Thomas Hardy Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy

Selected Poems

These commentaries on some of Hardy’s best-known poems aim to make them as accessible and enjoyable as possible, at the same time containing rigorous analysis of his writing. As commentaries, they are simply one person’s response to the poems, which other readers may entirely disagree with.
Thomas Hardy: Selected Poems is the edition that I have used when preparing these commentaries. It is edited by Professor Tim Armstrong and published by Pearson in the series Longman Annotated Texts. In addition to the poems, it contains selections from Hardy’s prose, introductions to each book of poetry that Hardy published and useful notes. I have found it invaluable and am indebted to Professor Armstrong for allowing me to quote from his edition of the poems. The Oxford English Dictionary online is of course another excellent resource. I have been much helped by the eagle-eyed proof-reading of Susan Carrdus and by the technical expertise of Cezary Wasowski.
I teach English at Tudor Hall School, Banbury, Oxon OX16 9UR, England. Should you have any feedback to give, or corrections, then please contact me at Carola Beecham:


from Wessex Poems and Other Verses (1898)

Neutral Tones
Friends Beyond
Thoughts of Phena
I look into my glass

from Poems of the Past and the Present (1901)

At the War Office, London
A Christmas Ghost Story
Drummer Hodge
The Darkling Thrush
The Levelled Churchyard
The Ruined Maid

from Time’s Laughingstocks and Other Verses (1909)

A Sunday Morning Tragedy
A Church Romance
After the Last Breath
One We Knew
The Man he Killed

from Satires of Circumstance, Lyrics and Reveries (1914)

Channel Firing
The Convergence of the Twain
Wessex Heights
Under the Waterfall
The Going
Your last Drive
The Voice
After a Journey
Beeny Cliff
At Castle Boterel

from Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (1917)

The Blinded Bird
In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’
Old Furniture
The Last Signal
The Oxen
The Photograph
from Late Lyrics and Earlier (1922)


from Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres (1928)

Throwing a Tree
We Field-Women

Index of Titles

A Christmas Ghost Story
A Church Romance
A Sunday Morning Tragedy
After a Journey
After the Last Breath
At Castle Boterel
At the War Office, London
Beeny Cliff
Blinded Bird, The
Channel Firing
Convergence of the Twain, The
Darkling Thrush, The
Drummer Hodge
Friends Beyond
Going, The
I look into my glass
In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’
Last Signal, The
Levelled Churchyard, The
Man he Killed, The
Neutral Tones
Old Furniture
One we Knew
Oxen, The
Photograph, The
Ruined Maid, The
Thoughts of Phena
Throwing a Tree
Under the Waterfall
Voice, The
We Field-women
Wessex Heights
Your Last Drive

Index of First Lines

As I drive to the junction of lane and highway
Christmas Eve and twelve of the clock
Had he and I but met
Here by the moorway you returned
Hereto I come to view a voiceless ghost
How it rained
I bore a daughter
I know not how it may be with others
I leant upon a coppice gate
I look into my glass
If but some vengeful god would call to me
In a solitude of the sea
Last year I called this world of gaingivings
Not a line of her writing have I
O ‘Melia, my dear
O passenger, pray list and catch
O the opal and the sapphire of that wandering western sea
Only a man harrowing clods
She told how they used to form for the country dances
She turned in the high pew
Silently I footed by an uphill road
So zestfully canst thou sing?
South of the Line, inland from far Durban
That night your great guns, unawares
The flame crept up the portrait line by line
The two executioners stalk along over the knolls
There are some heights in Wessex\There’s no more to be done, or feared, or hoped
They throw in Drummer Hodge
This is the weather the cuckoo likes
We stood by a pond that winter day
When the present has latched its postern
Whenever I plunge my arm, like this
Why did you give no hint that night
William Dewy, Tranter Reuben, Farmer Ledlow late at plough
Woman much missed, how you call to me

Literary terms

Very often writers highlight important words. They do this with:

Alliteration – several words starting with the same letter or sound, for example, ‘bleared and black and blind’.

Assonance – same vowel sound in different words, for example, ‘abode’, ‘sloped’.

Cesura – a break or pause in the middle of a line of poetry.

Consonance – same consonants in words that contain different vowel sounds, for example, ‘bode’, ‘boughed’.

Enjambement or run-on lines – when there is no punctuation at the end of a line of verse and it runs straight on to the next line.

Onomatopoeia – the effect when the sound of a word reflects its meaning, like ‘plash’.

Personification – when something that is not human is referred to as if it is a person, for example, the Titanic, ‘still couches she’. The effect is usually to exaggerate some aspect of the topic.

Repetition – repeated word or meaning.

Rhyme – very similar to assonance; same vowel sound and final consonant, for example, ‘say’, ‘decay’. Masculine rhyme – when the final syllable is stress, as in ‘say’ and ‘decay’. Feminine rhyme – when the final syllable is not stressed, as in ‘growing’, ‘showing’.

Rhythm – the musical beat of the line, with stressed and unstressed syllables (the stressed syllables will be the important ones). The different rhythms have different names. Trochee (trochaic): strong light, strong light; iamb (iambic): light strong, light strong; dactyl: strong light light, strong light light; anapaest: light light strong, light light strong. If puzzled, try Wikipedia which is very clear on the subject.

Then there are technical words for the number of lines in a verse or stanza.
Quatrain – four lines in a verse
Sestet – six line
Octave – eight lines

Wessex Poems and Other Verses 1898

Hap 1

If but some vengeful god would call to me vengeful – vindictive, wanting revenge
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”

Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited; 2
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed. meted – allotted, handed out

But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain, slain – killed, murdered
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown? unblooms – fails to flower
—Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain, crass – stupid; casualty – chance, fate
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan… dicing – throwing dice, gambling

These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown 3
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain. 4

1 hap – chance
2 steeled – braced; ire – anger; unmerited – undeserved
3 purblind Doomsters – dim-sighted fates; strown scattered
4 blisses – intense happiness; pilgrimage – life’s journey

‘Hap’ is one of Hardy’s earliest poem, written in 1866. It was a topic he was still exploring sixty years later in ‘He Never Expected Much’. Hap means chance, and Hardy is searching for an explanation of the chances that bring humans such suffering in life.

In the first quatrain (four lines), Hardy describes what it would be like if there were a god of punishment, ‘some vengeful god’. In his picture, this being actively feeds off man’s misery and calls down from the sky at suffering man.

Thou suffering thing,

Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,

That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!

The bitter contrasts intensify the gloating of this figure: ‘sorrow’ / ‘ecstasy’; ‘love’s loss’ / ‘hate’s profiting’ ‘love’ / ‘hate’. Further intensity is conveyed through the alliterated ls in ‘love’s loss’, and in the contrast of the repeated ‘thy’ / ‘my’. This god-figure refers to man as a ‘thing’, not even human; the alliterated th in ‘thou’ and ‘thing’ intensifies this effect of dehumanising man. There is no relationship between this god and man but punishment and enjoyment of another’s suffering – shadenfreude. (This godlike figure is emphatically not the Christian God, to whom Hardy would have given a capital G.) The rhythm in lines 1, 2 and 4 tends to consist of a number of unstressed short words, piling onto a stressed emotion. In line 1 ‘If but some vengeful god’. Line 2 ‘From up the sky and laugh …, Line 4 ‘That thy love’s loss…’ But in line 3, the stress comes right forward in the line: ‘Know that…’ It seems to me that this stress in line 3 adds to the god’s insistence on his vengeful power over man. The whole of the first quatrain is one forceful sentence.

The second quatrain is concerned with Hardy’s (or the persona’s) response to this scenario which would, he says, be a resolute determination to ‘bear it’. In a series of heavily stressed monosyllabic and muscular verbs, he outlines his intention: ‘bear it, clench myself, and die / Steeled.’ The power-figure or force then has its share of verbs, ‘willed and meted me’, and the verbs then return to the first-person persona, ‘tears I shed.’ Again, the impression of power is given, not only by the initial capital in ‘Powerfuller’ and the personification (which continues further on in the sonnet with ‘Crass Casualty,’ ‘Time’ and ‘Doomsters’). Power is further suggested through the run-on line: ‘a Powerfuller (force) than I / Had willed and meted me …’ The persona’s part in this second quatrain is not just one of weak acquiescence, roll over and die. His verbs are active, not passive, ‘bear’, ‘clench,’ ‘die’ suggests decision on his part. There’s some conspicuous assonance in the repeated eee sound of ‘steeled’, ‘half-eased’ and ‘meted me’ which I’m sure must be relevant, since Hardy was such a careful craftsman, but I haven’t got there yet.

The second quatrain focuses on ‘I’ (three times), ‘myself’, ‘me’. First the stern resolution, ‘clench myself’, ‘steeled’, then the sense of semi-ease because a more powerful force has determined what should happen. The rhymes reinforce the focus on the persona, ‘I’ who would ‘die’ knowing he had been overcome by a stronger force. And this force was the reason for the suffering in his life, however undeserved ‘unmerited’ / ‘tears I shed.’ This quatrain, like the first, is one sentence, reinforcing the feeling of something Hardy would definitely do if this were the answer to life’s suffering. But it’s not like that. It is only a possible explanation of life’s misery, ‘If …’ And so, in the second half of the sonnet, the sestet, Hardy continues to ask questions.

After the run-on of line 7 to 8, the complete cesura after ‘But not so’ comes as a shock. We’re slapped back to reality. With a halting question, the poem’s momentum picks itself up and stumbles on – if that’s not the case, then how does the universe work? Or, in Hardy’s words, ‘How arrives it joy lies slain, / And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?’ Hardy pictures Time as a gambler, throwing (or ‘cast’ing) the dice; he happens to have thrown a ‘moan’ and ‘pain’ but he could just as easily ‘readily’ have scattered ‘strown’ the dice in a way that produced ‘gladness’ and ‘blisses’. Characteristically, Hardy coins words that bring their opposite vividly to mind. ‘Unblooms’ strongly suggests the flowers that should grow after best hope ever is sown. (He does this again in ‘Drummer Hodge’ in the word ‘uncoffined’ reminding you of the coffin DH should have been buried in.) Hardy’s imagery suggests the naturally growing properties of ‘hope’ and ‘joy’ with words like ‘unblooms’, ‘sun and rain’. Hardy’s choice of words suggests a deliberate ruining and destruction of happiness and hope: ‘joy lies slain’ (murdered); ‘Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain’; Time ‘casts a moan’; it would have been as easy to scatter blisses as pain. In fact, the natural process is the happy one; joy has to be deliberately killed; hope is sown; Crass Casualty has to obstruct the naturally falling ‘sun and rain’ which are the two essentials for growth. The rhymes in the final sestet give you the natural order, ‘sun and rain’ and the deliberate bringing about of misery, ‘slain’ and ‘pain’.

Hardy seems to have set this out like a sawn-off syllogism. Whereas a syllogism’s reasoning goes ‘If’ …’But’ and ‘So, therefore, let’s …’, ‘Hap’ offers no such resolution. We have ‘If’ and ‘But’ and it ends unresolved, questioning and pessimistic. Perhaps the sonnet form stresses/underlines this. Normally a sonnet set out as octet (first eight lines) and sestet (last six lines) sets out a problem in the octet, which is then developed in some sense in the sestet. Here, the development section takes us nowhere except into further perplexity, bafflement with man’s lot. The discipline and tight structure of the sonnet form also highlights the random nature of hap/chance. With grim irony, Hardy chooses the sonnet form, associated with love poetry, for this poem about man’s suffering. If the poem was written after an unhappy love affair (as ‘Neutral Tones’, written the following year seems to suggest), that might explain Hardy’s use of the sonnet form to express his misery.

The poem seems to be concerned with man’s inability to understand and control his fate. And his inability to understand the nature of his universe. It is made the more terrible by the fact that it is written in the first person, because this involves the reader directly in all the speaker’s suffering and bewilderment.

Neutral Tones 1

WE stood by a pond that winter day,
And the sun was white, as though chidden of God, 2
And a few leaves lay on the starving sod; starving – freezing, dying; sod – earth
– They had fallen from an ash, and were gray. ash – ash tree

Your eyes on me were as eyes that rove 3
Over tedious riddles solved years ago; tedious – wearisome, annoying
And some words played between us to and fro played – perhaps moved?
On which lost the more by our love.

The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing
Alive enough to have strength to die;
And a grin of bitterness swept thereby 4
Like an ominous bird a-wing…. ominous – bringing misfortune; a-wing – flying past

Since then, keen lessons that love deceives, keen – painful
And wrings with wrong, have shaped to me rings – causes intense distress, pain
Your face, and the God-curst sun, and a tree,
And a pond edged with grayish leaves. the dead leaves of an ash tree are gray

1 neutral – without strong qualities; tones – colour; neutral tones – drained of colour
2 chidden of – rebuked, censured severely by
3 rove – move as if considering, judging, appraising
4 thereby – by that, a grin passed over your mouth

This is an early poem written in 1867. The words ‘Neutral Tones’ in the title paint a picture drained of colour. And Hardy starts the poem with two people in the now-failed relationship, ‘We’, immediately followed by a whole verse that paints a picture of where they were standing, by a pond on a winter’s day. The second verse looks at the woman’s eyes and the boredom in them, and remembers the desultory words between the two people, the communication that is no longer a pleasure. The third looks at the dead smile on the woman’s mouth, the smile that is no longer alive and joyous. In the last verse, Hardy notes that whenever he experiences a painful reminder of deceiving love, he pictures the woman’s face, and the winter landscape by the pond.

The setting is a winter landscape and the poem describes the winter of their love. There are no colours, except for ‘white’, ‘gray’ and ‘grayish’; there is no warmth in the sun or in their relationship, no emotions except for tedium (‘tedious riddles’) and bitterness. The rhyme scheme is ABBA, a pattern that encloses, entraps, allows no way forward; the first and last lines of the quatrains rhyme and thus they imprison the verse. In fact, the whole poem is shaped like this, as the last verse repeats the description of the first verse by the pond, with the God-curst sun and the tree. The rhythm of the lines is inconsistent, halting and stumbling, going nowhere like the relationship. This is particularly the case in lines like: ‘They had fallen from an ash, and were gray.’

The poem is filled with words of depression and death: ‘dead’, ‘chidden’, ‘God-curst’, ‘starving’, ‘ominous’, bitterness’, ‘lost’, ‘tedious’, ‘fallen’. Further evoking the painful experience of the end of a relationship, in the third verse, oxymorons provide strange yokings, pairings of words that should not be together, like ‘deadest thing / Alive’ and ‘a grin of bitterness’.

The sounds and rhythms add to the impression of depression and lack of vitality. Assonance and alliteration link words and sounds, and the sound is devoid of energy and vitality. In verse 4, the ‘ee’ sound links ‘keen’ (painful), ‘deceives’, ‘me’, ‘tree’, ‘leaves’ – in other words, the heartache of love is linked in Hardy’s mind and in his poem to the winter setting. Alliteration links ‘wrings’ with ‘wrong’. The rhythm of the poem lurches beyond the second line and stumbles to a cesura after ‘Your face’, staggers on again through heavily stressed monosyllables ‘and the God-curst sun’ to the next cesura. It drags itself through this listless list ‘and a’, ‘and a’, and finally peters out with the halting rhythms of ‘And a pond edged with grayish leaves.’ Many of the words in this last verse are monosyllables; several contain heavy sounds with weighty ds and gs: ‘deceives’, ‘pond’, ‘edged’, ‘grayish’.

The tone of this poem seems both bitter and profoundly depressed. It’s written in the first person, but feels strangely detached to me – perhaps because this is a relationship that no longer involves the persona. It is unclear whether the poet is simply stating a fact or whether he is blaming himself or the woman. Is the poem primarily about himself, or about the pain of love?

Friends Beyond

WILLIAM DEWY, Tranter Reuben, Farmer Ledlow late at plough, tranter – carrier
Robert’s kin, and John’s, and Ned’s, kin – relations
And the Squire, and Lady Susan, lie in Mellstock churchyard now!

“Gone,” I call them, gone for good, that group of local hearts and heads;
Yet at mothy curfew-tide, mothy – a time when moths are flying; curfew-tide – twilight
And at midnight when the noon-heat breathes it back from walls and leads, 1

They’ve a way of whispering to me—fellow-wight who yet abide 2
In the muted, measured note
Of a ripple under archways, or a lone cave’s stillicide 3

“We have triumphed: this achievement turns the bane to antidote, 4
Unsuccesses to success, unsuccesses – failures
Many thought-worn eves and morrows to a morrow free of thought. 5

“No more need we corn and clothing, feel of old terrestrial stress;6
Chill detraction stirs no sigh; detraction – criticism
Fear of death has even bygone us: death gave all that we possess.” 7

W. D.—“Ye mid burn the old bass-viol that I set such value by.” bass-viol – cello
Squire.—“You may hold the manse in fee, have absolute ownership of the manor house
You may wed my spouse, may let my children’s memory of me die.”

Lady.—“You may have my rich brocades, my laces; take each household key;
Ransack coffer, desk, bureau;
Quiz the few poor treasures hid there, con the letters kept by me.” 8

Far.—“Ye mid zell my favorite heifer, ye mid let the charlock grow, mid – may; zell – sell
Foul the grinterns, give up thrift.” grinterns – granary bins; give up thrift – stop being careful with money
Wife.—“If ye break my best blue china, children, I shan’t care or ho.ho – be anxious

All—“We’ve no wish to hear the tidings, how the people’s fortunes shift; shift – change
What your daily doings are;
Who are wedded, born, divided; if your lives beat slow or swift.

“Curious not the least are we if our intents you make or mar, make or mar – carry out or spoil
If you quire to our old tune, quire to our old tune – sing the hymns to the old tunes we know
If the City stage still passes, if the weirs still roar afar.” 9

Thus, with very gods’ composure, freed those crosses late and soon crosses – difficulties in life
Which, in life, the Trine allow the Trine – the three aspects of God
(Why, none witteth), and ignoring all that haps beneath the moon, witteth – knows

William Dewy, Tranter Reuben, Farmer Ledlow late at plough,
Robert’s kin, and John’s, and Ned’s,
And the Squire, and Lady Susan, murmur mildly to me now.

1 leads – a lead roof
2 fellow-wight – fellow human being
3 lone cave’s stillicide – drops of water falling in a lonely cave
4 bane – poison, hurts antidote – healing
5 thought-worn – tired out with thinking and worrying
6 corn and clothing – food and clothes; terrestrial stress – the stress we felt when we were alive
7 bygone us –ie we are not afraid of death any more
8 quiz – mock, or peer at; con – read, pore over, inspect
9 stage – stage coach; weirs control the amount of water flowing in a river

This is another of the poems from Wessex Poems and Other Verses published in December 1898, but including many poems written in the 1860s. The frontispiece of Wessex Poems shows the gate of Stinsford churchyard, Stinsford being Hardy’s parish, so maybe this is the churchyard he is describing.

The first thing to do when you try to read ‘Friends Beyond’ is to reach for the Oxford English Dictionary online. So many of the words are obscure, like ‘stillicide’, or are dialect words, some of them the Dorset dialect words that the people buried in the churchyard would have used.

The poem opens with a list of the names of those ‘local hearts and heads’ buried in Mellstock (Stinsford) churchyard: William Dewy, Tranter Reuben, Farmer Ledlow, the Squire and Lady Susan, as well as Robert’s, John’s and Ned’s kin. In fact, William Dewy, his son Reuben, Farmer Ledlow and Robert Penny are characters from Hardy’s novel, Under the Greenwood Tree. Tranter Reuben is introduced in Chapter 2 of Under the Greenwood Tree as ‘Dick Dewy’s father Reuben, by vocation a “tranter,” or irregular carrier’. The kin of Robert, John and Ned are their relations or family, and the squire is a title given to the country gentleman who took the lead in village matters and probably lived in the big house. In this poem it sounds as if his wife was ‘Lady Susan’, maybe the daughter of some peer of the county. Characters such as the Squire and his wife are characters you would find in Hardy’s novels and also in Trollope’s. Some of these characters return in other poems and novels, such as ‘The Dead Quire’ of Christmas 1901, and Chapter 17 of Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

In the second verse it becomes clear that this poem is written from a first person point of view and in the third and fourth verses it emerges that the ‘I’ of the poem is listening thoughtfully and respectfully to what the dead have to say. He does this at twilight or curfew-tide, the time when the curfew bell used to be sounded. Hardy knew of the folk belief that moths were associated with the souls of the dead, hence his mention of ‘mothy curfew-tide.’ It must be summer time as not only are there moths, but also even at midnight the church walls and lead roofing are ‘breathing’ back the warmth of the summer’s midday. The whisperings of the dead to which Hardy listens so attentively and affectionately are conveyed through the repeated s sounds of ‘whispering’, ‘stillicide’, ‘unsuccesses to success.’

Hardy establishes a contrast between the ‘local hearts and heads’ who are ‘gone’ (dead), and himself, ‘fellow-wight (fellow human being) who yet abide’ who is still alive. Yet he makes the dead a part of the present by describing their whispering in the present tense: ‘They’ve a way of whispering to me.’ He says that they whisper in the ‘muted measured note’ of water, a ‘ripple’ or ‘stillicide’ which means drops of water falling. I am not sure of the significance of the water but certainly the sounds of the words are gentle with the repeated m’s in ‘muted measured’ and the watery l’s in ‘ripple’ and ‘stillicide.’

By now the patterning of the verses has become evident. Two long lines of fifteen syllables (trochaic octameter) sandwich a short line of seven syllables, also trochees. The word at the end of the short middle line provides the rhyme for the two long lines in the next verse. Maybe the long lines suggest the long experience of the dead and the short line is something like a distillation of that experience for the listening poet? As is quite often to be the case in Hardy’s poems about death, the tone is unexpectedly cheerful. ‘We have triumphed; this achievement turns the bane (poison, hurts in life) to antidote (healing), / Unsuccesses (failures) to success.’ And in the next verse, ‘terrestrial stress’ has been left behind – its exhausting effects increased by the repeated sounds in ‘terres’ ‘stress’ – and ‘chill detraction (criticism) stirs no sigh.’ Death seems not to be feared but rather to be embraced with pleasure: it brings ‘triumph’, ‘antidote’, ‘success’, ‘death gave all that we possess.’

After these two verses of general introduction to the great benefits of death, we are given individual contributions. William Dewey is quite happy for his much valued bass-viol (cello) to be burned and the Squire doesn’t mind if ‘you’ (the living?) have absolute possession of his mansion house (‘hold the manse in fee’), marry his wife, and allow his children to forget all about him. Lady Susan, who seems to have owned a considerable number of treasures, is quite ready to have her coffer (box where money and valuables were kept), desk and writing desk ransacked, to have her letters read and her treasures mocked. Descending to rather more mundane levels, the farmer and his wife are untroubled by the prospect of people still alive selling the best heifer (young female cow), letting the weeds (charlock), grow in the fields, allowing the granary bins to get fouled up and the best blue china broken. (‘Grintern’ is a Dorset dialect word for granary compartments or bins, ‘ho’ means be anxious and ‘mid’ means may.)

Then the dead give a joint summary of another two verses. They are completely uninterested in the news and who has got married or split up. They aren’t bothered whether the living pursue the intentions of the dead or wreck them; whether the living sing the hymns to the tunes the dead used to enjoy, whether the stage coach from the city still goes past and whether the river water from the weirs can still be heard roaring from far away. (Weirs regulated the flow of water in a river and were much used in Dorset where meadows used to be irrigated intentionally at certain times in the year. This fertilised the meadow and promoted early spring grass to feed the lambs. You can find out more about Dorset water meadow management from and also from
The Development of Water Meadows in Dorset during the

In the penultimate verse, the poet thinks over what the dead have told him. They have the ‘composure’ (the calm) of the gods because they are free from the difficulties which God ‘the Trine’ allows to beset the living, both early and late in life. Although why God should allow this, no-one knows. The dead ignore all that happens ‘all that haps beneath the moon’– only Hardy uses the shortened version of the word happens, with its reminder of ‘hap’ meaning chance – beneath the moon, herself a changing sphere. They ‘murmur mildly to me now’. The gentle m m n of ‘murmur mildly to me now’ take us back to the m m n, the ‘muted measured note,’ of the third verse. Everything that the dead have said is in the present tense. It is relevant now.

You could interpret this poem as meaning, what is the point of all the worry in life? And, why does God allow all our sorrow – as Hardy asked in ‘Hap’. But the serene and rather cheerful tone suggest to me a much less bitter and resentful meaning, a freedom in life after death more in tune with the feeling of which Hardy was to write in 1904 when his mother died and he pictured her as having ‘escaped the Wrongers all.’

Thoughts of Phena

At News of Her Death

Not a line of her writing have I
Not a thread of her hair,
No mark of her late time as dame in her dwelling, whereby 1
I may picture her there;
And in vain do I urge my unsight unsight – the fact that I can’t see her
To conceive my lost prize conceive – picture, imagine
At her close, whom I knew when her dreams were upbrimming with light 2
And with laughter her eyes.

What scenes spread around her last days,
Sad, shining, or dim?
Did her gifts and compassions enray and enarch her sweet ways 3
With an aureate nimb? aureate nimb – glowing light like a rainbow
Or did life-light decline from her years,
And mischances control mischances – misfortune, bad luck
Her full day-star; unease, or regret, or forebodings, or fears 4
Disennoble her soul? disennoble – take away the nobility (of her soul)

Thus I do but the phantom retain retain – keep
Of the maiden of yore yore – long ago
As my relic; yet haply the best of her–fined in my brain 5
It may be the more the more – all the more
That no line of her writing have I,
Nor a thread of her hair,
No mark of her late time as dame in her dwelling, whereby 6
I may picture her there.

1 late time – how things were for her recently
2 full to the brim
3 enray – light up; enarch draw an arch over, surround
4 day-star – probably the sun, inother words, the light she shed around her
5 haply – perhaps; fined – refined; relic – something to remember Tryphena by
6 whereby – to help me

Phena was Hardy’s cousin, Tryphena Sparks, who died in the spring of 1890. He looks back over the time he knew her, as a young woman, and wonders what happened to her during ‘her last days’. The first person narrative gives the poem a very personal feeling.

Given that Hardy is so often gloomy and that this poem is written ‘at news of her (Tryphena’s) death’, you would imagine this to be an occasion for depression. The first verse begins with a series of negatives:
Not a line of her writing have I,

Not a thread of her hair,

No marks of her late time….

And in vain

The second stanza poses questions about her last days:

What scenes spread around her last days …?

Did her gifts and compassions …?

Or did life-light decline from her years….?

Unease, or regret, or forebodings, or fears

Disennoble her soul?

The last verse reiterates the opening negatives, ‘no line of her writing have I, / Nor a thread of her hair, / No mark of her late time…’ But the tone is one of acceptance, even welcome, of the fact that what he keeps refined in his brain is ‘the best of her’ – the memories of the youth they shared.

The rhythm is not gloomy, either: it is a rising anapest rhythm – light, light, strong. ‘Not a thread of her hair.’ Although the first stanza opens slowly, with commas ending the first two lines, as the verse progresses, the lines spill over, running onto the lines following, filled with feeling.

And in vain do I urge my unsight

To conceive my lost prize (picture)

At her close, whom I knew when her dreams were upbrimming with light

And with laughter her eyes. (full to the brim)

Characteristically, Hardy coins the word ‘unsight’ (like ‘unblooms’ in ‘Hap’ and ‘uncoffined’ in ‘Drummer Hodge’) so that it reminds the reader of what he cannot see. At this early stage in the poem, he wants to be able to see her in his mind: the words ‘picture’, ‘unsight’ and ‘conceive’ in consecutive lines insist on his desire to see her. He feels close to her; she is ‘my lost prize’, the girl he did not win (he is supposed to have been in love with her when they were both young). He remembers her in her youth, using words like ‘dreams’, ‘upbrimming’, ‘light’, ‘laughter’ and ‘eyes’. ‘Dreams’ and ‘upbrimming’ are linked by their shared ms; ‘light’ and ‘laughter’ by the alliterated ls, ‘light’ and ‘eyes’ by the repeated ‘eye’ vowel sound. The eye vowel sound runs throughout the stanza, in ‘I’, ‘time’, ‘unsight’, ‘my … prize’, taking the reader from the writer, ‘I’, through his failure to picture Phena, to his delighted memory of her. The stanza is full of the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘her’: it is focused on the two of them and, especially, on her. The fact that he can’t picture her encourages the reader to try to picture her.

The second verse asks what her last days were like. Hardy remembers her ‘gifts and compassions’ lighting up what she did: ‘enray’ (light up), ‘aureate nimb’ (glowing light). He wonders whether her ‘life-light’ declined and whether her ‘full day-star’ was darkened. Not only does he associate her with light, but he thinks of things she did and the feelings with which she did them: ‘gifts and compassions’ and ‘sweet ways’. She had, he thinks, a noble soul. The verse is structured round the contrast between the light and sweetness of her youth and the possible darkness of her old age ‘unease, or regret, or forebodings, or fears …’

Although Hardy only keeps (‘retain’) in his memory the phantom of the girl he knew long ago, he feels that this may be the ‘best of her’, the more so because he has no physical memento. Hardy ends the poem with the same four lines that he began with. But instead of feeling trapped by his lack of knowledge, trapped by the identical beginning and ending suggesting that he is stuck, he has moved emotionally. He is no longer ‘urg(ing his) unsight / to conceive’. Instead, he feels that he has ‘haply the best of her – fined (refined) in my brain / It may be the more’.

This poem is written ‘at news of her death’, yet with its focus on the light Hardy associates with her, its focus on her and his memory of the best of her, its structural contrast between what she was like then and what she may have been like in her old age, leaving him with his memory of her as ‘the maiden of yore’, and its rising anapest rhythm, it is far from being a gloomy poem.

I Look into my Glass

I look into my glass,
And view my wasting skin, wasting – shrivelled, withered
And say, ‘Would God it came to pass 1
My heart had shrunk as thin!’

For then, I, undistrest
By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest wait my endless rest – wait for my death
With equanimity. equanimity – composure, serenity

But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve frame – body; eve – the evening of life, old age
With throbbings of noontide.

1 Would God it came to pass – I wish it would happen

I was rather disconcerted to find that Hardy was only 57 when he wrote this (probably in 1897). Gloomier than ever after negative criticism of his novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles in 1891 and of Jude the Obscure in 1895, he was estranged from his wife, though they lived in the same house, and his admiration of Florence Henniker was not reciprocated (‘hearts grown cold to me’).

The tone is reflective; the pace is slow except for the final two lines of passion. Hardy is both looking at his reflection in the mirror and painting in words an emotional self-portrait. The poem is thus very much focused on himself: ‘my glass’, ‘my wasting skin’, ‘my heart’, ‘my endless rest.’ The poem seems to be concerned with how appearance belies reality; how other people see him (his elderly appearance) and how he really feels (passionately).

In the first verse, words to do with age predominate: ‘wasting’, ‘shrunk’, ‘thin’. The contrast is made between physical appearance (‘wasting skin’) and feelings (‘heart’). Instead of a quiet mind (‘equanimity’) he experiences ‘throbbings of noontide’.

Hardy illustrates the intensity of his feelings in the first verse when he writes ‘Would God it came to pass / My heart had shrunk as thin’. He bursts out, passionately, with ‘Would God’ (I wish to God that …). In the second verse he expresses his distress, his pain at ‘hearts grown cold to me’. In the third verse he explicitly describes how his heart throbs just as it did when he was a young man in his prime. He paints his prime as the ‘noontide’ or midday of his life which he now sees as being in its ‘eve or evening. Again, as in ‘Hap’, Hardy uses the structure of a syllogism but he changes the order of the logical stages. A syllogism’s structure is: if … but … therefore the answer / solution is …. In this poem Hardy structures it ‘if only’ (‘Would God …’) … For then……But.’ As so often with Hardy, the ending stresses the lack of any solution.

Time is personified in the last verse stressing its proactive part in Hardy’s bitter experiences in a sudden proliferation of verbs.

Time, to make me grieve,

Part steals, lets part abide;

And shakes this fragile frame …

Hardy repeats the sense of ‘shakes’ in the last line ‘throbbings’ (passion) to stress what he feels. There is a clear contrast between ‘eve’ (old age) and ‘noontide’ (prime of life). The alliterated ‘fragile frame’ insists on the physical age which belies his youthful emotions. The penultimate line runs over into the last line, speeding up the pace – the emotions spill over. Actually, this is so in all three stanzas: line 3 always runs on into line 4. In the first stanza I think this marks the intensity of emotion; in the second maybe it reflects the longed for equanimity, with no punctuation to interrupt the rest.

Hardy seems to depict himself as being a sufferer at others’ hands. He wishes he were ‘undistrest’ so obviously he is distressed ‘by hearts grown cold to me.’ He expresses this feeling in the passive mood, putting himself in the position of the sufferer. The coldness of other people’s hearts is emphasised by the assonance of ‘grown cold’ making Hardy in the next line ‘lonely’ – the continued assonance showing the effect of this coldness upon him. He is also a sufferer at the hands of malevolent Time in verse three.

Time, to make me grieve,

Part steals, lets part abide;

And shakes this fragile frame at eve…

Assonance again ensures that we associate Hardy’s ‘grieve’(ing) with the robbery of Time ‘steals’ in his old age ‘eve’. Internal rhyme and assonance help us to link another source of Hardy’s pain: ‘Time to make me grieve… shakes this … frame.’ The ms in ‘Time’, ‘make me’ and ‘frame’ help to make almost unconscious connections between the words and their meanings.

