‘A Sunday Morning Tragedy’ by Thomas Hardy was written in January of 1904 and later published in 1909 in the collection, Time’s Laughingstocks and Other Verses. The poem was a point of some controversy at the time due to its less than “family-friendly” subject matter. It was later claimed by writers Arthur Maywood and Ford Madox Brown that they founded an entire publication, The English Rose, just to release this piece.
The Ballad Form
A Sunday Morning Tragedy is a thirty-three stanza ballad that is separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. It is due to the use of quatrains and the subject matter that ‘A Sunday Morning Tragedy’ is considered to be a ballad. The ballad form stands out due to the relative simplicity of the lines. The style, diction, and structure are straightforward and easy for the reader to comprehend. Another element of the ballad that Hardy makes use of is dialogue. The poem is divided into sections that allow time to hear from different characters.
The rhyme scheme is also beneficial to the ballad form. It follows a pattern of ABAB CBCB, and so on, alternating end sounds as the poet saw fit. The “B” sound remains the same throughout the text. Or more simply, every second and fourth line ends with the “-ee” sound. This sing-song-like pattern is an important aspect of a ballad.
Additionally, the reader will notice the use of a refrain in the text, “alas for me.” This is another technique common to the English ballad. Repetition also comes up in the use and reuse of the words “me” and “be” at the end of a number of lines. In fact, “me” appears at the end of a total of twenty-six and “be” a total of twenty.
The poem begins with the speaker describing how wonderful it was at first to have a beautiful daughter. The joy soon receded though when it became clear how popular the girl was going to be with men. She eventually got overly attached to one man, they slept together and she got pregnant.
The new sections tell of how the mother sought out a shepherd who gave her an herb that would cause the daughter to miscarry. In the next lines the daughter takes the herb as a drink and gets deathly ill.
At the same time, it is revealed that the lover has changed his mind and declared that he’s going to marry her. After learning the news of this marriage, the mother, as well as the lover and all his friends, discover that the daughter has died. The mother blames herself completely for this tragic turn of events.
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Analysis of A Sunday Morning Tragedy
I bore a daughter flower-fair,
In Pydel Vale, alas for me;
I joyed to mother one so rare,
But dead and gone I now would be.
In the first stanza of ‘Sunday Morning Tragedy’ the speaker begins by explaining that she had a female child. When she was born, and when she was young, the girl was as fair as a flower one might find in “Pydel Vale,” their home. She was initially thrilled to have had a daughter who was so “rare” in her beauty. It seemed to be a blessing, but she soon discovered that was not the case.
Now, in the last line of the stanza, the speaker states that she would rather be “dead and gone.” Something terrible, in relation to the daughter, has happened.
Men looked and loved her as she grew,
And she was won, alas for me;
She told me nothing, but I knew,
And saw that sorrow was to be.
The second stanza immediately reveals that it had something to do with men. It is easy to guess at this point about at least part of the situation. The speaker states that “she was won.” Some man stole her heart and the two slept together, taking the girl’s virginity that was such an important commodity in Hardy’s time.
Although her daughter did not tell her what happened, as her mother, she “knew.” It did not take much for the mother to understand that the relationship was going to bring “sorrow” to the whole family.
I knew that one had made her thrall,
A thrall to him, alas for me;
And then, at last, she told me all,
And wondered what her end would be.
The man who stole her daughter’s heart “made her thrall.” She became like a slave to him. This is repeated twice in order to emphasize how true the statement is. The girl lost all independent choice, she was entirely attached to this man.
Finally, after some time had passed, the girl told her mother what had happened. She was as distressed as the mother. All she could think about is what kind of “end” she is going to meet. There is no doubt in her mind that her death, or at least social end, is coming.
She owned that she had loved too well,
Had loved too well, unhappy she,
And bore a secret time would tell,
Though in her shroud she’d sooner be.
The fourth stanza of ‘A Sunday Morning Tragedy’ relays the girl’s confession to her mother. She admitted that she “had loved too well.” She had given too much of herself to this man and was only now beginning to realize the consequences. The young woman, who had once been so happy is very distinctly “unhappy” now.
The third line reveals what the reader probably already expected, she is pregnant. This is not good news. The girl feels as though she’d rather be dead, “in her shroud” than have to deal with these consequences. This mirrors what the mother said in the first stanza.
I plodded to her sweetheart’s door
In Pydel Vale, alas for me:
I pleaded with him, pleaded sore,
To save her from her misery.
