‘I Looked Up from My Writing’ by Thomas Hardy is a six stanza poem that follows a strict end rhyme scheme. The poem rhymes consistently throughout in an ABAB, CDCD…etc. pattern. This piece, like many in Hardy’s repertoire, comments on the nature of war. The poem first appeared around 1916 along with a number of other poems on this theme.
Summary of I Looked Up from My Writing
‘I Looked Up from My Writing’ by Thomas Hardy is a existentially contemplative piece in which a writer is confronted with his own ignorance and irresponsibility.
The poem begins with the speaker siting at his writing desk, looking up, and being startled by the presence of the moon directly outside his window. He initially believes the moon is there to see what he is writing, but after he asks her what she is doing. Her answer quickly contradicts this assumption.
She states that she out looking for the body of a man who killed himself by drowning. The man was overwrought with sorrow over the death of his son, an innocent young man killed in battle. The moon is distraught by this battle and those who willingly participate in it.
Continuing on, the moon addresses the speaker once more. She says that she is there at his window because she wants to know what kind of man can spend his time writing when the world is experiencing battles such as this. She believes he is willingly wearing blinders, ignorant to what is truly important. He is deeply upset by this accusation but plays directly into her opinion of him, hiding himself from her gaze.
Analysis of I Looked Up from My Writing
I looked up from my writing,
And gave a start to see,
As if rapt in my inditing,
The moon’s full gaze on me.
The speaker of this piece, who one might assume is Thomas Hardy himself, is introduced through a first person account of his actions. He is engaged in writing and takes a moment to look up from his desk. Although the reader is not given details, it is easy to assume that the writer looks out of a window and gives “a start to see” that the moon is directly in front of him. It is situated as if studying the writer, intent on what he is doing.
After jumping in surprise at this discovery, the narrator describes the moon as if it has specifically chosen to be there and is “rapt” at the writer’s “inditing,” (composing or writing). He can feel the strength of the “moon’s full gaze” upon him.
Her meditative misty head
Was spectral in its air,
And I involuntarily said,
‘What are you doing there?’
In the second stanza of the piece the speaker refers to the moon by it’s typical gendered pronoun, “she.” She is said to be both meditative and misty. She is shrouded in the cloudy sky, slightly obscured from view. This lends a feeling of mystery to the poem while further expanding on the speaker’s use of personification. The writer is hoping to give the moon a sense of self-control.
It is hanging in the air, “spectral,” like a ghost, and the writer is unable to help but speak out loud to it. He directly questions the moon’s presence right outside his window, saying,
‘What are you doing there?’
‘Oh, I’ve been scanning pond and hole
And waterway hereabout
For the body of one with a sunken soul
Who has put his life-light out.
The next stanzas of the poem contain the moon’s response to the speaker. One may view this section as what the speaker believes the moon would say, or understand it as the moon, through means unknown to the reader, is communing with the writer.
The moon speaks and says that she has been “scanning [the] pond[s]…hole[s] / And waterway[s]” around the area in which the speaker lives. She is searching, she states, for a body. The remains of a “sunken soul.” It is clear that the moon is hoping to discover the body of a man who has killed himself by drowning. Although she is unsure where the body is to be found, she is hoping to provide some kind of resolution and shed some light on his lost plight.
‘Did you hear his frenzied tattle?
It was sorrow for his son
Who is slain in brutish battle,
Though he has injured none.
In the fourth stanza the moon expands on the tale of the drowned man. She explains that his story is a “frenzied” one in which through sorrow for a lost son, the man kills himself. The boy that was lost was a solider. He was slain in an unnamed battle.
While the reader does not receive anymore information about who these people were or where the son was killed, that information proves to be unnecessary as the poet is hoping to convey a general horror for the losses sustained in war.
The battle that was fought is said to have been “brutish” as it resulted in the death of innocents, such as the son. He, the moon says, “injured none.” Whether this mean in battle or life in totality, it is not clear. The only information necessary is that he was, to the moon at least, innocent, undeserving of his fate. By association so too was the father who’s life was yet another casualty of the war.
‘And now I am curious to look
Into the blinkered mind
Of one who wants to write a book
In a world of such a kind.’
The poem now begins to draw to a close as the moon describes her purpose for being outside the writer’s window. She is there hoping to ascertain why anyone would want to “write a book / In a world of such a kind.” The moon believes that the speaker is wasting his time, his life is composed of idealistic principles and spent dreaming and writing rather than doing something to help the innocents dying.
The moon refers to the writer as have a “blinkered mind,” meaning that his thoughts are closed off. He has put blinders on his eyes and mind so as to not see the truth of the world around him.
Her temper overwrought me,
And I edged to shun her view,
For I felt assured she thought me
One who should drown him too.
The final stanza of the poem is the writer’s reaction to this unconditional condemnation of his profession and past-time. The “temper” with which the moon speaks surprises the speaker and he is “overwrought,” or overcome, with emotion. He moves from his spot at the window in an attempt to “shun her from view.”
Here Hardy provides the reader with a perfect example of the actions of the man which the moon is condemning. The writer is hiding from his problems once more.
The final two lines of the poem contain the writer’s reasoning for hiding from the castigating moon. He believes that she thinks he is the same as the men that fight one another on the battlefield. She, he thinks, sees him as being without morals, independent thoughts, or a compassionate impulse.
Instead of facing these charges the speaker slinks back into his rooms, hiding from the accusations. The pride he shows in the first stanza has been swiftly stamped out.
If one is to understand the speaker of his piece as being Hardy himself, one might also assume that while Hardy was dedicated to his craft (writing) he often doubted it’s nobility. Perhaps he has concerns about whether he was wasting his life and hiding from the real world behind his papers.
About Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy was born in the village of Higher Brockhamption in Dorset, England in 1840. Hardy spent most of his life in Dorset where he would find the inspiration for his novels and poetry. Hardy is best known for his novels, Tess of the D’Urbevilles and Jude the Obscure both of which he completed in the 1890’s. These two books, while extremely popular now, were given negative reviews upon publication, perhaps leading Hardy towards poetry.
Hardy published eight volumes of poetry throughout his life and has been extremely influential on poets such as Frost, Auden, and Phillip Larkin. He died in 1920 and his ashes were placed in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey in London.