Overlooking the River Stour by Thomas Hardy

Generally speaking, evocative poetry is good poetry, and this is an idea that is more or less true for all art forms. In a form of writing where ideas and images can be representative of entirely different things, evocation of emotion is the strongest tool for relaying an idea through metaphor or any other poetic device. In Thomas Hardy’s Overlooking the River Stour, evocation is the primary storytelling device; it is a work heavy with imagery and metaphor and one that relays feeling without expressing feeling, something that is generally very difficult to do — and yet, Overlooking the River Stour is a vast creative display of emotion-charged scenery.

 

Overlooking the River Stour Analysis

The swallows flew in the curves of an eight

Above the river-gleam

In the wet June’s last beam:

Like little crossbows animate

The swallows flew in the curves of an eight

Above the river-gleam.

The structure of Overlooking the River Stour says a great deal about its narrator; each verse follows a pattern of a lengthy first line followed by three shorter ones, rhyming in an ABBA pattern. Following this, the first two lines repeat. At first this is rather jarring, but it does create the effect of drawing the reader in and forming something out-of-the-ordinary with the poem. As for the content, it is an elaborate description of wildlife: the speaker notes swallows (a kind of bird) flying in figure-eight-style loops above “the river gleam;” this suggests that it is sunny outside and the river is reflecting light. The “wet June’s last beam” could be representative of a rainbow, as a beam of light arching over a wet world, or it could simply be the sunlight. The swallows, described in simile form as being “like little crossbows,” a description of the birds with their wings outstretched.

The speaker is an observer, and invites the reader to observe as well (albeit not directly). The tone being set forth is one set from a distance, one of appreciation and love for what is being observed — after all, it is only from the stronger emotions that such attention to detail arises out of something such as a few birds flying above a river.

Planing up shavings of crystal spray

A moor-hen darted out

From the bank thereabout,

And through the stream-shine ripped his way;

Planing up shavings of crystal spray

A moor-hen darted out.

Continuing the observation with the same poem structure, the speaker observes as a moorhen, a small-to-medium-sized bird, darting between splashes of water. This entire verse is dedicated to the observation of this one bird creating ripples in the river, which really speaks to the perspective of the speaker, and the strong emotions they feel towards even a simple moorhen, living its life, likely entirely unaware that the watcher even exists. The repetition of the first two lines of this section to Overlooking the River Stour works especially well here, since the moorhen is the focus of the verse; this device solidifies it in that position well.

Closed were the kingcups; and the mead

Dripped in monotonous green,

Though the day’s morning sheen

Had shown it golden and honeybee’d;

Closed were the kingcups; and the mead

Dripped in monotonous green.

The speaker goes on to describe kingcups, the small yellow flowers that are typically found in marshlands, surrounded by much greenery as befits the outside world. The image is described as “golden,” and the sheen of daylight suggests that all is tranquil, peaceful, and warm. It is this atmosphere this stanza is intended to relay most.

And never I turned my head, alack,

While these things met my gaze

Through the pane’s drop-drenched glaze,

To see the more behind my back . . .

O never I turned, but let, alack,

These less things hold my gaze!

While the last stanza of Overlooking the River Stour relays a warm, golden atmosphere, this final one is far more grounded in reality, and shifts the tone dramatically. The speaker confesses that they have been watching the natural world through their window on a rainy day, and are not paying much attention to anything happening within the building they’re in — and this is important, because “the more” is behind their back, and “the less” is before him, suggesting that the natural splendour pales in comparison to what lies behind. There is a strong tone of regret in this verse, an indication that the speaker is letting the distractions in their life take them away from the important elements of it. This is the only verse in which the last line does not match the second one, and the effect is significant: the last line is heavily emphasized for the regretful nature of the piece overall.

 

Historical Context

Thomas Hardy wrote Overlooking the River Stour in 1916, based on a location nearby to where he had lived once with his wife, Emma Gifford. The two were married for over forty years before an estrangement that left them apart for a year before her death in 1912, an event Hardy was left saddened and bitter by. Her death affected him deeply, and this was seen to great effect in many of his poems.

Many of Hardy’s poems from the time described his own life and feelings in metaphorical terms. The relationship between the place identified in the poem, and the year of publication suggests that Hardy may well have been considering his wife’s passing while writing Overlooking the River Stour. If so, it is likely the final verse relays his regret concerning the estrangement — suggesting that the river in the poem stands in for distraction, while behind him stood Gifford, who was the truly important thing in his life that he lost focus on.

It is unsurprising to consider that Thomas Hardy, like most people, lived his life with a fair share of regrets, and this poem speaks to many of them in a touching and inspiring way. His descriptions of incredible beauty and delicacy, and his rapid dismissal of those descriptions says a great deal about how important the things he lost were to him, and the deep influence such losses had on many aspects of his entire being.

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