10 of the Best Thomas Hardy Poems

Thomas Hardy was born in Dorset, England in June of 1840. His family was not wealthy, meaning that he was unable to attend university and was made to leave school at the age of sixteen. It was while working in London that Hardy first became aware of the vast economic disparities and social injustices that were occurring around him on a daily basis. These were topics that would make their way into his later writings. He decided to devote more of his time to the development of his poetic skills. At the time of his writing, none of the publishing houses were interested, forcing him to consider writing prose instead. 

Two of Thomas Hardy’s most important novels, ‘Jude the Obscure,’ and ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles,’ was published in 1891 and 1895. It was not until the early 1900s that Hardy returned to poetry and published a three-volume poetic drama titled, ‘The Dynasts’. Hardy was struck with loss in 1912 when his wife, Emma, died. The couple had been separated for over twenty years but her death hit the poet hard and he would write about her in his following volumes. He died on January 11th, 1928 and most of his remains were interred in Westminster Abby. His heart was separated and buried in the churchyard of his hometown. 

 

The Ruined Maid

This piece was written in 1866 and published in 1901 in Poems of the Past and the Present. In its simplest terms, it is a poem about a woman who lost her virginity and is, therefore, looked down on by the rest of society. Within the text, Thomas Hardy addresses how the woman sees herself and how others see her. Despite the dark undertones, the poem is fairly upbeat. It takes the form of a dialogue between two people which is made entertaining through the use of a simple AABB rhyme scheme.

 

Wessex Heights 

This piece is a classic of the English countryside in which the speaker, likely Thomas Hardy surveys the lands around him from a high point. He can see Dorset, and his thoughts bring him ultimately to his own life and the things he has done and left undone. His loves and losses come to him as do strange memories of the past. There are encounters with friends and enemies and a few mentions of ghosts. He concludes by stating it is only in these natural places that he can find some peace. This is because “women” have not “walked with” him there. Nor have other men gotten in his way. There are no ghosts and he knows “some liberty”. 

 

The Darkling Thrush 

Just like a few other pieces on this list ‘The Darkling Thrush’ opens on a dreary landscape. It is frozen and dark. The scene inspires the speaker to consider death and how it comes for everyone and everything. He wonders why he should be happy when there is no way to escape this ultimate end. The only thing that cheers the scene is the sound of a bird singing. It confuses the speaker, but he doesn’t think too hard about it. He’s happy enough knowing it exists. 

 

The Voice 

‘The Voice’ was written after the death of Thomas Hardy’s estranged wife, Emma. This piece, like many dedicated to his deceased wife, contains ghosts. In this case, Hardy speaks to his wife and tells her how she is always calling him. Whenever he hears his name, he hopes that it is her. But, it is likely just the breeze. He compares his own emotional state to the listless falling of lilacs and movements of the wind. The speaker “falter[s]” through his life, listening for the sound of his wife’s voice. 

 

The Convergence of the Twain 

‘The Convergence of the Twain’ describes the power of “Immanent Will” in regard to the destiny of the Titanic and the iceberg.  It has the ability to decide on future convergences, or more simply, it controls all coming events. The force decided to “twin” the iceberg and the ship, therefore, when they met, it had already been predetermined. 

Within this piece, the sea symbolizes another world, one that is impossible for humankind to fully understand. There is an inherent mystery to its impenetrable depths. Additionally, the speaker emphasizes the solitude which one is forced into while in or on the sea. There is no one else to speak or fight with, instead, one is forced to contend with their own consciousness. 

 

A Sheep Fair 

This poem is a vivid depiction of a day in the lives of farmers. The speaker describes the terrible, rainy weather at “Pummery Fair,” where farmers go to auction off their sheep. Everyone there was soaked through, and the sheep were even worse off than the people. They were crammed into enclosures, thousands pressed together uncomfortably; they strained against their barriers. The last section of the poem is a postscript that looks back on the fair from an unknown future date. Everyone who attended is now dead, as are the sheep and the auctioneer who sold them. In the end, this piece is a depiction of the difficulties associated with making one’s living from the land. 

 

I Looked Up from My Writing 

‘I Looked Up from My Writing’ is a contemplative piece in which a writer is confronted with his own ignorance and irresponsibility. At the beginning of the poem, a writer, who is perhaps meant to be Thomas Hardy himself, is startled by the presence of the moon directly outside his window. He initially believes the moon is there to see what he is writing but is soon proven wrong. The moon is personified, and “she” states that she out looking for the body of a man who killed himself by drowning. The moon is there at his window because she wants to know what kind of man can spend his time writing when other men are experiencing such sorrow. She accuses the writer of blinding himself to the horrors of the rest of the world. He is very upset by this accusation and hides from her light. 

 

In Tenebris

“Tenebris” is a Latin phrase meaning “in the darkness”. This makes sense considering the subject matter of the poem and the mental state Hardy was in while writing. The poem opens with an epigram, or a short phrase or quote. It is also in Latin and reads, “Percussus sum sicut foenum, et aruit cor meum,” or “My heart is smitten, and withered like grass”. 

In its entirety, the poem is about the speaker’s mental state and how it is connected to his environment and his emotions. He is so deep in his own depression that dark imagery no longer impacts him. The speaker exists in a liminal state of “unhope,” waiting for something to change his way of life, but nothing seems to. 

 

The Forbidden Banns 

‘The Forbidden Banns’ is a long narrative poem that tells the tragic story of a doomed marriage. At the beginning of this piece, a man and a woman are getting married. The man’s father is strongly against this union for an unknown reason. His dislike of the woman is so strong that he protests the marriage in church when the “banns” are read. He suffers a heart attack on the spot and dies. Things only go downhill from there with unhappiness plaguing the family. She gives birth to two disabled sons, and the husband eventually kills his wife and then himself. 

 

And There Was a Great Calm 

This poem is one of Thomas Hardy’s best-known. It describes the horrors of World War II and the “Great Calm” which came on November 11th, 1918. In the first lines, he speaks on the years of emotion and how they impacted the peoples of the world. Those fighting, and those at home were all changed by it. The men on the battlefields truly suffered, so much so that when the war is declared over, no one can quite believe it. The “calm” at the end of the war brings with it some hope but at the same time a silence that everyone is going to need to fill as they try to go back to their lives. 

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