The fifth stanza of ‘A Sunday Morning Tragedy’ describes how the mother went to her daughter’s lover’s house and “pleaded sore” with him to “save her.” She wanted him to marry her daughter, save her from the disgrace of having a child out of wedlock and provide her, and their child, with a future.
He frowned, and swore he could not wed,
Seven times he swore it could not be;
“Poverty’s worse than shame,” he said,
Till all my hope went out of me.
The man does not provide her with the answer she was looking for. He is certain that the poverty the two, and then three, would live in, would be worse than the shame. This comes from his perspective though, he does not have to face the “shame” he is speaking about.
Eventually, after trying to convince him she gives up. All of her hope that this person was going to save her daughter “went out of” her.
“I’ve packed my traps to sail the main” –
Roughly he spake, alas did he —
“Wessex beholds me not again,
‘Tis worse than any jail would be!”
The seventh stanza of ‘A Sunday Morning Tragedy’ is the first which contains a drawn-out amount of dialogue. A reader should also take note of the use of dialect in these lines which makes the speaker’s voice all the easier to hear.
The man actually has the exact opposite reaction to the one the mother would’ve wanted. He declares that he is going to pack up his “traps” or his belongings and go sail on the sea. He spoke to her “roughly” and without any tenderness that should be associated with the situation.
The daughter’s lover goes on to say that “Wessex” or the southwestern part of the country will not see him again. He believes that his continued presence there would be the worse sort of imprisonment. It is clear the man is beyond reach.
— There was a shepherd whom I knew,
A subtle man, alas for me:
I sought him all the pastures through,
Though better I had ceased to be.
The eighth stanza is the second part of the mother’s plan. Since she was unable to convince the lover to help her daughter, she went to see “a shepherd whom [she] knew.” The mother went on a hunt for this person.
Unfortunately for her, he was hard to find. She went through pastures and put out a great deal of effort to track him down. All this, despite the fact that she wanted to die. It would’ve been better if she had “ceased to be.” It is her desire to help her daughter that’s driving her on.
I traced him by his lantern light,
And gave him hint, alas for me,
Of how she found her in the plight
That is so scorned in Christendie.
Finally, in the ninth stanza of ‘A Sunday Morning Tragedy’ she was able to locate his “lantern light.” When she did, she spoke to him and explained her daughter’s situation— how she “found her in the plight.” It is the one, she adds, that Christians are so fearful and disdainful of. It is “scorned in Christendie.”
“Is there an herb . . .?” I asked. ” Or none?”
Yes, thus I asked him desperately.
” — There is,” he said; ” a certain one. . . .”
Would he had sworn that none knew he!
In the tenth stanza of ‘A Sunday Morning Tragedy’ it becomes clear what the mother is seeking from this man. She hopes that she can buy an “herb” from him that will induce a miscarriage in her daughter. The mother is fearful that he is going to say no, she is quite desperate.
He interrupts her to say that yes, “There is” a “certain one” that will make sure the daughter loses the child. This is a turning point in the poem as the news should be happy, but it is not relayed as such by the speaker. She states that she wishes that “he had sworn that none knew he!” Something else is going to happen, something that is perhaps worse than the pregnancy itself.
“To-morrow I will walk your way,”
He hinted low, alas for me. —
Fieldwards I gazed throughout next day;
Now fields I never more would see!
The man tells the mother that sometime tomorrow he plans to go by their house. He “hinted” at this “low.” The man said it softly as if worried that someone else would hear. He was being discreet.
The mother spent the next day looking out “Fieldwards” waiting for the shepherd to get to their house. This was such a long process, and as alluded to above, one that led to something terrible, that she’d rather never see a field again.
The sunset-shine, as curfew strook,
As curfew strook beyond the lea,
Lit his white smock and gleaming crook,
While slowly he drew near to me.
Finally, when the sun was going down, the man appeared. The lights of the sun were shining down “beyond the lea,” or open grassland area. They caught on the man’s white clothes and the shepherd’s “crook” that he was carrying.
The scene seems to move in slow motion as the man gets closer and closer to the mother. It is clear from this description that the mother recalls this moment in great detail. It is pivotal in the narrative.
He pulled from underneath his smock
The herb I sought, my curse to be —
“At times I use it in my flock,”
He said, and hope waxed strong in me.
The man has what the mother was looking for. The “herbs” were under his “smock” and he pulls them out. They are her “curse to be.” Hardy couldn’t really have imbued this piece with more foreshadowing. As if hoping to explain the reason why he has these herbs, he states that they are sometimes used in his “flock” of sheep.
