A classic Hardy poem analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
Thomas Hardy and his first wife, Emma, had long been estranged when she died in 1912; but her death prompted a series of poems by Hardy which are viewed as being among his best work. The ‘Poems of 1912-13’ see Thomas Hardy revisiting his early courtship and marriage, knowing that those times – and the woman with whom he shared those memories – will never return. ‘The Voice’ is perhaps the best-known of all these poems, yet its language demands to be analysed closely and given the attention it deserves. The following analysis is our small contribution to this endeavour.
Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.
Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!
Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?
Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.
First, a brief summary of ‘The Voice’: Hardy addresses his first wife, who had recently died when he wrote the poem, claiming he can hear her voice telling him that she is not the woman she once was (not just because she has passed away; Emma was an old lady when she died, and not the young woman Hardy had met, courted, and married back in the early 1870s, some forty years before).
Hardy then begins to doubt his ears. Can he really hear her? Well how come he can’t see her, then? ‘Show yourself’, he says, wishing to lay his eyes on her as she was as a young woman when she would wait for him to show up when they were courting. He even remembers the clothing she wore when he first met her (the ‘original’ blue gown).
But does he really hear her, or is he merely deluded – is it no more than the sound of the soft wind blowing across the wet meadow? And is Emma, after all, ‘dissolved’ into nothing – no longer capable of thought or knowledge, and so unable to hear him and respond?
Hardy concludes ‘The Voice’ by summarising his situation: unsteadily walking forward, while the leaves fall around him and the wind screeches through the land (‘norward’ meaning ‘northward’, so this is a cold north wind), and a sound that resembles the voice of his dead wife supposedly ‘calling’ to him.
Hardy thinks he hears Emma’s voice. But does he? ‘Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then’. Is this a ghost poem, or a poem of auditory hallucination? Or merely memory so vivid that it seems like hallucination, although Hardy knows deep down (much as he wishes it were otherwise) that Emma’s voice is imagined, and she is not there? It’s curious to note that although in the third stanza he appears to doubt the idea that he can hear Emma’s voice, telling himself that it may be just the wind after all, he places the two possibilities alongside each other in the poem’s final stanza, as if keeping alive the idea that ‘the woman’ is indeed ‘calling’. The use of pathetic fallacy in the autumnal scene (the leaves are falling around him) and the image of Hardy ‘faltering forward’ (the word ‘faltering’ gently picked up in the word ‘falling’ in the next line) remind us that Hardy was in his early 70s when Emma died and he wrote ‘The Voice’. This is an old man lamenting not just the death of his wife, but the loss of his own youthful life with Emma when they had both met and had their whole lives ahead of them. (The later years of their marriage would not be so bright.)
‘Wistlessness’ may have been a new noun but ‘wistless’ is well served by an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, the word having been used by Robert Southey in his Joan of Arc (1796): ‘And, wistless what I did, half from the sheath / Drew the well-temper’d blade.’ But originally Hardy had not written ‘wan wistlessness’ but ‘existlessness’, which would have lost us the alliteration (which is so integral to the poem throughout) but also the sense of Emma’s death as something more than a ‘mere’ loss of existence, but, additionally, a loss of sentience and an ability to converse with the living (as Hardy longs to believe Emma is doing with her ‘voice’ in this poem).
‘The Voice’ is written in an unusual metre for English poetry: dactylic tetrameter (‘Woman much missed how you call to me call to me’), whereby each foot comprises three syllables, the first of which is stressed, followed by two unstressed syllables. This gives the poem a sprightliness that seems at odds with the nostalgic and sorrowful tone of the poem, but it succeeds in capturing the sense of confusion and excitement that Hardy feels at supposedly hearing the voice of a woman he knows to be dead. Although he can analyse his reaction and find it wanting (probably just the wind, after all), he cannot help but keep a little piece of hope alive.
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 pick of Thomas Hardy novels, our analysis of his heartfelt poem about the death of his first wife, our thoughts on his classic poem ‘Afterwards’, and our discussion of his ‘Neutral Tones’.
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.