A Short Analysis of Hardy’s ‘Thoughts of Phena, At News of Her Death’

By Dr Oliver Tearle

‘Thoughts of Phena’, subtitled ‘At News of Her Death’, is one of Thomas Hardy’s best-loved poems. Hardy (1840-1928) wrote this poem in 1890 and published it eight years later in his first volume of poetry, Wessex Poems (1898). A short analysis of the poem, given its canonical status in Hardy’s poetic oeuvre, may help to shed light on its meaning and effects. The ‘Phena’ of the poem’s title refers to a real woman, Tryphena Sparks, Hardy’s cousin and possibly, in the mid-1860s, his lover. ‘Phena’ died on 17 March 1890; Hardy then wrote the poem shortly after ‘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
I may picture her there;
And in vain do I urge my unsight
To conceive my lost prize
At her close, whom I knew when her dreams were upbrimming with light
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
With an aureate nimb?
Or did life-light decline from her years,
And mischances control
Her full day-star; unease, or regret, or forebodings, or fears
Disennoble her soul?

Thus I do but the phantom retain
Of the maiden of yore
As my relic; yet haply the best of her – fined in my brain
It may be 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
I may picture her there.

The poem goes full-circle in that the last four lines return to the first four; but something has happened in between. In summary, Hardy has gone from lamenting the fact that he has no keepsake or relic of ‘Phena’, by NPG 2929,Thomas Hardy,by William Strangwhich to remember her; by the end of the poem, he has come to see this lack as a good thing. The best parts of people are preserved in our memories of them, not in the physical objects and mementos that belonged to them – and so it is with Hardy, who, he tells us, has the best of Phena ‘fined [that is, distilled or refined] in my brain’.

Having wondered what Phena’s last days were like – were they happy or sad? and did she have a ‘good death’, as people say? – Hardy comes to realise that not knowing is probably best here, too. If Phena’s last days were squalid or uncomfortable, that would tarnish the memory he has of her in her prime.

The poem’s language is generally straightforward, although Hardy’s signature techniques are there: the poetic diction (‘aureate nimb’ – i.e. golden cloud), his fondness for multiple prefixes (‘Disennoble’ – i.e. remove the nobility from), unusual prefix and verb combinations (‘enray’, ‘enarch’), and his favourite, the ‘un’ prefix, in ‘unsight’. ‘Unsight’ is not the same as blindness, just as ‘unhope’ (in one of Hardy’s other poems, ‘In Tenebris‘) is not the same as despair: ‘unsight’ is the undoing or removal of sight, and (as the old line goes) blindness is harder for a person who once had the gift of sight than it is for someone who has never known what it is to see. (In other words, it may not be better to have loved and lost.)

Hardy’s use of language is often deceptively simple. ‘Haply’ (‘haply the best of her’) is not the same as ‘happily’, since the word in itself tells us nothing about whether this is a good thing or not (though it turns out that it is). ‘Haply’ simply means ‘by chance’, a favourite word of Hardy’s (another of his poems is called ‘Hap’). Similarly, ‘fined’ (‘fined in my brain’) is not quite the same as ‘refined’: the very word ‘refined’ has been scaled down, or refined, into a word that has neutral, even faintly negative, connotations (unlike ‘refine’, ‘fine’ as a verb is usually not a good thing: if you’re ‘fined’ for speeding, for instance!).

This neutrality is important because it allows us to trace the poet’s thought from sad lament at the beginning of that final stanza (‘I do but the phantom retain’) to a more affirmative realisation at the end of the poem (‘It may be the more…’).

Learn more about Thomas Hardy with our fascinating facts about him, our pick of his greatest novels, and our analysis of his classic poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

Image: Thomas Hardy by William Strang, 1893, public domain.

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