‘At an Inn’ by Thomas Hardy was published in 1898 in Hardy’s first collection of poetry, Wessex Poems. The poem follows a rhyming pattern of ababcdcd alternating as Hardy saw fit within the five eight-line stanzas. Many of these rhymes depend on the reader’s own pronunciation.
The lines also alternate metrical patterns. Half of the lines are written in iambic trimeter, meaning they contain three sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed. The other half conform to iambic dimeter, meaning they have two sets of two beats per line.
It has been speculated in the years since Hardy wrote ‘At an Inn’ that the events were inspired by a visit the poet made to an inn in Winchester. He was with a woman with whom he had a platonic relationship, Florence Henniker. The same friend appears in the poem, ‘A Broken Appointment.’
Summary of At an Inn
The poem begins with the speaker describing how he and his listener were once staying at an inn. The place was unremarkable except for the way the workers acted. As soon as they came into the building the employees smiled at one another, believing that the two were a couple. Throughout their whole stay they were treated with a great warmth that encourages them to be together, but they could not be. They were not in love. Later on in the text, the speaker mourns the fact that at that moment he and his companion were unable to take advantage of the situation.
In the next section, the speaker describes how time has passed and their emotions have changed. They were once not what they seemed, and now they are what they seemed then. Unfortunately, even though they are in love, they are unable to be together.
Analysis of At an Inn
When we as strangers sought
Their catering care,
Veiled smiles bespoke their thought
Of what we were.
They warmed as they opined
Us more than friends—
That we had all resigned
For love’s dear ends.
The speaker, who is often considered to be Hardy himself, begins this piece by addressing his female companion. Although she is not named in the text historical details suggest that she was a close friend. For more information see the introduction.
He reminds his companion of the time they stayed at an inn. When they entered the inn they were strangers to the caretakers. Those working at the inn were kind and “catering” and could not be faulted for their hospitality. The workers did make one important mistake though. They thought that Hardy and his female friend were lovers when they were not.
Hardy was able to interpret this assumption almost immediately. It hid, unsuccessfully, behind “smiles” that “bespoke their thought.” The workers became even “warmer” as they grew used to the idea of the couple. The demeanor of the room was one of joviality. The workers have decided Hardy and his friend were a couple and would not be swayed.
And that swift sympathy
With living love
Which quicks the world—maybe
The spheres above,
Made them our ministers,
Moved them to say,
‘Ah, God, that bliss like theirs
Would flush our day!’
In the second stanza, he describes how love, or in this case the idea of love, came down from “The spheres above” and made the workers “minister” to Hardy and his friend. They see what they want to see and take pleasure from it. This imagined love moves everyone in the room (except the speaker and his listener). The workers send up a plea to Heaven that they too get to experience the “bliss” of love.
And we were left alone
As Love’s own pair;
Yet never the love-light shone
Between us there!
But that which chilled the breath
And palsied unto death
The pane-fly’s tune.
Finally, the friends are able to escape from the doting workers at the inn. When they are alone all the feelings of love that were in the air evaporate. They were not “Love’s own pair” as the workers saw them be. The light of love never existed between them
It is hard to tell at this point whether or not the speaker is mourning this fact, or is just upset it was even mentioned. Some sources record Hardy as having made advances on his friend Florence, only to be rejected.
The last lines of this section describe what does exist between the two. After the strange encounter, there is a chill in the air. The afternoon is stripped of its light and made to resemble, in feeling, a fly on a windowpane. There are no emotions between the two at all at this point.
The kiss their zeal foretold,
And now deemed come,
Came not: within his hold
Love lingered numb.
Why cast he on our port
A bloom not ours?
Why shaped us for his sport
The speaker describes how, if things were as the inn workers had assumed, the two would have kissed. That did not happen and “Love lingered numb.” This line, and those at the end of stanza three, make it seem as if the two are incapable of loving one another, or perhaps anyone at all.
As if trying to comfort himself he asks rhetorical questions regarding why God would ever “cast” love on himself and his companion when they are not experiencing it. They are of course not experiencing any feelings of love because they are not in love. For them to do so would be unfair.
As we seemed we were not
That day afar,
And now we seem not what
We aching are.
O severing sea and land,
O laws of men,
Ere death, once let us stand
As we stood then!
In the last stanza of ‘At an Inn’ the speaker sums up what happened on that day at the inn. The pair was not what they seemed in the past but things have changed. Something has shifted in the relationship and they do not now appear to be in love but are. There are different factors in their lives that keep them from being together. They are unable to participate in the physical side of their new emotions.
The last lines are desperate. The speaker is pleading with God, death and the earth itself to let him (and his companion) return to “stand / As [they] stood then!” He is seeking a way back to that inn when they would’ve been able to love one another as they wish to now.