This is taken as proof by the mother that they are going to work for her daughter. At this point, it is important to take note of the fact that the daughter’s will has yet to be expressed.
” ‘Tis meant to balk ill-motherings” —
(Ill-motherings! Why should they be?) —
“If not, would God have sent such things?”
So spoke the shepherd unto me.
The shepherd speaks to the mother in the fourteenth stanza of ‘A Sunday Morning Tragedy’ before he goes. He declares that he doesn’t believe that there are “illmothersings.” All children are legitimate and should be born. This is what God must’ve wanted or why would he “have sent such things?”
The mother simply relays the shepherd’s words, they do not make any impact on her decision. It’s clear from the previous lines though that she wishes she’d listened and stopped herself before using them.
That night I watched the poppling brew,
With bended back and hand on knee:
I stirred it till the dawnlight grew,
And the wind whiffled wailfully.
It was later that night that the mother put the herbs into a brew. The water was “poppling” or boiling and she spent all night stirring it. This took great effort on her part, as is depicted through her “hand on knee” and “bended back.” The mother is steadfast in her purpose. She’s going to give this everything she has.
“This scandal shall be slain,” said I,
“That lours upon her innocency:
I’ll give all whispering tongues the lie;” —
But worse than whispers was to be.
In the next lines of ‘A Sunday Morning Tragedy,’ the mother speaks her intentions out loud. She means to act drastically and slay the “scandal” that has fallen upon her daughter. The mother intends to save the girl from the disgrace and troubles of the pregnancy. But, something much worse than that happened.
“Here’s physic for untimely fruit,”
I said to her, alas for me,
Early that morn in fond salute;
And in my grave I now would be.
The mother passes the concoction over to her daughter and tells her that it is “for untimely fruit.” This is of course a reference to the unborn child that is still in its earliest developmental stages. Another dark line follows in which the mother wishes to be in her “grave…now.” This does not bode well.
— Next Sunday came, with sweet church chimes
In Pydel Vale, alas for me:
I went into her room betimes;
No more may such a Sunday be!
A week has passed since the mother gave the herbs to the daughter. Things were taking a turn for the worse. The church bells are chiming at this moment and when she went into her daughter’s room she gets a shock. Rather than improving she has gotten worse. The mother asks that no Sundays like this one ever come again.
“Mother, instead of rescue nigh,”
She faintly breathed, alas for me,
“I feel as I were like to die,
And underground soon, soon should be.”
The daughter reveals in this stanza that something terrible has gone wrong. She does not feel as though she is being rescued. Instead, she feels as if she is “like to die.” The herb has not worked like the mother thought. The daughter knows that she is going to “soon” be in the ground.
From church that noon the people walked
In twos and threes, alas for me,
Showed their new raiment — smiled and talked,
Though sackcloth-clad I longed to be.
The speaker looks out from her space within her home and takes note of all the people who are walking back from church. She saw them and wished herself among them. The mother would do anything to escape from this situation and be amongst the smiling and talking churchgoers. She’d even endure poverty if need be.
Came to my door her lover’s friends,
And cheerly cried, alas for me,
“Right glad are we he makes amends,
For never a sweeter bride can be.”
Suddenly at the door, there are people, the friends of the lover. They are incredibly happy, strangely so. To the mother looking back on this moment, it is as dark as any other. They exclaim that they are glad their friend (the lover) has made amends. The daughter is going to be the sweetest bride ever.
This comes as a complete shock to the mother as well as the reader.
My mouth dried, as ’twere scorched within,
Dried at their words, alas for me:
More and more neighbours crowded in,
(O why should mothers ever be!)
The mother’s mouth immediately dries out. She is stunned by this turn of events which comes on top of the fact that her daughter is incredibly ill in the next room. Everyone is coming into the house. There are neighbors upon neighbors. All this joy does not match up with the tone the speaker has taken throughout the text. It is not leading to anything good.
“Ha-ha! Such well-kept news!” laughed they,
Yes — so they laughed, alas for me.
“Whose banns were called in church to-day?” —
Christ, how I wished my soul could flee!
The friends notice the mother’s surprise and shout out that was “well-kept news!” Aka, it was a well-kept secret that the lover had changed his mind. They laughed and laughed at the situation, but the mother did not. She asks about the “banns” that were called in church. This is a reference to an announcement of an intended marriage. It is called out in church for three successive Sundays just in case anyone needs to object.