The last line, with its passionate plosives, the double bs of ‘throbbings’ leaves us with Hardy’s pain. The poem’s verbs start in the present, move into the conditional in lines 3 – 8 (the ‘if only’ section), and return to the present. Hardy’s pain is in the present: now.

Poems of the Past and the Present 1901

The Boer War, history and poetry

Hardy wrote several poems in response to the Second Boer War (October 1899 – May 1902). The Boers were settlers and farmers of mainly Dutch origin. The word ‘boer’ was originally Dutch, and simply means ‘farmer’. The Boers were descendants of Dutch and Huguenot ancestors, who had settled in Southern Africa and the Transvaal (land in north-eastern South Africa) during the seventeenth century.

However, gold had recently been discovered there and many people, including the British, came prospecting for it. The Boers were fighting for their independence while the British were claiming rights. At first the Boers succeeded but by 1902 they had been forced to surrender. The British were much criticised internationally for using concentration camps into which they herded a hundred thousand women and children. The Boer Republics of South Africa and the Orange Free State became British colonies by the end of the war, and later formed the Union of South Africa.

Mark Weber has written a very clear item about the conflict. He states that this was a war between ‘globe-girdling British Empire, backed by international finance’ and ‘a small pioneering nation of independent-minded farmers, ranchers and merchants’. You can find out much more about the war in two articles by him, both entitled The Boer War Remembered

‘Imperialism in the dock: the Boer War’ is a BBC website which explains the Boer War clearly

As you would expect, this website,,
contains comprehensive information about every aspect of the Second Boer War (and the First). You may find the picture gallery particularly interesting. Page 3 has a photo entitled: Drummer outside tent. On page 4 is a heart-rending photo called ‘Relaxing after Colesberg 1900’ of a very young drummer boy (with drum) writing home.

Hardy’s antipathy to war in these poems is echoed in some of his letters, although it is fair to say that his feelings about war were mixed. In a letter to a friend, he described his conversation with a vicar:
‘We the civilized world have given Christianity a fair trial for nearly 2000 years, it has not yet taught countries the rudimentary virtue of keeping peace: so why not throw it over, try, say, Buddhism? (I may have said the same thing to you). It shocked him, for he could only see the unchristianity of Kruger.’ (Feb 25, 1900. Letters, vII, 248). (By Kruger, Hardy means Paul Kruger, leader of the South African Republic, or Transvaal.)

Hardy’s wife, Emma, was also opposed to the war. She thought it an imperialistic smash-and-grab: ‘the Boers fight for homes liberties — we fight for the Transvaal Funds, diamonds, gold!’.

St Andrews University has excellent websites on Thomas Hardy and the Boer War, which you can investigate on

The same university also has a selection of Boer War poetry on this website:

It includes Hardy’s: ‘The Departure (Southampton Docks: October 1899)’; ‘Drummer Hodge’; ‘The Souls of the Slain’; and ‘A Christmas Ghost-Story’. You will find other poems of the time taking different points of view: A C Swinburne’s infamous ‘Transvaal’; an extract from Henley’s ‘The Song of the Sword’; Kipling’s ‘The Absent Minded Beggar’ and part of ‘Alfred’s Song’ by Alfred Austin who was poet laureate during the Second Boer War. The selection ends with T W H Crosland’s ‘Slain’ and A E Housman’s ‘Astronomy’. Some of these are, to our modern ears, horribly jingoistic, exhorting Britain to defeat the foreigner and enlarge her empire; some are surprisingly modern in their anti-war sentiments. Swinburne’s ‘Transvaal’ ends:

scourge these dogs, agape with jaws afoam,

Down out of life. Strike, England, and strike home.

October 9, 1899.

Obviously this attitude is far removed from Hardy’s, whose ‘A Christmas Ghost-Story’ provoked denunciation for pacifism from the Daily Chronicle of 25 December 1899.

A critical look at ‘Drummer Hodge’ can be found at:

The website:
gives a very accessible look at two of the Boer War poems, ‘A Wife in London’ and ‘Drummer Hodge’.

Another website you might investigate is

This website contains photos from the Boer War and information on drummers:
From Wikipedia: “Before motorized transport became widespread, drummers played a key role in military conflicts. The drum cadences provided set a steady marching pace, better than often accompanying wind instruments such as flutes…, and kept up the troops’ morale on the battlefield. In some armies drums also assisted in combat by keeping cadence for firing and loading drills with muzzle loading weapons.”

‘From Decomposition to Dissolution: a reading of Thomas Hardy’s war poems’ by Cristina Ceron is full of interesting information.

At the War Office, London

(Affixing the Lists of Killed and Wounded: December 1899)


Last year I called this world of gaingivings gaingivings – misgivings, doubts
The darkest thinkable, and questioned sadly
If my own land could heave its pulse less gladly, could be any more miserable
So charged it seemed with circumstance whence springs 1
The tragedy of things.


Yet at that censured time no heart was rent rent – torn apart
Or feature blanched of parent, wife, or daughter 2
By hourly posted sheets of scheduled slaughter; 3
Death waited Nature’s wont; Peace smiled unshent 4

From Ind to Occident. 5

1 charged – filled; springs – which are the origin of
2 feature blanched – face pale with shock
3 hourly blazoned sheets – lists posted up every hour
4 death came naturally; unshent – without disgrace, unspoiled
5 Ind to Occident – from India, ie, the east, to the west, all over the world

Hardy wrote this poem in December 1899, shortly after the start of the Second Boer War in October of that year. It is written in the first person, ‘I’, and gives Hardy’s personal response to the war, describing the agony of those left at home as they receive news from the front.

The first verse focuses on ‘last year’ which Hardy then considered a very gloomy year, ‘the darkest thinkable’. The second verse focuses on the present, when parents, wives and daughters wait every hour for a sheet of paper telling them that their son, husband or father has been slaughtered in the war. Hardy makes his feelings about the war explicit when he uses the phrase ‘scheduled (systematically organised) slaughter’. The poem is structured on a contrast: the first verse describes last year, the darkest thinkable; the second, the present moment, which by contrast, is very much worse.

Hardy often builds his poems on a contrast. Looking ahead to ‘Weathers’, he contrasts early summer and winter; in ‘Beeny Cliff’ he contrasts the happy past with the painful present. In this poem the movement is from ‘the tragedy of things’ ‘the darkest thinkable’ in the past of last year in the first verse, to ‘scheduled slaughter’ in the present of the second verse. He therefore firmly establishes the tragic tone in the first verse. In four and a half short lines, he stresses the despondency he experienced the year before by repeating words and phrases associated with wretchedness: ‘world of gaingivings’; ‘darkest thinkable’; ‘sadly’; ‘could heave its pulse less gladly’; ‘tragedy of things’. He specifically draws some of the despairing words to our attention with assonance: ‘last’, ‘darkest’, ‘charged’. He conveys doubt both by words like ‘questioned sadly / If … could …’ and also through the feminine rhymes of ‘sadly’ and ‘less gladly’. The unstressed ‘ly’ in ‘sadly’ and ‘gladly’ gives the words an element of uncertainty. The rhyme scheme of the verse overall is ABBAA – in other words, the first and last two rhymes enclose the middle rhymes, as if there is no way forward; the verse is stuck in its tragedy. And the verse as a whole contains only one fleeting comma. It moves relentlessly forward over the ends of the lines towards the last line, ‘the tragedy of things’. The rhyme scheme suggests that the verse / the situation is trapped in its anguish. But it moves towards the greater tragedy that awaits in the second verse.

The second verse plunges deeper into despair, the despair of the present. Hardy looks back to that time ‘at that censured time’ (the time that I criticised as being the darkest thinkable’) and realises it was as nothing compared to the present. The verse is built as a list of the agony that was not taking place last year. Last year hearts were not torn apart, faces did not go pale with the shock of tragic news from the front. Last year death came naturally and peace was not disgraced by war. The horrors of war are seen in terms of their effect on the loving families at home, in words like ‘heart was rent’ (torn apart), ‘feature blanched’ (faces going white with sorrow and shock), ‘death’. The first three lines are run on lines, increasing the sense of speed with which, every hour, sheets arrive bearing the news to the soldiers’ families that the worst has happened. There is a contrast between the ‘scheduled slaughter’ of the war and death which occurs naturally, ‘Death waited Nature’s wont.’ Hardy’s anger and sorrow at the ‘scheduled slaughter’ which has replaced the natural way of death ‘waited Nature’s wont’ are emphasised by the alliteration. It seems to me that his anger is directed at the government that has made the decision to go to war.

Hardy gives capitals to Death, Nature, Peace, Ind (the East) and Occident (the West) as if they were universal aspects of life and of geography. Now governments have gone to war in defiance of the natural order and have thus brought tragedy to families throughout the land. The families are nameless and therefore represent all families, ‘parent, wife or daughter’. The heartlessness of the government and the unfeeling officialdom of the ‘sheets’ listing the names of the dead are juxtaposed to and contrasted with the anguished pale features of the families receiving the news. Again we have the rhyme scheme that boxes in the feminine rhymes in the middle of the stanza as if there is no way forward.

A Christmas Ghost-Story

South of the Line, inland from far Durban, 1
A mouldering soldier lies – your countryman. 2
Awry and doubled up are his gray bones, awry and doubled up- distorted
And on the breeze his puzzled phantom moans
Nightly to clear Canopus: ‘I would know 3
By whom and when the All-Earth-gladdening Law
Of Peace, brought in by that Man Crucified, that Man Crucified – Jesus Christ
Was ruled to be inept, and set aside? 4
And what of logic or of truth appears tacking – adding
In tacking “Anno Domini” to the years? 5
Near twenty-hundred liveried thus 6 have hied, hied – hurried
But tarries yet the Cause for which He died.’ 7

1 Durban is a city in north-east South Africa
2 mouldering – decaying, disintegrating
3 Canopus – a very bright star in the southern hemisphere
4 inept – usually means clumsy; here, it means irrelevant
5 Anno Domini – in the year of Our Lord (Jesus)
6 ‘Near twenty-hundred liveried thus’ means nearly twenty-hundred (two thousand) years with the livery (uniform) AD (in the year of Our Lord) attached to them have passed since Jesus Christ died to bring us peace, but we’re still waiting for peace (because governments are so intent on waging war).
7 tarries – delays, is still waiting; the Cause – peace

This poem was published on 23rd December 1899, shortly after the outbreak of the Second Boer War in October of that year. Hardy’s poems were often published on the dates to which they were linked: ‘The Oxen’ (24 December 1915), ‘The Darkling Thrush’ (29 December 1900). This poem, an impassioned plea for peace, was published two days before the birthday of the Prince of Peace, Christmas Day.

The poem’s opening couplet stresses how far away those soldiers lie dead who have given their lives in South Africa.

South of the Line, inland from far Durban,

A mouldering soldier lies – your countryman.

The decaying body of the reader’s countryman lies thousands of miles away in a foreign land, south of the equator (‘the Line’), ‘inland from far Durban.’ Hardy addresses the reader directly: the soldier is ‘your countryman’. You cannot read this poem and remain uninvolved. He rhymes ‘your countryman’ with ‘far Durban’ – a fellow-man has died far, far away. Another unavoidable aspect of these hard-hitting opening lines is death. The dead-ness is intensified through the repeated vowel sounds: ‘mouldering soldier’ and the sound continues into the rhymes of lines 3 and 4, ‘bones’ and ‘moans’. Maybe ‘moans’ suggests the pain of his death, which is certainly insisted upon in ‘awry and doubled up’. These are words to do with a body being twisted and distorted, through pain, or maybe because the corpse was chucked hastily, any old how, into a grave after battle. The assonance hammers home the point: our countrymen are dying, far from home, at Christmas time.

There are also repeated ls bringing a slow, melancholy sound: ‘the line, inland’, ‘mouldering soldier’, doubled up’.

It is clear from the final sentence of a letter Hardy wrote to the Daily Chronicle (see below) that ‘your countryman’ refers to all the soldiers killed in the war, be they British or Boer. This is not a specifically English poem; it is a poem about the horrors of war. Hardy wrote to the Daily Chronicle, the paper that on Christmas Day had published a criticism of his stance on the war made evident in the poem. “Thus I venture to think that the phantom of a slain soldier, neither British nor Boer, but a composite, typical phantom, may consistently be made to regret on or about Christmas Eve (when even the beasts of the field kneel, according to a tradition of my childhood) the battles of his life and war in general, although he may have shouted in the admirable ardour and pride of his fleshtime, as he is said to have done: ‘Let us make a name for ourselves!’” —

In fact, before Hardy revised them, the opening lines of the poem read

South of the Line, inland from far Durban,

There lies — be he or not your countryman —

A fellow-mortal.

This makes the point very clearly that he is writing about all the soldiers slaughtered in the war.

In the poem, the soldier’s body lies distorted and twisted in death, ‘awry and doubled up’, and his puzzled ghost asks the question: who dismissed the ‘All-Earth-Gladdening law of Peace’ as irrelevant? As in ‘At the War Office, London’, this is surely an indictment of the government that decided these young men should go to war. Why do people add AD (Anno Domini – in the year of Our Lord) to the years that have passed since Christ’s birth when the cause he died for, peace, is still waiting? Christ died to bring peace; the soldier died because peace is disregarded.

The poem is written in rhyming couplets and these words, highlighted by the rhyme, add to one’s understanding. For example, in ‘far Durban’/’countryman’, soldiers die far away; ‘bones’/ ‘moans’ focuses on the pain of the soldiers’ death and the pain of the continuing question: why are we at war? ‘Know/law’ asks why the government makes these laws that send us to war? All that was achieved by ‘that Man Crucified’ is ‘set aside’.

At the poem’s heart lies the question, why is there war, not ‘all-earth-gladdening’ peace?

Many of the concerns and topics in this poem are those found in ‘Drummer Hodge’, and in ‘At the War Office, London’. The dead, the families affected by the soldiers’ deaths, are anonymous. They represent everyman, every soldier, every family. The vast distance and foreignness of South Africa to the soldiers fighting there is emphasised – the puzzled phantom moans to ‘clear Canopus’, a bright star in the skies of the southern hemisphere. The poems are strongly anti-war, unlike some of the war poems that Hardy’s contemporaries were writing at the time. ‘Drummer Hodge’ is written in the third person, ‘At the War Office, London’, in the first person. ‘A Christmas Ghost-Story’ is a mixture of the two: Hardy puts first-person words into the mouth of the dead soldier. In this poem he also directly introduces Christ, Christianity and Christmas, making the point that war is ungodly and unchristian. Hardy rhymes ‘that Man Crucified’ with ‘set aside’ – the cause that Jesus brought and died for is dismissed, which adds to the feeling of the sacrilege of waging war.

There is an excellent website at St Andrews University, The Thomas Hardy Association Poem of the Month
This prints one of Hardy’s poems each month and readers contribute their comments. The conversation between all the readers makes for fascinating and enlightening reading and the one on ‘A Christmas Ghost Story’ is particularly good.

The Darkling Thrush1

I leant upon a coppice gate, coppice – little wood of small trees
When Frost was spectre-gray, 2
And Winter’s dregs made desolate 3
The weakening eye of day. eye of day – sun
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky 4
Like strings of broken lyres, broken lyres – Romantic Aeolian lyre or wind harp
And all mankind that haunted nigh anyone who lived in the neighbourhood
Had sought their household fires. had gone indoors to the warmth of their fires

The land’s sharp features seemed to me the sharp outlines of the winter landscape
The Century’s corpse outleant, 5
Its crypt the cloudy canopy, 6
The wind its death-lament. 7
The ancient pulse of germ and birth 8
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I. fervourless –empty of fervour, passion, intensity

At once a voice arose among arose – burst out.
The bleak twigs overhead,
In a full-hearted evensong evensong – evening service worshipping God
Of joy illimited. illimited – unlimited
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small, aged – old; frail – feeble; gaunt – thin
With blast-beruffled plume, 9
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom. growing gloom – deepening twilight as night approaches

So little cause for carolings caroling – singing
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things terrestrial – to do with the earth, the landscape
Afar or nigh around, afar or nigh – in the distance or nearby
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air air – tune (without accompaniment)
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew,
And I was unaware.

31 December 1900

1 darkling – in darkness or darkening
2 spectre-gray – frost made the landscape as gray as a ghost
3 dregs – left-over bits desolate – bleak/deserted/dismal/miserable
4 bine-stems – dried-out stems of bindweed; scored – carved
5 outleant – stretched out, one of Hardy’s own compounds
6 crypt – burial place; canopy – an ornamental cloth, here the cloudy sky hanging over the scene
7 the wind’s sound was like a song grieving over the century’s death
8 pulse – life force; germ – state from which things can grow
9 blast – very strong gust of wind; beruffled – disordered, scruffy; plume – feathers

Hardy wrote this poem at the very end of the nineteenth century, looking towards the new twentieth century. It was first printed as ‘By the Century’s Deathbed’ in The Graphic on 29 December 1900. Hardy writes it in the form of an ode, conventionally a lyric poem in the form of an address to a particular subject, often written in a lofty, elevated style giving it a formal tone. However, odes can be written in a more private, personal vein, as in the reflective way that Hardy writes this one.

On this momentous occasion, the last hours of the old century, Hardy writes his reflections in the first person, ‘I’. He is leaning on a gate in a little wood – it’s traditionally a thinking pose, and the poem conveys his thoughts and feelings. The gate also suggests a doorway into a new place, the new century. It is the end of the century, and of the year; Hardy paints in words a frosty evening landscape when everyone else has gone indoors. The sharp outlines of the winter landscape seem to him like the sharp features of a corpse, specifically, the corpse of the dying nineteenth century. The cloudy sky is like the crypt (burial place) for the corpse and the sound of the winter wind a lament for the dead person – that is, the century. Every living creature seems as devoid of passion as Hardy is, almost as dead as the century. Suddenly a thrush’s beautiful song breaks upon this grim cold scene, the ‘growing gloom’. Hardy wonders whether the bird knows of some reason for hope of which he himself is ignorant.

I am going to take a straightforward reading of the poem, but it’s obvious, even from the eventual title, ‘The Darkling Thrush’, that Hardy was consciously using words with a long poetic history. ‘Darkling’ means in darkness, or becoming dark, for Hardy can still see the landscape, and the sun is ‘weakening’ but not completely set. The title must be shorthand for ‘the thrush that sang as night was approaching.’

The word ‘darkling’ has a tremendous history in poetry. The word itself goes back to the mid fifteenth century. Milton, in Paradise Lost Book III describes the nightingale: ‘the wakeful Bird / Sings darkling, and in shadiest Covert hid / Tunes her nocturnal Note …’ Keats famously uses the word in his ‘Ode to a Nightingale’: ‘Darkling, I listen …’. Matthew Arnold, in ‘Dover Beach’ writes about the ‘darkling plain’. Not only this, but there is a long and famous tradition of poems about birds, the Keats already mentioned, and those by Cowper and Wordsworth.

The next phrase with a considerable literary tradition is ‘strings of broken lyres’. This harks back to the Romantic notion of an Aeolian lyre or wind harp. Coleridge, in the ‘Ode to the Departing Year’ addresses the ‘Spirit who sweepest the wild harp of Time’ referring to an Aeolian harp or lyre, a stringed instrument that is ‘played’ when the wind passes over its strings. Then, with ‘Its crypt the cloudy canopy, / The wind its death-lament’ Hardy alludes to Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’. Shelley writes ‘thou dirge / of the dying year’, ‘dirge’ meaning ‘death lament’. Several other rather consciously poetic words such as ‘full-hearted’, ‘ecstatic’, hark back to Tennyson, Wordsworth and Keats. In other words, this poem has a resonance of past poets and their thoughts and feelings on a similar subject; it makes specific allusions to these poets and poems; their echoes are part of its tradition. (In outlining the poem’s place in the poetic tradition, I am indebted to Tim Armstrong’s notes in his edition of Hardy’s Selected Poems.)

It’s a bleak and depressing mid-winter landscape. Hardy insists on that. The only colour is a ghostly gray.

I leant upon a coppice gate, coppice – little wood of small trees
When Frost was spectre-gray,1
And Winter’s dregs made desolate 2
The weakening eye of day. eye of day – the sun

1 spectre-gray – frost made the landscape as gray as a ghost
2 dregs – left-over bits desolate – bleak/deserted/dismal/miserable

There are plenty of heavy, gloomy ‘g’ sounds: ‘gate’, ‘gray’, ‘dregs’, and equally heavy ‘d’ sounds: ‘dregs’, ‘desolate’ and ‘day’. Even day, which might be cheering, is described as ‘desolate’ and having a ‘weakening eye’ – that’s to say, the sun is going down and giving out only a weak light. And a person with a weakening eye sounds old, with little power. The ‘e’ sound in ‘leant’ is repeated in ‘spectre’, ‘dregs’ and ‘desolate’ and these repeated sounds link the thoughtful poet who is leaning, with the ghostly gray colour (spectre-gray) of the landscape and the general desolation (‘desolate’). There is a tiny whisper of sound in the repeated slight ‘s’ sounds of coppice, spectre, dregs and desolate. ‘Gray’ rhymes with ‘day’; the only colour left in the ‘darkling’ daylight is gray. Frost and Winter have capital letters, as if their presence is the most important. The rhythm is regular iambic tetrameter alternated with iambic trimeter (8 syllables in a line, with the second line in each case having just 6 syllables); it’s a ballad stanza rhythm. This regular rhythm, seems to have a slow, joyless effect. The pace is slow. These lines in the opening verse establish a lifeless wasteland.

Suddenly the poet’s eye alights on a detail: the mess of tangled, dried-up stems of a summer flower, carving a line against the grey sky and reminding him of the broken strings of a musical instrument.

The tangled bine-stems scored the sky bine-stems – dried out stems of bindweed
Like strings of broken lyres, broken lyres – broken harps
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The dead flower stems form a reminder of summer, making the winter seem harsher through contrast. The broken lyre underlines the absence of harmony and therefore perhaps of joy in his vision of life. Harsh sounds add to this impression: sounds such as ‘scored’ and ‘sky’, ‘broken’ and ‘mankind’. Even the people who have gone home to the warmth of their fires seem to have assumed a ghostly quality, ‘all mankind that haunted nigh’. The world is a bleak, colourless, cold place with a few reminders of the melody and warmth that have vanished.

The second verse intensifies the poet’s perception of the gloomy wintry landscape in a series of metaphors associated with death. The landscape seems like the corpse of the century and the century is personified which intensifies one’s feeling that it is a real presence. The cloudy sky seems like the century’s tomb; the winter wind like the century’s death song. Any ‘pulse’ (throbbing heartbeat) of germination and birth is dead, hard and dry. As in the first stanza, the first six lines are concerned with the winter landscape and the end of the century. And as in the first stanza, the last two lines of the second stanza are concerned with men; every spirit on the planet seems to have become as ‘fervourless’ (lacking in passion and intensity) as the poet, as hard and dry as the shrunken pulses of germ and birth.

The alliteration in this stanza intensifies the atmosphere of gloom and deathliness. Repeated cs link ‘century’s corpse’, ‘crypt’ and ‘cloudy canopy’. The rhymes of ‘birth’ and ‘earth’ are negated by ‘dry’ and ‘I’. Everything is seen in terms of death: ‘sharp features’ (of a dead body), ‘century’s corpse’, ‘crypt’, ‘death-lament’, ‘shrunken hard and dry’, ‘fervourless’. It seems that it is not just the death of the old century that Hardy is describing, but the death of the pulse of life that vitalises and energises him and other people, the death of hope.

At this nadir, ‘At once a voice arose’ and it’s the voice of an old, frail, thin, scruffy-looking thrush. Not the nightingale of Miltonic and Romantic tradition, whose arrival in Spring brings rapture to the poet, but the ordinary indigenous song-thrush, or possibly a mistle thrush, and a bedraggled one at that. It is ‘blast-beruffled’; it has survived the winter winds (the word blast has a long history going back at least one thousand years, indigenous, like the thrush). And from the depths of the winter winds with their ‘death lament’ it brings its beautiful song; three run-on lines take us at full tilt to its message: ‘joy illimited’ (unlimited). The very words with which Hardy introduces the song are lyrical, rhythmic, repetitive, like the thrush’s song: ‘At once a voice arose among/The bleak twigs overhead.’ In perfect iambics, each prefaced by the vowel ‘a’, Hardy echoes the sound of the thrush’s song: ‘at once a voice arose among…’ Listen to the YouTube link and you will hear that this exactly mimics the thrush’s song. The poet juxtaposes the opposites: the gloomy last evening of the century, ‘the growing gloom,’ and ‘the bleak twigs overhead’ are contrasted with ‘full-hearted evensong’, ‘joy illimited’, ‘fling his soul’. The poet, together with everything else on earth, ‘seemed fervourless’; now we get ‘full-hearted’ song. ‘Evensong’ is the evening service of worship of God. The idea of religious faith is continued in the last verse, with the thrush’s ‘carolings’, reminiscent of Christmas carols, and the ‘blessed Hope’ – hope being one of the three great Christian virtues, faith, hope and charity (love). The broken lyre strings of the tangled bine-stems, the confusion and lack of harmony in the early part of the poem, are contrasted with the ecstatic sound of the thrush’s song or ‘carolings’ and ‘air’ (tune), and the perception of Hope. The thrush itself is ‘aged’ and ‘frail’, perhaps facing its own imminent end, and yet it flings it soul ecstatically upon the darkening evening.

In the first three verses there is a definite pause at the end of the fourth line (two full stops, one semi colon) but in this last verse, filled with the sense of life and hope brought by the thrush’s song, there is only one comma in the verse; the rest of the lines are run-on lines, bringing us to ‘some blessed Hope.’ The ‘pulse’ that in the second verse ‘was shrunken hard and dry’ is contrasted with the ‘trembled through’ of the melody of hope. The whole poem is built upon this contrast: the first two verses cold and gloomy, the second two verses containing unlooked-for melody, joy and hope.

Hardy’s mood is reflected through the landscape and the season; but he (like Wordsworth in ‘The Prelude’ of 1805) is ready to learn from nature; a scruffy thrush can teach him about hope.

Carol Rumens’ Poem of the Week in The Guardian in December 2009 was ‘The Darkling Thrush’ and you can find it on The Guardian website:

For a profound and very fine reading of ‘The Darkling Thrush’, you can read ‘Thomas Hardy’s Poetry of Transcendence’ by Geoffrey Harvey, click on the following link.
Thomas Hardy’s Poetry of Transcendence…/1273/1236

If you want to hear a song thrush, click on Youtube.
Jun 5, 2008 – Uploaded by AustinAnimalMagic
A British Song Thrush bird singing for all he is worth in Dorset.

The Ruined Maid

‘O ’Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?’ –
‘O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?’ said she. 1

– ‘You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,
Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks; 2
And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers three!’ –
‘Yes: that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,’ said she.

– ‘At home in the barton you said “thee” and “thou”, barton – farmyard
And “thik oon”, and “theäs oon”, and “t’other”; but now 3
Your talking quite fits ’ee for high compa-ny!’ –
‘Some polish is gained with one’s ruin,’ said she.

– ‘Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak
But now I’m bewitched by your delicate cheek,
And your little gloves fit as on any la-dy!’ –
‘We never do work when we’re ruined,’ said she.

– ‘You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream, 4
And you’d sigh, and you’d sock; but at present you seem 5
To know not of megrims or melancho-ly!’ –
‘True. One’s pretty lively when ruined,’ said she.

– ‘I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!’ –
‘My dear – a raw country girl, such as you be, raw – inexperienced, naive
Cannot quite expect that. You ain’t ruined,’ said she.
Westbourne Park Villas, 1866

1 ruined – morally ruined, a prostitute or a kept woman
2 digging up docks (weeds) with a narrow spade called a spud
3 this one, that one, the other
4 hag-ridden – a nightmare
5 sock – to sigh loudly (Dor dialect)

Hardy wrote this poem in 1866, very early in his writing career. It shows that, even as a young man, he was ahead of his time in his views on women, as he was later to prove himself in his views on war. Whereas Victorian society generally had one rule of acceptable behaviour for women and quite another for men, in this poem Hardy forces his reader to reconsider conventional values. It is true that novelists like Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell had already revealed the hypocrisy of a society that allowed its men a sexual freedom it condemned in women. Hardy was later to write Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) which he subtitled A Pure Woman, thus scandalising his readership.

A ‘maid’ is a chaste young woman, and if she is ‘ruined’ she is no longer a maid. She is either working as a prostitute or she is a kept woman; in either case, her good name and reputation are ruined and in all probability, so is the good name of her family. She is ostracised by society, and cannot get a respectable job; certainly in the case of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, her illegitimate child cannot be baptized or buried in a Christian churchyard. No self-respecting man will marry her. Today, it is hard to imagine the total desolation that prostitution and pregnancy outside marriage brought with them. Many young women resorted to killing their children, their case was so desperate.

Hardy imagines a young Dorset farm girl up in Town (London) from the country, and unexpectedly meeting ‘Melia (Amelia, a name meaning work or effort). He writes the poem as a conversation between the two.

The first things the young Dorset girl notices about ‘Melia are her lovely clothes and general air of prosperity. ‘Melia is a girl who was last seen working in terrible conditions on a Dorset farm. She was barefoot, wearing rags, and her job had been to dig up potatoes and pull out docks (weeds). She was reduced to almost subhuman status, such was the extent of her poverty – hands like ‘paws’ (like an animal’s) and her face blue with the cold. This destitution ruined her health; it brought on depression (melancholy) and migraines (megrims). Her speech was that of a raw country peasant: ‘thik oon’ and ‘theas oon’.

So Hardy is not endorsing the pastoral idyll of a cottage with roses round the door, and a happy, healthy, innocent lifestyle for the people living within. He subverts this all-too-easy cosy assumption and reveals the stark, unendurable reality of life for Dorset farm labourers. What was this girl to do, reduced as she was to the life of an animal? Does the Victorian reader blame her for trying to improve her material circumstances? How could she earn more money?

The ruined girl’s flippant answers to her friend’s questions reveal a brittle bitterness about the way she is now regarded. ‘O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?’ ‘Yes: that’s how we dress when we’re ruined.’ ‘We never do work when we’re ruined.’ Some of her young country friend’s questions go a bit near the bone:

‘Your talking quite fits ‘ee for high compa-ny!’

But of course ‘high company’ is exactly the company that will never accept her, hence the rueful reply:

‘Some polish is gained with one’s ruin.’

Hardy constructs the poem round the country girl’s questions, admiring comments, and envy of the feathers, gowns and polish, all expressed in Dorset dialect which he indicates through the dialect words and the clumsy pronunciation ‘melancho-ly’. In the final line of each quatrain comes the ruined girl’s much more articulate answer, each time repeating and emphasising the fact that she is now ruined. The bouncy amphibrachs (light strong light) give the poem a cheerful rhythm. What are we to make of it? Is Hardy subverting the idea of the ruined maid and showing us a young woman who has improved her circumstances, risen out of appalling poverty and has no regret, no shame, no self-loathing in having done so? If so, he is mocking the self-righteous values of a society that turns in disgust from such a girl. Or is the girl bitter about the society that will never accept her again, now she has enough money to live on? Maybe he is showing us that comparative riches may hide a morally rotten core, although I cannot find in the poem any condemnation from Hardy of the girl who has taken this path. It seems to me that Hardy is illustrating two alternatives for a working class country girl, both impossible. One is the ‘virtuous’ life of destitution where absolute poverty makes for an animal existence; the other materially more comfortable life as a prostitute is condemned and rejected by society. Hardy makes a scathing criticism of the society that treats young women like this.

For more information on Dorset dialect words. Go to OEDonline, login, and look for sock v 4 (the fourth definition of the verb to sock). sock, v.4 If you then click on Gloss. Dorset Dial. you will arrive at two different links to Barnes’ glossary of dialect words. 1863   W. Barnes Gloss. Dorset Dial.,   Sock, to sigh with a loudish sound. The OEDonline also provides information from the Eng. Dial. Dict. (English Dialect Dictionary).

The Levelled Churchyard

“O passenger, pray list and catch 1
Our sighs and piteous groans,
Half stifled in this jumbled patch
Of wrenched memorial stones! wrenched – moved to the wrong place

“We late-lamented, resting here,
Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear,
‘I know not which I am!’

“The wicked people have annexed annexed – taken over
The verses on the good; verses – lines written on the tombstone
A roaring drunkard sports the text sports – displays
Teetotal Tommy should! teetotal – someone who doesn’t drink

“Where we are huddled none can trace, trace – find
And if our names remain,
They pave some path or porch or place
Where we have never lain!

“There’s not a modest maiden elf virtuous young woman
But dreads the final Trumpet,
Lest half of her should rise herself,
And half some local strumpet! strumpet – prostitute

“From restorations of Thy fane, fane – temple (church)
From smoothings of Thy sward, sward – grass (in the churchyard)
From zealous Churchmen’s pick and plane zealous – over-enthusiastic;
Deliver us O Lord! Amen!” pick and plane – builders’ tools

1 passenger, pray list –passer-by, please listen and be aware of

Hardy wrote this poem after he had recovered from a depressing bout of illness in 1880 and early 1881. He and Emma moved from London to Wimborne in Dorset, where Hardy recovered health rapidly. ‘The Levelled Churchyard,’ his first poem for some years, was prompted by his noticing that the churchyard of Wimborne Minster had been levelled and all the tombstones redistributed. Hardy met an architect friend from some years back who reminded him of a time in the 1860s when as fellow architects they had together supervised the removal of hundreds of jumbled coffins from Old St Pancras Churchyard. ‘Do you remember,’ said Hardy’s friend, ‘how we found the man with two heads at St Pancras?’ Hardy’s original manuscript and several of the early editions are expressed rather more robustly than our present version.

