A close reading of Hardy’s poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘At an Inn’ was published in Thomas Hardy’s first collection of poetry, Wessex Poems (1898). The poem, in summary, tells of Hardy’s visit to an inn with a woman who is mistaken for his lover by the servants working at the inn. Before we proceed to an analysis of ‘At an Inn’, here’s a reminder of the poem.
At an Inn
When we as strangers sought
Their catering care,
Veiled smiles bespoke their thought
Of what we were.
They warmed as they opined
Us more than friends—
That we had all resigned
For love’s dear ends.
And that swift sympathy
With living love
Which quicks the world—maybe
The spheres above,
Made them our ministers,
Moved them to say,
‘Ah, God, that bliss like theirs
Would flush our day!’
And we were left alone
As Love’s own pair;
Yet never the love-light shone
Between us there!
But that which chilled the breath
And palsied unto death
The pane-fly’s tune.
The kiss their zeal foretold,
And now deemed come,
Came not: within his hold
Love lingered numb.
Why cast he on our port
A bloom not ours?
Why shaped us for his sport
As we seemed we were not
That day afar,
And now we seem not what
We aching are.
O severing sea and land,
O laws of men,
Ere death, once let us stand
As we stood then!
‘At an Inn’ was probably inspired by a real-life event: a visit Hardy made to an inn in Winchester in 1893 with Florence Henniker, the wife of an army officer. (Hardy himself was married to his first wife, Emma Gifford.) Henniker is the ‘rare fair woman’ mentioned in Hardy’s poem ‘Wessex Heights’, and their Platonic relationship is also the subject of his poem ‘A Broken Appointment’. Hardy appears to have wanted more than friendship from her, but she declined such an idea and the two remained friends and correspondents.
But ‘At an Inn’ captures a moment early on in their friendship, not long after they’d met, when Hardy and Henniker took lunch together at the George Inn in Winchester. At least, that is our most likely guess for a biographical source for the poem. But what is ‘At an Inn’ about?
In summary, ‘At an Inn’ sees Hardy addressing his female companion as they stop at a pub to take some food and refreshment there. The people who work at the inn divine that there’s a romantic frisson between Hardy and his companion, that they are ‘more than friends’. The staff at the inn warm to Hardy and his female companion because love ‘quicks the world’ (i.e. enlivens it, or, if you will, as Madonna had it, makes the world go round).
But if Hardy and his female guest do love each other, these feelings do not materialise in the form of a kiss, much as the staff at the inn would love to see that happen. Hardy curses the fact that fate has thrown them together like this and yet they feel unable to seal their feelings for each other with a kiss in public.
In the final stanza, Hardy suggests the paradox of his relationship with the woman: back then (‘that day afar’), they seemed to be lovers but weren’t actually in a relationship; now, nobody observing them would think them lovers, but in fact they are. Hardy’s point here seems to be that the first flush of love and desire, when anticipation is everything and lovers have yet to consummate their feelings, is the time when two lovers’ romantic and sexual attachment to each other is most apparent to the world. ‘Lovers’ who have been together for years no longer have that ‘glow’, if you will.
In the final four lines of ‘At an Inn’, Hardy calls upon his companion from that day to rekindle that feeling from all those years ago when they shared that pub meal loaded with sexual and romantic tension – to recreate it once more, before they are parted by death. (They are already parted by sea and land and by ‘laws of men’: Hardy was married to somebody else at the time, after all!)
One final piece of literary analysis: ‘The pane-fly’s tune’ recalls the buzzing bluebottle trapped in the windowpane in Tennyson’s great poem of romantic frustration and confinement, ‘Mariana’ (‘The blue fly sung in the pane’).
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.
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Thank you for this lovely article – it’s a beautiful poem with such a strong sense of loss and wistfulness…
Hardy’s poem takes us on a journey through the time and space of a real visit and through the ache of love unrealized and of love still deeply desired.
I know Hardy through his novels, and reading “At An Inn” teaches me why he thought of himself primarily as a poet.
As for the language of the poem, much happens in very few words—vivid in simplicity is great art.
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Enjoyed that, thanks. Not sure I would have had any hope of understanding it without help like this, unless I had a long time to tease it out, which wouldn’t be an activity I’d willingly commit to. But it’s delightful now that I get it.
I feel the same about Shakespeare- people who read a play without interpretive assistance and say they understand it are pretending….
Thanks Ben – and I think that’s the best defence of literary criticism/analysis there is. The right ‘way in’ can show the point behind a particular poem or other literary work :)