A classic Hardy poem – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘The Going’ is one of Thomas Hardy’s great ‘Poems of 1912-13’, written in the wake of the death of his first wife, Emma, from whom Hardy had been estranged for a number of years prior to her death in 1912. Like many of Hardy’s other poems written at this time, it is a moving and powerful account of personal grief, and worthy of some close analysis.
Why did you give no hint that night
That quickly after the morrow’s dawn,
And calmly, as if indifferent quite,
You would close your term here, up and be gone
Where I could not follow
With wing of swallow
To gain one glimpse of you ever anon!
Never to bid good-bye
Or lip me the softest call,
Or utter a wish for a word, while I
Saw morning harden upon the wall,
That your great going
Had place that moment, and altered all.
Why do you make me leave the house
And think for a breath it is you I see
At the end of the alley of bending boughs
Where so often at dusk you used to be;
Till in darkening dankness
The yawning blankness
Of the perspective sickens me!
You were she who abode
By those red-veined rocks far West,
You were the swan-necked one who rode
Along the beetling Beeny Crest,
And, reining nigh me,
Would muse and eye me,
While Life unrolled us its very best.
Why, then, latterly did we not speak,
Did we not think of those days long dead,
And ere your vanishing strive to seek
That time’s renewal? We might have said,
“In this bright spring weather
We’ll visit together
Those places that once we visited.”
Well, well! All’s past amend,
Unchangeable. It must go.
I seem but a dead man held on end
To sink down soon. . . . O you could not know
That such swift fleeing
No soul foreseeing—
Not even I—would undo me so!
‘The Going’ covers a range of emotions Hardy experiences in response to Emma’s death. In summary, he begins by apostrophising her – that is, addressing someone who is absent or, in this case, dead. He asks why she didn’t warn him that she would be leaving him. Hardy seems almost to be chastising Emma for departing this world before he had a chance to catch just one more glimpse of her before she died. (Compare here Hardy’s regret at the beginning of his poem ‘Thoughts of Phena, at News of Her Death’, that he has nothing tangible to remember the dead woman, Tryphena Sparks, by; and now that she’s died, he never will.) Emma never said goodbye before leaving Hardy behind, and this had the knock-on effect that, at the moment of Emma’s ‘going’, or death, Hardy lay in bed unaware that, as he lay there, his wife was departing the world.
The accusatory questioning (for it is not straightforward apostrophising, but interrogation) continues in the third stanza, which sees Hardy chastising his wife for making him constantly kid himself that he spies Emma in her usual spot outside their house, only to realise that she is not there. The emptiness of the space that she once occupied sickens Hardy. The same goes for the other places nearby – the rocks, the ‘beetling Beeny Crest’ where Emma would ride – that aren’t occupied by her any more. Hardy remembers happy times when he and Emma rode together, and the world laid the very best times at their feet.
Since they were so good together, and so happy, why, Hardy then asks, did they become estranged from each other in Emma’s later years? Why did they not seek to recapture the heady bliss of those early days together? Well, it’s too late now. Hardy now feels like a half-dead man, not long for this world himself, so undone with misery is he by Emma’s death. And yet nobody could have foreseen that her passing would have this effect on him – not even Hardy and Emma themselves. After all, they’d been on barely speaking terms for the last years of her life.
Thomas Hardy was fond of ‘un-’ words: unhope, unsight, unsuccess, undone. He uses these at a number of points in ‘The Going’, and they are particularly relevant to this poem, given its subject. ‘Unhope’ is different from ‘despair’, for instance, because it suggests the removal of a hope that had once been there; ‘unsight’ is not simply synonymous with blindness, because it implies that the speaker once possess sight but that it has now been lost. In ‘The Going’, Hardy’s word ‘unknowing’ suggests something different from straight ignorance or even ‘not knowing’: it conveys that Emma, who was once known to Hardy, is now so unknown that he has lost his kinship with her, and with that, his ability (or right?) to know that she was dying at that moment. ‘Un-’ conveys the very ‘undoing’ that Hardy explicitly mentions in the poem’s final stanza.
‘The Going’ is a fine Hardy poem; the critic James Wood, who reviews fiction, singled out the image of watching ‘morning harden upon the wall’ as an example of Hardy’s poetic style. Just as the light settles and hardens on the wall in the morning, so we wake up to the reality that our lives have hardened into something other than what we had hoped and planned. In the last analysis, ‘The Going’ captures a grief tinged with regret – Hardy’s own regret at not having made more of an attempt to avoid such a fate for him and Emma. Going, going, gone.
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.