of the coming of a hawk moth with an eyelid's soundless blink a simile that conveys a sense of silence and suddenness of arrival. Hardy imagines someone ( a gazer ) watching the moth alight at dusk on the wind-warped upland thorn, and thinking that to Hardy such a sight was familiar. The alliterative epithet suggests how the wind has bent the thorn bushes out of their habit of growth.
In the third stanza Hardy speculates on what may be said if he were to die in the night. As descriptions of the darkness of a summer night the words mothy and warm are exact and evocative. Hedgehogs are described as travelling furtively an adverb which expresses the vulnerability of hedgehogs that can move safely only at night - or perhaps Hardy means, more accurately, that they are furtive, in order to secure their prey. Hardy imagines being remembered as someone who cared for such innocent creatures and tried to save them from harm although he could do little for them.
The next stanza also considers death at night but now Hardy imagines neighbours watching the full-starred heavens of a frosty winter night and thinking of him as a man who observed such mysteries. The verb rise creates a subtle indication of a thought rising like the moon.
In the final stanza Hardy imagines his own funeral bell's ringing (the bell of quittance ). The vision is equally clear and precise. The poet imagines that a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings, that is, the sounds of the bell are momentarily carried away from the ear by a wind's blowing across their path. As the breeze fades, the sounds of the bell are heard more loudly as if they were a new bell's boom.
Afterwards is a good example of Hardy's art, with its control of diction and image to create the effect required, and its equal control of syntax and rhythm. Each stanza is written in a single sentence with the main verb coming late to introduce the imagined comment at the end. The repetition of this sentence structure, with the slow rhythm of the lines, gives an appropriately solemn, funereal quality to the poem.
Responding to the poems
Many tasks will allow you to show understanding of one or more poems, or will help you compare them. But you can also treat the poems more creatively as a way in.
Comparison and contrast
What's the difference? As a method, no difference at all - you put A and B together (or A, B and C). And when they show some similarities we find a comparison and when we see some difference we make a contrast. So we compare Channel Firing and In Time of The Breaking of Nations (both poems about war) and contrast the pessimism of the first and optimism of the second.
You need to beware of finding a contrast or comparison that is meaningless. Suppose you are comparing several war poems. It would be silly to write: Hardy wrote Poem A in Dorset, but wrote Poem B in Cornwall. And even sillier to write: These poems are similar because both use language. It's not enough to find similarities or differences - they need to be interesting or tell us something.
So what kinds of similarity or difference are worth looking for? Are there things we can expect students to look for in any texts? There are - some of them will be in many and some are almost guaranteed to be in all texts. These could include comparisons or contrast in:
Creative approaches to study
This guide can be used to study the poems in a very traditional way, leading to a piece of written work. However, there are other useful approaches, especially for developing an understanding of the poems if you are meeting them for the first time.
Using computer software
If you have the use of a computer you can use appropriate software to present your work attractively:
Speaking and listening
Varying the audience
Prepare (for reading or listening) different kinds of text which show your understanding of the poems, which are suited to a range of possible readers or audiences. Some examples include:
© Andrew Moore, 2001; Contact me