‘A Trampwoman’s Tragedy’ by Thomas Hardy was written in 1902 at Hardy’s home, Max Gate, in Dorchester, England. He initially submitted it to Cornhill Magazine, but the narrative poem was declared morally offensive and rejected. It was published in 1903 in North American Review. The piece was later republished in Time’s Laughingstocks in 1909 and then again in 1929 in Chosen Poems. It is now considered to be one of Hardy’s best poems, something the poet himself agreed with.
The poem begins with the speaker describing a journey across England. She and three companions were walking through forests, over hills, and thoroughly enjoying the trip. It was a long and hard one, but they had one another. The most important relationship within the group is that between the speaker, the trampwoman, and her lover. These two had been together for a long time and the speaker decided to tease her lover. She did so by pretending that another traveler, Jeering John, had won her over.
This progressed until her lover became enraged, demanded to know if she was carrying his child, and murdered Jeering John. His act of violence, and the speaker’s acts of thoughtlessness, led to his death by hanging. The speaker miscarried her child and was left alone to wander the landscape. The only moment of peace comes when the ghost of the lover comes to her and finally receives the correct answer to his question. Yes, the baby was his. This allows him to depart to the next life.
‘A Trampwoman’s Tragedy’ is made up of 104 lines which are divided into thirteen stanzas, each containing eight lines. These octaves (sets of eight lines) follow a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of AAABCCCB. This unusual rhyme scheme is repeated, with different end sounds, in each stanza. There is no standard pattern of meter in the text. The lines range from four syllables up to eleven or twelve.
Analysis of A Trampwoman’s Tragedy
From Wynyard’s Gap the livelong day,
The livelong day,
We beat afoot the northward way
We had travelled times before.
The sun-blaze burning on our backs,
Our shoulders sticking to our packs,
By fosseway1, fields, and turnpike tracks
We skirted sad Sedge-Moor.
In the first stanza of ‘A Trampwoman’s Tragedy’ the speaker, a trampswoman, talking in the first person, describes how she and an unknown number of companions moved north. They were first in the Wynyard Gap in South East England and spent the whole day walking. It was a path that they had traveled “times before.” This is a good example of alliteration, with the repetition of “t” in “travelled” and “times.” A reader should also notice how with the repetition of phrases such as “the livelong day” the lines take on a song-like quality as if someone is chanting or singing them out loud.
She goes on to say that while walking they could feel the sun on their backs. This was causing them to sweat, and therefore their “packs” were sticking to their shoulders. The seventh line begins with the word, “fosseway.” This refers to a Roman road in England that still today links Exeter to Lincoln in the East Midlands. It is clear that the setting is very important to the speaker. The first stanza alone contains three references to the English landscape.
In the last line, the trampswoman describes how he and his companions “skirted sad Sedge-Moor.” This refers to a battlefield, on which the last battle of the Monmouth Rebellion was fought. It was won by the Government and led to the capture of prisoners and the eventual execution of the rebel leader.
Full twenty miles we jaunted on,
We jaunted on, —
My fancy-man, and jeering John,
And Mother Lee, and I.
And, as the sun drew down to west,
We climbed the toilsome Polden crest,
And saw, of landskip sights the best,
The inn that beamed thereby.
The second stanza of ‘A Trampwoman’s Tragedy’ gives a few more details about who the speaker is with. There is the woman’s lover, “fancy-man,” as well as “Jerring John” and a woman older than the speaker, Mother Lee. The group was moving through Somerset, England and climbing through the Polden hills. When they got close to the top they saw the entire “landskip” or landscape. There were many good sights, but the best was a beaming inn.
Ay, side by side
Through the Great Forest, Blackmoor4 wide,
And where the Parret ran.
We’d faced the gusts on Mendip ridge,
Had crossed the Yeo unhelped by bridge,
Been stung by every Marshwood midge,
I and my fancy-man.
They continue on their way toward the inn. This means going through the “Great Forest, Blackmoor.” The speaker is particularly attached to her lover, and he features in these lines as they face a few dangers along the way. There were strong gusts of wind as well as a river that they had to cross without a bridge. Also, they were attacked by “every Marshwood midge” or tiny fly. It doesn’t appear that the speaker is bothered by any of this. She adds onto the end that all these dangers were surmounted alongside her lover.
Lone inns we loved, my man and I,
My man and I;
‘King’s Stag’, ‘Windwhistle’ high and dry,
‘The Horse’ on Hintock Green,
The cosy house at Wynyard’s Gap,
‘The Hut’, renowned on Bredy Knap,
And many another wayside tap
Where folk might sit unseen.
The speaker lists out a few of the inns that she and her lover enjoyed visiting. These included “’King’s Stag’, ‘Windwhistle’” and “’The Horse’ on Hintock Green.” There are no additional details that help one picture these places aside from the fact that they offered drink and sanctuary. It allowed them an amount of anonymity as well. This might speak to the nature of their relationship, perhaps they didn’t want to be scrutinized too closely.
O deadly day,
O deadly day! —
I teased my fancy man in play
And wanton idleness.
I walked alongside jeering John,
I laid his hand my waist upon;
I would not bend my glances on
My lover’s dark distress.
The trampswoman is having fun in these lines. She is teasing her lover by walking alongside the other man, Jeering John. She even let him put his hand on her waist. This is just a big game to her, something to entertain them on the road and make her lover jealous. It was “wanton idleness.” In order to distress her lover even further, she refused to look back at him as he grew more agitated over their separation.
The repetition in these lines is very pronounced. Hardy makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession.