“Where is she? O the stealthy miss,”
Still bantered they, alas for me,
“To keep a wedding close as this. . . .”
Ay, Fortune worked thus wantonly!
The friends start asking for the daughter. They want her to come out and celebrate with the rest of the neighborhood. The men and women talked on and on and the mother didn’t know what to do.
She is shocked that anyone would keep a wedding this secret, as well as at how “Fortune” was working.
“But you are pale — you did not know?”
They archly asked, alas for me,
I stammered, “Yes — some days — ago,”
While coffined clay I wished to be.
In stanza twenty-six of ‘A Sunday Morning Tragedy,’ the friends notice that the mother is pale. She is still in shock and claims that she was aware that the two were going to get married. It was “some days—ago” the mother lies, that she found out. While saying all this all she can do is wish that she was in the ground, in a coffin where she could escape from the horror playing out in front of her.
“‘Twas done to please her, we surmise?”
(They spoke quite lightly in their glee)
“Done by him as a fond surprise?”
I thought their words would madden me.
The friends have yet to realize anything is wrong. They are still speaking “Lightly in their glee.” They want to know if this is going to be a “fond surprise” to the daughter, which of course it would’ve been a week earlier.
Rather than please her, these words drive the mother to the brink of madness.
Her lover entered. “Where’s my bird? —
My bird — my flower — my picotee?
First time of asking, soon the third!”
Ah, in my grave I well may be.
The lover steps into the scene. He asks the mother light-heartedly where his “bird” is. He is of course referring to the daughter who he scorned only days before. She is now his “flower” and “picotee,” a kind of carnation with light-colored flowers and dark-edged petals.
He wants the daughter to come forward so that he may reveal his grand surprise to her, that they are to get married after all! It is perhaps not necessary to note how manipulative this behavior is.
To me he whispered: “Since your call — ”
So spoke he then, alas for me —
“I’ve felt for her, and righted all.”
— I think of it to agony.
In the twenty-ninth stanza of ‘A Sunday Morning Tragedy,’ the lover explains why he had the change of mind. He recalls the conversation between himself and the mother and how wrong he was at the time. It is an “agony” for him to look back on. Now he is determined to do the right thing and marry the woman he got pregnant with.
“She’s faint to-day — tired — nothing more — ”
Thus did I lie, alas for me. . . .
I called her at her chamber door
As one who scarce had strength to be.
The mother replies to the man, explaining that the daughter is not immediately present because she felt “faint to-day.” That is all, she states, there is nothing really wrong. The mother is clearly overwhelmed by the whole situation and unable to even process what’s happening in front of her.
In response, she goes into the house and moves tentatively towards her daughter’s door. The last time they spoke the daughter was not well. Now, recalling this moment, the mother says she barely “had strength to be.” She felt un-human and very much not herself. The desire to separate herself from the world is just as strong as it was.
No voice replied. I went within —
O women! scourged the worst are we. . . .
I shrieked. The others hastened in
And saw the stroke there dealt on me.
There is no reply from inside. She went in to check on her daughter and…. The line tapers off into a dash. Enjambment is used very strategically to create more suspense. In the next lines, the mother’s reaction is very accurately portrayed. She exclaims in horror at the memory and the plagued lives of women. They are doomed to suffer.
Everyone behind her ran inside and beheld the “stroke” that had just been “dealt” to her. That is, of course, the death of her daughter from the drought she made her.
There she lay — silent, breathless, dead,
Stone dead she lay — wronged, sinless she! —
Ghost-white the cheeks once rosy-red:
Death had took her. Death took not me.
The daughter is dead, silent, and like a “Stone.” This situation is terrible to comprehend, even when looked at with some distance. The mother saw herself as the sinner, her daughter as “sinless.”
She recalls how “rosy-red” her cheeks used to be and how they are now “Ghost-white.” Rather than the mother, who sees herself as the one who did wrong, it was the daughter who suffered. The tragic unfairness of the situation is hard for her to deal with.
I kissed her colding face and hair,
I kissed her corpse — the bride to be! —
My punishment I cannot bear,
But pray God not to pity me.
In the last lines, the mother kisses her daughter’s “colding face and hair.” She was a corpse, no longer a young woman, a mother or bride to be. This is the mother’s punishment for how she acted. She wanted to share the story not because she wanted pity but so that others could learn from her. She asks god “not to pity” her in fact.