A great Hardy poem analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘A Broken Appointment’ offers the delicious middle-ground of Thomas Hardy’s poetry, between the undeniably classic anthology pieces (‘The Darkling Thrush’, ‘The Ruined Maid’) and the numerous poems he wrote which are now not much read or analysed. ‘A Broken Appointment’ contains many of Hardy’s classic hallmarks: disappointment, thwarted love, and pessimism are all present and correct. But the addressee of the poem is not present. She has broken her appointment.
A Broken Appointment
You did not come,
And marching Time drew on, and wore me numb,—
Yet less for loss of your dear presence there
Than that I thus found lacking in your make
That high compassion which can overbear
Reluctance for pure lovingkindness’ sake
Grieved I, when, as the hope-hour stroked its sum,
You did not come.
You love not me,
And love alone can lend you loyalty;
– I know and knew it. But, unto the store
Of human deeds divine in all but name,
Was it not worth a little hour or more
To add yet this: Once you, a woman, came
To soothe a time-torn man; even though it be
You love not me?
The poem has its origins in Hardy’s thwarted friendship with a woman named Florence Henniker, but of course it transcends the narrowly personal and reflects something we have all felt. In summary, in ‘A Broken Appointment’ Hardy laments the fact that his lover (or rather, would-be lover) failed to turn up to their arranged rendezvous: he’s been stood up. But the longer he stood there, waiting for her to show, the more his feelings cooled towards her – not so much because she simply failed to turn up, but because of what it suggests: that she doesn’t care for his feelings. Not liking him is one thing; stringing him along and refusing to exhibit compassion or ‘lovingkindness’, is worse.
In the second stanza, Hardy reflects on what this broken appointment means. The woman doesn’t love him: fine. But, developing the sentiment he put forward in the previous stanza, Hardy goes on to ask the absent woman: could she not have found it in her heart to take pity on him, even though she doesn’t love him, to come and spend an hour with him to ‘soothe’ him and let him down gently? Of course, the poem ends with this question: no answer returns. The woman cannot answer: she isn’t there. This is a poem that is also an example of apostrophe, an address to someone who is absent.
The unspoken word which ‘A Broken Appointment’ calls forth, if only as a curious absence, is ‘disappointment’. The appointment between Hardy’s speaker and the addressee has been broken; as a result, Hardy’s speaker is disappointed, in a pun that lurks below the surface of the poem. ‘You did not come.’
The circularity of the poem’s stanzas, ending as they do with the same line as they began, reinforces this idea that speaker and addressee are at a stalemate. If the woman is a no-show, then what future does their ‘relationship’ have? Then there are the subtler patternings of the two stanzas: the assonance in the third line of each stanza in ‘Yet less for loss’ and ‘I know and knew it’. Such echoes and designs help Hardy to capture that sense of turning over one’s thoughts when one is stood up and left waiting alone.
‘A Broken Appointment’ should be better-known in Thomas Hardy’s poetical oeuvre. This short analysis has addressed some of the features of the poem which we find most striking, but what strikes you about it?
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’, 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 by William Strang, 1893, public domain.
Splendid stuff. It’s interesting how poems form a hierarchy through popularity. For me this has one memorable phrase; time-torn.
What a lovely poem. And it is something we’ve all felt, isn’t it? Not only in a romantic context but in many contexts where someone just doesn’t bother to do the right thing, sacrifice an hour or even less, because they simply do not care enough to do so.
Thank you for sharing this.
I love this one – and it’s always seemed to me that it wasn’t just disappointment but a real sense of anger that she couldn’t be bothered to turn up. That he wasn’t looking for only love, but kindness…
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