The poem is named for its first line. This was a popular practice in the 19th century and continues to this day. The choice to not selected an independent title lets the poem stand on its own terms, without an initial phrase (separate from the poetic narrative) to set the tone.
Explore Oh could I raise the darken’d veil
The poem begins with the speaker wondering aloud what he would do if he had the chance to see into “Fate’s mysterious book.” He is curious what he would see if he was able to “raise” the veil that separates this world from the future, and take a look at the “unborn ages” that will come after him, and the days of his life he is yet to live. While this prospect might be tempting at first, he knows that he would regret having looked, if it ever came to that. He would not “dare” to look past his own time, for any reason at all.
The second half of the poem is spent in flushing out the reasoning behind this choice. The speaker knows that if he looked into the future there is a chance that he will not like what he sees. He could find himself looking at poverty and unending grief that lies in wait for him. If this was the case, he knows himself well enough to predict that he would be driven to suicide in an attempt to avoid such a fate.
The speaker concludes by stating once more that no matter how tempting it might be, he would never want to know his own future. He will not look behind the veil or in the “fix’d” book of “Fate.”
Analysis of Oh could I raise the darken’d veil
Oh could I raise the darken’d veil,
Which hides my future life from me,
Could unborn ages slowly sail,
Before my view—and could I see
My every action painted there,
To cast one look I would not dare.
The speaker begins ‘Oh could I raise the darken’d veil’ with the line that becomes the title of the poem. At first, this line regarding seeing into the future might be misinterpreted as a wish, or longing that the speaker holds. This is not the case, the poet begins with this phrase to let the reader know that this is the topic his speaker will be ruminating on. He is considering what would happen and how he would feel if he could “raise the darken’d veil” and see what his future holds.
The poet has chosen to represent the boundary between the present and the future with a “veil” to give the action a sense of ease. It is not something to be taken lightly, but when one has decided to peer beyond, it will not take much effort. It is only a simple “veil, / Which hides my future life from me.”
The speaker imagines what it would be like, and what he would see, if he looked beyond his time. These scenes would be lolling and “slowly sail” past him from his vantage point. It is not only his future he is seeing, but that of all “unborn ages.” He will have the weight of the entire world’s future on him, if he did choose to look.
More importantly to him, and to anyone who gained such power, is his own life, and “every action” is there for his viewing. At this point the reader will be considering a similar prospect, what would it be like see simply see everything?
The speaker has made up his mind and states without hesitation that he “would not dare” to “cast” even “one look” out into the future. He knows the power of seeing such sights and is fully aware of the potential tragedies that might be waiting for him.
There poverty and grief might stand,
And dark Despair’s corroding hand,
Would make me seek the lonely tomb
To slumber in its endless gloom.
Then let me never cast a look,
Within Fate’s fix’d mysterious book.
The second part of the poem is made up of the speaker’s reasoning. To many, his choice might seem shortsighted, cowardly, or wasteful, but he is able to fully articulate and pronounce a convincing argument to the contrary.
He describes the possible sights from the future he might see laid out before him. There could be the spectre of “poverty and grief,” and does not know what the result of seeing such a sight would be but it is likely that “dark Despair” would take a hold on him. “Despair” is capitalized in an attempt to imbue the force with a consciousness and independent power. It is very possible the speaker will be overcome with “Despair” for a future that does not exist yet and “seek the lonely tomb” too early.
He is worried the sight of a poor future would drive him to depression and suicide in an effort to escape earthly gloom, and seek “endless gloom.” A world in which he is sleeping, away from any possible future unhappiness might tempt him, depending on what he saw.
He knows all these facts about himself so he refuses now, if he ever gets a chance in the future, to “cast a look.” The speaker strongly states that “Fate’s fix’d,” or unchanging, “mysterious book,” will never be known to him.
About Nathaniel Hawthorne
Nathanial Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1804. His father was a captain who died at sea of yellow fever when Hawthorne was only four years old. Without much family money, the young Hawthorne attended Bowdoin College from 1821 to 1825 where he appeared to have no aptitude for structured learning. After graduating, Hawthorne returned home to his mother and sisters where he would live for the next twelve years.
It was during this period that he first began to self-publish short stories and by 1832 he had written a number of his best-known pieces. Hawthorne eventually broke his self-imposed isolation and married Sophia Peabody in July of 1842. They moved to Concord, Massachusetts, and soon after their first, of three children was born. The Hawthorne family quickly relocated to Salem where Nathanial briefly worked as a surveyor. Soon without a job, Hawthorne had time to write his masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter. It was this work that would make Hawthorne famous.
In the coming years, the family would travel throughout England, spending time in Italy, and eventually moving back to Concord. In the final years of Hawthorne’s life, he found little literary success. His health was failing him and, refusing to seek medical help, died in his sleep in May of 1864.