Midnight on the Great Western by Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy’s Midnight on the Great Western is a powerful piece of poetry that examines the story of a young boy, travelling forward to an unknown destination from an unknown place. Hardy uses this simple image to ask a number of important questions about living life, questions no doubt inspired from his own journeys. Thomas Hardy is well-known for his poetry that draws inspiration from Romanticism, and while some of that is seen here, much of this work is abstract and lyrical, and seems to be more focused on giving the reader something to think about, rather than expressing Hardy’s own thoughts or conclusions.


Midnight on the Great Western Analysis

First Stanza

Midnight on the Great Western uses a fairly unorthodox verse structure that works to make the concluding idea for each verse stand out. The rhyming pattern is, by line, ABCDB, however the fourth line contains a “D”-rhyme as its middle word, which gives the verse an ABC-DDB feel to it, which flows significantly better than if the rhyming words were only at the end of each line. This style also means that the rhyming line that concludes each verse is, by necessity, a short piece that has its own line, which emphasizes each final idea for the verses.

In the third-class seat sat the journeying boy, 

And the roof-lamp’s oily flame 

Played down on his listless form and face, 

Bewrapt past knowing to what he was going, 

Or whence he came. 

The first verse of Midnight on the Great Western tells the reader about a young boy who is travelling, presumably by train (given the available modes of transportation in Hardy’s time), to an unknown destination. There is a strong sense of atmosphere conveyed in this verse, where Hardy makes great use of noting the candle lantern near the roof, and the way its light illuminates the boy’s “listless” face (which is to say that it is a face devoid of happiness or enthusiasm). Typically, it would be expected that a young boy riding a train would feel somewhat excited for the experience, but that is not present here — instead, things are gloomy and unhappy. The title of the poem, Midnight on the Great Western, is a contributing factor; “midnight” expresses the time of day, and the Great Western was a railway which ran from London to Wales . The final two lines of the verse are written in a notably “poetic” fashion; Hardy’s use of words such as “bewrapt” and “whence” are curious choices that indicate a sense of the unknown into the boy’s journey. Where he came from and where he is going are both mysteries to the reader, who only have the physical details of the scene to guide them.

The subtext of this verse is filled with important details for the character and setting in this story. That he is a “boy” and not a “man” indicates that he is very young, likely a child. He sits in a third-class seat, which is generally among the most basic accommodations a person can get on a train. Typically, this would suggest a modest income or a desire to save, but a young child is not a strong candidate for someone who could afford any kind of train ticket in any case, implying that he has saved up for a long time for this journey. His listless posture suggests that he is unhappy about the journey, but whether this is because he is running away, or travelling against his will is unknown.


Second Stanza

In the band of his hat the journeying boy 

Had a ticket stuck; and a string 

Around his neck bore the key of his box, 

That twinkled gleams of the lamp’s sad beams 

Like a living thing. 

The second verse describes, in great detail, the few items the boy has brought with him on his journey. He is wearing a hat with a band on the inside that holds his ticket; around his neck is a key on a string; and in his lap is a locked box decorated with a reflective material that catches the lamplight. Again, Hardy is using subtext to hint at the greater story beneath Midnight on the Great Western. We are not told, for instance, what is in the boy’s box, but as he carries the key with him, close by and at all times, we know it is important to him. He has few other possessions, and not many places to carry them if he did, as he keeps his ticket in his hat, rather than in his locked box or a pocket. Hardy’s description that the “sad” beams of the lamp make the box seem almost like a living thing shows the reader how lifeless the boy is by comparing him to his box, which dances with light and becomes the most interesting thing in the eye of the beholder. That the box and lamp are more lively than the boy on a train speak volumes about his sad story.


Third Stanza

What past can be yours, O journeying boy 

Towards a world unknown, 

Who calmly, as if incurious quite 

On all at stake, can undertake 

This plunge alone? 

In the second half of Midnight on the Great Western, the observant narrator emerges with their own voice, and asks the question that has been implied since the first line — what is the boy doing on the train? To the speaker’s eye, the boy is acting as though he does not understand what it means to try to survive on one’s own, as he seems to be doing. He seems to not understand how much he could lose by trying to survive on his own and failing, an idea the speaker has surmised from his emotionless gaze. Words like “plunge” and “stake” are strong juxtapositions against “journeying boy” and “world unknown;” the former highlight the dangers of life alone, while the latter make his plight out to be a kind of adventure. The narrator,  presumably another passenger on the train, is asking these questions, but the phrasing of each suggests that they are not doing so out loud, but rather expressing their curiosity to themselves.


Fourth Stanza

Knows your soul a sphere, O journeying boy, 

Our rude realms far above, 

Whence with spacious vision you mark and mete 

This region of sin that you find you in, 

But are not of? 

The concluding thoughts for Midnight on the Great Western are very philosophical in nature — the speaker views the boy as being an innocent in a world of sin, and thinks of him as riding a train towards the “rude realms” that they consider themselves a part of. The boy’s journey, the narrator decides, is taking him to a dark place, and this ends the poem on a rather foreboding note, musing that the child has entered a “region of sin,” but is not a part of that realm — the “yet” is implied. The truth of the boy’s journey is never revealed, but the narrator is revealed to be rather cynical about it, considering how little is known of the boy’s story. The narrator, and the reader as well, are given a glimpse of this young boy riding on a train, seemingly either leaving a bad place or heading to one, and hope that the boy will survive as a beacon of innocence in a corrupt world. Much of Midnight on the Great Western is left to the interpretation of the reader — in the same way it would be if the reader was to see a young child where they didn’t seem to belong and wonder where they were going.

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  • Avatar I says:

    The Great Western railway referred to in Hardy’s poem has nothing whatsoever to do with Canada, but to the famous railway in the SW of England, designed and built by I K Brunel.

    • Emma Baldwin Emma Baldwin says:

      You’re quite right, I have made that change. Thank you!

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