A summary of a Hardy poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
Thomas Hardy wrote hundreds of poems over a period spanning more than 50 years; he supposedly wrote his last poem as he lay on his death bed in 1928. Although some of his poems are anthology favourites and well-known, there are many less widely-known poems in his Collected Poems which are worth reading and, indeed, analysing. With that in mind, here is Thomas Hardy’s wonderful poem ‘The Ivy-Wife’, with a brief summary and analysis of it.
I longed to love a full-boughed beech
And be as high as he:
I stretched an arm within his reach,
And signalled unity.
But with his drip he forced a breach,
And tried to poison me.
I gave the grasp of partnership
To one of other race–
A plane: he barked him strip by strip
From upper bough to base;
And me therewith; for gone my grip,
My arms could not enlace.
In new affection next I strove
To coll an ash I saw,
And he in trust received my love;
Till with my soft green claw
I cramped and bound him as I wove…
Such was my love: ha-ha!
By this I gained his strength and height
Without his rivalry.
But in my triumph I lost sight
Of afterhaps. Soon he,
Being bark-bound, flagged, snapped, fell outright,
And in his fall felled me!
In summary, the speaker of the poem – the ‘ivy-wife’ of the title, suggesting a female personification of the ivy plant – tells of how she endeavoured to join herself with a series of trees, in an act of love but also for reasons of ambition: she wanted to be as tall as the beech, the plane, and the ash trees which she joins herself to. This act of climbing – ivy is, after all, a climbing-plant – is, though, a symbol for social climbing, something that Thomas Hardy writes about both in his fiction (many of his novels are about humble-born men or women endeavouring to rise among the social ranks of Victorian England) and his poetry (see, for instance, ‘The Ruined Maid’).
Each of the successive unions with the three trees which the ivy attempts to wed herself to ends in disaster: drawing on the power of three (seen throughout fairy tales and other narratives around the world), Hardy tells how the beech poisoned the ivy, the plane became stripped of its bark, and finally the ash – with which the ivy briefly attains her dream of equal height and status – becomes cramped and smothered by the ivy, and is felled, taking the ivy down with it.
Thus Hardy’s poem seems to present itself as a poem about gender roles in the Victorian era: women who seek to attain equal status to men, whether by marriage or by imitating them, are doomed to fail, and, what’s more, will take men down with them.
Note how the rhymes on the odd-numbered lines in that first stanza suggest a merging that is actually a diverging: ‘beech’ and ‘reach’ become conjoined or mingled in ‘breach’, suggesting the dangerous commingling of the ivy with the tree, the woman with the man. This reaching will end in breaching; in cleaving to the tree, the ivy will only cleave herself from it. The word ‘afterhaps’ in the final stanza is also a typical Hardy touch: it is close to ‘afterwards’ but not synonymous with it; ‘haps’ suggests uncertainty or chance, like ‘perhaps’, and the randomness of life’s events is one of the great themes of Hardy’s work. Things are always happening because of chance, circumstance, ‘hap’: we are all victims of fate’s wry sense of humour.
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: Ivy climbing tree (picture credit: Rosendahl).