On one of Hardy’s best-known poems – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was a prolific poet, with his Complete Poems running to 1,000 pages. Yet he’s not generally known for being a satirical poet. ‘The Ruined Maid’, one of his earliest and best-known poems, is a rare example of Thomas Hardy’s satirical verse. And although we don’t tend to associate Hardy with satirical writing, one of his later volumes of poetry was called Satires of Circumstance – combining the ironic genre of satire with one of Hardy’s favourite words. Written in 1866, ‘The Ruined Maid’ was only published in 1901, in Hardy’s second collection, Poems of the Past and Present. Before some analysis, here’s the poem.
The Ruined Maid
‘O ’Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?’ —
‘O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?’ said she.
— ‘You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,
Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks;
And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers three!’ —
‘Yes: that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,’ said she.
— ‘At home in the barton you said thee’ and thou,’
And thik oon,’ and theäs oon,’ and t’other’; but now
Your talking quite fits ’ee for high compa-ny!’ —
‘Some polish is gained with one’s ruin,’ said she.
— ‘Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak
But now I’m bewitched by your delicate cheek,
And your little gloves fit as on any la-dy!’ —
‘We never do work when we’re ruined,’ said she.
— ‘You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream,
And you’d sigh, and you’d sock; but at present you seem
To know not of megrims or melancho-ly!’ —
‘True. One’s pretty lively when ruined,’ said she.
— ‘I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!’ —
‘My dear — a raw country girl, such as you be,
Cannot quite expect that. You ain’t ruined,’ said she.
Written in rhyming couplets of anapaestic tetrameter with an iambic substitution at the beginning of most lines (e.g. ‘I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown’), ‘The Ruined Maid’ is written in the jaunty and light-hearted form and metre associated with much nineteenth-century satirical poetry. Yet although Hardy intended the poem to be read or even analysed as satirical in tone, ‘The Ruined Maid’ does throw out some curious questions about attitudes to gender (or, let’s face it and be specific about it, to women and sex) in Victorian society.
In summary, ‘The Ruined Maid’ is about an encounter between two old acquaintances, women who both came from lowly and working-class origins, who meet each other by chance while in town. However, one of these women, Amelia, the ‘ruined maid’ of the poem’s title, has escaped her working-class roots and acquired all sorts of fine clothes and other trappings of upper-class life, because she has become the mistress or kept woman of a wealthy man.
Being ‘ruined’, as the word implies, meant that the woman became, effectively, a social outcast in Victorian society: if you had engaged in sexual intercourse with a man outside of marriage, your reputation, and your life, were both ‘ruined’, and you had little chance of finding a respectable husband who was prepared to overlook your past and marry you. You were dishonoured, ‘damaged goods’, and other such detestable phrases (detestable to us now, but part and parcel of not only Victorian England and, indeed, England in much of the twentieth century too). Indeed, Philip Larkin, a twentieth-century poet – and one who, incidentally, was much influenced by Hardy – wrote an early poem, ‘Deceptions’, which was inspired by an excerpt from a Victorian study of working-class conditions, Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, which shows how the word was used in nineteenth-century England:
Of course I was drugged, and so heavily I did not regain consciousness until the next morning. I was horrified to discover that I had been ruined, and for some days I was inconsolable, and cried like a child to be killed or sent back to my aunt.
But in ‘The Ruined Maid’, being ‘ruined’ is presented as a way of moving up in the world, of entering the ranks of the wealthy even though one was born a lower-class family. Used as a recurring conclusion, if not quite a refrain, to each stanza, the word ‘ruined’ starts to sound like social aspiration rather than social ostracism. This is confirmed in the final stanza of the poem, where the ‘ruined maid’, Amelia, dismisses her friend’s envy for her new-found social position by saying that, as a ‘raw country girl’, she could never hope to attain the dizzy heights that Amelia herself has achieved. There’s irony here: the friend had earlier reminded Amelia that she used to use local dialect terms (e.g. ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ rather than ‘you’), which only the poorer classes used. Amelia, then, has forgotten her roots: she’s a social climber who has lost touch with her origins. But rather than earning her wealth and her fine clothes, she has acquired them by cheerily relinquishing her ‘honour’ and her body to the highest bidder. So maybe, after all, she has earned every penny, then?
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.