Where we are huddled none can trace,

And if our names remain

They pave some path or p—ing place

Where we have never lain.

When Hardy did eventually change pissing for ‘porch or’ in his Collected Poems, he made the alteration in an errata slip which drew even more attention to his original word. (I am indebted to Robert Gittings’ Thomas Hardy’s Later Years for this information.)

This is another of Hardy’s semi-macabre poems full of black humour, where the long dead, lying in their churchyard, are talking to one another. They speak, as you would expect, in old-fashioned language such as they themselves used long ago:

‘O passenger, pray list and catch

Our sighs and piteous groans …’

They are the ‘late-lamented’, which is the clichéd phrase for the beloved dead. But instead of being treated with appropriate respect and gravity, they are in a ‘jumbled patch’ because the churchyard is not properly tended. Indeed, they ‘are mixed to human jam.’ Gruesome? Maybe. Shocking: certainly. Jam and the beloved dead surely don’t belong together. In fact, they are in such a muddle that they are unclear about their identities: “I know not which I am.’ The ‘jam’/’I am’ rhyme underlines the mix-up.

In the next verse, contrasts and opposites highlight the muddle:

‘A roaring drunkard sports the text

Teetotal Tommy should.’

‘A roaring drunkard’ and ‘Teetotal Tommy’ are polar opposites, yet the epigraph of the one has got affixed to where the other lies. The next source of confusion for the poor un-respected dead is that in some cases their tombstones have been removed altogether in order to making paving for a path or porch or place somewhere else. The alliterated ps in ‘they pave some path or porch or place’ make a sort of paved pathway of alliteration, just as the headstones of the dead do. The next way in which Hardy demonstrates the muddle that the jumbled-up churchyard has got the dead into is through inappropriate rhymes.

‘Here’s not a modest maiden elf

But dreads the final trumpet,

Lest half of her should rise herself,

And half some sturdy strumpet!’

To rhyme the ‘final trumpet’ (the signal of the Last Judgement) with ‘sturdy strumpet’ is both entertaining and shocking. The ‘modest maiden’, her modesty underlined by the alliterating ms, suddenly finds herself on Judgement Day, half-transformed into a ‘sturdy strumpet’ with her alliterated sts to underline her unrepentant moral status. The witty rhyme here ensures that the ‘strumpet’ embraces the word ‘trumpet’, as if her cheerful immorality overthrows the morality of the Last Judgement.

The last verse contains another entertaining irony. Think of the old prayer, the litany: ‘from x, y and z, ‘Good Lord, deliver us’. Or the Lord’s Prayer: ‘deliver us from evil.’ And in the last verse, what do we get? The dead pray that they may be delivered from over enthusiastic churchmen rebuilding God’s temple (fane), or church; from over-keen grass-mowing – ‘smoothings of Thy sward.’ May they also be delivered from churchmen using tombstones as building materials, hacked about with ‘pick and plane’ which are builders’ tools. Could they be left in peace, and in one piece, please.

‘From zealous Churchmen’s pick and plane

Deliver us O Lord. Amen!’

The point that this is a prayer, like the litany or the Lord’s Prayer, is made abundantly clear by the ‘Amen’.

But Hardy is not yet finished with his ironies. He chooses a rhythm structure for each verse that goes: 8 syllables, 6 syllables, 8 syllables, 6 syllables – in other words, iambic tetrameter alternating with iambic trimeter.

‘O Passenger, pray list and catch (8 syllables: iambic tetrameter)

Our sighs and piteous groans …’ (6 syllables: iambic trimeter)

Now scan a hymn such as:

How sweet the name of Jesus sounds (8 syllables: iambic tetrameter)

In a believer’s ear … (6 syllables: iambic trimeter)

It’s exactly the same rhythm. Hardy has chosen a recognisable hymn structure for his poem. A hymn is a sung verse that worships God and respects men. And are the bodies and memorial tombstones of the dead respected in Hardy’s poem? Of course not. Point made. Hardy is engaged in upsetting our expectations at every level. How serious is the poem?

Time’s Laughingstocks and Other Verses 1909

A Sunday Morning Tragedy

I bore a daughter flower-fair,
In Pydel Vale 1, alas for me;
I joyed to mother one so rare, to mother – to be the mother of
But dead and gone I now would be. now I wish I was dead

Men looked and loved her as she grew, 2
And she was won, alas for me; she had slept with her boyfriend
She told me nothing, but I knew,
And saw that sorrow was to be. I knew she was pregnant and it would bring sorrow

I knew that one had made her thrall, she loved some man as if she was his slave
A thrall to him, alas for me;
And then, at last, she told me all,
And wondered what her end would be. what would happen to her

She owned that she had loved too well, 3
Had loved too well, unhappy she,
And bore a secret time would tell, her pregnancy would soon become obvious
Though in her shroud she’d sooner be. she would rather be dead

I plodded to her sweetheart’s door I went heavily and sadly to her lover
In Pydel Vale, alas for me:
I pleaded with him, pleaded sore, I begged him to marry her
To save her from her misery.

He frowned, and swore he could not wed,
Seven times he swore it could not be;
“Poverty’s worse than shame,” he said, 4
Till all my hope went out of me.

“I’ve packed my traps to sail the main” traps – belongings; main – the sea
Roughly he spake, alas did he –
“Wessex beholds me not again, the south west won’t see me again
‘Tis worse than any jail would be!”

– There was a shepherd whom I knew,
A subtle man, alas for me: subtle – possibly means expert? or knowing dark secrets?
I sought him all the pastures through, sought – looked for him in the fields
Though better I had ceased to be. it would have been better if I’d died

I traced him by his lantern light,
And gave him hint, alas for me,
Of how she found her in the plight 5
That is so scorned in Christendie. 6

“Is there an herb . . . ?” I asked. “Or none?” Is there a herb that will bring on a miscarriage?
Yes, thus I asked him desperately.
“–There is,” he said; “a certain one . . . “ certain – absolutely sure or, maybe, a particular one
Would he had sworn that none knew he! I wish he had said he didn’t know of one

“To-morrow I will walk your way,”
He hinted low, alas for me. low – he said softly
Fieldwards I gazed throughout next day;
Now fields I never more would see!

The sunset-shine, as curfew strook, the beams from the setting sun at twilight
As curfew strook beyond the lea,
Lit his white smock and gleaming crook, lit his shepherd’s tunic
While slowly he drew near to me.

He pulled from underneath his smock
The herb I sought, my curse to be –
“At times I use it in my flock,” I sometimes use this on my sheep
He said, and hope waxed strong in me. I hoped it would work

“‘Tis meant to balk ill-motherings” it’s meant to terminate unexpected pregnancies
(Ill-motherings! Why should they be?) –
“If not, would God have sent such things?”
So spoke the shepherd unto me.

That night I watched the poppling brew, poppling – bubbling
With bended back and hand on knee:
I stirred it till the dawnlight grew,
And the wind whiffled wailfully.

“This scandal shall be slain,” said I, the scandal of the pregnancy outside marriage
“That lours upon her innocency: that lours – that is clouding, darkening
I’ll give all whispering tongues the lie;” –
But worse than whispers was to be.

“Here’s physic for untimely fruit,” Here’s medicine for your baby conceived outside marriage
I said to her, alas for me,
Early that morn in fond salute; early in the morning and giving her a kiss
And in my grave I now would be.

– Next Sunday came, with sweet church chimes
In Pydel Vale, alas for me:
I went into her room betimes; betimes – early
No more may such a Sunday be!

“Mother, instead of rescue nigh,” instead of being rescued from my trouble
She faintly breathed, alas for me,
“I feel as I were like to die,
And underground soon, soon should be.”

From church that noon the people walked
In twos and threes, alas for me,
Showed their new raiment–smiled and talked, raiment – clothes
Though sackcloth-clad I longed to be. sackcloth – rough fabric worn for mourning and distress

Came to my door her lover’s friends,
And cheerly cried, alas for me,
“Right glad are we he makes amends, he (her lover) has put it right
For never a sweeter bride can be.”

My mouth dried, as ’twere scorched within,
Dried at their words, alas for me:
More and more neighbours crowded in,
(O why should mothers ever be!)

“Ha-ha! Such well-kept news!” laughed they, it was kept a secret
Yes–so they laughed, alas for me.
“Whose banns were called in church to-day?” – the banns of marriage were called in church today
Christ, how I wished my soul could flee!

“Where is she? O the stealthy miss,” stealthy – hiding herself away
Still bantered they, alas for me, bantered – teased
“To keep a wedding close as this . . .” close – secret
Ay, Fortune worked thus wantonly! wantonly – in a way that takes a delight in unhappiness

“But you are pale–you did not know?”
They archly asked, alas for me,
I stammered, “Yes–some days-ago,”
While coffined clay I wished to be.

“‘Twas done to please her, we surmise?”
(They spoke quite lightly in their glee)
“Done by him as a fond surprise?”
I thought their words would madden me.

Her lover entered. “Where’s my bird? –
My bird–my flower–my picotee? picotee – possibly sweet flower?
First time of asking, soon the third!”
Ah, in my grave I well may be.

To me he whispered: “Since your call–”
So spoke he then, alas for me –
“I’ve felt for her, and righted all.”
– I think of it to agony.

“She’s faint to-day–tired–nothing more–”
Thus did I lie, alas for me . . .
I called her at her chamber door
As one who scarce had strength to be.

No voice replied. I went within –
O women! scourged the worst are we . . . scourged – whipped, flogged
I shrieked. The others hastened in
And saw the stroke there dealt on me.

There she lay–silent, breathless, dead,
Stone dead she lay–wronged, sinless she! –
Ghost-white the cheeks once rosy-red:
Death had took her. Death took not me.

I kissed her colding face and hair,
I kissed her corpse–the bride to be! –
My punishment I cannot bear,
But pray God NOT to pity me.

January 1904.

1 Pydel Vale is presumably the countryside to the north-east of Dorchester, Hardy’s Casterbridge, the county town of Dorset. The river there is the Piddle; Piddle means marsh or marshy stream.
2 Men fell in love with her as soon as they saw her
3 She admitted that she had slept with her lover
4 To be poor is worse than to have an illegitimate baby
5 my daughter found herself to be in trouble (pregnant)
6 that Christians are so critical of if you are not married

Hardy wrote this ballad in January 1904 although he sets it at some unspecified time in the 1860s, just as he wrote ‘A Trampwoman’s Tragedy’ in 1902 but set it eighty years earlier. Both this ballad and ‘A Trampwoman’s Tragedy’ were considered unsuitable for family reading by the editor of the periodical to whom they were offered, and Hardy commented on its ‘lurid picturesqueness’. York Notes comments on ‘A Trampwoman’s Tragedy’ that it shows Hardy as ‘the historian documenting a vanishing way of life.’ To some extent this is also true of ‘A Sunday Morning Tragedy’.

The story is told by the mother, whose daughter is as beautiful as a flower. Even in the opening verse she tells how she was happy to be the mother of so lovely a daughter but now she wishes that she (the mother) were dead. So the tone is set for tragedy.

The daughter tells her mother that she has ‘loved too well’ – in other words, that she has slept with her lover and is pregnant. In the censorious and judgemental Victorian society, this spells disaster: the girl will be ostracised, the baby an outcast for its illegitimacy. (An illegitimate child could not even be buried in a churchyard, should it die.) The heavy-hearted mother ‘plodded to her sweetheart’s door’, that is, the sweetheart of the daughter, and pleads with the man to save her daughter from misery, that is, from bearing an illegitimate child. The lover says that marrying the daughter would make him too poor; he has packed his ‘traps’ (his belongings) and is off to sail the seas. According to the lover, poverty is worse than the shame of having an illegitimate child – a different and more selfish set of values than that of the mother, who would do anything to help her daughter. So the distraught mother goes to a shepherd and asks him if there is any herb he knows of that would bring on an abortion. The shepherd produces a herb that he sometimes uses on his flock of sheep. ‘Tis meant to balk (bring an end to) ill-motherings’ (unwanted pregnancies). The mother makes a brew with this herb, and watches the ‘poppling’ simmering water. The daughter takes the brew made from the herb, but it kills her. Neighbours crowd into the mother’s house on their way back from church, teasing her that she kept the news of her daughter’s engagement so secret. The banns of marriage between daughter and lover have just been read out in church, but the selfish lover never thought to let his girlfriend and the mother know his intentions. The lover appears and admits that he has thought more about it since the mother called on him, and has realised what it would be like for his girlfriend to bear an illegitimate child. But the daughter lies in bed, ‘silent, breathless, dead.’ The mother describes her as ‘sinless’ (Hardy also subtitled Tess of the D’Urbervilles, A Pure Woman, to the outrage of the critics).

The verse form and story line are typical of the ballad: the story is tragic, the language simple (although the local dialect words may cause problems to readers, the language is basically unsophisticated), the story is told through dialogue and action, there is a certain amount of repetition of phrases, like a refrain (helpful in early folk ballads because they were mostly handed down orally, so the repeated refrain helped people to memorise them). The fact that the second and fourth line have the same rhyme throughout the poem makes the poem easily memorable. Here Hardy is consciously taking a form that is centuries old – several poets did this, such as Wordsworth, Coleridge and Oscar Wilde. Thus in Hardy’s hands, it becomes a literary ballad rather than an anonymous folk ballad. The verse form, too, is typical of a ballad: simple rhyming four-stress and three-stress lines, which help to convey the stark, tragic story in a simple and immediate way. Characteristically for Hardy, the story is deeply ironic.

The opening verses have a similar structure. The first line tells what happens:

‘I bore a daughter flower-fair’

‘Men looked and loved her as she grew’

‘I knew that one had made her thrall’ (a slave)

‘She owned (admitted) that she had loved too well’

‘I plodded to her sweetheart’s door …’

The second line adds a little to the storyline, and ends ‘alas for me’ (first three verses), ‘unhappy she’ (fourth verse), ‘alas for me’ (fifth verse) making a mini-refrain in the repetitions. The last line underlines the misery and tragedy:

‘But dead and gone I now would be.’

‘And saw that sorrow was to be.’

‘And wondered what her end would be.’ (what would happen to her)

‘Though in her shroud she’d sooner be.’

‘Till all my hope went out of me.’

There is no doubting the tragedy that will somehow unfold. The irony of the story begins quite early on, at the end of verse 4 ‘Though in her shroud she’d sooner be’, because, of course, very soon the poor girl will be in her shroud. Society says, death rather than dishonour, and in effect the pressures of society bring about her death.

An aspect of the way Hardy tells the story that begins to force itself upon the reader, is the element of Christianity in the poem. For a start, it’s called ‘A Sunday Morning Tragedy’ (as opposed to Tuesday or any other day of the week). Half way through the story, the mother tells the shepherd who supplies the abortion-prompting herb

… how she (the daughter) found her in the plight (desperate situation)

That is so scorned in Christendie. (Christian countries)

Christians have apparently conveniently forgotten that Jesus was presumed by Joseph, Mary’s fiancé, to be illegitimate. The day the girl dies is Sunday, the day especially dedicated to worship of God:

Next Sunday came, with sweet church chimes

But it is too late. The beloved daughter tells her mother ‘I feel as I were like to die’. And the point is underlined by the neighbours’ news as they crowd into the house.

“Ha-ha! Such well-kept news!” laughed they,

Yes – so they laughed, alas for me.

“Whose banns were called in church to-day?” –

Christ, how I wished my soul could flee!

The plan to make the daughter’s position ‘respectable’ has been conventionally made public in church on Sunday, but the true betrayal of the girl by her lover and by society’s judgemental moralism has already taken place, fatally. Hence the mother’s much more heartfelt call upon God in her exclamation, ‘Christ.’ At the end of the story, the mother describes the daughter as ‘wronged, sinless she!’ – wronged means betrayed and sinless means pure and virtuous, even though she may not be sinless in the condemning eyes of society.

Hardy hammers home the irony at the end: ‘I kissed her corpse – the bride to be!’ There is also the stark contrast between the light-hearted change of mind: ‘Done by him as a fond surprise’ and the tragic facts that have brought about the death of the girl. Finally, ironically, the mother takes the guilt upon herself for having found and administered the herb that would bring about the miscarriage. She considers herself a murderess.

My punishment I cannot bear,

But pray God NOT to pity me.

But of course the true guilt lies with the callous lover, and with a hypocritical and judgemental society; also, to some extent, Hardy implies, with indifferent (unfeeling) Fortune. (You might look at his views on Fortune in ‘Hap’ – which means chance, much the same as fortune.) ‘Fortune worked thus wantonly!’ (wantonly means gratuitously brutal – brutal just for the fun of it).

The shepherd in the story seems to be a well-meaning shepherd whose offered herb somehow tragically kills the beautiful young woman. But another reading would be to see the shepherd as allied with the forces of darkness. He is ‘subtle’ and, as she looks back on the story, the mother bewails that fact, ‘alas for me.’ The mother finds him in his fields by his ‘lantern light’, so presumably it is dark. He ‘hinted low’, he comes to the mother at sunset, and indeed the mother makes the brew by night. I am inclined to think that this is because the mother and the shepherd are discussing something that society has condemned, so it all has to be conducted very quietly and under cover of darkness.

As is the case in ‘The Trampwoman’s Tragedy’ and in ‘The Ruined Maid’, Hardy presents the situation of the mother and her beloved daughter very sympathetically. He conveys their emotional pain and – at least, so it seems to me – reserves judgement for the society whose attitude causes their pain, and for the man who, in a male-dominated society, can do as he wishes without censure.

A Church Romance

She turned in the high pew, until her sight
Swept the west gallery, and caught its row the gallery at the back of the church
Of music-men with viol, book, and bow
Against the sinking sad tower-window light.

She turned again; and in her pride’s despite
One strenuous viol’s inspirer seemed to throw viol – violin
A message from his string to her below, his string – one of the four strings on a violin
Which said: “I claim thee as my own forthright!” forthright – at once

Thus their hearts’ bond began, in due time signed. bond – agreement? union?
And long years thence, when Age had scared Romance,
At some old attitude of his or glance
That gallery-scene would break upon her mind,
With him as minstrel, ardent, young, and trim, minstrel – musician; ardent – passionate
Bowing “New Sabbath” or “Mount Ephraim.” New Sabbath, Mount Ephraim – hymn tunes

In the nineteenth century, music in village churches was quite often provided by a few players, not by the church organ. In a village near Hardy, there was a group of eight players seated up behind the congregation in a gallery. They played both wind and strings. But at Hardy’s own very small village church there were just four players: the builder Thomas Hardy (our Hardy’s grandfather) with his cello, his sons James and Thomas (our Hardy’s father) and their neighbour James Dart all playing violin. Jemima Hand, who was to become Hardy’s mother, watched the Hardy family arriving at Stinsford Church on Sunday mornings. Many years later, her son wrote down her description:

They were always hurrying, being rather late, their fiddles and violon-cello in
green-baize bags under their left arms. They wore top hats, stick-up shirt
collars, dark blue coats with great collars and gilt buttons, deep cuffs and black silk ‘stock’ or neckerchiefs. …He (grandfather Hardy) wore drab cloth breeches and buckled shoes, but his sons wore trousers and Wellington boots.

At this time (mid 1830s) Jemima Hand was working at Stinsford House, so she went to Stinsford Church. Hardy calls this poem ‘A Church Romance (Mellstock circa 1835).’ Mellstock is Hardy’s name for Stinsford in his Wessex novels, where he gives all the villages and districts fictional names . Hardy paints the scene inside the church with its pews and gallery, its windows and music. His parents married in 1839 and he was born the next year.

For once, the form suits the content: Hardy writes a sonnet about a love that lasts all through the marriage. This is a Shakespearean or English sonnet, of four quatrains and a final rhyming couplet.

The first quatrain is full of verbs and therefore of movement: ‘She turned … her sight / Swept … and caught its row / Of music men.’ And the movement at this point is all initiated by the woman, ‘she’. Although she is in church, it seems her thoughts are not wholly focused on devotion; although she is in a high pew, she is able to swivel round and see the men behind her in the music gallery. And the movement overruns the ends of all the lines in enjambement. So the setting (church, high pew) is confined and the iambic pentameter lines in the sonnet are a contained discipline, yet the verbs move beyond the containing frame. This feeling of moving beyond confines is further stressed by the alliteration which spans the lines

… until her sight

Swept the west gallery

The idea of a confining frame is again suggested through the rhyming pattern, which goes ‘sight’, ‘row’, ‘bow’, ‘light’ – in other words, the first word ‘sight’ rhymes with the word at the end of the fourth line, ‘light’ – a rhyme scheme which contains the other two rhymes in lines 2 and 3. Is there a hint of mischievous wit in the idea that in this formal, devotional church atmosphere, she is thinking about love, and deliberately looking round to see her man?

‘She turned again …’ at the start of the second quatrain, so that form and structure are echoing the storyline. She seems quite flirtatious; not just one quick look for her. And there is a response from one particular musician in the gallery:

One strenuous viol’s inspirer seemed to throw (viol – violin)

A message from his string to her below …

Again the run-on line suggests the intensity of the passion, the vigour of the ‘throw’ing of the music from the young violinist to Jemima below. And the pronouns also insist on the relationship: She, her, his .. to her … I… thee. This time, after the initial verb, ‘She turned’ the movement (verbs) comes from the young man, ‘throw … a message .. which said, I claim thee.’ The rhymes are the same as in the first quatrain; these eight lines are set in the past, when the ‘hearts’ bond’ of Hardy’s parents began.

The last six lines of the sonnet – the last quatrain and the final rhyming couplet – move forward in time. ‘Thus their hearts’ bond began’ – ‘bond’ here means not bondage but something that forms a bond or unites you with somebody else. Many many years later (‘long years thence’), when both Hardy’s parents are so old that there is none of the initial romance left in their feelings, a fleeting look or movement on the part of Hardy’s father will bring back to his mother a vivid memory of their early days of courtship. ‘New Sabbath’ and ‘Mount Ephraim’ are the names of the hymn tunes he bowed (played) in church. You can look them up on Google and listen to them. It’s the physical memories that come flooding back: ‘some … attitude of his or glance’, some characteristic position, some way he had of looking at her. She remembers exactly how he used to be, ‘ardent, young and trim’, that is, passionate, young and neat, smart, slim, fit. As the memories come back, so the lines, which have become rather steady and stately and end-stopped with age, run over:

At some old attitude of his or glance

That gallery-scene would break upon her mind…

‘Break upon’ suggests the power and energy of love, like the waves breaking on the shore. Unlikely as it seems, we again have the idea of the church service being in fact a place where the young lovers wooed.

With him as minstrel, ardent, young, and trim, (him – young lover; minstrel – musician)

Bowing ‘New Sabbath’ or ‘Mount Ephraim’. (the hymns in the church service)

The rest of the congregation may have thought the young man was accompanying their hymn-singing but actually he was a minstrel, bowing (playing to) his lady love. Instead of the frequently gloomy or cynical irony in Hardy’s poems, this unlikely setting for lovers to woo adds a twinkle in the eye to the proceedings. If you want to hear the tune of Mount Ephraim, the link is

This is a Shakespearean sonnet, three quatrains and a final rhyming couplet. But there is no full stop after the last quatrain. Instead there’s a brief comma, because of the force of the scene which ‘break(s)’ upon her mind of the young man playing his violin as we head for the last couplet. This last quatrain starts quite slowly and sedately, as is appropriate for an elderly couple, but suddenly the pace picks up as old Mrs Hardy remembers the ardent young man who courted her. The pronouns, which in the octave are ‘she’ and ‘he’, or ‘her’ and ‘him’, are now combined in the partnership of their long marriage – ‘their’, except when memories of the past return, with ‘him’ and ‘her’.

The poem is concerned with love; love in youth, love in older age. Even constraining circumstances can’t constrain love. Romance blossoms in a church service.

Hardy uses the same two rhymes right the way through the octave: sight, light, despite, forthright and row, bow, throw, below. It seems to be that the first in each quatrain belongs to the young woman, ‘sight’ and the second to where the young man is, ‘tower-window light’, and again ‘her pride’s despite’ and his determination to overcome her pride immediately ‘forthright’. The rhyming words in the middle again trace the movement from her ‘caught its row’ to him ‘and bow’, from him ‘to throw’ to her ‘her below.’ In the sestet the romance and glance of the early days dance through the more sedate official detail of the marriage ‘signed’ and her older ‘mind’. And we end with the ardent young lover playing his hymn tunes.

From Thomas Hardy’s Preface to the 1896 edition of Under the Greenwood Tree, a novel first published in 1872

This story of the Mellstock Quire and its old established west-gallery musicians, …is intended to be a fairly true picture, at first hand, of the personages, ways, and customs which were common among such orchestral bodies in the villages of fifty or sixty years ago.

The zest of these bygone instrumentalists must have been keen and staying to take them, as it did, on foot every Sunday after a toilsome week, through all weathers, to the church, which often lay at a distance from their homes.  They usually received so little in payment for their performances that their efforts were really a labour of love.  In the parish I had in my mind when writing the present tale, the gratuities received yearly by the musicians at Christmas were somewhat as follows: From the manor-house ten shillings and a supper; from the vicar ten shillings; from the farmers five shillings each; from each cottage-household one shilling; amounting altogether to not more than ten shillings a head annually—just enough, as an old executant told me, to pay for their fiddle-strings, repairs, rosin, and music-paper (which they mostly ruled themselves).  Their music in those days was all in their own manuscript, copied in the evenings after work, and their music-books were home-bound.

It was customary to inscribe a few jigs, reels, horn-pipes, and ballads in the same book, by beginning it at the other end, the insertions being continued from front and back till sacred and secular met together in the middle, often with bizarre effect, the words of some of the songs exhibiting that ancient and broad humour which our grandfathers, and possibly grandmothers, took delight in, and is in these days unquotable.

The aforesaid fiddle-strings, rosin, and music-paper were supplied by a pedlar, who travelled exclusively in such wares from parish to parish, coming to each village about every six months.  Tales are told of the consternation once caused among the church fiddlers when, on the occasion of their producing a new Christmas anthem, he did not come to time, owing to being snowed up on the downs, and the straits they were in through having to make shift with whipcord and twine for strings.  He was generally a musician himself, and sometimes a composer in a small way, bringing his own new tunes, and tempting each choir to adopt them for a consideration.  Some of these compositions which now lie before me, with their repetitions of lines, half-lines, and half-words, their fugues and their intermediate symphonies, are good singing still, though they would hardly be admitted into such hymn-books as are popular in the churches of fashionable society at the present time.

After the Last Breath

(written in 1904 on the death of Hardy’s mother, Jemima Hardy, 1813-1904)

There’s no more to be done, or feared, or hoped;
None now need watch, speak low, and list, and tire; list – listen
No irksome crease outsmoothed, no pillow sloped irksome – annoying
Does she require.

Blankly we gaze. We are free to go or stay;
Our morrow’s anxious plans have missed their aim;
Whether we leave to-night or wait till day
Counts as the same.

The lettered vessels of medicaments bottles of pills
Seem asking wherefore we have set them here;
Each palliative its silly face presents palliative – medicine to relieve pain; silly – ?foolish
As useless gear. gear – clutter

And yet we feel that something savours well; savours – feels good
We note a numb relief withheld before;
Our well-beloved is prisoner in the cell
Of Time no more.

We see by littles now the deft achievement deft – skilful
Whereby she has escaped the Wrongers all, Wrongers – sufferings of old age?
In view of which our momentary bereavement
Outshapes but small. outshapes – appears, has the outer shape of

Hardy writes this elegy as if immediately after his mother’s death. All the business of nursing, the anxiety, the little tasks that surround the sickbed are now unnecessary. In the first verse, Hardy keeps repeating, ‘no more to be done’; ‘none now need watch (stay awake at night by the sick woman’s bed)’; ‘no irksome crease outsmoothed’ (crease in the sheets to be smoothed out). The emotional tensions are over: ‘no more …feared, or hoped’; so are the specially quiet behaviour and constant observation of the invalid: ‘watch (stay awake through the night), speak low, and list (listen)’. The exhausting nature of the nursing is suggested through the considerable number of verbs: ‘done’, ‘feared’, ‘hoped’, ‘watch’, ‘speak’, ‘list’, ‘tire’, ‘outsmoothed’, ‘sloped’. Although the focus is on all the actions of those who have been caring for the sick woman, the spotlight is really on her. It is not until the second verse that we even know who has performed these actions. It is ‘we’; Hardy, as so often, writes in the first person, here the first person plural, probably the family group gathered around Jemima Hardy.

The next verse continues the feeling of a pattern that has suddenly stopped, a structure to the days and nights around the sickbed that is no longer needed. This time, instead of the repeated ‘no more’ and ‘none … need’, everybody’s strange sense of confusion is conveyed through a disrupted rhythm.

Blankly we gaze. We are free to go or stay;

Our morrow’s anxious plans have missed their aim;

Whether we leave tonight or wait till day

Counts as the same.

The cesura after ‘gaze’ completely unsettles the rhythm, the pattern. Then the third line runs on to the fourth – another disruption of the line structure where one line slides into the next. The sense of lost pattern is reinforced through the assonance of ‘blankly’ and ‘anxious plans’ which links the relevant words. Whenever people leave the house ‘Counts as the same.’ The rhymes and word patterns (x or y) reinforce this sense: ‘go or stay’, ‘leave tonight or wait till day’. It all ‘Counts as the same’. The first verse focused on actions and feelings about the sickbed. The second verse is centred on the sudden end to the pattern of behaviour and plans.

In the third verse Hardy describes the irrelevance, now, of the bottles of pills all of which proved useless.

Each palliative (something to ease symptoms) its silly face presents

As useless gear (clutter).

I think the rather surprising adjective ‘silly’ both picks up the ll in ‘palliative’ and shows how silly and ineffectual palliatives are when someone is dying of old age. How can you palliate that?

After the first three verses describing how useless all the fuss around the dying woman now seems, the poem takes a different direction in the fourth verse. ‘And yet’. Those gathered around the dead woman sense something new and unexpected. ‘We feel’, ‘We note’ ‘Our well-beloved’, ‘We see’. What they feel and note and see about their well-beloved is that there is something good in this death, a new sense of relief, and they perceive that ‘she has escaped’, she is ‘prisoner in the cell / Of Time no more.’ Compared to her ‘deft (skilful) achievement’ of escape from the sufferings of old age, ‘the Wrongers’, the family’s bereavement appears insignificant. (Hardy seems to have coined the word ‘outshapes’ meaning appears; at least, the Oxford English Dictionary gives Hardy as its only user.) Hardy gives Time and the Wrongers capital initials, to emphasise their power: they keep old people prisoner, they inflict suffering upon the old. On the other hand, Tim Armstrong in Thomas Hardy Selected Poems, thinks that Wrongers refers to gossips in general, or the fact that Hardy was upset by comments in the press, after his mother’s death, on her humble origins and the suggestion that he neglected her.

Hardy experiences and depicts an unexpected feeling of wellbeing in this poem, perhaps surprising in an elegy on his mother. But he does so in other elegies: for example, in ‘Thoughts of Phena’ Hardy delights in ‘the best of her’ and this, too, is an elegy on the occasion of the death of a loved relation. In his dark ode on the death of the century, ‘The Darkling Thrush’, he finds ‘some blessed hope’ that he had not looked for. Hardy’s poetry is full of surprises.

One We Knew

(M. H. 1772-1857)

She told how they used to form for the country dances –
“The Triumph,” “The New-rigged Ship” – names of dances
To the light of the guttering wax in the panelled manses, manses – mansions
And in cots to the blink of a dip. cots – cottages; dip – tallow candle

She spoke of the wild “poussetting” and “allemanding” 1
On carpet, on oak, and on sod; oak – wooden floors; sod – out of doors on the grass
And the two long rows of ladies and gentlemen standing,
And the figures the couples trod.

She showed us the spot where the maypole was yearly planted,
And where the bandsmen stood
While breeched and kerchiefed partners whirled, and panted 2
To choose each other for good.

She told of that far-back day when they learnt astounded far-back – long ago
Of the death of the King of France:
Of the Terror; and then of Bonaparte’s unbounded the Terror – French Revolution
Ambition and arrogance.

Of how his threats woke warlike preparations
Along the southern strand,
And how each night brought tremors and trepidations 3
Lest morning should see him land.

She said she had often heard the gibbet creaking gibbet – the gallows
As it swayed in the lightning flash,
Had caught from the neighbouring town a small child’s shrieking
At the cart-tail under the lash . . . the cart-tail – the back part of a cart

With cap-framed face and long gaze into the embers –
We seated around her knees –
She would dwell on such dead themes, not as one who remembers,
But rather as one who sees.

She seemed one left behind of a band gone distant band – group of people
So far that no tongue could hail: hail – greet, call to
Past things retold were to her as things existent,
Things present but as a tale.

This poem was published in December 1903. It is dedicated to the memory of Hardy’s father’s mother, Mary Hardy, who lived from 1772 – 1857. For the first sixteen years of Hardy’s life she lived with his family in Bockhampton. The poem focuses directly on the old lady as well as on her memories, with stanzas beginning, ‘She told’, ‘She Spoke, ‘She showed’, She said’, ‘She seemed’, and in mid-stanza, ‘She would dwell’.

The poem recounts the old lady’s stories of her youth, memories reaching back to the late eighteenth century. In the first two verses, the memories are of the country dances. ‘The Triumph’ and ‘The New-rigged Ship’ are names of country dances, and the light was provided in the smarter houses (manses) by wax candles, but in the cottages (cots) by the blink of a tallow candle (dip). Tallow is cheaper than wax, being made from rendered-down animal fat, but the flame gives less light. The panelling that Hardy refers to in the mansions is the wooden panelling on the wall.