In this case, “O deadly day” is used twice, in lines one and two, and “I” begins four of the following lines. Moments like this increase the musical qualities of the text.
Thus Poldon top at last we won,
At last we won,
And gained the inn at sink of sun
Far-famed as ‘Marshal’s Elm’.
Beneath us figured tor and lea,6
From Mendip to the western sea —
I doubt if any finer sight there be
Within this royal realm.
In the sixth stanza of ‘A Trampwoman’s Tragedy,’ they finally get to the top of the Poldon Hills. This allowed them to make their way to the inn at sundown. It was called “Marshals Elm” and was apparently “Far-famed.”
From where the group was standing there is a very good view. They are able to see from “Mendip to the western sea.” There are rock areas, or “tors,” and grassy open parts of the landscape, or “leas.” The speaker expresses her appreciation for the sight and adds that there was very likely nothing more beautiful within England.
Inside the settle all a-row —
All four a-row
We sat, I next to John, to show
That he had wooed and won.
And then he took me on his knee,
And swore it was his turn to be
My favoured mate, and Mother Lee
Passed to my former one.
Finally, the group gets inside the inn in the seventh stanza. Once there, they sit in a row, and the speaker, in an effort to continue her teasing, sits next to John. This was in order to show her lover that John had apparently “wooed and won” her. This is of course not true, but it is fun for her to make him think it is.
Then in a voice I had never heard,
I had never heard,
My only love to me: ‘One word,
My lady, if you please!
Whose is the child you are like to bear? —
His? After all my months o’ care?’
Gods knows ’twas not! But, O despair!
I nodded — still to tease.
In the eighth stanza of ‘A Trampwoman’s Tragedy’ something changes. The lover speaks up and asks the trampswoman, his “lady,” if she would have a word with him. He asks her directly if she is carrying his child or John’s. This does not appear to be a joke, the lover is deathly serious in this accusation.
It is also clear that he is quite distressed over what he thinks is a possible betrayal on her part. He mourns for the “months o’ care” he gave her and now despairs at his loss.The speaker doesn’t interpret the seriousness of the situation and nods to her lover as if indicating that his accusations are correct.
Then he sprung, and with his knife —
And with his knife,
He let out jeering Johnny’s life,
Yes; there at set of sun.
The slant ray through the window nigh
Gilded John’s blood and glazing eye,
Ere scarcely Mother Lee and I
Knew that the deed was done.
In the ninth stanza ‘A Trampwoman’s Tragedy’ takes a serious turn and the tone drops from upbeat to one that is quite dark. The lover takes the speaker seriously and dives at John with his knife. Before anyone can react, the man killed John, or as the speaker says, let out his “life.”
The scene which was once so jolly and peaceful seeming is shattered by this act of immense violence. But, the landscape is the same. This is seen through the entry of the sun through the window. It makes no difference to the land if someone is alive or dead. The light is cast on the blood and John’s dead eyes.
The taverns tell the gloomy tale,
The gloomy tale,
How that at Ivel-Chester jail
My love, my sweetheart swung;
Though stained till now by no misdeed
Save one horse ta’en in time of need;
(Blue Jimmy stole right many a steed
Ere his last fling he flung.)
Now, some time has passed. The tavern is able to tell the tale of the death of John, and of what followed. Due to his act of violence, the speaker’s lover “swung.” He was hanged for the murder of John at “Ivel-Chester jail.” The way that the speaker relays these facts so directly makes it seem as if she has a very clear understanding of what happened, and likely, her role in the events of that night.
She states that up until that point her lover had hardly done anything wrong. There was one time he stole a horse, but it was just one. She makes sure the reader knows that he was not a real thief, not like “Blue Jimmy” who stole a “right many a steed” before he too was hanged.
Thereaft I walked the world alone
On his death-day I gave my groan
And dropt his dead-born child.
‘Twas nigh the jail, beneath a tree,
None tending me; for Mother Lee
Had died at Glaston,9 leaving me
Unfriended on the wild.
Since the death of her lover she has been alone in the world. There are no more merry walks through the English landscape. Now, she is “Alone, alone!” The repetition of the word “alone” in this lines shows how pervasive the feeling is in her life. It is all she really feels now.
The lonely feeling is only made worse when she considers the death of her unborn child. She miscarried on the day her lover died. When she was suffering this double loss, she was also alone. There was no one to take care of her, as “Mother Lee” had also died. She was, and is still, “Unfriended on the wild.”
And in the night as I lay weak,
As I lay weak,
The leaves a-falling on my cheek,
The red moon low declined —
The ghost of him I’d die to kiss
Rose up and said: ‘Ah, tell me this!
Was the child mine, or was it his?
Speak, that I my rest may find!’
In the twelfth stanza of ‘A Trampwoman’s Tragedy’ the trampswoman continues to describe what happened to her after these deaths. There were times when she was laying early in bed and the ghost of her lover came to her. He did not come seeking her comfort, but an answer to his question. He wanted to know if the child was his. If he could hear the answer, then he would be able to find his rest.
O doubt but I told him then,
I told him then,
That I had kept me from all men
Since we joined lips and swore.
Whereat he smiled, and thinned away
As the wind stirred to call up day . . .
— ‘Tis past! And here alone I stray
Haunting the Western Moor.
In the final stanza of ‘A Trampwoman’s Tragedy’ the woman tells of how she did not hesitate to tell her lover that the child was his. In fact, she says that she kept herself away from all men, except for him. Since the two “joined lips and swore” she was faithful.
With this truth finally out in the world the lover’s ghost smiled and disappeared. While the lover is now at peace, the trampswoman is not. She is doomed to wander the “Western Moor” friendless and alone.