‘He Never Expected Much’ is a direct poem in which Hardy discusses life’s ups and downs and inevitable end. His speaker addresses his own sorrows and aches but does not define them in any detail throughout the poem. Due to this fact, it’s easy for readers to insert their own experiences into the text and remind themselves of the truth about life. Everyone has learned these lessons at some point in their life. Hardy’s speaker, who is perhaps Hardy himself, learned them much younger.
Explore He Never Expected Much
The poem is addressed to the “World” and includes the “world’s” words within the text. In the first lines, Hardy’s speaker recalls his youth and the moment he learned that life wasn’t going to be perfect, happy, or fair at all times. In fact, he learned, it would likely not be fair most of the time. He took this knowledge in stride and lived and a life based around it. He knew he’d die no matter what he did in his lifetime, and this fact allowed him to endure some of the strife he suffered.
In ‘He Never Expected Much,’ Hardy explores themes of time, memory, and life itself. Life, as a broad and all-encompassing theme, is the focus of the poem. In the text, Hardy’s speaker, who could very well be Hardy himself, addresses the “World”. He reminds it, and the readers, of a conversation that he had when he was younger. He knew then, as he knows now, that life is not fair. Hardy experienced some sorrow in his life, most prominently when his wife, Emma, died unexpectedly.
Hardy also addresses themes of time and memory as he looks back on his life and recalls how he’s lived with this knowledge in mind. His life has been better, or at least stronger, due to the fact that he knew from a young age that life wouldn’t be fair. Because he “never expected much,” he was not too disappointed when his life played out the way it did.
Structure and Form
‘He Never Expected Much’ by Thomas Hardy is a three-stanza poem that is separated into sets of eight lines, known as octaves. These octaves follow a simple and consistent rhyme scheme of AAABCCCB, although some of these rhymes, especially the “B” rhymes, are more like half-rhymes than full rhymes. There is no single metrical pattern that unites the entire poem, but the lines are fairly regular. In the first stanza, the syllables follow a pattern of eight in the first line, then four in the next, followed by eight, six, eight, eight, eight, and six again in the final line. This same pattern is maintained in the next two stanzas.
Hardy makes use of several literary devices in ‘He Never Expected Much’. These include but are not limited to examples of apostrophe, alliteration, and enjambment. The first of these, an apostrophe, appears in the first lines of the poem. Hardy starts the poem by talking to the “World”. this is a prime example of this technique as the world is something that cannot hear Hardy’s speaker, nor could it reply if it wanted to.
Alliteration is another interesting literary device that’s concerned with the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “since” and “said” in line one of the second stanza and “minds” and “mine” in line four of the third stanza.
Enjambment is a formal device that’s used when a poet cuts off a line of the verse before the natural end of a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines three and four of the first stanza and lines three and four of the second stanza.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
Well, World, you have kept faith with me,
Kept faith with me;
Upon the whole you have proved to be
Much as you said you were.
Since as a child I used to lie
Upon the leaze and watch the sky,
Never, I own, expected I
That life would all be fair.
In the first stanza of ‘He Never Expected Much,’ the speaker begins by addressing the “World.” This is a technique known as an apostrophe. The speaker is talking to something that is incapable of responding to him. He tells the world that throughout his life, everything has turned out pretty much as he expected. The world has “proved to be / Much as you said you were.” He thinks back to when, as a child, he used to lie and watch the sky. Then, he knew, as he does now, that life wouldn’t always be fair. He describes this fact in a sing-song-like tune that lightens the overall mood. But, it is impossible to read these lines without feeling like the speaker is in an overall solemn state of mind.
‘Twas then you said, and since have said,
Times since have said,
In that mysterious voice you shed
From clouds and hills around:
“Many have loved me desperately,
Many with smooth serenity,
While some have shown contempt of me
Till they dropped underground.
In the second stanza of ‘He Never Expected Much,’ the speaker goes on to refer to that time as a child when he communed with the world and learned its truths. Then, the world talked to him and informed him that everyone who loved the earth and everyone who showed contempt has ended up “dropped underground.” One way or another, the world told the young boy, this is where everyone ends up.
The first lines of this stanza make use of some interesting repetitive elements. Hardy uses “said” several times, building up the reader until it’s time for him to reveal what the world said. This plays into the already song-like feeling of the lines.
“I do not promise overmuch,
Just neutral-tinted haps and such,”
You said to minds like mine.
Wise warning for your credit’s sake!
Which I for one failed not to take,
And hence could stem such strain and ache
As each year might assign.
In the final eight lines of ‘He Never Expected Much,’ the poem concludes with a few more words from the world. The world told the child that it couldn’t promise much. There will be some moments of happiness but many more common, unremarkable ones.
The speaker comes back into the poem in the final lines. He tells the world and the listeners that he took the world’s advice. He “failed not to take” it, so throughout his life, he knew that things wouldn’t always be fair. He knew he’d struggle and “strain and ache” throughout the years. But, because he was prepared for it, he could take it all in stride.
Readers who enjoyed Hardy’s ‘He Never Expected Much’ should consider reading some of his other poems. This includes ‘The Forbidden Banns,’ ‘And There Was a Great Calm,’ and ‘Wessex Heights.’ The latter includes a depiction of a speaker surveying lands around him and experiencing a resurgence of memory and several ghostlike presences that haunt him. ‘The Forbidden Banns’ is a long narrative poem in which the speaker tells the story of a doomed marriage. Finally, ‘And There Was a Great Calm,’ is one of Hardy’s best-known poems. In it, he describes the horrors of World War I and the “Great Calm” that came about on November 11th, 1918.