In the second verse the old lady tells of the wild poussetting (dancing in a circle) and allemanding (dancing a German dance), the dance floor being made either of carpet or oak in the grand houses, or ‘sod’, grass when they danced out of doors. The ‘figures’ are the set movements in a dance, perhaps when a couple are dancing between two long rows of ‘ladies and gentlemen’ as in Strip the Willow. Again in the third verse the old lady describes the dancing, this time around the maypole – already a dying custom in Hardy’s day. ‘Kerchiefed’ means that people had scarves round their necks, and the dancing was evidently pretty energetic ‘whirled, and panted’.

Then the memories move on to the historical events of those ‘far-back day(s)’. The French Revolution (1789-1799), when the King of France was guillotined, in January 1793 and the Reign of Terror began. Then Napoleon Bonaparte’s attack on Europe and threats to England provoke ‘warlike preparations’ in verse five, along the south coast (‘strand’). Each night people are fearful (tremors are terrors, as are trepidations) that they will wake to find he has landed in England.

In the old days times were very hard, not least in the way justice and retribution was dispensed. The old lady remembers how she ‘often heard the gibbet creaking / As it swayed..’ The gibbet is the gallows. That is one horrible sound associated with capital punishment. Another terrible sound of punishment is ‘a small child’s shrieking / At the cart-tail under the lash’. The cart-tail is the back part of the cart to which offenders were tied to be whipped as they were dragged through the streets. Old Mrs Hardy remembers a child being whipped in this way. It is being lashed as it is pulled through the streets of the neighbouring town and its shrieks carry into the surrounding countryside. The … at the end of the stanza suggest other stories, untold.

Then the poem moves forward to the time when Hardy was sitting listening to these tales of the past. He was seated with his brothers and sister ‘around her knees’ while the old lady gazed into the embers of the fire, with her face framed by the cap she wore (married women wore caps). But for her, these ‘dead themes’ were not memories, but something that she saw even as she told her grandchildren about them. To her they had the reality and immediacy of ‘things existent’ whereas things that happened in the present seemed more like a story. Hardy adds, ‘She seemed one left behind of a band gone distant / So far that no tongue could hail.’ You could no longer greet someone from so long ago. Yet in her memory, long ago was now.

Hardy’s grandmother (his father’s mother) remembered the exact details of what she was doing when she heard of the execution of Marie Antoinette (including the pattern of the gown she was ironing at the time). She remembered, too, the tranter, their nearest neighbour in the cottage opposite, beating out time for dancing. It seems possible, too, that when she was in her twenties, and before her marriage, she was committed to the Bridewell, or House of Correction, at Reading for stealing a copper tea-kettle, and remained there for three months. Had she been charged with the crime when her case came up – and mercifully she was not – she would have been hanged. The law of 1771 stated that ‘all persons guilty of larceny above the value of 12 pence shall be hanged.’ In addition the judicial whipping of women was not abolished until 1820 and there were certainly brutal scenes in some Bridewells. Apparently Hardy’s father provided several anecdotes about convicts, transportations and hangings from a past age.
(Information in this paragraph is from Thomas Hardy’s Later Years by Robert Gittings, publ Atlantic-Little, Brown Books 1978.)

The Man he Killed

Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have set us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin! nipperkin – a drink

But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.

I shot him dead because–
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That’s clear enough; although

He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps, list – enlist, join the army
Off-hand like–just as I–
Was out of work–had sold his traps– traps – belongings
No other reason why.

Yes; quaint and curious war is! quaint and curious – strange
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat, if met where any bar is,
Or help to half a crown.

Hardy wrote this poem in 1902, the year that the Second Boer War ended. Again he is exploring the issue of the ordinary man plunged into the irrational situation of war (compare ‘Drummer Hodge’ and ‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’). Again the man is anonymous but this time we are closer to him: he is telling his story in the first person “I shot at him as he at me’. And again the form is that of a simple ballad with straightforward quatrains. This poem is written as if it were a conversation, or at least, one half of a conversation. This puts us, the readers, into the position of the person the soldier is talking to and makes his side of the conversation very immediate. It’s being spoken directly to us.

As is the case in several of Hardy’s poems, the structure is a sawn-off syllogism. The first quatrain starts ‘If’; the second “But’. But where is the solution? If there is one, it’s ‘Yes; quaint and curious war is!’ In other words, what is the point? You kill a man who, in any other situation, you would have offered a drink to. In the last quatrain, ‘war is’ is rhymed, ironically, with ‘bar is’. The first quatrain dwells on the fact that the two of them would have had a drink together if they’d met by an inn. The second states baldly that ‘I shot at him as he at me’. The last quatrain shares the brutality of war (first two lines) with friendly drink together (in the last two lines).

From the opening the two men are highlighted: ‘he and I’. And the important factor of chance: ‘Had he and I but met ….’ ‘Had’ and ‘but’ = if only. ‘We should have sat us down ….’ The pronouns ‘we’ and ‘us’ underline the potential certain friendship. The dialect words for drinking ‘wet / Right many a nipperkin!’ underline that these are two goodhearted country chaps.

But chance intervened. Or perhaps governments intervened. The powers that Hardy referred to as organising the ‘scheduled slaughter’ in the War Office and who had sent Drummer Hodge out to the Transvaal, ‘ranged’ (lined up) these two potential friends ‘as infantry’ (soldiers who fight on foot) ‘face to face’. The repeated ‘face’ literally illustrates how their heads were lined up on opposing sides. So does ‘I shot at him as he at me’ – both men are acting in exactly the same way. But it just so happens that (I) ‘killed him’.

So, in the third quatrain, how to explain this and to justify it? ‘I shot him dead because – ‘ and the dash, the hesitation, says it all. Because what? The glib answer supplied by the powers that be is ‘Because he was my foe, / Just so: my foe of course he was; / That’s clear enough…’ But, for all the assertion, it isn’t clear enough. The assertion is set out and repeated for reassurance: ‘Because he was my foe, /Just so’ ‘of course he was;’ ‘That’s clear enough’. Actually, it isn’t clear at all, as the rhyme of ‘my foe’ and ‘although’ makes clear.

For ‘although’ without any punctuation to follow it leads straight into verse four, with all its spur-of-the-moment whims for enlisting in the army. And the enemy’s reasons for enlisting were precisely the same as the speaker’s. “He thought he’d ‘list’; ‘Off-hand like’, in other words, for no particular reason, he just thought he would. Maybe he ‘Was out of work’, maybe he had ‘sold his traps’ (belongings). ‘No other reason why.’ This wasn’t a thought-out action born of patriotism, just an impulsive one. There are four dashes in this quatrain, suggesting plenty of unconvincing, half- thought-through reasons for enlisting in the army which turned out to be such a momentous step.

War is, Hardy concludes, ‘quaint and curious,’ strange and odd. You shoot a fellow down that you’d treat to a drink if you met in a bar. The last verse comes full circle to where the first verse began: ‘Had he and I but met / By some old ancient inn’ they would have had a drink. Writing in the same war, in his poem ‘Strange Meeting’, Wilfred Owen was to give words to something very similar: I am the enemy you killed, my friend.’

Hardy was a careful craftsman, and he may well have intended a link, running through the poem, with the many monosyllables ending in ‘t’. Had the two men ‘but met’, ‘We should have sat us down to wet. I shot at him. And, finally, ‘Yes; quaint … war is!/ You shoot a fellow / You’d treat if met where any bar is.’ He stresses this idea further by rhyming ‘bar is’ with ‘war is.’ The other thread, or motif, running through the poem, is the constant pairing of the two men: ‘he and I’; ‘we should have sat us’; ‘I shot at him as he at me’; ‘I shot him dead because / Because he was my foe’; ‘just as I’. The last line stresses this kinship between the two men through alliteration ‘or help to half-a-crown.’

It is not intense patriotism that motivates the soldiers in this poem: they enlist maybe because they’re out of work, ‘No other reason why.’ The plain ballad form, and the simple a b a b rhyme scheme stress the simplicity of this personal tale with its questions about war. In ballads, typically, the story is told with little comment and in simple language. Lines are often repeated from quatrain to quatrain with small but crucial alterations. The very simplicity of the ballad confronts the reader baldly with the question: so what is the point of war? The soldiers certainly can’t tell you.

Satires of Circumstance, Lyrics and Reveries 1914

Channel Firing

That night your great guns, unawares, your – the guns fired by the living
Shook all our coffins as we lay,
And broke the chancel window-squares, chancel – part of the church near the altar
We thought it was the Judgement-day Judgement-day see note below (1)

And sat upright. While drearisome drearisome – lonely and desolate
Arose the howl of wakened hounds: hounds – dogs
The mouse let fall the altar-crumb,
The worms drew back into the mounds,

The glebe cow drooled. Till God called, “No; glebe – church fields
It’s gunnery practice out at sea
Just as before you went below; before you were buried
The world is as it used to be:

“All nations striving strong to make
Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters 1
They do no more for Christés sake
Than you who are helpless in such matters.

“That this is not the judgment-hour That this – the fact that this is not
For some of them’s a blessed thing,
For if it were they’d have to scour scour – scrub
Hell’s floor for so much threatening…

“Ha, ha. It will be warmer when Ha ha see note below (4)
I blow the trumpet (if indeed
I ever do; for you are men,
And rest eternal sorely need).”

So down we lay again. ‘I wonder,
Will the world ever saner be,’
Said one, ‘than when He sent us under 2
In our indifferent century!’ 3

And many a skeleton shook his head.
‘Instead of preaching forty year,’ preaching – giving sermons in church
My neighbour Parson Thirdly said,
‘I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer.’

Again the guns disturbed the hour,
Roaring their readiness to avenge,
As far inland as Stourton Tower,
And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.

1 red war see note below (2) mad hatters see note below (3)
2 He – God; than when we died and were buried
3 indifferent – inferior, a century when we didn’t do things very well

This poem was published on 1 May, 1914, three months before the beginning of the First World War on 4 August. In his second wife’s book, The Later Years of Thomas Hardy, Hardy later called the poem prophetic in its sense of an approaching catastrophe.

The poem opens as if spoken by one of the dead buried either under the church floor or in the churchyard. Several of Hardy’s poems are written from this unusual perspective, and are usually rather cheerful. However, although this poem appears quite jocular, its message is bleak.

All the corpses have been shaken by the reverberations from gunnery practice by the navy in the English Channel. (Dorset, Hardy’s county, is on the south coast, so the sound of gunnery practice at sea would be heard inland.) Thinking the Day of Judgement (1) has suddenly arrived the skeletons sit bolt upright, morosely complaining that the living have interrupted their rest: ‘your great guns, unawares…’ Village dogs, awakened equally suddenly, are howling; the church mouse on the altar, eating crumbs from the Eucharistic bread, drops the crumbs and, gruesomely, the worms eating the dead draw back into the burial mounds. The cow grazing on the church field (glebe) dribbles. But God calls down to them all, ‘As you were. It’s just men having some gunnery practice. Everything’s the same as ever, everyone’s fighting wars and they’re all completely mad. It’s just as well for mankind that it’s not Judgement Day or some of them would spend a long time in Hell after all this threatening of war. In fact, maybe I won’t blow the trumpet for Judgement Day at all, as you men spend so much time exhausting yourselves in fighting that you need eternal rest.’ So the skeletons all lie down again, wondering whether the world will ever get any saner. The skeleton of the vicar says it would have been better if he’d stuck to drinking and smoking instead of preaching sermons for 40 years. The guns continue to roar and can be heard as far inland as Stourton Tower, Camelot and Stonehenge, all places in Wessex, the name given in Hardy’s novels and in ancient history to the south-western counties of England.

In the opening verse the noise of the guns shatters the peace of the dead and breaks the windows in the chancel (the part of the church near the altar, as opposed to the nave where the congregation sit). Surely breaking the altar windows and disrupting the dead reflects the sacrilegious nature of war, a gross offence to the dead and to the love of God. (Sacrilege is the violation of something sacred.) ‘Unawares’ suggests that the men firing the guns cause harm and destruction without realising what they are doing. As usual, Hardy presents men acting stupidly and ignorantly.

The last line of the first verse runs straight into the first line of the second and there comes to a complete and sudden cesura. Perhaps this humorously mimics the actions of the skeletons who jerk into an upright position, regardless of the confines of their coffins, just as the lines have swept on, regardless of the confines of the verse boundary. The noise of the guns provokes howls from dogs, astonishment from mice and caution from the worms.

God calls out to the corpses, ‘No. It’s not Judgement Day, it’s men firing guns out at sea. The world hasn’t changed at all since you were alive.’

All nations striving strong to make

Red war yet redder.

‘Red war yet redder’ is a reference to the sixth chapter of the book of Revelation (2) in which the speaker has a vision of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. (The Apocalypse is the final destruction of the world.) The second horse is bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth so that men should slay one another and he was given a great sword, presumably to promote the horrors of war. The alliterated ‘striving strong’ reinforces how hard people in all nations are trying to make war more destructive than ever before. Men are completely mad and have abandoned God’s rule of love (there’s a comparison here with A Christmas Ghost Story). God’s tone is sardonic – cynical and mocking. He laughs, ‘Ha, ha,’ at men (3), saying it will be even warmer than in Hell when he finally blows the trumpet to signal the arrival of Judgement Day (if indeed he ever does, bearing in mind the amount of rest that exhausted mankind must need. I imagine God’s tone here is so mocking because men have exhausted themselves in fighting wars.). The notion of blowing the trumpet comes from St Paul’s first letter to people living in Corinth:

Behold, I tell you a mystery. … We shall all be changed, in a moment, in the

twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the

dead will be raised … and we shall be changed.

The skeletons begin gloomily to discuss the insanity of mankind. ‘I wonder / Will the world ever saner be.’ ‘And many a skeleton shook his head.’

The poem ends as it began with a burst of gunfire; the noise that shook the dead awake in the first verse disturbs them again in the last verse. The men are firing the guns, ‘Roaring their readiness to avenge’, and the noise, stressed by the alliterated rs and the heavily stressed first syllable against the iambic rhythm, is so great that it travels miles inland. J O Bailey points out that three past civilisations are recalled by the place-names: Stourton Tower was put up in 1766 to commemorate King Alfred’s victory over the Danes in 879; Camelot is the legendary court of King Arthur and Stonehenge is the Neolithic site in Wiltshire perhaps built as a temple to sun and moon maybe two or three thousand years ago. Hardy takes us back through Wessex history with King Alfred, through Wessex legend with King Arthur, into Wessex prehistory with Stonehenge. Has nothing changed in all that time? Man is still fighting. The sound of the guns roars through the last raggedly arrhythmic last line with its extra syllable and repeated t’s: ‘And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.’

Certainly Hardy is making it abundantly clear that war is atrocious, that man learns nothing. The parson might as well have held his tongue; the rule of love is one that man is never going to learn. God laughs mockingly at man. Hardy must be putting his own thoughts and feelings into God’s mouth; God’s behaviour in the poem is not that of the true God. The tone of the poem is one of deep pessimism, of cynicism, of lost faith, of disillusion, even of hopelessness. Man is a desperate case: completely mad. The poem is also quite macabre, with its mention of worms and its graveyard setting.

As always, the Victorian Web has some thought-provoking questions to ask about this poem.

Notes to explain some of the references. These notes will not necessarily help your understanding of the poem; they simply try to explain what Hardy was referring to.

Note 1 Judgement Day is the day on which, in some literal interpretations of the Bible, God will judge mankind. God will command the angel Gabriel to blow a great trumpet to signal the Last Judgment or the Day of Judgement. In the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, Chapter 20, it is described thus:
¹¹ And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them.
¹² And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.

Note 2 The four horsemen of the Apocalypse, that is, the agents of destruction – of war and disease – are described in the Book of Revelation, Chapter 6. This is the King James Bible translation.

And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see.
2 And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.
3 And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see.
4 And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.
5 And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand.
7 And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see.
8 And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.

Good News Bible translation of verse 4:
Another horse came out, a red one. Its rider was given the power to bring war on the earth, so that people should kill each other. He was given a large sword. is a website which explains some of the visionary language of the Book of Revelation.

‘The Lamb here is Jesus Christ, the only one worthy to open the seals. This noise of thunder indicates God revealing something to His people. Many times throughout the Bible, God’s voice has been mistaken for thunder. Here one of the four beasts, or four living beings, says “Come and see”. Of course, all of the four gospels say “Come and see”. We are invited to look into the heavenly stage and see things never told upon the earth until now. We will see in the opening of this first seal, the triumph of Christ and His church.
This part begins what is called “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. The four horsemen present the picture of man’s inhumanity to man. They seem to be a divine prediction of the affairs of humankind that will cause much human suffering. This is not new, for those in control of the affairs of this world have a history of causing their fellow human beings much suffering, with false hopes of peace followed by wars, famines, and death.’

Note 3 Mad as Hatters. Wikipedia explains: “Mad as a hatter” is a colloquial phrase used in conversation to refer to a crazy person. In 18th and 19th century England mercury was used in the production of felt, which was used in the manufacturing of hats common of the time. People who worked in these hat factories were exposed daily to trace amounts of the metal, which accumulated within their bodies over time, causing some workers to develop dementia caused by mercury poisoning. Thus the phrase “Mad as a Hatter” became popular as a way to refer to someone who was perceived as insane.

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable describes Robert Crab as the original mad hatter. He lived in the 17th-century, gave all his belongings to the poor and lived on dock leaves and grass.

Note 4 Ha Ha In the poem God says, ‘Ha, ha. It will be warmer when / I blow the trumpet…’ I wonder whether this is just a sardonic cackle from on high, or whether Hardy might have had in mind some verses from the Book of Job Chapter 39. In this, perhaps the earliest book in the Old Testament of the Bible, Job questions God’s actions and this section is part of God’s reply to Job. God speaks as the creator of, amongst other things, that glorious creature, the horse. Certainly the horse is all ready to be ridden into battle, with the trumpets blowing and the officers shouting all around him, which would be appropriate for God’s weariness at man’s continued fighting in the poem. This translation of Job Chapter 39 is taken from the King James Bible, which is the one Hardy would have known, but in the interests of making it understandable, the Good News Bible version is given below it.

19 Hast thou given the horse strength? hast thou clothed his neck with thunder?
20 Canst thou make him afraid as a grasshopper? the glory of his nostrils is terrible.
21 He paweth in the valley, and rejoiceth in his strength: he goeth on to meet the armed men.
22 He mocketh at fear, and is not affrighted; neither turneth he back from the sword.
23 The quiver rattleth against him, the glittering spear and the shield.
24 He swalloweth the ground with fierceness and rage: neither believeth he that it is the sound of the trumpet.
25 He saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha; and he smelleth the battle afar off, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.

Good News Bible translation
19 Was it you, Job, who made horses so strong and gave them their flowing manes? 20 Did you make them leap like locusts and frighten people with their snorting? 21 They eagerly paw the ground in the valley; they rush into battle with all their strength. 22 They do not know the meaning of fear, and no sword can turn them back. 23 The weapons which their riders carry rattle and flash in the sun. 24 Trembling with excitement, the horses race ahead; when the trumpet blows, they can’t stand still. 25 At each blast of the trumpet they snort; they can smell a battle before they get near, and they hear the officers shouting commands.

The Convergence of the Twain

(Lines on the loss of the ‘Titanic’)


In a solitude of the sea

Deep from human vanity, vanity – emptiness, worthlessness

And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she. 1


Steel chambers, late the pyres 2

Of her salamandrine fires, in legend, salamanders could live in fire burning a body

Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres. thrid – thread; lyres; harps


Over the mirrors meant

To glass the opulent opulent – very very rich

The sea-worm crawls – grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent. 3


Jewels in joy designed

To ravish the sensuous mind

Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind. 4


Dim moon-eyed fishes near

Gaze at the gilded gear

And query: ‘What does this vaingloriousness down here?’…


Well: while was fashioning fashioning – being made

This creature of cleaving wing, cleaving wing – swiftly dividing the waves

The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything


Prepared a sinister mate

or her – so gaily great –

A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate. dissociate – separate


And as the smart ship grew smart – elegant, fashionable

In stature, grace, and hue stature – size and importance

In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.


Alien they seemed to be: alien – incompatible, foreign

No mortal eye could see

The intimate welding of their later history,


Or sign that they were bent bent – shaped by an outside force, or motivated

By paths coincident

On being anon twin halves of one august event, 6


Till the Spinner of the Years spinner of the years – fate

Said ‘Now!’ And each one hears,

And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres. 7

1 stilly couches she – she lies quietly
2 chambers – parts of the engine; late – recently; pyre – fire for
3 indifferent – uncaring
4 bleared – dim and watery
5 empty/pointless glory and sumptuousness
6 anon – soon; august – grand, also prepared by omen
7consummation comes – it is finished, but also sexual overtones

At nearly midnight on 14 April 1912 on her maiden voyage, the Titanic, the supposedly unsinkable luxury liner, struck an iceberg and sank with the loss of over 1500 lives. There were 2223 people on board; it was the largest passenger steamship in the world. Hardy’s manuscript dates his poem 24 April 1912. It was published in the souvenir programme of the Matinee in aid of the Titanic Disaster Fund given at Covent Garden, London, on 14 May 1912.

After the disaster there was widespread criticism of the ship’s excessive luxury, of the different survival rates between first-class passengers, many of whom were rescued (199 out of 329), and steerage passengers, many of whom weren’t (only 174 out of 710 were saved). There was also criticism of the arrogance of the alleged claim that the vessel was unsinkable, and of the ship’s name which was seen as inviting disaster, the Titans being powerful gods of Greek legend. Tim Armstrong in 1992 wrote, ‘The poem can be read as an ambiguous meditation on catastrophe and the forces behind history.’

What would you expect to find in a poem written in response to a tragedy on this scale? Perhaps a poem that appeals to the readers’ emotions upon the occasion, or sympathy with the victims’ families and their grief. Or sympathy with the victims themselves, the sense of tragedy and loss at lives so undeservedly cut short. Or a reconstruction of the panic, chaos and suffering during and after the catastrophe. Maybe the poem would raise questions about the nature of life and its tragedies: why do such things happen? Maybe the poem would reflect a sense of blame, either of God for allowing this to happen, or blame that there were not enough lifeboats to cater for all the passengers. Generally, you would probably expect to feel and share emotions aroused on the subject. What Hardy gives us is the absence of everything we might expect.

‘The Convergence of the Twain’ means the meeting of the two. The words are deliberately old fashioned. And the title leads us to expect some sort of pairing. But Hardy makes us wait until verse VII when ‘a sinister mate’ is introduced as the other half of ‘she’, the ‘gaily great’ Titanic.

In verse I, we encounter the Titanic (unnamed) ‘stilly couche(d)’ on the sea bed. Immediately, one sees that the shape of the verse bears a striking resemblance to that of a liner. And we meet the liner, ‘In a solitude of the sea / Deep from human vanity / And the Pride of Life that planned her …’. Hardy forces us to recognise the present wreck on the seabed and the contrast with all the pride and vainglorious claims for the vessel, the ‘human vanity / And the Pride of Life that planned her.’ ‘Human vanity’ has biblical connotations: the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes opens, ‘Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?’ And in Chapter 2, ‘I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought (worked or made), and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun.’ The ‘vanity’ in question is not a tendency to look at yourself in the mirror, but the ultimate worthlessness and emptiness of worldly things, since you cannot take them with you when you die. ‘Pride of Life’ also has biblical associations, this time with the first letter of St John in the New Testament. ‘For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away.’ So the human tendency to glory proudly in material achievements is apt to come to nothing, as the wreck of the Titanic on the seabed illustrates.

The second verse details some of the staggering engineering achievements in the engine-room of the Titanic: ‘Steel chambers, late the pyres / Of her salamandrine fires…’. The chambers are spaces in the mechanism, and ‘late’ means recently. Pyres are huge fires that generate great heat; they are used at funerals in places like India for burning the body. Funeral pyres, generally on boats set afloat for the purpose, were also part of the Viking culture. So ‘pyre’ indicates legendary fire and heat in the engine-room, but also anticipates the death, the sinking of the Titanic. The salamander is a species of lizard; according to legend it could live in fire. So the words Hardy has chosen underline the majestic status of the vessel; it was almost making its way into legend in its splendour and ability to withstand all hazards.

But the word ‘late’ in the first line undermines all this glory; until recently, this glory was to be seen, but now ‘Cold currents thrid (thread – run through), and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.’ These lyres played by the sea’s currents sound like a marine version of the Aeolian harp or lyre played by breezes (see ‘The Darkling Thrush’. Earlier, Coleridge had written, in ‘The Aeolian Harp’:

‘and that simplest Lute,

Plac’d length-ways in the clasping casement, hark !

How by the desultory breeze caress’d…’).

This was a Romantic notion, but there is nothing Romantic about the wreck of the Titanic with cold currents playing through the steel chambers. The hissing s’s of the fiery ‘steel’ and ‘salamandrine fires’ of the engines that powered the Titanic have given way to the hard c’s of the ‘cold currents’, the hard t’s of ‘currents’, ‘turn’ and ‘tidal’, and the sea’s tidal rhythms with the repeated ‘th’ in ‘thrid’ and ‘rhythmic’. The sea has replaced all the glory with its own slow (the pace in the last line slows right down) powers and rhythms. And indeed the verse’s rhythms change completely. The Titanic in all her glory thrusts through the seas:

Steel chambers, late the pyres

Of her salamandrine fires,

with the stress on the first two syllables, ‘steel’ and ‘cham’, and the ‘pyres’ / ‘fires’ rhyming syllables also stressed to underline the ship’s power. But this is overtaken by the quite different and ultimately much more powerful rhythm of the sea.

Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.

The sea’s rhythms are slower, more insistent and frequent; after the first two stressed syllables, they settle to an inexorable iambic rhythm. The contrast in this verse is between the two elements, fire and water; the fire that powers man’s machines and the ocean’s water. Later this contrast will be intensified into a fatal convergence between the power of man’s machine and the force of the frozen water, the iceberg.

The third and fourth verses set the details of the luxury liner against their present dimmed, lightless place at the bottom of the sea. So the sea-worm (and worms eat decaying corpses as well as crawling over mirrors) crawls over mirrors that were intended to reflect the wealthy (‘opulent’) and jewels that were intended to enrapture the senses ‘lie lightless’. Again Hardy slows the pace in the long lines that describe the action of the sea. This is largely a matter of stresses:

The sea-worm crawls – grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.

Not only are the vowels mostly long (‘sea, crawls, slimed) but the number of heavy stresses slows the pace. The last line of verse IV runs:

(Jewels) Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.

The sparkling ls of the jewels are repeated in ‘lie lightless’, emphasizing their change and, depressingly, in ‘bleared and black and blind’ with their insistently and heavily alliterated ‘bl’ sounds. The ms and ns with which Hardy conveys the dim underwater world in words like ‘worm’, ‘slimed’, ‘dumb’, ‘blind’ in verses III and IV, are continued in verse V in ‘dim moon-faced fishes near’.

The fish ask ‘What does this vaingloriousness down here’ and the word ‘vaingloriousness’ (empty/pointless glory and sumptuousness) echoes the ‘human vanity’ and ‘Pride of Life’ of the first verse, the pride that thought to build the unsinkable Titanic.

With the fishes’ query, the big question is posed: what is the Titanic doing at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean? So, in Verse VI, Hardy begins the explanation. ‘Well: …’

Hardy stresses that, at the same time as the Titanic was ‘fashioning’ (being made), The Immanent Will, that is, the force behind the universe, ‘that stirs and urges everything’ – at which point verse VI runs on into verse VII, as if The Immanent Will is an unstoppable force. Verse VII begins with the verb, showing the action that The Immanent Will propels into being: ‘Prepared a sinister mate / For her … / A Shape of Ice.’ Now, at last, we know what is meeting or converging with The Titanic: ‘A Shape of Ice’. Although it is ‘for the time far and dissociate (separate)’ we know that the two will experience a disastrous encounter . And verse VII prepares us for this inevitable meeting in two ways. Not only does verse VI run on into verse VII, but the first line of verse VII runs on into the second: ‘Prepared a sinister mate / For her…’ The force, or power, of the Immanent Will drives across verse and line boundaries; it is more than the equal of the ship’s engine power, fashioned simply by the overweening pride of man. And the ‘ay’ vowel sound in ‘mate’ is repeated in ‘gaily great’ and in ‘Shape’ and ‘dissociate’ as if to remind us that, even if the ‘sinister’ iceberg is far away for the moment, it lies in wait for the ‘gaily great’ ship for which it is a ‘mate’, an integral part.

The sixth verse starts with ‘while’ – at the same time – and the eighth with – ‘as’, repeating that same time. At the same time as the smart ship grew in size, grace and colour, so too did the Iceberg. The iceberg shares both the ship’s verb, ‘grew’, and its alliterating s’s: ‘smart ship … stature’, ‘shadowy silent distance … Iceberg.’ And chillingly, ‘grew’ rhymes with ‘too’.

In verse IX, although the ship and the iceberg seemed to be ‘alien’, that is, incompatible or foreign to one another, the limited view of mortals failed to see that their later history would be an intimate welding. Hardy uses words with sexual connotations, such as ‘mate’ and ‘intimate’ and juxtaposes ‘intimate’ to the technological word ‘welding’. Human understanding also failed to see any sign that the ship and the iceberg were ‘bent / By paths coincident’ – in other words, they were shaped (the meaning here of ‘bent’) by an outside force (The Immanent Will, the Spinner of the Years) to coincide. They were twin halves, like male and female (the iceberg is presumably male since the ship is ‘she’) of one ‘august event…’ August means grand, but the root of the word suggests a meaning of prepared by augury and brought to fruition. Both verse IX and X end with a comma, driving forward to the moment in verse XI when the Spinner of the Years (the Fates who spin and cut the web of life) said ‘Now!’ There is a huge cesura as the life of the vessel and so many of her passengers comes to an end. ‘And consummation comes’, again the strangely unexpected word denoting a sexual union between the incompatible mates. The shock waves from this catastrophe jar two hemispheres, the whole world.

Hardy moves the verbs, the words that drive the action. In the first four verses, the stanzas open with verbless descriptions of the glory of the ship, leading to the verb which is the action on the seabed. The glorious ship is now a wreck, with no movement; what movement there is belongs to the sea. So we get, in the last lines of each verse: ‘stilly couches she’; ‘cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.’; ‘the sea-worm crawls’ and ‘lie lightless’. (Verse IV does have ‘designed’ and ‘to ravish’ in its first two lines, but they are not finite verbs, but participle and infinitive.) In verse V it is the ‘dim moon-faced fishes’ that ask the big question (with verb): ‘And query: “What does this vaingloriousness down here?”’ In the second part of the poem, where the Immanent Will starts to ‘stir and urge everything’, the verbs move position. Each time the ship’s building has a verb, so does the iceberg prepared by the Immanent Will. Finally, by verse X, they share the same verb, ‘bent / On paths coincident.’ The final verse is full of action, full of verbs bringing catastrophe.

The Spinner of the Years

Said ‘Now!’ And each one hears,

And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

What are the aspects of the poem that seem to be most striking? There is the contrast between the ship and the iceberg. The ship is gaily great, contrasted to the ‘shape of ice’ that awaits it; the ship is splendidly fashioned by man, whereas nature extinguishes all its light, sparkle, fiery power with darkness and dullness. Man was fashioning the ship while the Immanent Will was preparing the iceberg. While man is making the ship in the first five verses, each verse ends in an orderly, controlled full stop. Whereas once the Immanent Will starts to prepare the iceberg, it drives across verse endings and line endings.

Hardy seems to have reversed the expected chronological order of events, of before and after. After comes first (the wreck at the bottom of the sea), followed, in the second part of the poem, by the preparation of the ship and the formation of the iceberg. The poem ends with the ‘now’ of the collision.

The shaping metaphor of the poem is the strange one of consummation between the ship and the iceberg. And the baby, as it were, the product, is death and tragedy and wreck. The ship is ‘she’ on her maiden voyage, and the iceberg is a ‘mate’. But they are ‘alien’, not a match for one another. The ‘consummation’ ‘jars’: it is not a relationship but more like a rape? As if fate is invading humanity’s hopes and pleasure with violent and sudden force.

So, is the poem a condemnation of human vanity which thinks it is in control of events? Or a condemnation of over-reaching pride in technology and engineering, ‘the Pride of life that planned her’? Is it a condemnation of the extravagance and ostentation referred to in verses 3 and 4? Does it question the nature of the force that controls the universe, rather similar to that in ‘Hap’.

The poem is characteristic of Hardy in that it takes an ironic view of the fate of the Titanic, with the fish asking the question everybody was asking after the disaster. It is also ironic that the iceberg was being shaped at the same time as the Titanic was being built. It is also fairly typical in that it takes a pessimistic view of the events that shaped the disaster. There is no sense of the tragedy, the loss and waste, that there is in Hardy’s war poems. And the poem is perhaps uncharacteristic of Hardy in that it is very impersonal and detached; there is a conspicuous lack of feeling.

Some critics’ views follow. W H Pritchard thinks that the poem is ‘an embarrassment, the kind of thing Hardy shouldn’t have tried to bring off.’ Matt Simpson notes that the poem is ‘intended as consolatory’ (does he mean that it doesn’t console?). John Lucan writes: ‘how good an occasional poet Hardy could be.’ Hardy ‘exposes the vulgar materialism of the Edwardian era.’ Other critics’ views, not specifically on The Convergence of the Twain, but on his poetry in general, read: ‘Hardy was a dramatist in his poems’ (Peter Porter); I think this is true of the Convergence of the Twain. And the same critic writes: ‘His view of life is bleak.’

