A summary of Hardy’s classic poem
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was a prolific poet as well as a significant Victorian novelist. ‘During Wind and Rain’, written in 1917, is about the big things: life and death, and the passing of time. In this post we offer a brief summary of ‘During Wind and Rain’, followed by an analysis of its language and themes.
During Wind and Rain
They sing their dearest songs—
He, she, all of them—yea,
Treble and tenor and bass,
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!
They clear the creeping moss—
Elders and juniors—aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat. . . .
Ah, no; the years, the years,
See, the white storm-birds wing across.
They are blithely breakfasting all—
Men and maidens—yea,
Under the summer tree,
With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to the knee. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.
They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them—aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs. . . .
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.
In summary, ‘During Wind and Rain’ is structured like a song, with a repeated refrain at the beginning and end of each verse or stanza. In the first stanza, Hardy focuses on this very feature of human society: the singing of songs. He evokes a family singing together, each with his or her own role based on their gender and vocal range (‘Treble and tenor and bass’), and one of the party playing the musical instrument that accompanies their song, the suggestion being that this family group work together in harmony, and their singing is a neat example of this. The candles provide light but also suggest darkness: nobody lights candles during the hours of daylight. This darkness foreshadows the approach of death, evoked in the sigh ‘the years O!’ The ‘sick leaves’ of autumn are now falling from the trees, another reminder of the passing away of everything, and the brevity of life.
The second stanza, as if picking up on the nature theme that flowered at the end of the previous stanza, begins with the family clearing away moss from paths and the garden, old and young working together in this enterprise. They build a seat together for the garden, but once again the futility of it all heaves into view: ‘the years, the years’. The presence of ‘white storm-birds wing[ing] across’ suggests that the clouds are going to come over, eclipsing the sun (which peeped out suggestively from behind that ‘shady seat’). Again, this is about our days darkening, our lives declining into death.
The third stanza sees the family eating breakfast together, men and women together, outside ‘Under the summer tree’ (sun and summer are back again). The storm-birds of the second stanza have gone, and ‘pet fowl’ are walking round their legs, probably in hopes of snatching a bit of dropped food. But once again ‘the years O!’ – the ‘rotten rose is ript’, in a violent bit of alliteration, ‘from the wall’. The flowers have decayed, and summer is over.
In the fourth and final stanza, it appears that the family move house, and set about moving everything into their new home. But the phrase ‘change to a high new house’, and the presence of the adjective ‘high’, suggests not an earthly house but a heavenly one: the family have all died and moved to the house of heaven. And then returns that refrain, ‘no; the years, the years’: the years, we are told in the final line, are visible in the form of rain-drops ploughing down the family names that are carved on their gravestones. Death, in summary, comes for us all.
Although ‘During Wind and Rain’ can be interpreted as a poem about any family – not one family in particular – Thomas Hardy had a particular family in mind when he wrote it in 1917. Five years earlier, in 1912, his first wife Emma Gifford had died, and although she and Hardy had been estranged for the last few decades of her life, her death triggered an outpouring of grief from Hardy as he began to remember their early life together. This trip down memory lane resulted in Hardy writing some of his finest poetry.
‘During Wind and Rain’ is one such poem, recollecting Emma’s childhood life in Devon with her family. Emma, like her parents, is now in that ‘high new house’ of heaven, and all that remains of her is the name on her gravestone and Hardy’s memories of her. Hardy’s use of the refrain ‘the years O!’ (or ‘the years, the years’ as the even-numbered stanzas have it) calls to mind not only the passing of time but also the years marked on those gravestones, alongside the names.
‘During Wind and Rain’ shows what a fine poet Thomas Hardy was, especially in his late phase during the second decade of the twentieth century when his memories of Emma prompted him to write some of the most beautiful elegies of the century. Although like many of Hardy’s poems, ‘During Wind and Rain’ doesn’t require much deciphering, further analysis of its features and themes reveals some very fine touches.
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’, our commentary on his poem ‘Neutral Tones’, and our pick of his best novels. 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.