A commentary on one of Hardy’s Poems of 1912-13 – by Dr Oliver Tearle
Thomas Hardy’s poetry is full of negation, negatives, nots, ‘un-’ words, and missed opportunities. ‘A Broken Appointment’ is one such example. And ‘The Walk’, one of the celebrated ‘Poems of 1912-13’ which Hardy composed in the wake of his first wife’s death, is replete with ‘nots’. Like many Thomas Hardy poems, the language is simple and clear, yet a few words of analysis reveal the subtler aspects of Hardy’s style.
You did not walk with me
Of late to the hill-top tree
By the gated ways,
As in earlier days;
You were weak and lame,
So you never came,
And I went alone, and I did not mind,
Not thinking of you as left behind.
I walked up there to-day
Just in the former way;
The familiar ground
By myself again:
What difference, then?
Only that underlying sense
Of the look of a room on returning thence.
We get the word ‘not’ three times in the first stanza of ‘The Walk’: Emma, Hardy’s first wife, is notable by her absence. Like many of the ‘Poems of 1912-13’, ‘The Walk’ is about recollecting the times Hardy spent with Emma during the early years of their marriage, the places they visited, the memories they shared.
In summary, the first stanza focuses on Hardy’s contrasting the days ‘of late’ with the ‘earlier days’ he spent with Emma: late in life, she was ‘weak and lame’ and so couldn’t accompany him on his walks, as she had when she was younger. The second stanza then focuses on an even more recent walk, which Hardy undertook earlier on the same day, surveying the landscape alone, as he had done when Emma was weak, but still living. Now she’s died, the landscape has ‘the look of a room on returning thence’ (i.e. ‘to that place’).
Things have shifted then, slightly, in the wake of Emma’s death. When she was alive, Hardy thought nothing of leaving Emma behind at home while he went out on his walk; he didn’t even think of her as ‘left behind’ at all. But now she is dead, the walk Hardy undertakes has changed – but only subtly. Note how he downplays the transformation: the last line is neutral in its expression, not inviting sentimental feelings of loss or grief at Emma’s passing, but rather stating, matter-of-factly, how the familiar landscape which Hardy and Emma walked among has become like a familiar room in a house.
What does that last line mean, though? Part of its power derives from its ambiguity, its refusal to tell us exactly what emotions we should be feeling or sharing. Hardy was a master of this, in his novels as well as his poetry. Consider the moment when Michael Henchard, in The Mayor of Casterbridge, reads the letter revealing that the child he has raised as his daughter is, in fact, not his at all. As the Mayor gazes down at the letter, Hardy tells us that Henchard ‘regarded the paper as if it were a window-pane through which he saw for miles.’ We know what must be going through Henchard’s mind, so Hardy sidesteps any of the usual reactions: shock, grief, sadness, regret. Instead, he offers an enigmatic and seemingly neutral statement which reveals far more because it is so elusively worded.
The same might be said of that final line of ‘The Walk’: the familiar haunts Hardy revisits on his walks, in the wake of Emma’s death, now have ‘the look of a room on returning thence.’ It is like returning home after being away. But ‘look’ downplays the effects of this nostalgia (a word which, we might recall, literally means ‘the pain of returning home’). When we return home after time away, everything assails us as a way of evoking old memories: the familiar smell of the place, the sensations that smell summons to our minds, the creaks of the timbers. Hardy suddenly sees everything more clearly because he could not see so clearly before. Such an analysis of ‘The Walk’ certainly chimes with the ‘Poems of 1912-13’ as a whole, which reflect Hardy’s sudden clarity about his life with Emma, his ability to see, only after her death, what their early life together really was. It is like returning home.
Note the clever way ‘thence’, the final word of the poem, rhymes with ‘sense’ in the previous line (the entire poem is made up of rhyming couplets, a slight irony in a poem which is not about Hardy’s shared walks with Emma as a couplet, but about the walks he undertook alone). But ‘thence’, as well as looking back to ‘sense’, also picks up on ‘then’: thus the past of ‘then’ and the feelings for the past suggested by ‘sense’ merge to form ‘thence’, the returning to a familiar place from the past (and the seemingly inevitable sliding towards that final word had begun even earlier, in the final syllable of ‘difference‘).
‘The Walk’ is about returning to the past and finding it evokes different feelings from those it used to inspire, and Emma’s death has been the catalyst. Hardy now truly has a ‘sense’ of his past with his wife, but it is one he can never share with her now.
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 poetry, see our analysis of his ‘The Voice’, our discussion of his early poem ‘Neutral Tones’, and his wonderful short poem ‘The Self-Unseeing’.
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.