Wessex Heights,

December 1896

There are some heights in Wessex, shaped as if by a kindly hand heights – hills
For thinking, dreaming, dying on, and at crises when I stand,
Say, on Ingpen Beacon1 eastward, or on Wylls-Neck1 westwardly,
I seem where I was before my birth, and after death may be.

In the lowlands I have no comrade, not even the lone man’s friend –
Her who suffereth long and is kind; accepts what he is too weak to mend:
Down there they are dubious and askance; there nobody thinks as I,
But mind-chains do not clank where one’s next neighbour is the sky.

In the towns I am tracked by phantoms having weird detective ways –
Shadows of beings who fellowed with myself of earlier days:
They hang about at places, and they say harsh heavy things –
Men with a wintry sneer, and women with tart disparagings. 2

Down there I seem to be false to myself, my simple self that was,
And is not now, and I see him watching, wondering what crass cause 3
Can have merged him into such a strange continuator 4 as this,
Who yet has something in common with himself, my chrysalis. 5

I cannot go to the great grey Plain; there’s a figure against the moon,
Nobody sees it but I, and it makes my breast beat out of tune; breast – heart
I cannot go to the tall-spired town, being barred by the forms now passed 6
For everybody but me, in whose long vision they stand there fast. 7

There’s a ghost at Yell’ham Bottom chiding loud at the fall of the night, 8
There’s a ghost in Froom-side Vale, thin lipped and vague, in a shroud of white,
There is one in the railway-train whenever I do not want it near,
I see its profile against the pane, saying what I would not hear.

As for one rare fair woman, I am now but a thought of hers,
I enter her mind and another thought succeeds me that she prefers;
Yet my love for her in its fulness she herself even did not know;
Well, time cures hearts of tenderness, and now I can let her go.

So I am found on Ingpen Beacon, or on Wylls-Neck to the west,
Or else on homely Bulbarrow,1 or little Pilsdon Crest,1
Where men have never cared to haunt, nor women have walked with me, 9
And ghosts then keep their distance; and I know some liberty.

December 1896

1 Ingpen Beacon is Inkpen Beacon, a hill in Berkshire; Wylls-Neck in in the Quantock Hills, Somerset
2 tart disparagings – sharp criticisms
3 crass – stupid
4 continuator – the middle-aged man who grew from the young man he used to be
5 chrysalis – earlier stage of an insect before it becomes a butterfly or moth, so Hardy’s youthful self
6 Salisbury / Oxford
7 fast – fixedly, firmly
8 chiding – scolding
9 haunt – visit often

Hardy wrote this poem at the end of 1896; his last two novels, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, had been slated by the critics and it seems that in this poem he is trying to understand who he now is and how he can escape from his depression. He feels as if he is a misfit: ‘nobody thinks as I’. When he is ‘down there’ in the lowlands and the towns he is sneered at and criticised and he feels as if he is tracked by shadows of beings who were his companions when he was younger. There seems nowhere that he is safe from ghosts from the past: the ‘great grey Plain’, ‘the tall-spired town’, even places near where he was born, like ‘Yell’ham Bottom’ and ‘Froom-side Vale’, even travelling by train, he feels followed and haunted. He feels that he is ‘false to myself’, except for the times when he can escape to the hills, Ingpen Beacon, Bulbarrow, Pilsdon Crest, where he can ‘know some liberty.’

The poem opens with ‘some heights in Wessex’, for ‘thinking, dreaming, dying on’. On these heights, Hardy feels that he can escape the clutches of this world, with its time and its criticism: ‘I seem where I was before my birth, and after death may be.’ The first line moves smoothly into the second with its easy enjambement, as it makes its fluent way towards ‘thinking, dreaming, dying on … where I was before my birth.’ The gentle iambs of ‘For thinking, dreaming, dying’ mirror the freedom of Hardy’s imagination, unconstrained by mind-chains or any other clankings. The only kindly thing in the poem, ‘kindly hand’ that shaped these heights, is perhaps recalled in the repeated vowel sounds in ‘heights’, ‘kindly’, ‘dying’ and ‘I’, which presumably help in ‘crises’. The rhythm is mostly what Tom Paulin called ‘enormous iambic couplets’ but not entirely. Each line contains a little scamper of syllables amongst the iambs: ‘shaped as if by a kindly hand’; ‘and at crises when I stand’; ‘I seem where I was before my birth’. I think these little scampering clusters of syllables lend the poem a natural rhythm of speech. In this autobiographical poem, written in the first person, you get the feeling of Hardy speaking aloud.

The second stanza explicitly contrasts with the first: instead of the opening ‘heights’, the second stanza is placed ‘In the lowlands’. Indeed, much more of the poem is devoted to the negative aspects Hardy associates with the lowlands than to the freedom he experiences on the heights. In the lowlands he is lonely, a fact accentuated by the assonance of the repeated ‘o’ sound and the negatives:

In the lowlands I have no comrade, not even the lone man’s friend.

(The lone man’s friend turns out in the next line to be Charity, or Love, in its quotation from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 13: ‘her who suffereth long and is kind’.) The alliteration of ‘down’ and ‘dubious’, the sibilance of ‘dubious’ and ‘askance’ which suggest malicious gossiping whispers, perhaps of the ‘tart disparagings’ in the next verse, and more negatives, ‘nobody thinks as I’, characterise everything that he hates about the lowlands:

Down there they are dubious and askance; there nobody thinks as I

‘Nobody thinks as I’ gives another reason for the loneliness that Hardy instances in the first line of this verse. The last line of the second verse forms a direct contrast and describes the freedom he feels on the heights, away from the fettering, imprisoning, heavily weighted ‘mind-chains’ of the lowlands.

In the lowland towns of the third and fourth stanzas, Hardy seems to feel almost like a criminal, with phantoms tracking him like detectives. He is dogged by memories of himself when he was younger and friends he had then, who now ‘hang about .. and … say harsh heavy things.’ The juxtaposed stresses and the alliteration of ‘harsh heavy’ convey Hardy’s depression. He is uncomfortably aware of the ‘chrysalis’ of the young Hardy who has matured, not into a butterfly, but into a ‘strange continuator’, the middle-aged man that the young Hardy did not expect to become. All through the fourth stanza, Hardy links key words through alliteration: ‘crass cause / Can … continuator .. common … my chrysalis.’ These words trace the passage of the young Hardy into the middle-aged Hardy, impelled by some ‘crass cause’.

Critics have spent some time pursuing the identities of the various figures and ghosts in the next verses. The more important aspect of the poetry is surely Hardy’s depression: ‘my breast beat out of tune’ (that is, not in the harmony of happiness – remember Hardy and his father were musical). He feels ‘barred’ or debarred (prison images again) from ‘the tall-spired town’ – Oxford or perhaps Salisbury. Dorset lowlands are full of ghosts ‘chiding loud’ and ‘thin-lipped’; even in the train he hears a ghost ‘saying what I would not hear.

The feeling that Hardy is haunted by ghosts from the past intensifies. ‘There’s a figure’, ‘forms now passed’. The figure and forms are linked by alliteration and meaning. Only Hardy can see them: ‘Nobody sees it but I’, ‘in whose long vision they stand there fast’ (fixedly, he can’t rid himself of them). The distress to his feelings is palpable in the erratic rhythms; you get stressed monosyllables together and then wandering lighter syllables in lines like ‘ the great grey Plain; there’s a figure against the moon. This happens again in ‘it makes my breast beat out of tune.’ ‘Breast’ (heart, feelings) half rhymes with ‘passed’ and ‘fast; and is alliterated with ‘barred’, all heavy and unhappy words. ‘Great grey Plain’ and ‘makes’ are all linked by assonance as well as heaviness.

The haunting continues in the next verse. Hardy repeats ‘There’s a ghost’ at the beginning of the first two lines. The rhyming becomes more insistent as he is followed against his will; ‘I do not want it near’, ‘I would not hear’. But still he is shadowed by ‘one in the railway train’ rhyming disconcertingly with ‘against the pane.’ This internal rhyme is backed up by alliteration ‘its profile against the pane’. In every way Hardy evokes a suffocating sense of inescapable pursuit or loss.

Hardy’s sense of loss continues in the penultimate verse. He feels that he has lost even the ‘rare fair woman’ that he loved in London (not his wife) no longer remembers him (this was not actually the case; they remained friends throughout the woman’s life). The loss, the haunting and the despair impel him to escape to the freedom of the last verse: ‘So …’

And so Hardy’s poem ends geographically, emotionally and poetically where it began, on Wessex heights. These heights are the places where he ‘know(s) some liberty.’ He brings us back to the freedom where ‘mind-chains do not clank’, where he is not barred. He relishes the solitude he finds on the heights: ‘where men have never cared to haunt (go often), nor women have walked with me’. This solitude is quite different from the loneliness he experiences in the lowlands, where he has ‘no comrade’. It is a solitude that is synonymous with ‘liberty’; his ‘next neighbour is the sky’. The heights are places ‘for thinking, dreaming’ as a writer and poet, where he is free of the oppressive awareness that ‘nobody thinks as I’.

Florence Hardy, Hardy’s second wife, wrote in a letter to a friend: ‘Wessex Heights will always wring my heart, for I know when it was written a little while after the publication of Jude, when he was so cruelly treated.’ No wonder she wrote these words, for if you look at the poem again, you see that it is his whole life thus far that Hardy is rejecting – from ‘before my birth’ to ‘after death’. The attacks of the critics have nullified everything, destroyed his will to have a life at all. The most he can hope for is ‘some liberty’.

Tim Armstrong’s introduction to the poem in Thomas Hardy: Selected Poems (Pearson, 2009) contains valuable insights: ‘Critics have remarked that ‘Wessex Heights’ seems to mark Hardy’s ‘escape’ from novels to poetry after Jude the Obscure had been slated. The four ‘heights’ or hills in the poem form a rectangle taking in most of Wessex; the contrast between crowded lowlands and solitary highlands is a common gesture of Romantic poetry’ (for example Byron). Tom Paulin comments that ‘the enormous iambic couplets create a terrifying monotony… the poem sounds what it is – a speech delivered by someone in a state of such acute depression that he has almost totally lost his own will.’ The ‘monotony’ is qualified by a cesura in most lines which tend to break the metre into 3 and 4-beat sections, an effect which is reinforced by internal rhymes. J H Miller argues that the poem uses a sound-structure which attaches ‘low vowels’ (o and a) to lowland places and high vowels (i) to heights. It has been suggested that the reason Hardy did not include the poem in earlier collections was that it was too ‘nakedly autobiographical.’

F B Pinion in A Commentary on the Poems of Thomas Hardy (Macmillan, 1976) writes: ‘The poem expresses Hardy’s depression… Each stanza marks a distinct progression in the theme, the last returning to the first. … Hardy sees his youthful self watching him, wondering how he could have become what he is, at odds with the world. The metaphor my chrysalis implies that a startling change has taken place in the man emerging from youth; he is a strange ‘continuator’ of his former, simple self. …In this verse (the one opening with the ‘great grey plain’) Hardy could be thinking of both Tess and Jude, the two novels which did more to cast a blight on his popularity … than anything else’.

Florence Hardy, Hardy’s second wife, wrote in a letter to a friend: ‘Wessex Heights will always wring my heart, for I know when it was written a little while after the publication of Jude, when he was so cruelly treated.’

Under the Waterfall

‘Whenever I plunge my arm, like this,
In a basin of water, I never miss
The sweet sharp sense of a fugitive day fugitive – fleeting
Fetched back from its thickening shroud of gray. shroud – burial cloth

Hence the only prime prime – strong, important

And real love-rhyme

That I know by heart,

And that leaves no smart, smart – sting

Is the purl of a little valley fall purl – swirling flow and ripple; fall – waterfall
About three spans wide and two spans tall 1
Over a table of solid rock,
And into a scoop of the self-same block;
The purl of a runlet that never ceases runlet – small stream
In stir of kingdoms, in wars, in peaces;
With a hollow boiling voice it speaks
And has spoken since hills were turfless peaks.’ turfless – no grass, just rock

‘And why gives this the only prime
Idea to you of a real love-rhyme?
And why does plunging your arm in a bowl
Full of spring water, bring throbs to your soul?’ throbs – regular pulsing, also pain

‘Well, under the fall, in a crease of the stone,
Though precisely where none ever has known,
Jammed darkly, nothing to show how prized,
And by now with its smoothness opalized, 2

Is a drinking glass:

For, down that pass

My lover and I

Walked under a sky

Of blue with a leaf-wove awning of green, 3
In the burn of August, to paint the scene, burn – burning heat
And we placed our basket of fruit and wine
By the runlet’s rim, where we sat to dine;
And when we had drunk from the glass together,
Arched by the oak-copse from the weather,
I held the vessel to rinse in the fall,
Where it slipped, and it sank, and was past recall, 4
Though we stooped and plumbed the little abyss
With long bared arms. There the glass still is.
And, as said, if I thrust my arm below
Cold water in basin or bowl, a throe throe – violent spasm of feeling
From the past awakens a sense of that time,
And the glass we used, and the cascade’s rhyme.
The basin seems the pool, and its edge
The hard smooth face of the brook-side ledge,
And the leafy pattern of china-ware
The hanging plants that were bathing there.

‘By night, by day, when it shines or lours, lours – looks dark
There lies intact that chalice of ours, intact – whole, not broken
And its presence adds to the rhyme of love
Persistently sung by the fall above.
No lip has touched it since his and mine

In turns therefrom sipped lovers’ wine.’

1 span – a hand span, thumb tip to little finger tip
2 opalized – the colour of an opal, clouded
3 leaf-wove awning – covering woven from leaves
4 past recall – couldn’t be recaptured, found

‘In her memoir, Some Recollections, Emma Hardy writes, “often we walked down the beautiful Vallency Valley to Boscastle harbour where we had to jump over stones and climb over a low wall by rough steps, to come out on great wide spaces suddenly, with a sparkling little brook into which we once lost a tiny picnic tumbler.” Hardy sketched Emma searching for the glass.’ (York Notes)

The poem is in speech marks, and is written as if it is being spoken. It is obviously spoken by a woman, presumably Emma. Just for four brief lines another speaker enters. The woman says that whenever she plunges her arm into a basin of water, it always reminds her of the hot August day when she and her lover had a picnic by a little river. She dropped the picnic glass into the water, and she plunged her arm into the river to try to retrieve it. But she was unable to find it.

From the beginning, her memory of this happy picnic is bittersweet. Plunging her arm into a basin of water always reminds her of

The sweet sharp sense of a fugitive day fugitive – fleeting
Fetched back from its thickening shroud of gray. 1

1 cloth wrapping a body prepared for burial

The memory is ‘sweet sharp’; the day of happiness was ‘fugitive’ (fleeting); she fetches the reminiscence from a past that is mistily gray and is in a ‘shroud’ with all its deathly associations. This mix of happy past memory that is only fleeting, that has a sense of sharpness in it, for all its sweetness, and is fetched from a past with associations of death, is already poignant with a sense of not lasting long. This impression is intensified by the word ‘smart’ (sting, pain) a few lines later. The only memory that leaves no sting, she says, is the purl (rippling flow) of a little waterfall that has flowed thus all through the ages. The description of the little waterfall is full of liquid ‘l’ sounds in the words, ‘purl’, ‘little’, ‘valley’, ‘fall’, ‘runlet’, ‘hollow’.

The next four lines come from a different voice, a colder voice that questions the first speaker’s feelings. ‘Why gives this … why does plunging your arm …?’

The woman answers, and her answer takes up the rest of the poem. She explains that the drinking-glass they had used at their August picnic lies just under the waterfall. It is now the colour of an opal, after many years’ movement of water over it. On the day of the picnic, ‘my lover and I / Walked’ in a landscape of bright colours, blue and green. These colours suggest the colour and life of this happy day, which years later can only be revisited through a ‘shroud of gray’. The language is consciously feminine, pretty and poetic: ‘a leaf-wove awning of green; (an awning is a roof-like covering). This happy picnic was shared: ‘we placed our basket of fruit and wine / By the runlet’s rim, where we sat to dine.’ ‘..We had drunk from the glass together’. It’s almost as if the glass was a chalice of love (she later refers to it as ‘that chalice of ours’), and the wine gives a sense of their being intoxicated by their love, ‘lovers’ wine’. Then

I held the vessel to rinse in the fall, waterfall
Where it slipped, and sank, and was past recall. couldn’t be recaptured, found

Neither could their happy love. The ‘cascade’s rhyme’ seems an image of the harmony of their love; she later refers to it as ‘the rhyme of love.’ And the tiny picnic tumbler of Emma’s diary entry has become a ‘chalice’, a symbol of their love:

No lip has touched it since his and mine
In turns therefrom sipped lovers’ wine.

The tone of the poem is poignant: she keeps repeating the incident, re-telling this moment of happiness.

‘Under The Waterfall’ is the last poem in the collection ‘Satires of Circumstance, Lyrics and Reveries’ which was published in November 1914. Although the poem isn’t included in Poems of 1912-13 Veteris Vestigia Flammae, it seems a fitting prologue to them, rather than being the epilogue of Satires of Circumstance. Most reviewers, writes Tim Armstrong, ‘found the volume melancholy in tone.’ Lytton Strachey, a famous critic of the time, wrote ‘what gives Mr Hardy’s poem their unique flavour is their utter lack of romanticism, their common, undecorated presentiments of things.’ The poet Laurence Binyon wanted to ask ‘why he seems so insistently, as with a morbid absorption in the theme, to harp on that familiar note of the implanted crookedness of things and the inbred malignity of chance.’

The Going

The first of the 1912-1913 poems on the death of Emma Hardy on 27 November, 1912

Why did you give no hint that night
That quickly after the morrow’s dawn,
And calmly, as if indifferent quite, as if you didn’t care
You would close your term here, up and be gone end your time alive
Where I could not follow
With wing of swallow
To gain one glimpse of you ever anon! ever anon – ever again

Never to bid good-bye
Or lip me the softest call, lip me – give, with your lips
Or utter a wish for a word, while I
Saw morning harden upon the wall,
Unmoved, unknowing
That your great going
Had place that moment, and altered all.

Why do you make me leave the house
And think for a breath it is you I see
At the end of the alley of bending boughs
Where so often at dusk you used to be;
Till in darkening dankness
The yawning blankness
Of the perspective sickens me!

You were she who abode
By those red-veined rocks far West, the cliffs near St Juliot, Cornwall
You were the swan-necked one who rode swan-necked – long beautiful neck
Along the beetling Beeny Crest, beetling – projecting
And, reining nigh me,
Would muse and eye me,
While Life unrolled us its very best.

Why, then, latterly did we not speak,
Did we not think of those days long dead,
And ere your vanishing strive to seek ere – before
That time’s renewal? We might have said,
“In this bright spring weather
We’ll visit together
Those places that once we visited.”

Well, well! All’s past amend,
Unchangeable. It must go.
I seem but a dead man held on end
To sink down soon. . . . O you could not know
That such swift fleeing
No soul foreseeing–
Not even I–would undo me so!

Emma Hardy died on the morning of 27th November 1912. It appears that Hardy had not realised how ill she was; he was shocked at her death. He and Emma had been estranged for some time, although they continued to live together at Max Gate. Perhaps this is why he had not noticed her increasing frailty. Her death prompted an outpouring of poems, of which ‘The Going’ is the first.

The first four verses are very much centred on ‘you’ (Emma). Verse one: ‘Why did you give no hint … that … You would close your term here!’ Verse two: ‘Your great going / Had place that moment, and altered all.’ Verse three: “Why do you make me leave the house / And think … it is you I see?’ Verse four: ‘You were she who abode / … far West.’ In verse five the focus moves to ‘we’, and what, as a couple, they might have said and done. In the last verse, the focus moves to Hardy, the desolate widower, undone by his wife’s sudden ‘going’.

Hardy calls the poem ‘The Going’ but he largely avoids the word death. He refers to Emma’s death as ‘close your term here, up and be gone / Where I could not follow’; as ‘your great going’; as ‘blankness’; as ‘your vanishing’ , and as ‘such swift fleeing’. He uses the word dead only twice. In the penultimate verse, he asks with remorse why they did not think of the happy days when they first met, ‘those days long dead … and strive to seek / That time’s renewal?’ That hope has now died with Emma’s death. The second time he uses the word dead is in the last verse, describing himself: ‘I seem but a dead man.’ This means that the emphasis of the poem falls on how different everything seems without her, ‘and altered all’. She has gone where Hardy cannot follow, cannot ever see her again, cannot ever speak to her again. He keeps thinking that he sees her and finds nothing but ‘darkening dankness’ and ‘yawning blankness’ – emptiness. The suddenness of her departure is dwelt on: ‘quickly’, ‘such swift fleeing’ and Hardy’s inability to get his mind round it.

The structure and literally the shape of the verses is unusual. The syllable count is all over the place. In verses 1, 3 and 5, the longer lines have syllable counts of 8, 9, 10 and sometimes 11 syllables. The strangely short lines 5 and 6 in each verse have sometimes 5, sometimes 6 syllables. Verses 2, 4 and 6 have shorter first two lines, more of the length of lines 5 and 6. What is the effect of this?

Verses 1, 3 and 5 all start with the cry or the question Why? ‘Why did you give no hint that night …!’ ‘Why do you make me leave the house …!’ ‘Why then latterly did we not speak …?’ The punctuation follows what is happening. In the first verse, the opening line runs on to the next, re-enacting ‘that quickly after the morrow’s dawn’ Emma left this life. Then the third line slows, reflecting Emma’s calm and indifference. The short lines detailing Hardy’s desire to follow her, ‘to gain one glimpse of you’ and his inability to do so are of course run-on lines. Does the shape of this verse, and that of the following alternate verses, give the outline of an hour glass, conveying through shape as well as through the sense and movement of the lines the suddenness of the changes brought about by time? Not long afterwards he was to write ‘The ‘Convergence of the Twain’, where the verses’ shape is the shape of the sunk vessel, the Titanic.

Light, dark and time feature prominently in the first three verses. Verse one opens with the night before Emma’s death, and the next morning, the day she died (27th November 1912).

Why did you give no hint that night

That quickly after the morrow’s dawn, …

In verse two,

While I

Saw morning harden upon the wall,

… your great going

Had place that moment

In verse three

In darkening dankness

Is it that Emma has gone from the light of this world into the darkness, that is, the unknown, of the next? Or are all these mentions of light and dark, night, dawn, morning, more importantly awareness of time, together with words like ‘while’ and ‘quickly after’ and ‘that moment’? Time that brings such unforeseen changes, time that alters everything. The change from life to death in the first two verses; the change from love to indifference in the fourth and fifth verses. Time that was not well used, in the fifth verse, with its attendant thoughts of all that might have been. Mistakes that are made. (This is a constant refrain in Hardy’s novels and poetry – for example, ‘A Trampwoman’s Tragedy’ and ‘A Sunday Morning Tragedy’.)

In each case, the verse crying out, ‘Why did you!’ ‘Why do you!’ ‘Why, then, latterly did we not?’ is followed by the differently structured verse containing reflections, feelings, memories. ‘Why did you give no hint …?’ is followed by Hardy’s reflection that Emma left with no good-bye and he, watching daylight lighting up the wall, knew nothing of what was happening to her upstairs in her attic bedroom. ‘Why do you make me leave the house / And think for a breath it is you I see?’ is followed by his vivid memory of her as she was in Cornwall in 1870 when they first met. ‘Why, then, latterly did we not speak..?’ is followed by the desolate realisation that nothing can be changed now: ‘Well, well! All’s past amend, / Unchangeable.’

The poem insists on how absolute is the difference made by death. Again and again in the first two verses Hardy describes this. ‘I could not follow … ever anon’ (ever again). Here the rhymed words play their part: ‘dawn’ (when Emma died), ‘be gone’ (her death; that was how gone was often pronounced in those days), ‘ever anon’ (ever again). ‘Never to .. or… or…altered all.’ (Here the structure does the insisting: never.. or.. or.. followed by the assonance of ‘altered all’ and the finality of the stressed monosyllable ‘all’ at the end of the verse.)

In verses 3 and 4 Hardy thinks he can see Emma. First he thinks ‘for a breath (a moment, and how ironic that he uses the word breath which is synonymous with life) it is you I see.’ He thinks (and he moves into the present tense, to convey the immediacy of his impression) that he sees her at dusk ‘at the end of the alley of bending boughs’ and the enjambed four lines mimic the bending boughs and make the reader peer through them wondering if Emma can be seen. She can’t, and the short 5th and 6th lines and the short stressed monosyllable ‘me’ at the end of the verse make this irreversible. Next, Hardy sees Emma in memory in verse 4, the Emma he first knew. He repeats the phrase ‘You were ..’. This is a beautiful and romanticised Emma in a romanticised landscape: ‘swan-necked’ (with a long graceful neck), ‘who rode / Along the beetling (overhanging) Beeny Crest.’ In all four verses, Emma has been in control. She left without giving any hint of her intention, she makes Hardy leave the house, she makes Hardy think that he can see her in the garden, she was the one riding along the cliffs who, ‘reining nigh me, / Would muse and eye me’, while he was the passive one.

Juxtaposed to the memories of Emma the beautiful, the penultimate verse considers what might have been with its repeated consecutive ‘did we not’; ‘did we not speak, / Did we not think…?’ It adds (‘did we not’) ‘strive to seek / That time’s renewal?’ This verse is full of verbs, full of the actions that they did not take, ‘speak’, ‘think’, ‘strive to seek’, ‘might have said’, ‘visit together’. The word ‘we’ is repeated, followed by the phrase ‘We’ll visit together…’. This verse considers the togetherness they once shared and failed to rediscover, not taking the opportunities they had.

And so to the sixth verse: ‘Well, well! All’s past amend, / Unchangeable. It must go.’ The heavy cesuras bring the pace almost to a standstill. The half finished sentences and faltering rhythm show the articulate Hardy unable to find words for his feelings:

‘I seem but a dead man held on end

To sink down soon. … O you could not know

That such swift fleeing

No soul foreseeing –

Not even I – would undo me so!

The sequence of poems Hardy writes on the death of his wife are all elegies, the Greek-derived word for a lament for the dead. Elegies frequently offer an extended poetic consideration of the problem of death, but Hardy does not necessarily follow the conventional path. Critics have read the tone and feelings in the poem in different ways. Some detect irritation, almost a tone of squabbling ‘Why did you give no hint …?’ as well as grief and remorse. Some find anger and accusation, on the way through to guilt and tenderness.

F B Pinion writes, in his A Commentary on the poems of Thomas Hardy:
‘Veteris vestigia flammae, the traces of old love (Virgil, Aeneid). The implication is that Hardy’s love was renewed by regrets – not to mention Emma Hardy’s written reminiscences… and his return to Cornwall in March 1913. Like George Eliot’s Amos Barton, ‘now he re-lived all their life together, with that terrible keenness of memory and imagination which bereavement gives’. There could be no pardon, he felt, for his inadequacy and the selfishness of his indifference in their later years. Regret and romantic memories mingled to create the inspiration …’

Alan Pound writes, in York Notes Advanced:
‘Previous elegies, such as Tennyson’s In Memoriam, had followed a conventional pattern which paralleled the normal processes of mourning and coming to terms with the loss of a loved one: shock at the person’s death, followed by despair, resignation and finally reconciliation. The Poems of 1912-13 reflect this pattern but with significant variations. The early poems, ‘The Going’, ‘Your Last Dive’, ‘The Walk’ and ‘Without Ceremony’ do follow convention in that they record Hardy’s shock at Emma’s death. In common with the elegiac tradition there is a refusal to believe she has died. …

‘In conventional elegiac sequences the next stages of the cycle show the distancing of the poet from the dead loved one … ‘I found her out there’ is one of the most conventional elegies in the sequence. … It goes against the grain for Hardy, with his profound sense of an indifferent universe, to sentimentalise nature as a site where Emma can be reborn in spirit. …. ‘The Voice’ is undoubtedly the bleakest poem of the sequence and it marks a return to despair. Conventional elegiacs have therefore largely failed Hardy.

… the creation of a an ideal image of Emma, young, vital and warm in the core poems of the sequence set in Cornwall. …After attempts to give Emma a voice in the sequence ‘The Haunter’ and ‘The Voice’, Hardy settles for vision.’

In Thomas Hardy Selected poems Tim Armstrong writes: ‘The first seven poems of the sequence express a sense of rupture (split, parting) and shock, a ‘difference’, as ‘The Walk’ puts it, between then and now. They alternate between addressing her as ‘you’ and third-person recollections. Hardy models the opening of his sequence, ‘The Going’, on Coventry Patmore’s 1877 volume of domestic elegies, ‘To the Unknown Eros’. Patmore’s ‘Departure’ opens more consolingly than Hardy’s poem on lost opportunities:

It was not like your great and gracious ways!

Do you, that have nought other to lament,

Never, my Love, repent

Of how, that June afternoon,

You went,

With sudden, unintelligible phrase,

And frightened eye,

Upon your journey of so many days,

Without a single kiss, or a good-bye?’

Here is Hardy’s opening to ‘The Going’

Why did you give no hint that night

That quickly after the morrow’s dawn,

And calmly, as if indifferent quite,

You would close your term here, up and be gone

Where I could not follow

With wing of swallow

To gain one glimpse of you ever anon!

Never to bid good-bye

Or lip me the softest call,

Or utter a wish for a word …’

Your Last Drive December 1912

Here by the moorway you returned,
And saw the borough lights ahead
That lit your face – all undiscerned all undiscerned – not perceived
To be in a week the face of the dead,
And you told of the charm of that haloed view
That never again would beam on you.

And on your left you passed the spot
Where eight days later you were to lie,
And be spoken of as one who was not;
Beholding it with a cursory eye
As alien from you, though under its tree
You soon would halt everlastingly. halt – stop, stay

I drove not with you…. Yet had I sat
At your side that eve I should not have seen
That the countenance I was glancing at
Had a last-time look in the flickering sheen, sheen – shine (of Dorchester’s lights)
Nor have read the writing upon your face,
‘I go hence soon to my resting-place;

‘You may miss me then. But I shall not know
How many times you visit me there,
Or what your thoughts are, or if you go
There never at all. And I shall not care.
Should you censure me I shall take no heed censure – criticism
And even your praises I shall not need.’

True: never you’ll know. And you will not mind.
But shall I then slight you because of such?
Dear ghost, in the past did you ever find
Me one whom consequence influenced much?
Yet the fact indeed remains the same,
You are past love, praise, indifference, blame.

Eight days before her death, Emma hired a car and went for a drive to see some friends who lived just outside a village about five miles from Hardy and Emma’s house on the outskirts of Dorchester (Dorset’s county town). So ‘the borough lights’ to which Hardy refers in the first verse as Emma returns from her drive are the lights of Dorchester on a dark November evening. The view would be haloed, or Dorchester would be, by the effect of the lights on (perhaps) a foggy or misty evening. Driving back towards Dorchester, Emma passed the churchyard where she was so soon to lie (verse two). As was so often the case towards the end of her life, Emma made this expedition alone; ‘I drove not with you’ Hardy writes in verse three. At the end of verse three and in verse four, Hardy writes the words Emma, in his imagination, would have spoken if he had been with her on that drive. And in the last verse, he writes his thoughts, in response to what she might have said to him on that occasion, and in response to her sudden death.

As in the first poem of the sequence, ‘The Going’, Hardy focuses entirely on Emma in the first two verses. In verse one: ‘You returned’, ‘lit your face’, ‘you told of the charm’, ‘never again would beam on you.’ In verse two: ‘you passed the spot’, ‘you were to lie’, ‘alien from you’, ‘You soon would halt’. It is not until verses three and four that Hardy introduces himself, in the first person, into the poem. And even so, the last line of all focuses entirely upon Emma.

Hardy constantly makes mention of time in this poem, stressing, perhaps, how unforeseen are the changes that time brings. ‘A week’, ‘never again’, ‘eight days later’, everlastingly’, ‘a last-time look’, ‘soon’, ‘then’, ‘how many times’, ‘never’, ‘in the past’. And he constantly moves from past to present to future, stressing how sudden and unperceived was such an event, and looking bleakly towards the future.

Hardy opens the poem in the past tense: ‘you returned, / And saw’. But within four lines he has moved to the present, ‘To be in a week the face of the dead.’ Back to the past again, ‘And you told of the charm of that haloed view’ to be immediately succeeded by the present ‘that never again would beam on you.’ (‘Would beam’ is obviously not present tense, but the sense is.) ‘Ahead’ rhymes with ‘dead’ – what lay ahead for Emma was death, but it was ‘all undiscerned’ that is, not perceived. The unpredictability of what time will bring, of how little humans can see, is a characteristic theme of Hardy’s poetry. Ironically – Hardy is addicted to irony – Emma passes the spot, the churchyard, where so very soon she will lie ‘everlastingly’. Again, as in the first verse, the place and its importance are not seen, not paid attention to: ‘Beholding (seeing) it with a heedless eye / As alien from you.’ ‘heedless’ and ‘alien’ indicate a lack of awareness, similar to ‘all undiscerned’ earlier. The movement of the drive, ‘you returned’, ‘you passed’ is contrasted with ‘halt’, the stillness of death. We have a strong sense of the strange baffling juxtaposition of being alive and, suddenly, being dead. The number of verbs to do with seeing highlight the fact that neither of them saw that she would so soon be dead.

Continuing the idea in verse three that humans do not see what is going to happen to them, Hardy writes that even had he accompanied Emma on her drive, ‘I should not have seen / That the countenance I was glancing at / Had a last-time look.’ Again, the verse opens with the movement of the drive, and ends with the stillness of ‘resting-place’. In the first two verses it was Emma who did not see what was going to happen to her; in the third it is Hardy who would not have seen even if he had been there.

