A classic Hardy poem – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘The Self-Unseeing’ is a short Thomas Hardy poem that originally appeared in his second volume of poems, Poems of the Past and the Present, in 1901. Like many of Hardy’s poems, ‘The Self-Unseeing’ seems to require no detailed unpicking or analysis; it can be understood on first reading fairly easily. Nevertheless, the poem raises certain questions which it isn’t so easy to answer.
Here is the ancient floor,
Footworn and hollowed and thin,
Here was the former door
Where the dead feet walked in.
She sat here in her chair,
Smiling into the fire;
He who played stood there,
Bowing it higher and higher.
Childlike, I danced in a dream;
Blessings emblazoned that day;
Everything glowed with a gleam;
Yet we were looking away!
‘The Self-Unseeing’ sees Hardy – or Hardy’s speaker, leastways – returning to a place he once knew, presumably his childhood home, and remembering how it used to be when he was there with other people, whose ‘feet’ once ‘walked in’. Those other figures are now dead, hence ‘dead feet’. The speaker regrets something about those earlier, happy times. In summary, ‘The Self-Unseeing’ is about taking things for granted, about failing to appreciate what you have, especially your family, when you’re a child. The ‘She’ and ‘He’ who feature in the poem’s middle stanza suggest the mother and father, with the mother contentedly looking at the fire (suggesting warmth and comfort of the hearth) and the father happily playing music on his fiddle (hence ‘Bowing it’) to entertain the whole family.
The speaker tells us that ‘Childlike, [he] danced in a dream’: he danced to the tune played by the man’s bow, but was so caught up in things that he didn’t fully appreciate it. This is a curious idea, and one which makes the poem more complex than it first appears. If the speaker is revisiting an actual childhood memory, why is his former self described as only ‘Childlike’? If he was dancing ‘in a dream’ and those days were ‘emblazoned’ with ‘Blessings’, and everything shone and ‘glowed with a gleam’, then it sounds as though he enjoyed and made the most of those former days – so what does he regret? The poem’s title deftly combines two of Thomas Hardy’s trademark linguistic devices: the compound hyphenation and the use of the ‘un’-prefix. This creates further questions. ‘The Self-Unseeing’: how should we read this? As the self failing to see what’s around? Or as our inability to see ourselves?
Perhaps a clue is offered by that final line: ‘Yet we were looking away!’ The poem seems to capture the inevitability of nostalgia: no matter how much you make the most of a carefree and happy period in your life, you will always feel that you could have made more of it. As the speaker remembers the delirious happiness of those days as being like ‘a dream’, he was unable to step outside of himself (‘Self-Unseeing’, remember) and slow down and admire those happy times from a more distanced perspective. Most of us, at some point in our lives, will have reflected on happy times and thought, ‘I wish I’d made more effort to stop myself during that golden time and say, “This is what happiness is. This is your family. This is your carefree and joyous time of life. Remember how it feels.”’ There is a suggestion that Hardy’s speaker feels a similar way: the problem wasn’t failing to enjoy those younger, happier days, but rather ‘looking away’, failing to look more closely at the family around him and notice what that family represents. Now, he feels as though he cannot reclaim that happiness, because of this failure of self-assessment and insight. Yet, as so often with a Thomas Hardy poem, it seems a lose-lose situation: if he had spent more time critically scrutinising what was around him, he may now have a deeper understanding of his former happiness, but he would have enjoyed those earlier days far less intensely.
The poem’s use of alliteration in the final stanza suggests that the speaker is more certain of his mistake now: ‘danced in a dream’, ‘Blessings emblazoned’, ‘glowed with a gleam’, only to give way, in that final line (the only one of the stanza not to contain such deliberate alliteration), to the revelation: ‘Yet we were looking away!’ But perhaps the speaker’s self-analysis here fails to appreciate the incompatibility of self-analysis with innocent happiness. It was impossible back then, if he was to be happy; it is impossible now, and that makes him unhappy. What’s to be done?
To go in search of more of Hardy’s poetry, we recommend The Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy (Wordsworth Poetry Library), which is excellent value for money and contains nearly 1,000 pages of Hardy’s poems. For more discussion of Hardy’s work, see our analysis of his heartfelt poem about the death of his first wife, our thoughts on his classic poem ‘Afterwards’, and our pick of his best novels.
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, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.