How Great My Grief

Thomas Hardy

‘How Great My Grief’ by Thomas Hardy is a moving poem that examines a different kind of grief than the poet is typically associated with expressing.


Thomas Hardy

Nationality: English

Thomas Hardy is remembered today for novels such as 'Jude the Obscure' and 'Tess of the d'Urbervilles.' 

But, there is a wealth of content to explore in his masterful poetry.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: The painful realization that your romantic partner brings you more grief than joy

Speaker: A person in a relationship

Emotions Evoked: Grief, Hopelessness, Regret

Poetic Form: Triolet

Time Period: 20th Century

Thomas Hardy's poem offers a poignant illustration of grief, not from the loss of a loved one, but rather the much more bitterly acute sting in realizing they diminish your happiness.

‘How Great My Grief’ is a deeply lamenting poem by Thomas Hardy that sees the poet exploring a very specific type of sorrow. The English poet might be well-known for his verses about heartbreak over the death of his beloved wife, Emma, yet this poem doesn’t wrestle with the sundering of two lovers because of their mortality. Rather it offers an unblinking vision of an unhappy marriage — perhaps even an autobiographical one — that centers on a doleful realization by the speaker.

How Great My Grief
Thomas Hardy

How great my grief, my joys how few, Since first it was my fate to know thee! - Have the slow years not brought to view How great my grief, my joys how few, Nor memory shaped old times anew, Nor loving-kindness helped to show thee How great my grief, my joys how few, Since first it was my fate to know thee?


‘How Great My Grief’ by Thomas Hardy finds the speaker agonizing over being ensnared in a seemingly irreconcilable relationship.

‘How Great My Grief’ opens with the speaker declaring the immensity of their sorrow while also remarking that, in comparison, their reasons for joy are far fewer. This is not a happy or hopeful moment in their lives. It’s revealed the person to whom the poem is addressed (most likely a lover) is also the source of the speaker’s misery.

Peering into the past, the speaker refers to the “slow years” as further evidence of their great grief due to a shortage of fond moments. Unfortunately for the speaker, their memory or nostalgia is insufficient to shape these “old times anew.” In the same way that their “loving-kindness” for this person was powerless to mend their despair.

The poem ends with a final repetition of its opening line, though this time, it ends not as an exclamation but with a question mark.

Structure and Form

‘How Great My Grief’ is an example of a fixed poetic form called a triolet. The triolet consists of eight lines of verse in which the first line is repeated in both the fourth and eighth lines. It also possesses a strict rhyme scheme that only utilizes the ending sounds of its first two lines, resulting in a rhyme scheme of ‘ABAAABAB’. It’s also not uncommon for the triolet to restrain each line to only eight syllables, though this poem alternates between eight and nine.

Literary Devices

‘How Great My Grief’ contains examples of some of the following literary devices:

  • Apostrophe: “Since first it was my fate to know thee!” (2, 8) is an example of apostrophe, as it directly addresses a person absent from the poem itself.
  • Assonance: a repetition of the vowel sounds in words placed closely together, Hardy uses this sound device throughout the poem, as in the line: “Nor memory shaped old times anew, / Nor loving-kindness helped to show thee” (5-6).
  • Metaphor: “Have the slow years not brought to view” (3) serves as a metaphor for the way sorrow elongates time; while “Nor memory shaped old times anew” (5) visualizes an inability for time to smooth the roughest edges of their relationship.
  • Juxtaposition: a strategic placement of two ideas to emphasize their disparities, Hardy employs juxtaposition as in the repeating line: “How great my grief, my joys how few” (1, 4, 7).

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-2

How great my grief, my joys how few,
Since first it was my fate to know thee!

The first two lines of ‘How Great My Grief’ are both repeated at different moments throughout the poem. This repetition emphasizes their respective messages: a lament by the speaker over a disastrous relationship. Hardy also juxtaposes the speaker’s two impassioned emotions in the same line to make their inequities all the more stark. Because the speaker is addressing a person not present in the poem (i.e., the source of their grief) when they exclaim — “Since first it was my fate to know thee!” (2) — it is also an example of an apostrophe.

Lines 3-4

– Have the slow years not brought to view
How great my grief, my joys how few,

In the next sequence of lines from ‘How Great My Grief’, the speaker offers a bit more context regarding their unhappy companionship with this person, which leads them to look back on their past together. But doing this doesn’t lead them to a happy memory with which to repel their sorrow.

Instead, the speaker appears shocked at why they never realized how miserable they’d been. Hardy phrases the question as a statement of resigned fact by the speaker, who also muses over their blindness to their predicament. At the same time, his diction in the phrase “slow years” (3) underscores the sluggish duration of their long-endured agony.

Lines 5-8

Nor memory shaped old times anew,
Nor loving-kindness helped to show thee
How great my grief, my joys how few,
Since first it was my fate to know thee?

In the final four lines of the poem ‘How Great My Grief,’ the speaker begins to come to terms with the fact that nothing about their currently unhappy relationship will change. But perhaps even more devastating is their realization that even their memory cannot shape those “old times anew” (5). In other words, there’s no reconciling the fact that their time together has been marred by difficulties.

This isn’t just a cowardly surrender by someone who hasn’t tried to patch things up. According to the speaker, their beloved is unresponsive to their “loving-kindness” (6). This has led to a breakdown in communication between the two as the speaker appears dejected over their inability to “show thee” (6) just how grief-stricken they are — let alone how long they’ve felt like this.


What is the theme of ‘How Great My Grief?

The poem’s theme centers on the poignant expression of grief by a speaker struggling with domestic life’s difficulties. One that stops short of regretting ever having met their supposed beloved. Instead, the poem’s theme is more about illustrating the spiraling anxiety of realizing you have far more bad days than good ones because of the person you’re with romantically.

