A popular Hardy poem – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘I Look into my Glass’ was published in Thomas Hardy’s first volume of poetry, Wessex Poems, in 1898. Hardy was then nearly sixty, and the poem reflects his growing awareness of age. The poem is a short one that uses plain language, so perhaps little analysis is needed; nevertheless, below we include the poem and then try to unpick some of its features.
I look into my glass,
And view my wasting skin,
And say, ‘Would God it came to pass
My heart had shrunk as thin!’
For then I, undistrest
By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide.
A short poem, with a simple message, this. A short summary conveys this much: the speaker looks at himself in his mirror (or ‘glass’) and sees his wrinkled and ageing skin, and wishes that his heart was similarly weakened and reduced. The implication, of course, is that the speaker’s romantic leanings are those of a young man, even though the speaker himself is now old. The heart that beats in his aged chest is that of a young man still capable of feeling love, romantic longing, and infatuation (Hardy himself was known for his infatuations with younger women, well into late middle age; he was in his later fifties when he wrote ‘I Look into my Glass’).
If the heart that beats in the speaker’s chest had shrunk as thin as the skin that covers his ageing body, he wouldn’t care about the people in his life who no longer care for him. But sadly, he concludes, this is nature’s way: time and age has taken away his youthful looks but leaves him the (useless) desire. There is an air of anxious irritation in the alliterative ‘fragile frame’ in that final stanza, which suggests one whose body has grown cold with age – and, indeed, with the cold hearts that have shunned him.
A short poem about growing old, written in the clear and simple language we find in much of Thomas Hardy’s poetry. If you liked ‘I Look into my Glass’ you might also enjoy W. B. Yeats’s great poem about growing old (or one of several great poems he wrote about growing old), ‘Sailing to Byzantium‘.
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 analysis of his ‘Neutral Tones’, 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.