Emma’s voice takes over in the fourth verse. It is strangely detached, distant. ‘I shall not know … And I shall not care … I shall take no heed.’ She has moved beyond human relationships now. In contrast to her indifference, her picture of Hardy is of someone busying themselves with the actions and words of this world: ‘you visit me’, ‘you censure me’, ‘your praises’. Hardy has written poems before where the dead speak, as in ‘Friends Beyond’ and ‘The Levelled Churchyard’; and the dead in these poems, too, are detached from human cares.

In the last verse, Hardy accepts what Emma says, and the fact that her death has made such a difference. ‘True: never you’ll know. And you will not mind.’ The opening monosyllable, ‘True’, with the complete cesura after it has the ring of acceptance about it. It is final, definite. In his imagination, Hardy speaks to Emma now, when it’s (ironically) too late. Too late for her, but his feelings are awakened and are changing, as these elegies chart. He looks to the future: ‘Shall I then slight (criticise) you…?’ He calls her ‘Dear ghost’. And he faces the fact that ‘You are past love, praise, indifference, blame.’ This line seems to trace the path of their deteriorating relationship, from love, to indifference (not caring) to recrimination (blame). The stresses in this line fall on ‘You’, ‘past’, ‘love’, ‘praise’, ‘blame’, and the number of stresses in the line means that it moves slowly, as he accepts the meaning of Emma’s death. Ironically, now that she has died, he cares about her but she no longer cares about him.

Tim Armstrong, editor of Thomas Hardy Selected Poems, writes: ‘The second poem of the sequence sustains the direct address of the opening poem (‘The Going’), and continues with the theme of the suddenness and unexpectedness of Emma’s death, expressing the sense of hurt which necessarily precedes any elegiac recovery.’

The Voice

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town 1
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!

Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness listlessness – lack of purpose, energy
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness, 2
Heard no more again far or near?

Thus I; faltering forward, faltering – stumbling
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward, norward – the north
And the woman calling.

1 the town – Boscastle near where Hardy met Emma
2 wan wistlessness – pale inattentiveness

In ‘The Voice’ Hardy hears Emma calling to him, saying that now she is as Hardy first knew her at their meeting in March 1870 in Cornwall where Emma lived. He questions whether it really is Emma that he hears, or is it only the breeze blowing that he mistakes for her voice.

Although the poem is obviously addressed to Emma and is written in the autobiographical first person, Hardy does not name her, referring to her as ‘Woman much missed,’ and ‘you’. He opens the poem with a strongly accented series of dactyls (strong light light), a falling rhythm that conveys his yearning. The emphasis is thrown conspicuously onto the key words: ‘woman’, ‘missed’, ‘call’, ‘call’, ‘now’, ‘not’, ‘were’. Even in the first line there is clearly a tension between the lovingly remembered past and the empty present, highlighted by the alliterated ‘much missed’, and made even more explicit in the second line with its stress on ‘now’ and ‘were’. The dactylic rhythm is also the ideal vehicle for the echoing effect of her voice: ‘how you call to me, call to me’. This effect is emphasized by the triple rhyme of ‘call to me’ with ‘all to me’, in the first verse and in the second, the internal rhyme of ‘you’ with ‘view’ in the first line and ‘knew’ in the third.

The poem opens with an exclamation, ‘how you call to me, call to me.’ The second verse initiates a series of questions: ‘Can it be you that I hear?’ and in the third verse ‘Or is it only the breeze …?’ The exclamation and the questions are indicative of his unsettled state of mind, living in the happy past ‘when our day was fair’, longing to see her, “Let me view you then’. The extent of his longing is conveyed through the word ‘you’ which is constantly repeated – three times in the first verse and four in the second. But ‘our’ occurs only once; otherwise they are separated, ‘me’ and ‘you’. In the second verse, his question is in the present tense, ‘Can it be you that I hear?’ but his memories are, of course, in the past, ‘as when I drew near … where you would wait … as I knew you then’.

The third verse takes place in an uncertain present, ‘is it only the breeze?’ The energy and momentum generated by his passionate desire to see Emma have given way to a lifeless list of words drained of vitality: ‘listlessness’, ‘dissolved to wan wistlessness’, ‘no more’. Wan means pale and Hardy coined the word wistlessness, perhaps thinking of the opposite of wistful meaning yearning. These words, with their onomatopoeiac sibilance (repeated s sounds) convey the sound of the breeze. They conform to the dactyllic rhythm of the first two verses but have none of the earlier energy. The last line of the third verse ushers in the stumbling loss of rhythm in the last verse. ‘Heard no more again far or near?’

The verbs and the sense of movement have been shared between Hardy and Emma. In verse one he misses her, she calls saying that now she is as she was when they first met. In verse two he asks if it is her he hears, he begs to see her, he remembers drawing near to the town (as he hopes he is doing to her voice now). Meanwhile she is (in his memory and heart) standing, waiting for him. But in the third verse it is only the breeze travelling, not the woman he longs to see. She is dissolved, heard no more. And the verbs (apart from ‘is’) are present participles, ‘travelling’, ‘being’; they have no impetus. Everything is falling apart. And in the fourth verse, whose rhythm falters just as Hardy says he does, the present participles persist: ‘faltering’, ‘falling’, ‘oozing’, ‘calling’. There is no finite verb in the verse; no source of energy at all. The present participles reflect the poet’s hopelessness. Nothing is happening. Emma cannot be rediscovered. He is left with a sense of her calling in the winter of his despair.

Hardy, as so often, provides a wintry setting to convey his misery: ‘leaves … falling, / Wind … from norward (northward, the coldest quarter)’. The insistently alliterated ‘thin through the thorn’ gives a feeling of pain from the thorn bush, and vulnerability to the cold with the word ‘thin’ even though technically it describes the wind’s passage. The dactyllic rhythm has disintegrated completely by this point, in fact there is no sustained rhythm in the verse. The sense of disintegration is added to by the emphatic cesura in the first line:

Thus I; faltering forward,

Leaves around me falling,

Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,

And the woman calling.

The ‘aw’ sound in ‘faltering’ and ‘calling’ is repeated throughout the verse in ‘forward’, ‘falling’, ‘thorn’ and ‘norward’. The rhythm actually enacts the faltering; the poet’s virtual inability to go forward and his sense of cold misery (norward) and of the woman ‘calling’ is given us through the repeated vowel sound that echoes throughout the verse. The last words in each line are feminine rhymes, forward and norward, falling and calling. Each is followed by a comma except for the last with its full stop. Somehow this has the effect of reflecting the poet’s stumbling, halting attempts; the stress (the poet’s effort) followed by the light syllable (drained of energy) and then all progress paused or stopped at the comma and final full stop. Brilliant.

After a Journey

Hereto I come to view a voiceless ghost;
Whither, O whither will its whim now draw me?
Up the cliff, down, till I’m lonely, lost,
And the unseen waters’ ejaculations awe me. the sound of the sea
Where you will next be there’s no knowing,
Facing round about me everywhere,
With your nut-coloured hair,
And gray eyes, and rose-flush coming and going. Emma’s rose pink cheeks

Yes: I have re-entered your olden haunts at last; 1
Through the years, through the dead scenes I have tracked you;
What have you now found to say of our past –
Viewed across the dark space wherein I have lacked you?
Summer gave us sweets, but autumn wrought division?
Things were not lastly as firstly well
With us twain, you tell? twain – two
But all’s closed now, despite Time’s derision. derision – mocking

I see what you are doing: you are leading me on
To the spots we knew when we haunted here together, often used to go
The waterfall, above which the mist-bow shone
At the then fair hour in the then fair weather,
And the cave just under, with a voice still so hollow
That it seems to call out to me from forty years ago,
When you were all aglow,
And not the thin ghost that I now frailly follow!

Ignorant of what there is flitting here to see,2
The waked birds preen and the seals flop lazily,3
Soon you will have, Dear, to vanish from me, ghosts are said to vanish at daybreak
For the stars close their shutters and the dawn whitens hazily.
Trust me, I mind not, though Life lours, lours – looks gloomy
The bringing me here; nay, bring me here again!
I am just the same as when
Our days were a joy, and our paths through flowers.

1 the places where you often used to go
2 flitting – moving quickly from place to place
3 preen – clean themselves, arrange their feathers

This is the poem in the elegies of 1912/3 which moves the scene from Dorset, where Emma died, to Cornwall, where Hardy had first met Emma Gifford in March 1870. In early March 1913 he revisited the places they had been together 43 years earlier. In this poem he describes his attempts to follow her ghost along the Cornish cliffs where they used to wander.

Hardy announces his intentions in the opening line. He has made the journey from Dorset to Cornwall, ‘Hereto I come to…’ ( I come here to ….), ‘to view a voiceless ghost’. Earlier, in the month after she died, he had written ‘Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me.’ Now she is ‘voiceless’, silent, and he has come to see her. In ‘The Voice’ he had written

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you then,

Standing as when I drew near to the town

Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then …’

Although he no longer hears her, he still wishes to see her, and he repeats ‘view’ in this poem, the word he used in ‘The Voice’. The ghostliness of the phantom he has come to see is emphasised through the repeated s’s in ‘a voiceless ghost’.

But after the matter-of-fact opening line with its regular iambic pentameter rhythm, the pace is slow, hesitant, with many commas. Hardy is lost:

Whither, O whither will its whim now draw me?

Up the cliff, down, till I’m lonely, lost,

.. Where you will next be there’s no knowing

Facing round about me everywhere …

He repeats ‘Whither, O whither’ (where, O where) will he now be drawn. ‘Up’, ‘down’, ‘lost’, ‘there’s no knowing’, ‘round about me everywhere.’ He is literally lost because he is aware of her presence everywhere and feels her drawing him after her, but he can’t definitely find her; she remains elusive.

There is a sense in which he is also emotionally lost: ‘I’m lonely, lost’. The regular iambic rhythm of the opening line disintegrates immediately, conveying his bewilderment as he is drawn this way and that. The insistent tug of the ghost is indicated through the repeated ‘i’ sound in ‘its whim’

Whither, O whither will its whim now draw me?

Up the cliff, down, till I’m lonely, lost …

Sometimes the rhythm hurries: ‘up the cliff’, sometimes Hardy seems to be at a standstill, with the heavily stressed ‘lonely, lost’ (and ‘lost’ rhymes with the ‘ghost’ that is drawing him after itself). It seems that he senses her everywhere, as the meaning and the repeated ‘ou’ sound suggest:
Facing round about me everywhere …

Hardy also feels overawed by the majesty of Emma’s ‘olden haunts’, her native Cornish landscape and seascape; ‘the unseen waters’ ejaculations awe me’. He is evidently on the cliffs near the sea, so the waters are the sea waters, and their ‘ejaculations’ are probably ‘the eternal soliloquy of the waters’ as he wrote in an early novel. In his next poem, ‘Beeny Cliff’ he writes of ‘the waves … saying their ceaseless babbling say.’

Whereas in the second line Hardy writes of Emma’s ghost as ‘it’, in the last two lines of the opening verse, he describes a vivid, beautiful woman:

… your nut-coloured hair,

And gray eyes, and rose-flush coming and going.’

(He wrote to the rector of St Juniot (where he had met Emma) in August of 1913, saying that some parishioners there ‘may perhaps recall her golden curls and rosy colour … for she was very attractive.’) The ‘it’ of the opening is followed by ‘you’ and ‘your’, a direct address to the woman he seeks.

In the first verse Hardy writes in the present tense and in the future, ‘where you will next be there’s no knowing’. In the second verse, starting in the present, he looks back to their unhappy past: ‘Summer gave us sweets, but autumn wrought division.’ (‘Wrought’ means literally worked, or here, brought about.) The second verse recognises that all was not well in the 43 years of their marriage. ‘… through the dead scenes I have tracked you’, ‘scanned across the dark space wherein I have lacked you’, ‘summer gave us sweets, but autumn wrought division’, and ‘things were not lastly as firstly well / With us twain’. Hardy imagines Emma telling him what was unhappy about ‘our past’. Although he is facing their lack of closeness in marriage, there is a sense of closeness in this verse, with much ‘I’ and ‘you’ and ‘us twain’. I take ‘Time’s derision’ (scorn) to mean that during the 43 years, Time scorned their initial happiness by turning it into misery.

As so often, the poem is built on contrasts. In the first verse there is the – as it were – contrast of the lonely living man and the elusive ghost. In the second, the contrast is between past and present. He is looking for her not only in a physical place ‘up the cliff, down, till I’m lonely, lost’. He is also looking for her through time: ‘through the years, through the dead scenes I have tracked you … Viewed across the dark space wherein I have lacked you.’ And within the past, there is the earlier past when they were happy, and the more recent past when they were not – another set of contrasts:

Summer gave us sweets, but autumn wrought division.

Things were not lastly as firstly well …

Hardy stresses the contrasts between their early happiness and later unhappiness: ‘summer’ gives way to ‘autumn’; ‘sweets’ become ‘division’; ‘firstly’ becomes ‘lastly’.

In the third verse Hardy sustains the direct address to the ghost:

I see what you are doing: you are leading me on

To the spots we knew when we haunted here together.

The line stops and restarts again, mimicking his hesitant movement as he pursues the ghost. She leads him on in an enjambement across the end of the line ‘you are leading me on / To the spots we knew.’ And Hardy employs the word ‘haunted’ in this verse as he did in verse two when he referred to ‘your olden haunts’. He means to go to a place often, or a place where someone often goes. But given that he describes Emma as a ‘ghost’ the word haunt must indicate his attempts to join her now, now that she is a ghost who haunts (in a different sense).

The spot that Hardy chooses to describe, of the many ‘we knew when we haunted here together’ is the waterfall with its rainbow-in-the-mist shining above it. His awareness of how their relationship subsequently deteriorated is made clear by his describing that happy time as ‘the then fair hour in the then fair weather.’ Is there an implicit reproach from Emma, that she is leading him on to the places where they were once happy? The cave under the waterfall seems to call out to Hardy with a hollow sound, and it reminds him of the time forty years earlier when Emma was ‘all aglow’. Now she is ‘the thin ghost’ – the repeated gs and ‘o’ sound link the words that describe what she was and what she now is. The feminine rhymes, ‘hollow’ and ‘follow’ sound the like the echo from the cave. Hardy is vividly conscious of the past, acutely aware of the so-different present. The tenses in this verse move from present ‘you are doing: you are leading’ and past ‘we knew when we haunted here’. Linking the awareness of past and present are the ‘o’ sounds in ‘hollow’, ‘ago’, ‘aglow’, ‘ghost’ and ‘follow’ in their conspicuous rhyming positions at the end of the lines.

The birds and seals preen and flop, unaware of the flitting ghost. Hardy knows that at dawn, ghosts must vanish. He tells Emma that he doesn’t mind being brought to this place, even though ‘Life lours’ (looks gloomy). He asks her to bring him there again, claiming that he is the same man she knew when they first met, ‘Our days were a joy, and our paths through flowers.’ The rhyme of lours and flowers underlines the contrast of happy life then and gloom now. But can he continue to recapture past happiness, to ask her to ‘bring me here again’ (is here a physical or an emotional place?). She ‘will have … to vanish’ (future tense). Time does not keep still: ‘the stars close their shutters and the dawn whitens hazily’. He has now regained his former love for her, but she is irrevocably dead.

Tim Armstrong calls Cornwall ‘the landscape of memory and romance.’ M Sexton comments that the opening line shifts the stress of the sequence of poems from voice (think of ‘The Voice’) to vision. Alan Pound writes in York Notes Advanced: ‘this is a stunning poem … The poem wishes to assert that the human mind, which understands loss, lack …. is capable of reclaiming the past and imposing human value on the landscape.’ Donald Davie, in Thomas Hardy and British Poetry, says that the poem ends with ‘unprecedented serenity.’ Alan Pound, however, feels that the poem ends ‘on a note of despair.’

Beeny Cliff

March 1870 – March 1913


O the opal 1 and the sapphire 1 of that wandering western sea,
And the woman riding high above with bright hair flapping free –
The woman whom I loved so, and who loyally loved me.


The pale mews plained below us, and the waves seemed far away 2
In a nether sky, engrossed in saying their ceaseless babbling say, 3
As we laughed light-heartedly aloft on that clear-sunned March day. 4


A little cloud then cloaked us, and there flew an irised rain, 5
And the Atlantic dyed its levels with a dull misfeatured stain, 6
And then the sun burst out again, and purples prinked the main. 7


– Still in all its chasmal beauty bulks old Beeny to the sky, rises in its huge mass
And shall she and I not go there once again now March is nigh,
And the sweet things said in that March say anew there by and by?


What if still in chasmal beauty looms that wild weird western shore, 8
The woman now is – elsewhere – whom the ambling pony bore, 9
And nor knows nor cares for Beeny, and will laugh there nevermore.

1opal – a creamy stone with rainbow tints; sapphire – deep blue; Hardy describes the colours of the sea 43 years earlier as jewel-like in their beauty
2 seagulls called
3 engrossed – absorbed
4 aloft – high above
5 irised – rainbow-coloured
6 levels – surface; misshaped
7 adorned the sea
8 looms – appears
9 ambling – at a slow pace

After Emma’s death in late November 1912, Hardy revisited Cornwall in early March 1913, almost exactly the 43rd anniversary of their first meeting there in 1870 (hence the dates in the poem’s subtitle). He wrote in volume I of his disguised autobiography: ‘March 10 (1870) Went with ELG (Emma Lavinia Gifford) to Beeny Cliff. She on horseback … On the cliff … the run down to the edge.’ The first three stanzas recreate the colour, energy and joy of their blossoming relationship in March 1870; the last two bring us to the present. In Some Recollections, Emma Hardy remembers ‘scampering up and down the hills on my beloved mare alone, wanting no protection, the rain going down my back. … The villagers stopped to gaze when I rushed down the hills … for no one dared except myself to ride in such wild fearless fashion.’ (SR pp 50-1)

Hardy opens the poem by setting the scene in that spring-time in Cornwall over forty years earlier. He paints a magical picture whose backdrop is the sea with its jewel-like colours, shimmering between creamy opal with iridescent lights, to sapphire blue. ‘The woman’ is riding while Hardy bicycles beside her. There is no main clause in this sentence; it sets the scene and we wait until the second verse to find out what is happening.

The rhythm of ‘Beeny Cliff’ is roughly-speaking that of Emma’s trotting pony: light light strong light light light strong light light light:

O the opal and the sapphire of that wandering western sea,

And the woman riding high above with bright hair flapping free

The opening verses are full of carefree happy words, like free (verse 1) and light-heartedly (verse 2) and the bright jewel-colours of the sea and the brightness of the woman’s hair: ‘opal and … sapphire … bright hair’. The exclamation, ‘O’ lends the lines enthusiasm and excitement. The beautiful romantic landscape forms a fitting setting to the love of ‘the woman’ and the writer:

The woman whom I loved so, and who loyally loved me.

The alliterating ls emphasise their love.

The second verse focuses on the sounds of the sea:

The pale mews plained below us, and the waves seemed far away seagulls called

In a nether sky, engrossed in saying their ceaseless babbling say, below us, absorbed

As we laughed light-heartedly aloft on that clear-sunned March day.

The lovers are above the seagulls and the sea, which occupies a ‘nether’ (lower) sky – I think the idea here is that it can often be hard to tell where sky stops and sea begins, so that the sea far below them looks like a lower sky. The fact that they seem to be above the sky adds to the sense of their exhilaration. The mewing of the seagulls and the babbling of the waves is far away from them. The repeated ‘ay’ sounds and the pairs of alliterated words convey the distant noise of the waves and the gulls: pale plained, waves, away, saying, say. The sense of distance is underlined by the contrasting ‘nether’ and ‘aloft’. The waves babble onomatopoeically, with repeated s’s and ls: ‘engrossed in saying their ceaseless babbling say’. They are also ‘engrossed’ absorbed in their babbling say, so that the lovers are not impinged upon by the waves and they ‘laughed light-heartedly aloft’. The alliteration links them and adds to their sense of one-ness, as does the consonance of ‘laughed’ and ‘aloft’. I think that the rhythm breaks a little, with ‘laughed light-heartedly aloft on that clear-sunned March day’ as if the lovers are free of even rhythmic constraints in their new-found happiness. It’s as if the stresses bounce waywardly on the important words, emphasizing the laughter and the spring sun.

The first verse has focused on colours and on ‘the woman’; the second on the sounds of the gulls and the waves and on the laughter of the lovers in the spring. In the third verse there is a little shower of the kind that you can see driven across the sea towards the cliffs where you are walking. The shower seems rainbow-coloured as the sun shines through it:

A little cloud then cloaked us, and there flew an irised rain, irised – rainbow-coloured

And the Atlantic dyed its levels with a dull misfeatured stain,

And then the sun burst out again, and purples prinked the main. prinked the main – adorned the sea

The verbs associated with the weather are full of energy: ‘flew’ and ‘burst’. However, this brief change in the weather signals a change of direction in the poem. The first three verses have been in the past tense as Hardy momentarily recaptures the place, the lovers and the feelings of 43 years earlier.

With the fourth verse the poem moves into the present tense. The place is the same: ‘Still in all its chasmal beauty bulks old Beeny to the sky’. ‘Chasmal’ seems to be a coined word, chasm meaning an abyss (presumably referring to the height of Beeny Cliff) and also meaning a separation, a rift. It would thus also suggest the difference between that happy time forty-three years earlier and the grief-stricken present and, perhaps, the estrangement between Hardy and his wife that had latterly saddened the marriage. But if Hardy has so many memories of her and of their happiness together as they rode and walked along the cliff, Emma is now dead and it means nothing to her any more. The ‘wandering western sea’ of verse 1 has become ‘that wild weird western shore’.

The woman riding high above with bright hair flapping free –

The woman whom I loved so, and who loyally loved me

has become

The woman now is – elsewhere – whom the ambling pony bore

And nor knows nor cares for Beeny, and will laugh there nevermore.

It is as if Hardy cannot bear to speak aloud the word ‘dead’ and seeks comfort in evasion ‘ – elsewhere –‘. The last line is filled with negatives: ‘nor’, ‘nor’, ‘nevermore’. The feelings and laughter have dwindled to desolation: ‘nor knows nor cares’. This is the definition of Emma’s death. Hardy is alone. The ‘we’ and ‘us’ of verses 2 and 3 are gone. As Alan Pound, the writer of York Notes Advanced, says, ‘The final line, with its heavy rhythm and hollow, echoing sounds, seems drained of hope.’ He’s right. Look at the stresses in the line and compare them to the opening lines of the poem:

And nor knows nor cares for Beeny, and will laugh there nevermore.

Hardy has done here something similar to what he did in ‘The Voice’; the rhythm changes, falters, becomes heavy; the words so full of colour and rhythmic energy become colourless and lifeless. He conveys the desolation and loneliness of death and of his life without Emma.

F B Pinion writes: ‘The opening lines give a glorious sense of exhilaration, in contrast to the last two, where the hesitation before ‘elsewhere is more expressive than words.’

At Castle Boterel

As I drive to the junction of lane and highway,
And the drizzle bedrenches the waggonette, waggonette – open carriage
I look behind at the fading byway,
And see on its slope, now glistening wet,
Distinctly yet

Myself and a girlish form benighted
In dry March weather. We climb the road
Beside a chaise. We had just alighted chaise – light cart
To ease the sturdy pony’s load
When he sighed and slowed.

What we did as we climbed, and what we talked of
Matters not much, nor to what it led, –
Something that life will not be balked of balked of – denied
Without rude reason till hope is dead, rude reason – robust, good
And feeling fled. feeling fled – feeling has gone

It filled but a minute. But was there ever
A time of such quality, since or before,
In that hill’s story? To one mind never,
Though it has been climbed, foot-swift, foot-sore,
By thousands more.

Primaeval rocks form the road’s steep border, 1
And much have they faced there, first and last,
Of the transitory in Earth’s long order; 2
But what they record in colour and cast cast – construction
Is – that we two passed.

And to me, though Time’s unflinching rigour, though Time has taken
In mindless rote, has ruled from sight 3
The substance now, one phantom figure
Remains on the slope, as when that night
Saw us alight. alight – get out of the cart

I look and see it there, shrinking, shrinking,
I look back at it amid the rain
For the very last time; for my sand 4 is sinking,
And I shall traverse old love’s domain travel across the land that belongs to love
Never again.

1 from the earliest ages in the world’s history
2 transitory – not permanent, passing; order – history
3 though Time in its mechanical way, has taken my beloved away
4 sand refers to the sand running through an hour glass; in other words, Hardy is an old man.

In the sequence of 1912-13 poems, this follows ‘After a Journey’ (when Hardy has arrived in Cornwall in early March 1913 to revisit the places where he and Emma first met and were happy), and ‘Beeny Cliff’ when he walks along the clifftop where Emma rode her pony and he walked in March 1870.

The poem opens in the present tense on a drizzly March day. Hardy is driving in a waggonette, an open carriage. As he approaches the main road (the highway) he looks behind him at the little lane, or byway, he has been travelling along. It is fading in the mist and drizzle. It seems to him that he can see himself and a girlish form (Emma) on a dry March evening 43 years earlier. They had just got out of the chaise (light cart) because it would make the pony’s job easier; the pony had ‘sighed and slowed’ as he tried to pull them up the hill. Just so, in Greek legend, Orpheus tried to recover his dead wife from the underworld and just so he looked behind, with disastrous consequences – she was lost to him for ever. Is that the case in this poem?

The lonely ‘I’ of the first verse gives way to the happier ‘we’ of the second and third verses, as Hardy vividly describes the earlier memory. In the lonely present, the weather is gloomy and everything is drenched. Repeated ‘dr’ alliteration effectively ‘bedrenches’ everything with ‘drizzle’ ‘As I drive’. The sound of the drizzle is conveyed through the lightly hissing s’s in ‘drizzle’, ‘see’, ‘slope’, ‘glistening’ and ‘distinctly’.

There is also a conspicuous repeating of the ‘i’ sound in ‘I’, ‘drive’, ‘highway’, ‘behind’ and ‘byway’. It continues into the second verse with ‘myself’, ‘benighted’ (which means overtaken by darkness; Hardy refers in verse 6 to ‘that night’), ‘dry’, ‘climb’, ‘alighted’, ‘sighed’ and is still present in the third verse with ‘climbed’ and ‘life’, and in the fourth verse, ‘a time of such quality’, and in the fifth, ‘primaeval’. One must be guessing, but does this sound form a linking function? Does it link the past with the present perhaps? Help to convey the vivid picture of that March day so long ago? Do the ‘i’ sounds in the first two verses lead to the key words containing this vowel sound: the key moments and claims in the poem: ‘something that life will not be balked of (denied)’ (verse 3), ‘But was there ever / A time of such quality, since or before’ (verse 4), and the final claim that the ‘primaeval rocks’ ‘record … that we two passed’ (verse 5). (‘Primaeval’ means, from the earliest ages of the world’s existence.)

The ‘I look behind’ of the first verse signals Hardy’s retrospective describing of his past experiences – he looks back to ‘myself and a girlish form benighted / In dry March weather.’ The verse break, which is an enjambement, between verse 1 ‘I look behind .. And see … / Distinctly yet’ takes us over 43 years back into the past of verse 2, ‘Myself and a girlish form …’. Perhaps in an attempt fully to recapture the past, Hardy describes the past scene in the present ‘We climb the road / Beside a chaise.’ Then he moves (more truthfully) into the past, ‘We had just alighted’. The considerable cesuras in the second and third line convey the lovers’ slow pace as they climbed the hill.

At first verse 3 continues in the past tense: ‘What we did as we climbed, and what we talked of…’ . But then it moves into the present, and even the future, because what it articulates are constants and essentials in human life:

Something that life will not be balked of denied

Without rude reason till hope is dead, good

And feeling fled.

I assume that ‘something’ is words of love? A kiss? But ‘life’ with its lively, impulsive run-on line slows at the end of the next line, with ‘dead’, plus the cesura provided by the comma, and stutters to a halt in the short, heavy line, ‘And feeling fled.’ The plosive bs and ds in these three lines make the statement sound a very emphatic claim.

‘It (the ‘something’) filled but a minute.’ To illustrate its brevity, this sentence takes only half a line. And Hardy insists on its importance, with questions and superlatives which he places in the context of the whole of time:

But was there ever

A time of such quality, since or before,

In that hill’s story? To one mind never, …

Further to stress the importance of the ‘something’, he distinguishes it from the experiences of all the other people, ‘thousands’ who have climbed the hill. In the next verse he claims that the primaeval rocks at the side of the road have witnessed much that is transitory, but – and he brings this into the present, because it is still to be found there in these rocks –

What they record in colour and cast (appearance)

Is – that we two passed.

Hardy claims permanence written in the roadside rocks for that important ‘something’.

Although Time mechanically passing (‘Time’s unflinching rigour, / In mindless rote’) means that Hardy can no longer see Emma physically (‘the substance’), he believes that her ‘phantom figure’ remains there. But as he looks back and sees it there in the last verse, it is ‘shrinking, shrinking’. He is looking at it for the very last time, for he is getting older ‘my sand is sinking’ and he will never again travel across the country of his old love. (Does this mean he will not come back to Cornwall again, or that he will not try to recapture Emma as she was?) The two words on a single line, ‘Never again’, end the poem sadly and emphatically, with the stresses on the first and last syllables underlining the finality of the statement: ‘never again.’

The impressions the poem leaves on me are twofold: the contrast between lonely present and happy past. But there is also the insistence that ‘the transitory’, ‘it filled but a minute’, can be ‘of such quality’ that it in some way matches the permanence of ‘primaeval rocks’ which represent millions of years. Human experience and life is ‘transitory’ and yet some moments in it cannot be extinguished by time. At the most convincing moments in the poem this is what Hardy claims, and yet his conviction seems to fade towards the end of the poem with his realization that he is old, that he, like everything, is subject to ‘Time’s unflinching rigour, / In mindless rote…’. The quality of brief human experience is set against the mechanical operations of time. But how successfully?

Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses 1917

The Blinded Bird

So zestfully canst thou sing? zestfully – with enthusiasm and energy
And all this indignity, treatment that makes one lose one’s dignity
With God’s consent, on thee! consent – agreement
Blinded ere yet a-wing ere – before; a-wing – you could fly
By the red-hot needle thou,
I stand and wonder how
So zestfully thou canst sing!

Resenting not such wrong,
Thy grievous pain forgot, grievous – severe
Eternal dark thy lot, lot – what you were fated to experience in life
Groping thy whole life long;
After that stab of fire;
Enjailed in pitiless wire; enjailed – imprisoned; pitiless wire – of a birdcage
Resenting not such wrong!

Who hath charity? This bird.
Who suffereth long and is kind, suffereth – endures
Is not provoked, though blind
And alive ensepulchred? ensepulchred – buried
Who hopeth, endureth all things?
Who thinketh no evil, but sings?
Who is divine? This bird.

Apparently songbirds, caught to be kept in cages, were often blinded in the belief that they would then sing better. Hardy asks the bird how it can sing so zestfully (with such enthusiasm and energy), when God has allowed it to be treated with such indignity (in a way that makes Hardy feel ashamed of what has been done to it). The bitterness against God, or against the power behind the universe, is characteristic of Hardy.

Throughout the poem, Hardy stresses the searing pain the bird must have endured and its continuing suffering: ‘blinded … /by the red-hot needle’; ‘grievous pain’; ‘Eternal dark thy lot / Groping thy whole life long, / After that stab of fire.’ It is kept imprisoned, virtually buried, in a small cage: ‘Enjailed in pitiless wire’ ‘alive ensepulchred’ (buried alive). Perhaps the repetition of the first and last line in each verse represents the prison from which it cannot ever escape.

Hardy ends the poem with a series of questions and answers.

‘Who hath charity? This bird. charity – love

Who suffereth long and is kind …

Who hopeth, endureth all things?

Who thinketh no evil, but sings?

Who is divine? This bird.’

This verse is almost word for word a transcription of the famous passage from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 13 in the New Testament of the Bible. ‘Charity (love) suffereth long, and is kind…. Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil. Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.’ And, ironically, it is not man who achieves any of this love, the greatest of all qualities. It is the bird he has so cruelly treated. Another stabbing irony is that birds are created to fly free and in literature frequently represent freedom. This poem represents yet another indictment by Hardy of the way humans treat the natural world. It is based on a contrast between life and beauty – ‘zestfully … sing’– and cruelty, pain and evil.


When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay, 1
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say,
‘He was a man who used to notice such things’?

If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid’s soundless blink,
The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight dewfall-hawk – night-hawk
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn, a gazer may think, 2
‘To him this must have been a familiar sight.’

If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One may say, ‘He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone.’

If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the door, 3
Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees,
Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,
‘He was one who had an eye for such mysteries’?

And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom, funeral bell
And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings, 4
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell’s boom,
‘He hears it not now, but used to notice such things’?

1 postern – back door
2 thorn bush distorted by constant wind
3 been stilled – died
4 outrollings – sound of the bell

In this poem Hardy writes, as it were, his own elegy (he was 77 when it was published as a part of Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses in November 1917). It was, in fact, read at a memorial service for Hardy shortly after his death in 1927. And what he imagines people saying of him after his death are what they would say of someone steeped in knowledge of the countryside, not of a famous novelist and poet.

Hardy begins with a typically self-consciously literary way of describing his death:

‘When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay …’

‘Postern’ means back door so, in other words, Hardy is saying, when my life (the Present) has shut the back door on the house of my transient time in this world – that is, when I’ve died. And it’s springtime, ‘the May month’. Will the neighbours say of me, he was the kind of chap who noticed every detail of nature in the month of May?