Why did Thomas Hardy write ‘How Great My Grief?

Thomas Hardy wrote many heartbreaking and loving poems about his late wife, Emma. But it was also no secret that the two often clashed, growing increasingly estranged as they got older. This poem might express some of the dreary observations about his marriage that Hardy might have stumbled upon himself.

What is the significance of the repeated line?

The defining feature of this triolet is its stoic repetition of the first line. Hardy uses the refrain to sharpen every pang of woe. But it also illustrates the manic undercurrent of the speaker’s devastating epiphany that they’ve been far unhappier than they ever realized.

What is the tone of the poem?

The poem’s tone is morose and dejected, perhaps even depressed. The speaker’s sadness is the revelation that the person they love has been a source of far more grief than joy. Hardy’s diction and imagery also reinforce the speaker’s tone.

Similar Poems

  • ‘Beeny Cliff’ – this poem also wrestles with grief concerning the speaker’s memory.
  • ‘A Broken Appointment’ – this poem expresses painful emotions like disappointment and unrequited love.
  • ‘I Said To Love’ – this poem sees the speaker addressing love directly, questioning the pitfalls it creates for people.

Poetry+ Review Corner

How Great My Grief

Enhance your understanding of the poem's key elements with our exclusive review and critical analysis. Join Poetry+ to unlock this valuable content.

Thomas Hardy

This poem by Thomas Hardy offers a much different look at the grief commonly found expressed through his poems. Unlike his verses that poignantly mourn the death of his first wife, Emma, this one appears to lament their inconsolable and irreconcilable relationship while she was alive. Yet the poet illustrates with the same lucid intensity a sorrow that is both overwhelming and seemingly impossible to escape.
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20th Century

In this poem by Thomas Hardy, the poet offers another ageless illustration of grief. One that highlights the poet's distinctive style and expression of intense emotion, as it employs the use of a traditional form and rhyme scheme. Yet it is also marked by its staggering personal nature that stands out amongst Victorian-era literature.
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Thomas Hardy was an important English poet who did not start writing poetry until middle age. He also wrote many poems also devoted to the memory of his wife who died in 1912. His poetry is remembered both for its affecting intimacy and profound expressions of sadness, making him a poignantly fatalistic poet of England. This poem is not one of his better known but it is a good example of his verse.
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One of the themes within Thomas Hardy's poem centers on the speaker's disappointment in their current relationship. With sorrowful openness, they address their beloved, confessing to them that from the moment they met, their life has been characterized by nothing but hopeless grief. While time nor their persistent love have done nothing to change the way they feel.
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Failure is another theme present in Thomas Hardy's poem, one that revolves around the speaker's spiraling relationship with their lover. The intensity of their despair reveals that whatever love exists between them has been nullified by their friction. Not only that, but the speaker also mentions that any attempt to remedy their relationship are also unsuccessful.
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One of the central themes of this poem by Thomas Hardy deals with relationships, specifically that of a couple. Just like his poems about wrestling with the death of a loved one, this one also tries to contend with another irreconcilable grief, except this one deals with the pain of discovering that the person you love is a conduit of sorrow and anguish.
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Thomas Hardy's poems are often defined by their poignant and overwhelming portraits of grief. This one is no different, as it punctures the heart with its repetitive lament and woeful tone. Yet it also stands out because this grief is not over the death of a loved one but rather the death of any love between two people still living and coupled.
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An emotion expressed in Thomas Hardy's poem is this sense of hopelessness. One that is supported by both his diction and use of repetition, as the lines of the poem reaffirm the speaker's belief that all they've enjoyed since meeting their beloved is sorrow. There is something fundamentally more despairing about this situation than many of his other poems.
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Although it is perhaps ambiguous, one can make the argument that Thomas Hardy's poem teeters on regret. The speaker never expresses the desire never to have met the person they are addressing in the poem. Yet, the intensity with which they affirm their lover as a source of immense grief is also mingled with disbelief that they never noticed before, so at the very least, the speaker regrets not realizing it sooner.
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Life Lessons

Thomas Hardy's poem can be read as imparting a kind of cautionary life lesson. In the poem, the speaker realizes much too late that they've spent far too much time consumed by grief rather than joy because of the person they are in a relationship with. As a result, they express this desire to have realized they were unhappy before they invested so much time.
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Another topic touched on in Thomas Hardy's poem is the regret felt in making mistakes. Now, the nature of the mistake in the poem is ambiguous, as the speaker never directly states they view their fateful meeting with this person as a mistake. Yet the reader can infer that at the very least the speaker wishes they'd acknowledged the irreconcilable elements of their relationship much sooner than they have.
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Sorrow is another topic that Thomas Hardy's poem unsurprisingly explores. This sorrow is not over a dead loved one but rather directed at the speaker's sad realization that the person they are with brings them nothing but unhappiness. Such a devastating revelation leaves them reeling as they try to make sense of it.
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Like many of Thomas Hardy's poems, this one is rooted in the speaker's suffering. Unfortunately, they are afflicted because of the person they love, who ends up being a source of unimaginable grief to the speaker. In this way, the poet reveals how even those we dearly cling to can be our greatest woe.
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Although Thomas Hardy often used fixed poetic forms and traditional rhyme schemes, he is often also credited with being far from conventional. This poem is a great example of this as it makes use of the peculiar but formal structure of the triolet: an eight-line stanza that only uses two rhymes, which repeats the first line in the fourth and seventh lines, while the second line is repeated in the eighth.
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Steven Ward Poetry Expert
Steven Ward is a passionate writer, having studied for a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and being a poetry editor for the 'West Wind' publication. He brings this experience to his poetry analysis on Poem Analysis.

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