It was around this period that Hardy published his final novel, Jude the Obscure It did not receive the reviews he would’ve liked and officially turned him off prose and to verse. Poem I of the three meditative pieces, ‘In Tenebris: I,’ is made up of six quatrain, or sets of four lines. These conform to a consistent rhyme scheme, following the pattern of ABBA CDDC, and so on.
It is also important to take note of the title of this piece, and the two which followed. “In Tenebris” is a Latin phrase meaning “in the darkness.” This makes sense considering the subject matter of the poem and the mental state Hardy was in while writing. Hardy adds another Latin element to the piece with an epigraph. In Poem I the line reads, “Percussus sum sicut foenum, et aruit cor meum,” or “My heart is smitten, and withered like grass.”
Summary of In Tenebris
The majority of this piece is made up o statements about the state of the environment followed by three lines about the speaker’s own experience. Winter is approaching throughout this piece. It never arrives, but is seen to kill the leaves, flowers, and dull down the colors of the world. While to many this would be a depressing sight, alongside the deaths of friends and the loss of love, the speaker is not changed by it.
He is so deep into his own mental depression there is nothing that can pull him out of it. It gives him a backward kind of strength as well as there is no further down he can sink. He is at the bottom of every possible emotion. The poem concludes with his description of the “unhope” he is waiting in. There is no end in sight to his predicament, he is trapped.
Read more of Thomas Hardy’s poems.
Analysis of In Tenebris
But my bereavement-pain
It cannot bring again:
Twice no one dies.
In the first stanza of ‘In Tenebris: I’ the speaker begins by speaking of “Wintertime” as a period that “nighs.” This means that the days are getting colder, darker and winter is approaching. The phrase refers to a period of time as well as a prospective emotional state. It is somewhat related to the speaker’s own mindset but fortunately for him, not completely.
The winter may be returning but his “bereavement” and “pain” cannot. These emotions are unable to ride on the back of winter and place themselves within his life again. Hardy’s speaker emphasizes the finality of his past of emotions by comparing them to death. Just as no one dies twice, he will not experience the same thing twice.
But, since it once hath been,
No more that severing scene
Can harrow me.
In the next four lines, the speaker imitates a similar situation to that described in the first stanza. Here, he begins with the statement “Flower-petals flee.” This refers to the same change of season, winter is still approaching. Hardy personifies the flowers by using the word “flee” rather than describing them as being blown away or falling off. By doing so he forces a reader to empathize with nature and imagine themselves within the same situation. The word “flee” evokes feelings of fear verging on terror. It is never from something wholly good that one runs.
In the next three lines, the speaker lays out another familiar situation. He states that while winter and the death of plant-life might be upsetting to many, he is not “harrow[ed]” or frightened by it. The change in the seasons does not evoke the same response in him it might’ve. He is immune to it as he has seen it before. It “hath been,” or it has happened before, keeping the scene from being “severing.”
Birds faint in dread:
I shall not lose old strength
In the lone frost’s black length:
Strength long since fled!
So far the stanzas have presented one change in the environment followed by a push back against the emotions which might accompany it. The speaker has presented a strength in the face of depression and darkness. In the next sections it is revealed that that strength does not come from optimism but an empty reservoir of hope. He does not have the ability to look to a brighter day so the darkest ones do not impact him. This is especially evident in the third stanza.
First, he states that now, in the darkest season of the year the “Birds faint in dread.” There is nothing good coming for nature in the deepest part of winter but the speaker is not afraid. He states that he “shall not lose old strength” because his strength has “long since fled!” There is nothing for him to fall back on or care about. It does not matter to him what the weather is or what his prospects are.
Leaves freeze to dun;
But friends can not turn cold
This season as of old
For him with none.
The fourth stanza of ‘In Tenebris: I’ follows the same pattern. Here the speaker describes the leaves on the trees freezing to “dun,” or a greyish-brown color. The real colors of the world are seeping out and dissolving. It is likely that the world is appearing more and more as the speaker perceives it every day. Winter may in fact be a period that is more familiar to him.
In the next three lines, he relates the leaves dying to the departure and death of friends. He does not worry about the deaths of his friends as he has “none.” Without emotional ties, he has nothing to fear from death.
Tempests may scath;
But love can not make smart
Again this year his heart
Who no heart hath.
The fifth stanza speaks on the fact that the narrator does not have a “heart.” To another, who does have a heart, the “Tempests” of the world can damage or “scath” it. For him though, that is not the case. Nothing can make him “smart,” or hurt this year.
Black is night’s cope;
But death will not appal
One who, past doubtings all,
Waits in unhope.
In the last stanza of ‘In Tenebris: I,’ the speaker brings all of his previous statements to an unresolved conclusion. Nothing changes for him, the winter does not arrive nor does his continually depressed emotional state lift. He speaks of the “cope” or cloak of night. It is black and shrouds everything under it. It represents death to the speaker who once again has nothing to fear from it.
He is “past doubtings” and his life is spent waiting in “unhope.” There was not a word opposite enough for Hardy’s liking in this section. He chose to coin his own. The speaker is living in the exact opposite of hope.