The same pattern holds good for each verse. So in verse two, ‘If it (Hardy’s death) be in the dusk…’ and again the word ‘when’ (the time at which his death occurs). There follows minute detail of what happens at twilight, a ‘dewfall-hawk’ (a night-hawk) alights on a thorn bush. And then, what the neighbours (or, this time, ‘a gazer’) think:

‘To him this must have been a familiar sight.’

Verse three: ‘If I pass (if I die) during …..’ this time it’s during a summer’s night when (the word ‘when’ – the exact time of Hardy’s death – occurs in each verse) hedgehogs travel across the lawn (Hardy was a great supporter of the RSPCA). Again we have the neighbour’s probable comment: ‘One may say, “He …..”. In verse four Hardy imagines himself to have been ‘stilled at last’ (died) during a winter night and envisages the neighbours’ comments. The last verse’s ‘when’ pictures the bell tolling at Hardy’s funeral, and the poem ends with a neighbour’s remark.

There are other repeated patterns within the structure of each verse. The lines in which Hardy imagines the time of his death are in the first person: ‘If I pass…’ The reaction of the neighbours is, of course, in the third person, and Hardy, ‘I’, becomes ‘He’. The vivid consciousness of life in the first person (conveyed through the minute detail of May, the dusk, the summer night, the winter skies) is reduced to an outsider’s comment.

The tenses change constantly. In the first verse, Hardy starts, ‘the Present has latched’. He sets it in the past tense to signify his death – and the juxtaposition of ‘Present’ and ‘has latched’ are strikingly effective. Then he moves to the eternal present of the seasons. ‘the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings…’ This change of tense helps to illustrate the ‘tremulous’ (transient) nature of his ‘stay’, his life, with the past tense set against the season’s present. Then the verse’s tense moves to the future: ‘will the neighbours say…’ and of course what they say is in the past tense because they are speaking of the dead Hardy: ‘He was a man who used to notice such things.’

In the second verse Hardy moves from the present in a future sort of sense, ‘If it be …’ and in the third, ‘If I pass…’ Again, the natural detail establishing the time of his death, is in the present tense. Nature lives now. So ‘the dewfall-hawk comes …’ and ‘the hedgehog travels …’ And the comment of acquaintances is in the past: ‘To him this must have been…’ and, ‘But he could do little for them.’ The tenses in the fourth and last verses are similarly patterned.

The timeless cycle of the seasons becomes clear when you look at the details of nature that Hardy has chosen. In the first verse, the leaves and fledglings of May; in the second, the night-hawk at twilight; in the third, a hedgehog during a summer’s night; in the fourth, the stars in the winter sky; in the last verse, the wind blowing across the sound of the funeral bell. The cycle moves from daytime (I assume, since the leaves are unfolding and the young birds flying), to twilight, to summer’s night to winter’s night. And from spring to summer to winter. Perhaps the cycle of the seasons moves alongside the cycle of a man’s life, with a winter’s night being the equivalent of death. Or perhaps the ever-renewing natural cycle presents a contrast to the brief ‘stay’ of a man’s life on this earth.

The natural detail that Hardy selects reflects some of the infinite variety of nature. He describes spring leaves in colour and texture, a bird, an animal, the stars, the wind, all details that only a true countryman would know.

In the first three verses, the natural detail involves some sort of movement, of travelling. Hardy describes his death as a shutting of the back-door on life, like a traveller setting out. ‘The May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings / Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk’ suggests a very new beginning with words like ‘delicate-filmed’ and ‘new-spun’. Is Hardy suggesting here the contrast between his death and the new spring, with its fledglings and new leaves? His description of twilight focuses on ‘the dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades (the dusk)’. Perhaps this reminds us of Hardy’s spirit crossing from life to death at the end of a day (a day being a common image for human life). In the third verse ‘the hedgehog travels furtively’ and Hardy’s spirit, too, is travelling. The fourth verse contains a far bigger picture, that of ‘the full-starred heavens that winter sees’. This is a reminder of how small a figure man is, a fact Hardy frequently noted in his novels. But still he has been conscious of the beauty and mystery of the stars. Finally we hear his funeral bell, briefly silenced by a ‘crossing breeze’. The verbs conveying Hardy’s death are rather still, inactive verbs: ‘if it be’; ‘if I pass’; ‘I have been stilled’, and finally no verb at all, ‘my bell of quittance’. Whereas the verbs of nature’s activities are far more active: ‘flaps’; ‘comes crossing … to alight’; ‘travels’. Nature is always alive and moving.

As you would expect, Hardy describes with great beauty the moments of the natural world that meant so much to him.

the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,

Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk…

The overall impression is of the happiness of spring. The first line is made up of monosyllables, brief and joyous. Each word has a link to the next: ‘May month’ are alliterated; ‘flaps’ and ‘glad’ share assonance (same vowel sound) and liquid, sap-filled ‘ls’. ‘glad’ and green are alliterated; ‘green’ and ‘leaves’ share the vowel sound; ‘wings’, ‘filmed’ and ‘silk’ share the vowel sound and ‘filmed’ and ‘silk’ also share the ‘il’ – the very light ‘eye’ sound and the lusciousness of the ‘l’. ‘Spun’ and ‘silk’ are alliterated. And so on. You have in these two lines, the new leaves unfurling, like wings to fly with, which conveys the idea of the nestlings flying. Yet the youth and fragility of all this newness is also there, in ‘Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk’. You have colour ‘green’ and touch ‘new-spun silk’. And all this poetry and beauty is juxtaposed to the much more prosaic and everyday ‘will the neighbours say / ‘He was a man who used to notice such things’? No poetic images; just a factual announcement that forms a stark contrast with Hardy’s awareness of the natural world and his joy in it. What other people say hardly begins to convey what the living man experienced.

In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’


Only a man harrowing clods 1
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.


Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass; couch-grass – a weed
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass. dynasties – members of a family ruling a country


Yonder a maid and her wight wight – young man
Come whispering by:
War’s annals will cloud into night annals – records of events
Ere their story die. ere – before

This poem was written in 1915 and published in the Saturday Review, in January 1916 (the middle of the First World War).

1 harrowing – a harrow is a farming tool for breaking up clods of earth

The title of the poem is a quotation from the Old Testament of the Bible. In it, the prophet Jeremiah writes (Chapter 51, verse 20) ‘Thou (he means God) art my battle axe and weapons of war: for with thee will I break in pieces the nations, and with thee will I destroy kingdoms.’
A much more modern translation reads:
‘You were my mace, a weapon of war. With you I crushed the nations, struck kingdoms down, with you crushed horse and rider, chariot and charioteer, with you crushed man and woman, old man and young, youth and maid, with you crushed shepherd and flock, ploughman and team, governors and nobles.’
Hardy’s title for the poem thus means, in war time. But the verses from Jeremiah show that although all sorts of people, including country people such as the shepherd and his flock, the ploughman and his team of horses, are crushed and killed during war, their way of life continues while the great events of history are forgotten.

Years earlier, Hardy copied into his notebook a passage from Charles Reade:
‘The … history of Waterloo field is to be ploughed and sowed and reaped and mowed: yet once in a way these acts of husbandry were diversified with a great battle, where hosts decided the fate of empires. After that agriculture resumed its sullen sway.’

This is a famous and much-anthologised poem. In it, Hardy depicts the everyday, unexciting happenings that people take for granted: the man and his sleepy old horse harrowing the fields ready to sow seed; the burning of weeds, the young couple in love whispering to each other as they walk past. Yet these, he writes, are the events that will continue to take place when the apparently important matters, the wars and families of kings, have been forgotten.

The first verse is entirely devoted to unimportant country sights and actions, dismissed by the opening word as ‘Only’ … The second stanza, too, begins, ‘Only …. Whereas the first verse described the slow silent work of the man and his old horse, the second stanza describes agricultural routine for two lines and then sets it against the important events of history with ‘Yet …’ Again, in the third stanza, the archetypal characters of a girl and her lover are juxtaposed with, and implicitly contrasted with, the important events of history: war. The historical records of a year of war ‘War’s annals’ will fade away before the love stories of men and women in succeeding generations die.

The first stanza is simply set out in ballad form, or in a ‘folk measure’ (Tim Armstrong). Perhaps the ballad form emphasises the simplicity and timelessness of these unimportant everyday countryside actions. A man and his horse are engaged in harrowing clods, breaking up large clods of earth to make a fine tilth. The long vowels and peaceful ‘l’ sounds make for a tranquil, unexciting scene. The stanza has no punctuation to interrupt it; this, like other farming duties, is carried out year after year, for long hours each day. ‘Only’ starts a succession of long vowels on the ‘o’ sound: ‘only’, ‘slow’, ‘old; then there are the frequent peaceful ‘l’ sounds in ‘only’, ‘clods’, ‘slow’, ‘silent’, ‘old’, ‘asleep’. Often these ls are coupled with ‘s’ sounds, ‘slow’ ‘silent’ ‘asleep’. The whole effect is quiet, uneventful, nothing special. The figures are anonymous, ‘a man’, ‘an old horse.’ The horse isn’t even a smart thoroughbred, just an old farm horse that ‘stumbles and nods/Half asleep.’ The stanza doesn’t have a finite verb, it’s as if the main clause got left out, and you’re left with a subordinate (ie less important) clause: ‘only a man… with an old horse …’ And the participles and other verbs are hardly very world-changing: ‘harrowing’, ‘stumbles’, ‘nods’, ‘stalk’. They’re easy to overlook.

In stanza two, the dismissive opening ‘Only …’ is repeated. The smoke from the weeds (‘heaps of couch-grass’) isn’t even conspicuous, it’s only ‘thin’, and it’s ‘without flame’. The first two lines of the stanza don’t even have a verb. This time a reflection, a comment, is introduced in the 3rd and 4th line of the stanza. The first two lines have been brought to a halt with a semi-colon to introduce the word ‘Yet’. Burning couch-grass is only an unimportant farming activity, ‘Yet… this will go onward…, though dynasties (ruling families) pass’ into oblivion. The long slow vowel of ‘o’ is sustained through the first three lines of the stanza: ‘only’, ‘smoke’, ‘go’. The rhyme of ‘couch-grass’ with ‘pass’ highlights the point that insignificant heaps of couch-grass smoking thinly will continue after the important dynasties have passed. The verb tense in ‘will go onward’ is future – it will continue. The ‘dynasties pass’ in the present tense.

In the third stanza, Hardy describes a young woman and her lover whispering to each other. Their story of love will continue when the documents of a year of war have long faded into oblivion. The sounds in the ‘maid and her wight’ are sounds that can be picked up from much earlier in the poem. The long ‘a’ vowel of maid was introduced earlier in the poem, with flame’ and ‘same’. The ds from the first stanza ‘clods’, ‘nods’, are continued through the second in ‘dynasties’ and into the third with ‘maid’ leading us to the d of ‘die’. The long ‘i’ sounds that started in the first stanza with ‘silent’, continue into the third stanza take us to the same destination, ‘wight’, ‘by’, ‘night’, ‘die’. ‘Die’, the important last monosyllable of the poem, insists that it is the story of the lovers and the tedious everyday farm jobs that will endure. The lovers’ story long outlasts the world-shattering and oh-so-important events of History. Wight is a deliberately archaic word that Hardy uses here, as is ‘Ere’ meaning before – almost suggesting that they are archetypal characters from a ballad, from as long ago as there are ballads to chronicle their existence. There is a brief rivalry in the ‘w’ of ‘wight’ and ‘whispering’ with ‘war’ but the lovers’ is the story that lasts. The maid and her wight come whispering by in the present continuous tense (like the man ‘harrowing clods’). Again, war’s annals will be over and done with (in the future) before ‘their story die’ conditional present tense continues.

We have in this apparently simple poem three rural vignettes (little pictures) juxtaposed in the second and third stanzas with mention of momentous events, ‘Dynasties’, ‘War’s annals’. Their importance is emphasised by their conspicuously Latin derivation and capital letters, all the more noticeable in their appearance within such short simple lines, ballad form, straightforward uneducated occupations. Yet in the first and second stanzas, where the rural occupations are introduced dismissively with ‘Only’, the second part of each stanza makes a clear assertion: ‘this will go onward the same’ and ‘War’s annals will cloud (pass) into night’. Perhaps even the apparently simple innocuous ballad form, so appropriate for the farming jobs, is not to be dismissed too easily. The almost inaudible conversation of the ‘maid and her wight’ (suggested by the slight sibilance of the s in whispering) is nothing beside the deafening noise of the war. But it is the love-story that will endure.

Tom Paulin wries of this poem: the ballad states ‘there will always be love and war.’ Conspicuously educated, Latinate words like ‘dynasties’ and ‘annals’ suggest that there is a version of history that deals with Great Events. There are also the lives of ordinary people who will never appear in the history books, yet who will be there when the Great Historical Events are over and forgotten.

Tom Paulin adds that the Roman numerals I, II and III are ‘quietly and unobtrusively monumental’ that is to say, important.

Old Furniture

I know not how it may be with others
Who sit amid relics 1 of householdry 1
That date from the days of their mothers’ mothers,
But well I know how it is with me

I see the hands of the generations
That owned each shiny familiar thing
In play on its knobs and indentations, indentation – a cut, notch or dent
And with its ancient fashioning 2
Still dallying: dallying seems to mean playing

Hands behind hands, growing paler and paler,
As in a mirror a candle-flame
Shows images of itself, each frailer
As it recedes, though the eye may frame
Its shape the same.

On the clock’s dull dial a foggy finger,
Moving to set the minutes right
With tentative touches that lift and linger
In the wont of a moth on a summer night, in the wont of – in the manner of
Creeps to my sight.

On this old viol, too, fingers are dancing –
As whilom–just over the strings by the nut, 3
The tip of a bow receding, advancing
In airy quivers, as if it would cut
The plaintive gut. plaintive – sad, mournful

And I see a face by that box for tinder,
Glowing forth in fits from the dark,
And fading again, as the linten cinder linten – made of linen
Kindles to red at the flinty spark,
Or goes out stark.

Well, well. It is best to be up and doing,
The world has no use for one to-day
Who eyes things thus–no aim pursuing!
He should not continue in this stay,
But sink away.

1 Relic – relic – something from an earlier time especially something with emotional associations; householdry – personal belongings from the househo
2 ancient fashioning – the old-fashioned way it was made
3 whilom – once, as they used to; nut – violin bridge

From the very opening, Hardy establishes a slow, gentle, thoughtful mood, as he sits and reminisces about the old family furniture around him. It has been handed down through the generations ‘from the days of their mothers’ mothers’. How often Hardy sets the scene with himself somewhere in it: here he is sitting looking at the loved old furniture and the memories it evokes. In ‘The Darkling Thrush’ he is leaning on a gate; in ‘The Photograph’ he is sitting by the fire in the library late at night; in ‘The Last Signal’ he is walking silently up the road from Max Gate to Winterborne-Came churchyard; in ‘After a Journey’ he is being drawn ‘up the cliff, down, till I’m lonely, lost’ near Pentargan Bay in Cornwall. As readers, we can always picture ourselves with Hardy, as he describes his thoughts and feeling in the first person. To me, many of these poems therefore have the effect of diary entries, or sketches in an artist’s notebook. This is not to say that they are unfinished or hastily composed; far from it. Hardy was a consummate craftsman.

Professor Tim Armstrong notes that the idea here is similar to that in William Barnes’s ‘Woak Hill’: ‘my goods all a-sheenen / Wi’long years o’handlen’. Hardy quoted these lines in Far from the Madding Crowd (1874).

Hardy immediately introduces a contemplative mood through the quiet run-on lines in the opening verse. Only the third line has even a comma, and the whole five-line stanza is one sentence. Thinking briefly of ‘others’ with their family furniture, he then focuses on his own perceptions:

But well I know how it is with me


The gentle, meditative atmosphere is enhanced by the feminine rhymes ‘others’ and ‘mothers’ of the first and third lines. Feminine rhymes end with an unstressed syllable; instead of the firm, muscular, definite ending to a line of verse that a masculine rhyme would provide, the feminine rhymes allow Hardy’s train of thought to continue, unchecked.

In the second and third verses, Hardy muses on the hands that for generations have owned, played and dallied with the furniture they used every day and knew so well. He pictures the hands fading as they recede through the generations or perhaps the fading indicates his inability to picture them clearly. He knows his mother’s and grandmother’s hands, but further back?

Hands behind hands, growing paler and paler…

The next two verses focus not just on the hands, but on the fingers. A finger that, very deftly ‘with tentative touches’ sets the minute hand to the right time on ‘the clock’s dull dial’. My grandfather used to do this every Sunday, when he wound the clocks. In the days before digital clocks and clocks powered by a battery, you wound up an eight-day clock once a week, and corrected the time. Hardy repeats the gentle sound of the ls in ‘clock’s dull dial’; he alliterates ‘foggy finger’ and repeats the fg pattern of the words; then he alliterates ‘moving to set the minutes right,’ repeating the ticking ‘t’ in ‘set’, ‘minutes right.’ The finger adjusting the minute hand does so ‘with tentative touches’ that echo the ts of the clock’s loud tick in the previous line. The tentative touches are light, careful; no hefty sounds or movements here. The ls in ‘lift and linger’ pick up the ls in the first line ‘clock’s dull dial’ – the movements are quiet and light. The feminine rhymes that occur in each verse preserve the gentle memories from the intrusion of a thumping masculine rhyme.

I imagine that the dancing fingers on the old violin are those of Hardy’s father, who played the violin. The violinist’s bow recedes and advances, like a dancer itself, and Hardy plays with the expected musical word, quaver, replacing it with ‘airy quivers’. This being well before the days of synthetic material for strings, the violin is strung with ‘gut’. The whole stanza is full of music. There are the words, ‘dancing’, ‘receding, advancing’. There is also the rhythm which sways to and fro:

Fingers are dancing –

As whilom – just over the strings by the nut,

The tip of a bow receding, advancing

In airy quivers …

It seem to have a lilt, with the stressed syllables followed by lots of bouncing unstressed syllables. The word sounds are light and dancing, with their lightweight repeated ‘I’ sounds in ‘fingers’, ‘whilom’, ‘stings’, ‘tip’, ‘quivers’. Hardy deliberately sets this some way in the past, using archaic words like whilom for as they did once or as they used to, and nut, the old word for the violin bridge.

Then he moves from hands and fingers to a face, lit for a moment by the spark from a tinderbox. He glimpses a face ‘Glowing forth’ and quickly ‘fading again’. The Wikipedia entry for a tinderbox
explains how it worked and what the component parts were. Again, Hardy sets the memory in the past, this time by illuminating the remembered face with an old-fashioned source of flame and light, a tinderbox.

As you look at the movement of the poem, Hardy moves his reader steadily towards details. He opens with a generalisation about his capacity for musing as he sits surrounded by family furniture. Then he pictures the hands that ‘owned each shiny familiar thing’, hands that recede through the years. At this point he focuses our attention on details: a finger that sets the minutes right on a clock’s dial; fingers that dance on the strings as they play the violin; a face lit briefly by the spark from a tinderbox. In the last verse, he withdraws from his reminiscences. ‘Well, well. It is best to be up and doing…’ Hardy renders the hands, fingers and faces ghostly – ‘hands behind hands, growing paler and paler … each frailer / As it recedes.’ And ‘a foggy finger… in the wont (habit) of a moth’ and ‘I see a face .. fading again’. Although he sets the memories so firmly in the past, however, he writes about them in the present. ‘I see the hands’; ‘fingers are dancing’; ‘I see a face’. This has the effect of making the brief memories curiously vital; we share his glimpses.

Hardy ends the poem in a conversational tone, addressing the reader: ‘Well, well…’ He seems to find himself out of kilter with modern doings, with the modern attitudes. ‘The world has no use for one to-day / Who eyes things thus.’ Perhaps he should join those he has so fondly remembered:

He should not continue in this stay,

But sink away.

The Last Signal

Silently I footed by an uphill road footed by an uphill road – walked uphill
That led from my abode to a spot yew-boughed; my abode – my home
Yellowly the sun sloped low down to westward,
And dark was the east with cloud.

Then, amid the shadow of that livid sad east, livid – blue-black colour
Where the light was least, and a gate stood wide,
Something flashed the fire of the sun that was facing it,
Like a brief blaze on that side.

Looking hard and harder I knew what it meant –
The sudden shine sent from the livid east scene;
It meant the west mirrored by the coffin of my friend there,
Turning to the road from his green,

To take his last journey forth–he who in his prime 1
Trudged so many a time from that gate athwart the land! athwart – across
Thus a farewell to me he signalled on his grave-way,
As with a wave of his hand.

1 in his prime – in the best part of life

William Barnes (1801-1886) was buried in the churchyard of the little church where he had been vicar. It was near Hardy’s home on the eastern edge of Dorchester. Barnes had been a friend of Hardy’s for thirty years (they met in 1856 and Barnes died in October 1886). Barnes wrote poems in Dorset dialect, and Hardy admired the wide variety of verse forms and language effects in his poetry. Hardy subsequently edited the Selected Poems of William Barnes published in 1908.

Hardy writes of walking to Winterborne Came churchyard, ‘a spot yew-boughed’ to attend the funeral of his old friend, Barnes. It is an autumn afternoon, and ‘the sun sloped low down to westward’ while the eastern part of the sky is ‘dark … with cloud.’ Suddenly something ‘flashed the fire of the sun that was facing it, / Like a brief blaze.’ Hardy realises that the sudden shine from the grey east comes from something bright on the coffin lid (perhaps the plaque with Barnes’ name and dates?) which has caught the rays of the sinking sun. It seems to Hardy like ‘a wave of his (Barnes’) hand’ in farewell. The effect of the ‘sudden shine’ from the dark part of the scene is like a friendly wave from the darkness of death, or perhaps an image of Barnes’ uniqueness, his ‘shine’.

The extent to which this poem is written as a tribute to Barnes becomes apparent through the techniques that Barnes employed and which Hardy uses here. Barnes was interested in the metrical patterns of old Celtic poetry; for example, rhyming words at the end of a line with those in the middle of the next line (‘road’ line 1 and ‘abode’ line 2; ‘east’ line 5 with ‘least’ line 6; ‘meant’ line 9 with ‘sent’ line 10; ‘prime’ line 13 and ‘time’ line 14). Barnes was also enthusiastic about Anglo-Saxon verse; for example, alliteration (this poem is full of alliteration) and compound epithets, such as ‘yew-boughed’, ‘grave-way’. Hardy himself used alliteration and compound epithets frequently in his poetry.

Of course the style that Hardy is deliberately adopting in tribute to his friend adds considerably to the mood of the poem. The poem opens with Hardy walking almost due South from his home (‘my abode’) to the nearby churchyard at Winterborne Came. It is not far to walk, but the feeling of going on a little journey is conveyed by the run-on first line, ‘… an uphill road / That led from my abode to a spot …’ And the heavy heart of the poet as he goes to his old friend’s funeral is suggested by the fact that the road is ‘uphill’ (an effort). This effect is reinforced by the number of long, slow vowels: road, abode, then with a slight change in vowel though not in consonants, boughed; sloped low, and then back to the bough sound again with down and cloud. There are lots of l’s, a gentle sound, and lots of rather heavy ds and some heavy bs, too. The mood is sombre.

The gate to the churchyard is wide; the gate to death is wide; all must go through it. And the gate here is in the darkest part of the churchyard, ‘where the light was least’, ‘amid the shadow’. But Hardy emphasises the sudden unexpected gleam he catches sight of: ‘flashed the fire of the sun’; ‘a brief blaze’; ‘sudden shine’. The effect of the brief blaze is made all the brighter by its contrast with the dark skies in the east, by the alliterated fs, bs and s sounds, and by the repetition.

Hardy says twice in the third verse that he knows what ‘it meant’, this brief blaze. The light comes from the west, where the sun ‘sloped low down to westward’. It is the end of the day, and the end of his friend’s life. Hardy’s old friend is ‘Turning to the road from his green. / To take his last journey forth …’ The significance and size of this last journey is indicated by the fact that the sentence straddles two verses.

Taking ‘his last journey forth’ ‘on his grave-way’, he sends Hardy ‘a farewell … As with a wave of his hand.’ Or that’s how Hardy feels it.

The Oxen

(published in The Times on Christmas Eve, 1915)

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
‘Now they are all on their knees,’
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen;
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
‘Come; see the oxen kneel

‘In the lonely barton by yonder coomb barton – farm building; coomb – little valley
Our childhood used to know,’
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Just to clear up any confusion: oxen are cattle, cows and bulls. And, of course, they do get up and lie down by kneeling on the front legs. In this respect they are unlike other farm animals, such as sheep, goats, pigs or horses.

The poem opens with serene certainty:

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.

‘Now they are all on their knees …’

It is midnight on Christmas Eve: the hushed, expectant moment of excitement as Christmas Eve becomes Christmas Day, the moment of Christ’s birth. The first line is end-stopped, underlining the certainty, and the rhythm is more or less trochaic, so that the line opens with a stressed and secure syllable: Christmas Eve. The other stressed words are the important ones: twelve … clock. The scene is set.

And the second line continues the certainty of the first.

‘Now they are all on their knees’

An elder said …

I imagine the old man to be one of a group of men in a pub sitting round the fire and seeing in Christmas Day in companionship. They are obviously a group of both young and old men, as the young Thomas Hardy is one of them. The old man speaks in simple monosyllables, and in the present tense, which adds to the sense of conviction and gives what he says an immediacy even to the modern doubting sceptical reader. The poem is couched in the first person, involving the reader in the remembering of childhood certainties and adult doubts. It is the elder, the old man with the voice of knowledge and experience, who speaks.

Everyone is sitting ‘By the embers in hearthside ease.’ It’s a quiet, very comfortable scene, both physically and intellectually. The embers are the glowing pieces of wood or coal in a dying fire, giving out a considerable warmth but without the energy of leaping flames. Although Hardy does not describe it directly, there would be a gentle light on the faces of the men sitting round the fire. The physical comfort of the scene – ‘hearthside ease’ – extends to the intellectual certainty that the old legend is true: the oxen in the farm sheds will be kneeling in homage to the infant Christ, just as they knelt to him at his birth so many hundreds of years ago. The rhyme of knees with ease suggests to me that the men are secure in their belief in the old folk-tradition – they are at ease with the idea.

The group round the fire are presumably somewhere deep in the country, for Hardy uses the word ‘flock’ instead of group. (In fact we know he set it in the Dorset hamlet near Dorchester where he was born.) But far from sounding patronising about the intellectual powers of country yokels who would believe this kind of thing, Hardy underlines the ease, the comfort, of these simple beliefs in the next verse:

We pictured the meek mild creatures where

They dwelt in their strawy pen;

Nor did it occur to one of us there

To doubt they were kneeling then.

The sense of certainty is continued here, and not only in the meaning of the words: ‘We pictured’; ‘Nor did it occur to one of us there / To doubt’. Just as the end- stopped line that opened the poem added to the certainty, so do the run-on lines in this second verse. They give the sense of ease in the belief – with no cesuras to jolt the belief. There is a half-rhyme in that line, though, ‘occur’ and ‘there’ which introduces a very slightly disturbing effect, especially in this poem with its very definite monosyllabic masculine rhymes. Although the verse is in the past tense, ‘then’ gives the sense that the oxen are kneeling at that precise moment. But it is in the past tense; ‘then’ is not ‘now’ and now is where Hardy moves for the second half of the poem.

In verse three, Hardy moves to ‘these years.’ The poem was published in The Times on 24 December 1915, when the First World War had been raging for over a year. Historically, ‘these years’ of slaughter were much worse even than the years of the Second Boer War that Hardy had depicted in such tragic and despairing poems as A Christmas Ghost Story, At the War Office London and Drummer Hodge. So both from the viewpoint of the World War and from the viewpoint of Hardy’s own doubts and scepticism after living for 75 years, it is true that

So fair a fancy few would weave

In these years.

Hardy has moved into the present, in a conditional sort of way, ‘would weave.’ ‘Weave’ is a wonderful word to have used – originally he wrote ‘believe’ and he modified it later to ‘weave’. For one thing, weaving is a traditional cottage industry, so it is another connection to traditional country folk-tales and homespun ways. For another, weaving is literally making a fabric by crossing the threads in warp (lengthwise) and weft or woof (across); if you interlace the threads in this way, you are including all sorts of different elements into the fabric as you weave to and fro. Figuratively – and the word has been used figuratively for centuries – weaving has associations with something that may not be true, so it is an apt word for a folk tradition.

The certainties of the first two verses have faded into uncertainty ‘would’, ‘I should’, ‘hoping’. The folk tradition it would not have occurred to him to doubt now seems a fair (attractive sounding) fancy (imagining). The alliterating fs link the words that few would now believe in. Even the word ‘the gloom’, meaning the darkness of midnight on Christmas Eve, has another suggestion, that of melancholy and depressing darkness, a state of mind that sits well with Hardy’s disbelief as an adult. It contrasts with the ease and warmth of the hearthside and his childhood certainties. Now he is going outside into the darkness, to a lonely barton, hoping against hope. Then he was one of a group of believers: ‘we sat in a flock’; ‘we pictured the meek mild creatures’; ‘Nor did it occur to one of us there / To doubt’. Now he is alone: ‘I feel’, ‘I should go’. The easy run-on lines of the first two verses have disintegrated into lines with the sudden stops and starts of doubt. Indeed, the start of flickering hope carries the poet right over from the end of the third verse to the beginning of the fourth, the beginning of a faint hope:

So fair a fancy few would weave

In these years! Yet, I feel,

If someone said on Christmas Eve,

‘Come; see the oxen kneel

‘In the lonely barton by yonder coomb

Our childhood used to know,’…

That faint hope includes a sense of now-lost community, ‘Our childhood’.

The last verse contains not only the hoped-for truth of the childhood belief, but also reverts to the comforting dialect words of the country childhood, ‘barton’ and ‘coomb’. ‘Barton’, in Dorset dialect, means outbuildings at the back of a farmhouse, and a ‘coomb’ is a little valley. ‘Coomb’, the well-known word of childhood, rhymes uncomfortably with ‘gloom’, the adult’s unhappy state of mind. The certain knowledge of childhood ‘our childhood used to know’ rhymes jarringly with the adult’s uncertain hope ‘hoping it might be so.’ It is, perhaps, Hardy’s version of ‘Dover Beach’.

The last verse articulates emotions rather than reason. Hardy rationally knows that ‘So fair a fancy few would weave / In these years!’ The exclamation mark conveys the knowledge that it must all be fantasy. But he clings to the old belief: ‘Yet’. It’s his feelings that drive him to cling, ‘I feel’. He doesn’t know, but ‘If someone said …’. It’s only an ‘if’. He doesn’t say he would certainly go, but he thinks ‘I should’ (conditional tense), ‘hoping’. The invitation of the someone is couched in very definite terms. Both ‘come’ and ‘see’ are stressed, breaking the iambic rhythm of the verse. Both verbs are commands; both are in the present tense – in Hardy’s hope, it really is happening: ‘Come; see the oxen kneel…’ In the old days, they could all easily ‘picture the meek mild creatures where / They dwelt in their strawy pen’. Now he needs actually to go and ‘see the oxen kneel’ because the old beliefs have been overtaken by doubts.

The rhythm of the ballad-like quatrains varies. There is a mix of trochee (strong/light) and dactyl (strong/light/light) and anapaest (light/light/strong) in the first quatrain, and it flows readily and easily. A similar mix characterises the second verse. But the third and fourth verses are more heavy and plodding, as befits the change of mood, the doubt of the adult. They are written mostly in iambs (light / strong) with the exception of the lines: Come; see the oxen kneel …’; ‘I should go with him …’ and ‘Hoping…’. The stress moves forward here to the beginning of the line, underlining its importance to Hardy.

The date of the poem (1915) suggests that it is also a lament for a disappearing way of farming life. Machines had for some time been doing more and more of the work formerly carried out by animals. No-one is going to picture machines kneeling.

But the fact that The Oxen was published on Christmas Eve 1915 surely means, too, that it is not only Hardy who has left the embers in hearthside ease of his childhood. The fire by which he and the others sat then had burned down to its embers; it was dying. A whole way of life was dying, as the young men in the trenches of the First World War and their grief-stricken parents were discovering. Life would never be the same.

Hardy had learned the folk-tradition of the oxen kneeling at the moment of Christ’s birth from his mother, when he was a child. He refers, in a letter to Edmund Gosse written in April 1898, to “the belief still held in remote parts hereabout, that the cattle kneel at a particular moment in the early hours of every Christmas morning just at, or after 12”. Again, this time hilariously, he refers to the belief in Chapter 17 of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, published in 1891.

