Structure and Form
The poem is set out in five six-line stanzas. The rhyme scheme follows the steady pattern of AB AB CC, with the exception of the final stanza in which half-rhyme occurs in the first and third lines with lead and head.
The rhythm has a more intricate structure with only the second and fourth lines in each stanza being of equal metrical length. They are written in iambic trimeter while the first is iambic tetrameter, the third in iambic pentameter, the fifth in hexameter and the final in iambic dimeter. This unusual rhythm lends a slightly discordant feel to the poem. It is thus distinct from a traditional ballad although it shares some similarities with the final line of each stanza almost acting as a refrain.
The influence of the Romantic poets Wordsworth and Tennyson is clear in the richly evocative descriptions in this poem. Hardy makes much use throughout of compound adjectival phrases such as ‘high-road hot’ and ‘clay-pits yellow’. This is known as a compound epithet and was used extensively by Homer in The Iliad, showing how Hardy also drew inspiration from the Classics.
The Five Students Analysis
The sparrow dips in his wheel-rut bath,
The sun grows passionate-eyed,
And boils the dew to smoke by the paddock-path;
As strenuously we stride, —
Five of us; dark He, fair He, dark She, fair She, I,
All beating by.
Hardy’s skill in writing about nature is immediately apparent with the opening image of the sparrow refreshing itself in the late spring sun. The words ‘dips in his wheel-rut bath’ succinctly captures the motion of the bird’s jerky movements. He vividly depicts the onset of summer in his use of personification as the sun becomes ‘passionate-eyed’. Its intensity is extreme since it ‘boils the dew to smoke’. This imagery is almost ferocious but it does not seem to affect the five students: the sibilance in ‘strenuously we stride’ suggests confidence and purpose as they set out together. The final line and the use of the verb ‘beating’ again shows their youth and vitality.
The air is shaken, the high-road hot,
Shadowless swoons the day,
The greens are sobered and cattle at rest; but not
We on our urgent way, —
Four of us; fair She, dark She, fair He, I, are there,
But one – elsewhere.
Hardy brilliantly encapsulates the onset of summer in the phrase ‘high-road hot’: the short sharp syllables of which almost burn the tongue. The musical sibilance of ‘Shadowless swoons’ should, one thinks, almost lull the riders to sleep with its soporific quality but no, unlike the greens which are ‘sobered’ they are un-subdued and go on their ‘urgent way’. However, they have already lost one of their company and are now down to four. After the growing momentum of the first four lines the final dimeter of this stanza jars, the dash before ‘elsewhere’ almost suggesting disbelief at his passing.
Autumn moulds the hard fruit mellow,
And forward still we press
Through moors, briar-meshed plantations, clay-pits yellow,
As in the spring hours – yes,
Three of us; fair He, fair She, I, as heretofore,
But – fallen one more.
There is a tangible sense in this stanza that hardship is starting to take its toll on those remaining in the group. This autumnal image of rendering the fruit mellow is not the same as Keat’s benevolent autumn with its ‘Seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness’. Rather here it seems to make them vulnerable to the harshness of life. This is hinted at by the words ‘still we press’ and then by the list of compound epithets in line three, particularly with reference to the ‘briar-meshed plantations’. We can almost feel their feet dragging in the marshy moors. The dash in line four indicates that another has fallen and this is confirmed in line six.
The leaf drops: earthworms draw it in
At night-time noiselessly,
The fingers of birch and beech are skeleton-thin
And yet on the beat are we, —
Two of us; fair She, I. But no more left to go
The track we know.
The first two lines indicate that death’s stealthy footsteps can be clearly felt as autumn bleeds into winter. There is a sense of the ground taking back what was originally theirs with the reference to earthworms, which indicates our own eventual return to the earth. The alliterative phrase ‘At night-time noiselessly’ echoes the Biblical verse which personifies death as a thief in the night, catching its victim unawares. The word ‘noiselessly’ could be described as being onomatopoeic as the proliferation of ‘s’ sounds make us whisper it. The imagery becomes more sinister still with the personification of the branches of ‘birch and beech’ appearing ‘skeleton -thin’. Having shed their leaves for winter they appear bereft and forlorn.
The party has now diminished to two, Hardy and a female friend. They seem to rail against the onset of death, as indicated by the word ‘yet’ in line four. There is, however, an ominous tone in the final line as they know they cannot evade it forever. The Speaker concludes in a matter-of-fact tone: ‘The track we know’.
Icicles tag the church-aisle leads,
The flag-rope gibbers hoarse,
The home-bound foot-folk wrap their snow-flaked heads,
Yet I still stalk the course —
One of us….. Dark and fair He, dark and fair She, gone:
The rest – anon.
The inevitability of death becomes much more explicit here with the winter imagery which appears in line one. The reference to the ‘church-aisle’ makes us think of a funeral procession. The brutality of the season is indicated by the reference to icicles and the wind which makes the flag-rope shake violently. The personification of ‘gibbers hoarse’ suggests the cacophonous sound it makes. Hardy employs evocative imagery to describe the villagers as they head home, wrapping themselves up against the elements.
Only one of the initial group remains, all the rest have perished. The fourth line is subdued and eerie: the internal rhyme in ‘stalk the course’ sounds harsh upon the ear. The use of a dash following ‘course’ and again in the final line, suggests a feeling of dissatisfaction and wistfulness for opportunities lost. This sombre ending makes the poem particularly sad when we recall the sense of optimism and vigour in the opening stanzas.
About Thomas Hardy
When considering this poem it is useful to be aware of some details of the poet’s life. Born in Dorset in 1840, Hardy grew up in the countryside and his love of nature never waned. His unwavering eye allowed him to succinctly capture the subtle shifts in the changing of the seasons which a town-dweller may have missed.
Thomas Hardy was a man of great contradictions. Though he remained a churchgoer all his life, ultimately his pessimism, fuelled in part by the Napoleonic and later the First World War, led to him becoming agnostic. He eschewed many traditional Victorian values, particularly in regard to the patriarchal nature of society and in his novels he often featured women who defied the stereotypes as his main protagonists.
Although his marriage to Emma Gifford was increasingly unhappy towards the end, when she died suddenly in 1912 he was consumed with grief. Despite marrying Florence Henniker with whom he had been deeply in love for years, he mourned Emma for the rest of his life and felt extremely guilty for any pain he may have caused her.
Hardy lived to be eighty-eight and thus outlived many of his friends and contemporaries. In the poem The Five Students the fifth student is thought to be Hardy himself while the other four refer to people who figured prominently in his life.