‘Heredity’ by Thomas Hardy is a short poem in which the personified concept, Heredity, tells of its enduring characteristics. Thomas Hardy was known to write poems about man’s hopeless fate to live and die without a meaningful, or meaningful enough, purpose as dictated by time and other cosmic forces.
However, this poem is one of Hardy’s less pessimistic poems, showing that at least something besides human life transcends time.
Heredity Thomas HardyI am the family face;Flesh perishes, I live on,Projecting trait and traceThrough time to times anon,And leaping from place to placeOver oblivion.The years-heired feature that canIn curve and voice and eyeDespise the human spanOf durance -- that is I;The eternal thing in man,That heeds no call to die
‘Heredity’ is a simple and straightforward poem. In the beginning, the speaker, Heredity, introduces itself to readers. Its person, one can say, is a poetic definition of heredity, as expected and as opposed to its biological definition. It simply tells that it is the reason traits like one’s face within families are passed down through generations. At the end of the poem, Heredity praises itself for being the only thing about man that does not die.
‘Heredity’ by Thomas Hardy is a poem of two sestets. It is a rhymed free verse, following the rhyme scheme ABABAB CDCDCD. There is no consistent meter, however, Hardy limits the syllable count per line to six or seven syllables. This fairly steady number of syllables gives ‘Heredity’ a memorable rhythm. Enjambment is present throughout the poem.
Except for the last line of the poem, Hardy uses punctuation appropriately to indicate a pause or end to a thought. Not ending the poem with the appropriate punctuation is significant. This represents the undying nature of the poet’s persona: Heredity.
- Personification: This is the dominant device in the poem. ‘Heredity’ as a whole is the personified voice of the concept heredity. It refers to itself as “I” while relating, and even boasting of, its characteristics. In line 2, the word “flesh” is given the human quality of dying, “perish(ing).”
- Metonymy: Metonymy appears in line one stanza one. “Family face” replaces the word “heredity,” effectively describing a quality of heredity which is passing down features, including that of the face.
- Inversion: Inversion is evident in the second stanza. The first four lines in this sestet do not follow the normal sentence order of subject-verb-predicate. Rather, it follows the order predicate-verb-subject, only introducing itself “I” after mentioning yet another one of its features.
- Synecdoche: Line two, stanza one contains a synecdoche. The word “flesh” is a part of man that represents the whole of man. When the speaker says “flesh perishes,” it really means man dies.
- Caesura: Caesura appears at several points throughout the poem. Hardy introduces pauses within lines using commas or dash.
- Parallelism: This literary device appears in stanza two, line two. This line’s special structure of nouns following the conjunction “and” improves the rhythm of the poem overall.
I am the family face;
Flesh perishes, I live on,
Projecting trait and trace
Through time to times anon,
And leaping from place to place
The opening stanza of ‘Heredity’ goes straight to the point of definition. Not far off into the poem, it becomes obvious who “I” is: Heredity itself. The Oxford Languages dictionary rather defines heredity dryly as “the passing on of physical or mental characteristics genetically from one generation to another.” Heredity the speaker, however, takes on a more excitingly poetic approach to introducing itself.
Though this approach is to be expected, after all this is a poem, Heredity’s tone here reveals it to have a boastful personality. For instance, mentioning that man dies in line two is unnecessary to its introduction, but Heredity mentions it anyways as if to brag that it does one better than the species itself.
The years-heired feature that can
In curve and voice and eye
Despise the human span
Of durance — that is I;
The eternal thing in man,
That heeds no call to die
Stanza two of ‘Heredity’ confirms the boastful nature of the poet’s persona. More than that, it shows the speaker’s scorn for the human fate. In a strange sense, one can liken the speaker’s voice to that of Hardy’s itself seeing as they both share a passionate dislike for the fact that men eventually die. As Heredity puts it in line four, they see this fate as one of “durance,” of bondage.
Heredity lauds itself for breaking free of this bondage. In the last two lines, one can sense its relief in being able to do so. If indeed Heredity’s voice is reflective of Hardy’s, one can also imagine that the poet himself is relieved by the fact that at least something about man is “eternal.”
‘Heredity’ was published in a poetry collection, Moments of Vision, in the year 1917. This collection, in a sense, was Hardy’s response to Darwin’s theory of evolution which was the talk of the town at the time. Darwin’s new theory then had Hardy questioning a lot about humans, including their belief in God.
Darwin’s theories on evolution and natural selection, added to Hardy’s pessimistic view on human existence, inspired the poem. In the collection to which ‘Heredity’ belongs, Hardy poetically pens down his thoughts on Darwin’s theories while slowly relinquishing his previously held Christian belief on the subject of man’s creation. Despite Hardy’s pessimism, however, ‘Heredity’ notes that something about humans survives beyond them.
Lyric poetry is a short poem in which a speaker expresses personal emotions to an audience. A defining quality of lyric poetry is that it is always written in first person. Having had these qualities, one can call ‘Heredity’ lyric poetry. Thomas Hardy wrote numerous poems of this sort.
If you enjoyed reading ‘Heredity’ by Thomas Hardy, you should check out similar poems:
- ‘The Man He Killed‘ by Thomas Hardy: a poem in which Hardy reveals his personal stance on the Boer War.
- ‘Pride‘ by Jackie Kay: a poem portraying a speaker’s newfound understanding of and pride in their heritage.
- ‘The Truly Great‘ by Stephen Spender: a poem telling of the remarkable traits of many heroes of the world who have created a lasting impact.