Songs were often resorted to in dairies hereabout as an enticement
to the cows when they showed signs of withholding their usual yield;
and the band of milkers at this request burst into melody–in purely
business-like tones, it is true, and with no great spontaneity; the
result, according to their own belief, being a decided improvement
during the song’s continuance. When they had gone through fourteen
or fifteen verses of a cheerful ballad about a murderer who was
afraid to go to bed in the dark because he saw certain brimstone
flames around him, one of the male milkers said–

“I wish singing on the stoop didn’t use up so much of a man’s wind!”…

“Oh yes; there’s nothing like a fiddle,” said the dairyman. “Though
I do think that bulls are more moved by a tune than cows–at least
that’s my experience. Once there was an old aged man over at
Mellstock–William Dewy by name–one of the family that used to do
a good deal of business as tranters over there–Jonathan, do ye
mind?–I knowed the man by sight as well as I know my own brother, in
a manner of speaking. Well, this man was a coming home along from a
wedding, where he had been playing his fiddle, one fine moonlight
night, and for shortness’ sake he took a cut across Forty-acres, a
field lying that way, where a bull was out to grass. The bull seed
William, and took after him, horns aground, begad; and though William
runned his best, and hadn’t MUCH drink in him (considering ’twas a
wedding, and the folks well off), he found he’d never reach the fence
and get over in time to save himself. Well, as a last thought, he
pulled out his fiddle as he runned, and struck up a jig, turning to
the bull, and backing towards the corner. The bull softened down,
and stood still, looking hard at William Dewy, who fiddled on and on;
till a sort of a smile stole over the bull’s face. But no sooner
did William stop his playing and turn to get over hedge than the
bull would stop his smiling and lower his horns towards the seat of
William’s breeches. Well, William had to turn about and play on,
willy-nilly; and ’twas only three o’clock in the world, and ‘a knowed
that nobody would come that way for hours, and he so leery and tired
that ‘a didn’t know what to do. When he had scraped till about four
o’clock he felt that he verily would have to give over soon, and he
said to himself, ‘There’s only this last tune between me and eternal
welfare! Heaven save me, or I’m a done man.’ Well, then he called to
mind how he’d seen the cattle kneel o’ Christmas Eves in the dead o’
night. It was not Christmas Eve then, but it came into his head to
play a trick upon the bull. So he broke into the ‘Tivity Hymm, just
as at Christmas carol-singing; when, lo and behold, down went the
bull on his bended knees, in his ignorance, just as if ’twere the
true ‘Tivity night and hour. As soon as his horned friend were down,
William turned, clinked off like a long-dog, and jumped safe over
hedge, before the praying bull had got on his feet again to take
after him. William used to say that he’d seen a man look a fool
a good many times, but never such a fool as that bull looked when
he found his pious feelings had been played upon, and ’twas not
Christmas Eve. … Yes, William Dewy, that was the man’s name; and
I can tell you to a foot where’s he a-lying in Mellstock Churchyard
at this very moment–just between the second yew-tree and the north

“It’s a curious story; it carries us back to medieval times, when
faith was a living thing!”

The remark, singular for a dairy-yard, was murmured by the voice
behind the dun cow; but as nobody understood the reference, no notice
was taken, except that the narrator seemed to think it might imply
scepticism as to his tale.

“Well, ’tis quite true, sir, whether or no. I knowed the man well.”

The idea of the oxen being present at Christ’s birth is not to be found in the gospel accounts (specifically St Matthew’s and St Luke’s which give the fullest version of events). It probably stems from the first chapter of the book of Isaiah in the Old Testament. Isaiah Chapter 1, verse 3 says: The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand. The word crib came to be associated with the manger in which Jesus was laid in St Luke’s account. In Isaiah’s chapter, the disobedience of God’s people was being contrasted with the obedience of animals. Bit by bit, the idea of the ox and the ass being present at the humble scene of the Saviour’s birth took hold. There is a delightful fourth century depiction of the Birth of Jesus on an Ancient Roman Christian sarcophagus. You can find it if you click on

The Photograph

The flame crept up the portrait line by line
As it lay on the coals in the silence of night’s profound, 1
And over the arm’s incline, incline – slope
And along the marge of the silkwork superfine, marge – edge
And gnawed at the delicate bosom’s defenceless round.

Then I vented a cry of hurt, and averted my eyes; 2
The spectacle was one that I could not bear,
To my deep and sad surprise;
But, compelled to heed, I again looked furtivewise 3
Till the flame had eaten her breasts, and mouth, and hair.

“Thank God, she is out of it now!” I said at last,
In a great relief of heart when the thing was done
That had set my soul aghast, aghast – appalled
And nothing was left of the picture unsheathed from the past 4
But the ashen ghost of the card it had figured on. figured on – been pictured on

She was a woman long hid amid packs of years,
She might have been living or dead; she was lost to my sight,
And the deed that had nigh drawn tears
Was done in a casual clearance of life’s arrears; arrears – in time past
But I felt as if I had put her to death that night! . . .

* * *

– Well; she knew nothing thereof did she survive, 5
And suffered nothing if numbered among the dead;
Yet–yet–if on earth alive
Did she feel a smart, and with vague strange anguish strive? 6
If in heaven, did she smile at me sadly and shake her head?

1 profound – deep, unbroken
2 vented – let out; averted – turned away
3 heed – take notice; furtivewise – stealthily, secretly
4 unsheathed – pulled out
5 thereof – about it; did she – if she
6 smart – pain; anguish strive – struggle with pain

In this poem Hardy has been having a clear out, ‘a casual clearance of life’s arrears’. He has found an old photograph of a woman he once knew, and he is burning it on the coal fire one night and watching it as ‘The flame crept up the portrait line by line’.

The flame, writes Hardy, ‘gnawed at the delicate bosom’s defenceless round’ and, in the second verse, ‘the flame had eaten her breasts, and mouth, and hair.’ He has chosen words of devouring to describe the action of the flames, and what they devour are the particularly feminine, adorable, kissable parts of her body. She is wearing something made of superfine silk, and this adds to the impression both of her femininity and of her fragility and vulnerability. To me, the repeated ‘i’ ‘n’ and ‘l’ sounds reinforce this impression, in words like ‘line’, ‘silence’, ‘night’, ‘incline’, ‘superfine’. They are quite light, slow, elegant sounds. The flame moves slowly; it ‘crept up’, ‘And over’, ‘And along’, ‘And gnawed’.

Hardy experiences intense pain as the photograph burns:

‘I vented a cry of hurt, and averted my eyes;

The spectacle was one that I could not bear…’

He conveys his sense of pain through the assonance of ‘hurt’ and ‘averted’. In fact, in the third stanza, he calls it ‘the thing … That had set my soul aghast’ (appalled). And although he briefly turns away from the sight, the sound of ‘eyes’ and presently of ‘surprise’ and ‘furtivewise’ echoes those ‘eye’ sounds in the first stanza, as he is pained and yet drawn to watch the destruction of the beautiful woman by the flame. This sense of pain is continued in the third stanza, where he writes, ‘nothing was left of the picture unsheathed from the past’. ‘Unsheathed’ suggests a sword; the sight of the photograph has wounded him – or else it has destructive potential. But after the flame has eaten it, ‘nothing was left … But the ashen ghost of the card it had figured on.’ In those days photographs were often printed on quite stiff card, and the ashes of the card left in the grate are all that is left of this lovely woman. The soft sounds of ‘ashen ghost’ convey the crumbling ash, the ghostliness that remains.

The sense of pain lingers in the fourth stanza: ‘the deed (burning the photograph) that had nigh (nearly) drawn tears’. Hardy feels as if ‘I had put her to death that night’ though rationally all that he has done is to burn an old photograph while he was tidying up and clearing things out. Rationally, if she is still alive, she ‘knew nothing thereof’ and if she is dead she ‘suffered nothing’. But reason alone is not enough. If she is still alive, did she, too, feel some pain ‘smart’ or ‘vague strange anguish’?

Looking again at the past is painful, as we know from the Emma elegies of 1912-13. Hardy is evidently surprised by the depth of feeling he has both for the girl he hasn’t thought of for years, and by the capacity of the past still to hurt. And he has initiated such total destruction, in putting the photograph on the fire. Perhaps this links with ‘I look into my glass’ in its expression of the intense emotional pain he experiences in old age. Hardy visibly pulls himself together in the last stanza -‘Well’ – and then his thoughts depart in a different direction, imagining the woman’s reaction to what he has just done.

I wonder whether Hardy intends the slow inexorable movement of the flame as it destroys the woman’s beauty to be comparable to the slow inexorable movement of time about which he writes so often. Time, too, devours.

Late Lyrics and Earlier 1922


This is the weather the cuckoo likes,
And so do I;
When showers betumble the chestnut spikes, 1
And nestlings fly; nestlings – baby birds
And the little brown nightingale bills his best, bills – sings
And they sit outside at ‘The Traveller’s Rest,’
And maids come forth sprig-muslin drest, sprig – a little shoot or spray of flowers
And citizens dream of the south and west, muslin – lightweight cotton fabric
And so do I. citizens – people who live in cities

This is the weather the shepherd shuns, shuns – avoids
And so do I;
When beeches drip in browns and duns, dun – gray-brownish colour
And thresh and ply; thresh and ply – (the trees’ branches) beat to and fro in the wind
And hill-hid tides throb, throe on throe 2, 3
And meadow rivulets overflow, rivulets – little rivers
And drops on gate bars hang in a row,
And rooks in families homeward go,
And so do I.

1 tumble – can mean dance, leap, spring, jump
2 hill-hid tides throb throe on throe – little streams hidden underground come pulsing violently out of the hillsides
3 hill-hid tides – little streams hidden underground

This is a particularly cheerful poem, straightforward and immediate. Hardy paints two contrasting pictures, of spring and autumn. He writes as if he is speaking directly to the reader, showing the reader what he can see and hear: ‘This is …. / And so do I.’

In the first stanza, Hardy pictures spring, perhaps the month of May, when the great white candles on horse chestnut trees are flowering, baby birds are leaving the nest and trying their wings, nightingales sing and everyone is heading outside. The rhythm is lively and cheerful; it skips and runs:

This is the weather the cuckoo likes

And so do I;

When showers betumble the chestnut spikes,

And nestlings fly. (baby birds)

The buoyant rhythm bounces energetically between dactyls (first line and – if you cheat – third line) and iambs in the short lines. The impression of liveliness is increased by the change of rhythm half way through the longer lines: they start with a beat of three ‘This is the weather the’ and then change to two ‘cuckoo likes’. Again in the third line: ‘When showers betumble the’ is a beat of three and ‘chestnut spikes’ is two. The effect is of a surplus of vitality, of enough energy to brake slightly and catapult us into the shorter line, ‘And so do I’ where the poet affirms (stressing ‘so’ and ‘I’) that he is absolutely one with nature in all this springtime vigour.

As if to add to the sense that we can almost hear the cuckoo, Hardy gives us plenty of cuckoo sounds in the first line, with the three repeated ck sounds there and another in ‘spikes’. There is more birdsong when the nightingale ‘bills (sings) his best’ accentuated by the alliterated bs. There are lots of verbs – and therefore lots of activity, all of it outside – ‘likes’, ‘betumble’, ‘bills’, ‘sit (outside)’, ‘come forth’, ‘dream’ (this is when people who live in cities start to dream of their holidays in the south west, Cornwall, Devon and Dorset). The birds sing, the chestnut is in flower and there are lots of people about, sitting outside the pub, girls wearing Laura Ashley patterned cotton dresses, and people in cities. The excitement mounts in anticipating the approaching summer with ‘And …And …And…And…And so do I’.

In total contrast, Hardy paints the colours and sounds of late autumn, ‘the weather the shepherd shuns (avoids), / And so do I.’ The determination of the shepherd to avoid the wretched weather is made obvious by the alliterated shs. Beech trees (of which there are many in Hardy’s Dorset, as they like the chalky ground) ‘drip in browns and duns (a brownish-grey) / And thresh, and ply.’ Thresh and ply here mean the movement of the branches beating (‘thresh’) to and fro (‘ply’) in an autumn gale. Except for ‘beeches’, the words are heavy and monosyllabic; the repeated bs and ds add to the heavy, depressing sound, and ‘thresh’ is onomatopoeic as it mimics the sounds of the windswept branches. The colours ‘browns and duns’ are dreary.

Water is everywhere. Not only do the beeches drip but water courses are bursting out of the sodden hillsides, little rivers are forming as the rivulets overflow in the meadows and the gate-bars all have rows of rain-drops on them. The heavy sounds continue. ‘And hill-hid tides throb, throe on throe’ is almost completely made up of spondees (that is, each syllable stressed) which makes it feel slow, heavy and depressing. The ds and bs add to this and you find them again in ‘drops’ and ‘bars’, another monosyllabic line with a lot of stresses.

In contrast to the Spring verse, nobody is out of doors. There’s nobody around at all. Even the flocks of rooks are flying home, and so – again at one with nature – does the poet. Here, the ‘And …. And … And…And so do I’, instead of conveying mounting excitement, gives the impression that an unending list of dismal factors is adding to the gloom of Autumn. Nothing but water and wind, according to the verbs: ‘drip’, ‘thresh and ply’, ‘throb’ (gush), ‘overflow’, ‘drops … hang’. There is plenty of movement in these verbs, but all of an unpleasant kind. This time, instead of there being lots of things to go outside and do, there are lots of things to avoid.

Although this seems and perhaps is a simple, straightforward poem, Hardy is tapping into a long tradition of poetry welcoming the new spring. From the Middle Ages onwards, poets have greeted the spring, sometimes in poems known as reverdie (the re-greening of the world as the leaves burst forth in springtime). ‘Sumer is icumen in / Lhude sing cuccu’ is a famous medieval lyric written in the mid-thirteenth century. You can find the link to it on the British Library website
There are many ballads and folk songs, such as ‘The cuckoo is a pretty bird / She singeth as she flies …’ and Wordsworth’s ‘To the cuckoo’: ‘O blithe newcomer…’ Hardy takes his spring greeting in a different direction here, however, as he contrasts the joyous picture of Spring with all its hopes and associations and the sodden picture of Autumn when all living creatures seek shelter.

Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres 1928

‘Throwing a Tree’,

New Forest


The two executioners stalk along over the knolls,
Bearing two axes with heavy heads shining and wide,
And a long limp two-handled saw toothed for cutting great boles, 1
And so they approach the proud tree that bears the death-mark on its side. *


Jackets doffed they swing axes and chop away just above ground, 3
And the chips fly about and lie white on the moss and fallen leaves; 4
Till a broad deep gash in the bark is hewn all the way round, wood; 5
And one of them tries to hook upward a rope, which at last he achieves.


The saw then begins, till the top of the tall giant shivers:
The shivers are seen to grow greater with each cut than before:
They edge out the saw, tug the rope; but the tree only quivers,
And kneeling and sawing again, they step back to try pulling once more.


Then, lastly, the living mast sways, further sways: with a shout 6
Job and Ike rush aside. Reached the end of its long staying powers
The tree crashes downward: it shakes all its neighbours throughout,
And two hundred years’ steady growth has been ended in less than two hours.

1 limp – flexible; boles – trunks
2 death-mark – a chalked or painted mark to show it is to be felled
3 doffed – taken off
4 chips – small pieces of
5 gash – wound; hewn – cut
6 mast – long upright pole

To throw a tree is to fell a tree, bring it to the ground. From the very title of the poem, Hardy uses the technical words and details entailed in the expertise and skill involved in the craft of tree-felling. Thus the boles are the tree trunks, and the men carry heavy-headed axes and a two-handled saw to the task. They swing axes, they chop at the tree-trunk just above the ground, they hew (chop or cut with blows), they hook a rope upwards to pull on one of the high boughs, then they start sawing, edge the saw out, tug on the rope, and finally the tree crashes downwards. The details are very precise. The task is a very physical one: the tree fellers take their jackets off and embark on a series of actions requiring great strength: the verbs show this – ‘swing’, ‘chop’, ‘is hewn’, ‘tries to hook’, ‘edge’, ‘kneeling and sawing’, ‘step back’, ‘rush.’

But Hardy, although appreciative of the skill of the craftsmen Job and Ike, sees the felling of the tree as a killing; in the poem’s opening line he describes them as ‘The two executioners’. The felling is described in emotive terms. The tree’s trunks are ‘great’ and the tree itself is ‘the proud tree’. Hardy uses the word ‘the death-mark’ for the painted or chalked mark on the tree-trunk that identifies it for felling. The mark the fellers make in the bark is a ‘broad deep gash’ with its connotations of pain and the ‘tall giant shivers’. For all their efforts, ‘the tree only quivers’. It is a ‘living mast’ and only eventually does it ‘reach the end of its long staying powers’ and in a run-on line ‘crashes downward’. At which point there is a strong cesura marking the end of the great tree’s life. The sh of ‘crashes’ is repeated in ‘shakes all its neighbours’, as the huge effect of the tree’s falling is felt all around. And ironically (characteristic of Hardy’s view of so much of life) ‘two hundred years’ steady growth has been ended in less than two hours.’ The contrast between two hundred years’ growth and the speed of its ending is stressed through the alliteration and repetition in ‘two hundred’ and ‘two hours’; in the contrast between ‘growth’ and ‘ended’.

The grandeur of the tree is emphasised; several words underline the violence of man’s actions against nature. Much earlier, in Jude the Obscure, Hardy had written: ‘He could scarcely bear to see trees cut down or lopped, from a fancy that it hurt them.’

We Field-Women

How it rained
When we worked at Flintcomb-Ash,
And could not stand upon the hill
Trimming swedes for the slicing-mill. swedes – root vegetables
The wet washed through us – plash, plash, plash:
How it rained!

How it snowed
When we crossed from Flintcomb-Ash
To the Great Barn for drawing reed, pulling out long straw for thatching roofs
Since we could nowise chop a swede. 1
Flakes in each doorway and casement-sash:
How it snowed!

How it shone
When we went from Flintcomb-Ash
To start at dairywork once more
In the laughing meads, with cows three-score, meads – fields; threescore – sixty
And pails, and songs, and love – too rash: pails – buckets for the milk
How it shone!

1 nowise – not at all (because the swedes were frozen)

‘We Field-Women’ is one of the poems in Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres, published in October 1928 after Hardy’s death earlier in the year. Like at least one other of his poems, ‘Tess’s Lament’ published in 1901, it is based on his novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, 1891.

The poem is written as if spoken by one of the field-women working on the land through the seasons. She immediately refers to the farm where she is working, Flintcomb-Ash, which is a farm in Hardy’s novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles. This is the place where Tess suffers so much with the hard manual labour she has to do to survive the winter. Hardy describes it as ‘the heavy and coarse pursuits which she liked least – work on arable land: work of such roughness, indeed, as she would never have deliberately volunteered for.’ It seems as if the poem is spoken by one of Tess’s friends. In the autumn the women work in the rain trimming swedes – that is, cutting off the knobs and lumps on the swedes so that they are a regular shape to slice for cattle food. In the winter they work inside the barn drawing reeds – drawing long pieces of wheat straw out of the straw rick so that they can be used for thatching roofs; in the summer they work with the cows in the fields.

The work is hard physical manual work and most of it is done out of doors. The woman speaking describes how they all got soaked through when they worked trimming the swedes:

The wet washed through us – plash, plash, plash:

How it rained!

The alliterated ‘wet washed’ emphasise how wet they got as does the relentless, continuous, repetitive ‘plash, plash, plash’ of the pouring rain. Hardy gives us the sound of the rain, too, with the onomatopoeiac ‘sh’ sounds in ‘washed’ and ‘plash’. You have the authentic voice of the Dorset field-woman with a rather limited vocabulary, ‘plash, plash, plash,’ and dialect words like ‘nowise’ (in no way) and ‘drawing reed’. The sound of the rain and of the woman’s voice (later, the sound of the milkmaids’ songs) draw the reader into the world the woman is speaking of.

The exclamations which start and end each verse also emphasise the effect of the weather on the workers. ‘How it rained!’, ‘How it snowed!’, ‘How it shone!’ The weather dictates what work can be done; when the swedes are too frozen to cut with a billhook, the women move into the barn to work on the thatching straw. But even inside the Great Barn, the snowflakes fill the doorways and casement-sashes (windows) and the women are hardly protected from the bitter weather.

And maybe, too, there’s a feeling that the field-women are imprisoned in this cycle of work, autumn, winter, summer, year after year, with no escape, no progress, between the beginning and end of each verse. Each stanza ends as it began. Not only that, but the rhyme scheme goes abccba, as if there are triple prison walls around the workers. And the farm, Flintcomb-Ash, described in Tess as a starve-acre place (that is, a place that produces poor crops), seems to keep each stanza from moving anywhere. It dominates the stanza, even imposing itself on the rhyme scheme: ‘Flintcomb-Ash / plash, plash, plash; Flintcomb-Ash / casement-sash; and Flintcomb-Ash / too rash’. The run-on lines, too, perhaps suggest that there is no end to this work – not even at the end of the line of poetry.

How it rained

When we worked at Flintcomb-Ash,

And could not stand upon the hill

Trimming swedes for the slicing-mill.

The poem does end on a more cheerful note (unlike the novel, Tess, which ends tragically). In the summer it seems to be a pleasure to work outside in the sun, in the meadows which are ‘laughing’, with milk pails (the cows were milked out of doors in the meadows, not brought in to a milking parlour as they are nowadays), and it seems that the girls sang at the work, and rashly fell in love with other farm-workers. Again, this aspect of field-work is most beautifully described in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, in Chapter 17.

Overall, you can see, from reading the poem, why the ‘Ruined Maid’ ended up with hands like paws. And why the woman that Tess works with has to resort to drinking spirits to keep going. The ruined maid resorted, very understandably, to prostitution.

The work the women do needs a little explanation at this distance of time. If you read Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Chapter 17 describes the delightful dairy work in the summer and Chapters 42 and 43 describe the fairly desperate plight of the women working long hours in intolerable conditions during the autumn and winter. This poem starts with the trimming of swedes in the rain, presumably in the autumn or early winter when these root vegetables were ready to harvest. In Tess, Hardy graphically describes the work of the women. First, what it means to work all day in the pouring rain: ‘ …to stand working slowly in a field, and feel the creep of rainwater, first in legs and shoulders, then on hips and head, then at back, front, and sides, and yet to work on … demands a distinct modicum of stoicism, even of valour.’ (Stoicism means enduring pain and hardship without complaining; valour means courage.) Hardy continues with the business of the swede trimming: When it was not swede–grubbing it was swede-trimming, in which process they sliced off the earth and fibres with a bill-hook before storing the roots for future use … if it was frosty even their thick leather gloves could not prevent the frozen masses they handled from biting their fingers.’ (A bill-hook is a sharp curved blade.) The reason the women cannot chop swedes in verse two is that the vegetables are frozen solid and this is why they move into the Great Barn for drawing reeds. Hardy describes drawing reeds in a short piece he wrote called The Ancient Cottages of England. He argues that the old practice of drawing reeds out of the straw rick makes them much better to use for thatching (roofing) than the modern way of using straw that has been threshed. To draw a reed is to prepare straw for use in thatching.

Hardy writes: ‘I can recall another cottage .. which had been standing nearly 130 years, where the original external plaster is uninjured by weather, though it has been patched here and there; but the thatch has been renewed half a dozen times in the period. Had the thatch been of straw which had passed through a threshing machine in the modern way it would have required renewal twice as many times … But formerly the thatching straw was drawn by hand from the ricks before threshing and, being unbruised, lasted twice as long, especially if not trimmed; though the thatcher usually liked to trim his work to make it look neater.’ (from The Ancient Cottages of England, 1927)

Nearly a hundred years before Hardy wrote his essay, William Cobbett, famous for his books on country practices and ways, described the same thing in a letter. ‘If this straw be reeded, as they do it in the counties of Dorset and Devon, it will last thirty years.’ Reeds is the word used especially in the south west for wheat straw with the ears removed used especially for thatching because it has not been threshed. The process of threshing bruises and crushes the straw.

If you want to find out more about working conditions on Dorset farms, and see a copy of the original manuscript of We Field-Women, go to This is an excellent website from Reading University’s Museum of English Rural Life, not only featuring We Field Women, of which the University has a manuscript copy, but also containing some fascinating photographs of women working on farms at the time.

If you would like to see some Dorset dialect words, go to which gives you a list of Dorset dialect words together with poems written by the Dorset dialect poet William Barnes. He lived near Hardy and was much respected by him.

The end of Chapter 42 and extracts from Chapter 43 of Tess of the D’Urbervilles which describe swede-hacking and reed-drawing. It opens with a friend of Tess’s, Marion, who is swede-hacking and warning her of how hard the work is.

” I took to drink. Lord, that’s the only comfort I’ve got now! If you engage, you’ll be set swede-hacking. That’s what I be doing; but you won’t like it.”

“O–anything! Will you speak for me?”

“You will do better by speaking for yourself.”

They walked on together and soon reached the farmhouse, which was
almost sublime in its dreariness. There was not a tree within sight;
there was not, at this season, a green pasture–nothing but fallow
and turnips everywhere, in large fields divided by hedges plashed to
unrelieved levels. Plashed means hedges that are cut and laid, that is, the stems are cut half off and
pegged down on the bank where they sprout upward.

Tess waited outside the door of the farmhouse till the group of
workfolk had received their wages, and then Marian introduced her.
The farmer himself, it appeared, was not at home, but his wife, who
represented him this evening, made no objection to hiring Tess, on
her agreeing to remain till Old Lady-Day. Female field-labour was
seldom offered now, and its cheapness made it profitable for tasks
which women could perform as readily as men.

Having signed the agreement, there was nothing more for Tess to do
at present than to get a lodging, and she found one in the house at
whose gable-wall she had warmed herself. It was a poor subsistence
that she had ensured, but it would afford a shelter for the winter
at any rate.

The swede-field in which she and her companion were set hacking was
a stretch of a hundred odd acres in one patch, on the highest ground
of the farm, rising above stony lanchets or lynchets– 1
…The upper half of each turnip had been eaten off by the live-stock, and it was the
business of the two women to grub up the lower or earthy half of the
root with a hooked fork called a hacker, that it might be eaten also.

1 (lynchet= a slope or terrace along a chalk down)

Nobody came near them, and their movements showed a mechanical
regularity; their forms standing enshrouded in Hessian “wroppers”–
sleeved brown pinafores, tied behind to the bottom, to keep their
gowns from blowing about–scant skirts revealing boots that reached
high up the ankles, and yellow sheepskin gloves with gauntlets.

They worked on hour after hour, unconscious of the forlorn aspect
they bore in the landscape, not thinking of the justice or injustice
of their lot. ..In the afternoon the rain came on again, and
Marian said that they need not work any more. But if they did not
work they would not be paid; so they worked on. It was so high a
situation, this field, that the rain had no occasion to fall, but
raced along horizontally upon the yelling wind, sticking into them
like glass splinters till they were wet through. Tess had not
known till now what was really meant by that. There are degrees of
dampness, and a very little is called being wet through in common
talk. But to stand working slowly in a field, and feel the creep of
rain-water, first in legs and shoulders, then on hips and head, then
at back, front, and sides, and yet to work on till the leaden light
diminishes and marks that the sun is down, demands a distinct modicum
of stoicism, even of valour.

Yet they did not feel the wetness so much as might be supposed. They
were both young, and they were talking of the time when they lived
and loved together at Talbothays Dairy. (the dairy where they had worked in summer time)

Marian’s will had a method of assisting itself by taking from her pocket as
the afternoon wore on a pint bottle corked with white rag, from which
she invited Tess to drink. Tess’s unassisted power of dreaming,
however, being enough for her sublimation at present, she declined
except the merest sip, and then Marian took a pull from the spirits.

“I’ve got used to it,” she said, “and can’t leave it off now. ‘Tis
my only comfort.”

Amid this scene Tess slaved in the morning frosts and in
the afternoon rains. When it was not swede-grubbing it was
swede-trimming, in which process they sliced off the earth and the
fibres with a bill-hook before storing the roots for future use. At
this occupation they could shelter themselves by a thatched hurdle if
it rained; but if it was frosty even their thick leather gloves could
not prevent the frozen masses they handled from biting their fingers.

…..They reached the wheat-barn and entered it. One end of the long
structure was full of corn; the middle was where the reed-drawing was
carried on, and there had already been placed in the reed-press the
evening before as many sheaves of wheat as would be sufficient for
the women to draw from during the day.

In addition to Tess, Marian, and Izz, there were two women from a
neighbouring village…They did all kinds of men’s work by preference, including
well-sinking, hedging, ditching, and excavating, without any sense of
fatigue. Noted reed-drawers were they too, and looked round upon the
other three with some superciliousness.

Putting on their gloves, all set to work in a row in front of the
press, an erection formed of two posts connected by a cross-beam,
under which the sheaves to be drawn from were laid ears outward, the
beam being pegged down by pins in the uprights, and lowered as the
sheaves diminished.

The day hardened in colour, the light coming in at the barndoors
upwards from the snow instead of downwards from the sky. The girls
pulled handful after handful from the press.

End of Chapter 16 and extracts Chapter 17 from Tess of the D’Urbervilles describing the dairy farm where Tess works, the stool on which the milkmaid sits, and the singing.

Suddenly there arose from all parts of the lowland a prolonged and
repeated call–“Waow! waow! waow!”

From the furthest east to the furthest west the cries spread as if by
contagion, accompanied in some cases by the barking of a dog. It was
…the ordinary announcement of milking-time–half-past
four o’clock, when the dairymen set about getting in the cows.

The red and white herd nearest at hand, which had been phlegmatically
waiting for the call, now trooped towards the steading in the steading=farm
background, their great bags of milk swinging under them as they
walked. Tess followed slowly in their rear, and entered the barton barton=farmyard
by the open gate through which they had entered before her. Long
thatched sheds stretched round the enclosure, their slopes encrusted
with vivid green moss, and their eaves supported by wooden posts
rubbed to a glossy smoothness by the flanks of infinite cows
and calves of bygone years …

They were the less restful cows that were stalled. Those that would
stand still of their own will were milked in the middle of the yard,
where many of such better behaved ones stood waiting now–all prime
milchers, such as were seldom seen out of this valley, and not always
within it; nourished by the succulent feed which the water-meads
supplied at this prime season of the year. Those of them that were
spotted with white reflected the sunshine in dazzling brilliancy,
and the polished brass knobs of their horns glittered with something
of military display. Their large-veined udders hung ponderous as
sandbags, the teats sticking out like the legs of a gipsy’s crock;
and as each animal lingered for her turn to arrive the milk oozed
forth and fell in drops to the ground.

Chapter 17

The dairymaids and men had flocked down from their cottages and out
of the dairy-house with the arrival of the cows from the meads; the
maids walking in pattens,* not on account of the weather, but to keep
their shoes above the mulch of the barton. Each girl sat down on
her three-legged stool, her face sideways, her right cheek resting
against the cow, and looked musingly along the animal’s flank at Tess
as she approached. The male milkers, with hat-brims turned down,
resting flat on their foreheads and gazing on the ground, did not
observe her. *pattens are overshoes with wooden soles that keep indoor shoes above wet muddy ground.

One of these was a sturdy middle-aged man–whose long white “pinner”*
was somewhat finer and cleaner than the wraps of the others, and
whose jacket underneath had a presentable marketing aspect–the
master-dairyman, of whom she was in quest, his double character as
a working milker and butter maker here during six days, and on the
seventh as a man in shining broad-cloth in his family pew at church,
being so marked as to have inspired a rhyme:

Dairyman Dick

All the week:–

On Sundays Mister Richard Crick.

Seeing Tess standing at gaze he went across to her.
* a pinner is an apron with a bib, or a pinafore, to protect clothing

The majority of dairymen have a cross manner at milking time, but it
happened that Mr Crick was glad to get a new hand–for the days were
busy ones now–and he received her warmly…

Then the talk was of business only.

“You can milk ’em clean, my maidy? I don’t want my cows going azew at
this time o’ year.”

She reassured him on that point, and he surveyed her up and down.
She had been staying indoors a good deal, and her complexion had
grown delicate.

“Quite sure you can stand it? ‘Tis comfortable enough here for rough

She declared that she could stand it, and her zest and willingness
seemed to win him over.

“I’ll begin milking now, to get my hand in,” said Tess.

When Tess had changed her bonnet for a hood, and was really on her
stool under the cow, and the milk was squirting from her fists
into the pail, she appeared to feel that she really had laid a new
foundation for her future. The conviction bred serenity, her pulse
slowed, and she was able to look about her.

The milkers formed quite a little battalion of men and maids, the
men operating on the hard-teated animals, the maids on the kindlier
natures. It was a large dairy. There were nearly a hundred
milchers under Crick’s management, all told; and of the herd the
master-dairyman milked six or eight with his own hands, unless away
from home. These were the cows that milked hardest of all; for his
journey-milkmen being more or less casually hired, he would not
entrust this half-dozen to their treatment, lest, from indifference,
they should not milk them fully; nor to the maids, lest they should
fail in the same way for lack of finger-grip; with the result that in
course of time the cows would “go azew”–that is, dry up. It was not
the loss for the moment that made slack milking so serious, but that
with the decline of demand there came decline, and ultimately
cessation, of supply.

After Tess had settled down to her cow there was for a time no talk
in the barton, and not a sound interfered with the purr of the
milk-jets into the numerous pails, except a momentary exclamation
to one or other of the beasts requesting her to turn round or stand
still. The only movements were those of the milkers’ hands up and
down, and the swing of the cows’ tails. …

“To my thinking,” said the dairyman, rising suddenly from a cow
he had just finished off, snatching up his three-legged stool in
one hand and the pail in the other, and moving on to the next
hard-yielder in his vicinity, “to my thinking, the cows don’t gie
down their milk to-day as usual. Upon my life, if Winker do begin
keeping back like this, she’ll not be worth going under by

“‘Tis because there’s a new hand come among us,” said Jonathan Kail.
“I’ve noticed such things afore.”

“To be sure. It may be so. I didn’t think o’t.”

Songs were often resorted to in dairies hereabout as an enticement
to the cows when they showed signs of withholding their usual yield;
and the band of milkers at this request burst into melody–in purely
business-like tones, it is true, and with no great spontaneity; the
result, according to their own belief, being a decided improvement
during the song’s continuance. ..They had gone through fourteen
or fifteen verses of a cheerful ballad about a murderer who was
afraid to go to bed in the dark because he saw certain brimstone
flames around him.


This is a photograph taken in the very early 1900s of cows being milked by hand in North Yorkshire.

Thomas Hardy Thomas Hardy
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