‘The Forbidden Banns’ by Thomas Hardy is a two-part ballad poem that is separated into sets of four lines, also known as quatrains. The first part of the poem focuses on an upcoming wedding and is four stanzas long, while the second half, focusing on the aftermath, is five.
In regards to the meter, some of the lines are consistently structured, such as lines one and three of each stanza. These contain four sets of two syllables, the first of which is usually stressed and the second unstressed. This is known as trochaic tetrameter. There are moments where this varies though and lines might be interpreted as iambic tetrameter. Lines two and four are different, in the majority of the stanzas they contain three sets of two syllables, known as trochaic trimeter.
The poem begins with the father of the bridegroom telling another speaker that he is planning on protesting his son’s wedding. He is going to stand up in church and make his opinion known. When he does so, the strain proves too much and he dies on the spot. It is unclear at first why he was so determined that his son refrains from marrying this specific woman.
Over the following years, the son mourns his father and feels guilty over his death. But also proceeds with the marriage. Everything is going okay until the wife gives birth to two “idiot” children. After this happens, he realities that his father was right all along, his wife does have “madness” in her blood. His rage grows, and in the final lines, the neighbours find the couple’s bodies. They know the husband killed her and then killed himself.
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Before beginning this piece it is important to understand the title. The word “bann” refers to an official announcement, usually done in a church, declaring an engagement. The act of reading the banns was most common in the Catholic Church and the Church of England.
In the case of ‘The Forbidden Banns’ the father in the poem chose to protest the marriage. In traditional settings, the “banns” were read three lines, and if by the third time no one protested or “forbid” the marriage then the couple was free to go through with it. For reasons explained in the text itself, the bridegroom’s father chose to forbid his son to marry his intended wife, with disastrous consequences.
Additionally, there is an epigraph before the first stanza of the poem. It declares the poem, “A Ballad of the Eighteen-Thirties.”
Analysis of The Forbidden Banns
” O what’s the gain, my worthy Sir,
In stopping the banns to-day!
Your son declares he’ll marry her
If a thousand folk say Nay.”
The first stanza of ‘The Forbidden Banns’ begins with four lines of dialogue. This is a technique common to ballad poetry, where a number of speakers will be represented with their respective dialects. This particular speaker is likely the parson of the church or some other official. His words are clear and well-articulated. He is speaking to the father of a man who is soon to be married.
The reader is dropped into the middle of the story, a technique known as in media res. This means that one does not fully understand what’s going on. It takes until the end of the poem to find out why the father felt this way, and what the consequences end up being. It is through the dialogue that everything becomes clear.
This first speaker asks the father what he thinks he’s going to gain by “stopping the banns to-day.” As stated above, the word “banns” refers to a traditional reading of a couple’s name, on three consecutive Sundays, or Holy Days. It is an official pronouncement of an intent to marry. The father in ‘The Forbidden Banns’ is determined to stop the marriage. As was his right, he is going to protest the couple’s union in church.
The speaker tells the father that his son “declares he’ll marry her” even if “a thousand folk” comes forward and tell him that he shouldn’t. Clearly, the son is determined, his love is well-known, but the father is not convinced to change his mind. There is some very important reason the two shouldn’t go through with the marriage, one that is pivotal to the climactic ending of ‘The Forbidden Banns.’
” I’ll do’t; I’ll do’t; whether or no!
And, if I drop down dead,
To church this morning I will go,
And say they shall not wed!”
The father’s words come next. His speech is slightly different in dialect from the first speaker. By changing the way these characters speak Hardy emphasizes his determination. The ungrammatical phrasing, specifically in the first line also quickly tells the reader something about his upbringing and class. The father tells the parson, or whoever spoke in the first stanza, that he intends to do it “whether or no!”
No matter what happens, the father is prepared to protest the wedding. He adds that even if he dies before getting to the church “this morning [he] will go!” Even as a ghost he would tell them they “they shall not wed.” This is a very important piece of foreshadowing for what comes next.
That day the parson clear outspoke
The maid’s name and the man’s:
His father, mid the assembled folk,
Said, ” I forbid the banns!”
Just as the father said he would, in the third stanza he stands up and yells out “‘I forbid the banns!” in front of the whole church. This came right after the parson “clear outspoke” his son’s name and the “maid’s name.” Still, the reader is unsure why the father has chosen this course of action, but it proves fatal in the next quatrain.
Then, white in face lips pale and cold,
He turned him to sit down,
When he fell forward; and behold,
They found his life had flown.
Perhaps it was always his fate to die on that morning, or maybe it was due to the stress of the proceedings, but the father’s “life” flew from him. He turned to sit down, after making his announcement, and “he fell forward.” Almost instantly it was discovered that he was dead.
A reader should take note of the well-placed alliteration in the last two lines of the fourth stanza. Hardy chose to use four words that begin with “f” very close together, not to mention the “f” inside the word “life.” They create an onomatopoeic effect, the “f” sound mimicking flapping, perhaps of bird wings.
‘Twas night-time, towards the middle part,
When low her husband said,
” I would from the bottom of my heart
That father was not dead!”
In the second part of ‘The Forbidden Banns’ the son is the primary speaker. Time has passed and apparently, he has gotten married against his father’s wishes. He is with his wife “towards the middle part” of a night.
The husband expresses the wish that his “father was not dead!” It is clear that he feels some guilt over what happened, and even though he loves his wife, he wishes things could be different.
She turned from one to the other side,
And a sad woman was she
As he went on: ” He’d not have died
Had it not been for me!”
In the second stanza, the extent of his guilt is made clear. His wife turns to him and looks upon his sadness, and emotion she shares. The two have not begun their married life on a happy note. In the final lines, the son professes his deeply held belief that his father would not have died if he hadn’t been so determined to marry this specific woman. She is silent on the matter, a mere object in the larger story.
She brought him soon an idiot child,
And then she brought another:
His face waned wan, his manner wild
With hatred of their mother.
This third stanza of this section contains the two actions, taken (the son thinks) by the wife alone, that turn the poem’s trajectory. She delivers two children. The first is, as the speaker says, “an idiot child.” There was something delayed about his development. Hardy does not go into details about what this means.
Unfortunately for the couple, and especially for the wife, they gave birth to another child, this one was also an “idiot.” Without reading the fourth stanza a reader should be able to come to a conclusion about these events. Somehow the father knew that this would not be a happy marriage, the son is realizing this as well.
That becomes clear as the son’s “face waned wan.” His complexing dropped, it was “waning” or dropping towards exhaustion. This is another very impactful moment of alliteration, which is added onto the word “wild” at the end of the third line. It is not the difficulties of the children that he is tired of, but the woman herself.
The son has turned the guilt he felt for his father’s death into hatred for the woman he used to love. As was common in Hardy’s time, it was the woman’s fault if there was something wrong with the child.
” Hearken to me, my son. No: no:
There’s madness in her blood!”
Those were his father’s words; and lo,
Now, now he understood.
The father’s reason for protesting so determinedly against the son’s wedding is fully fleshed out in the next four lines. Somehow he knew that the woman had “madness in her blood.” Whether there was some history of physical or psychological illness in her family is unknown, but the father thought so.
Now, the son understands that he should not have gone against his father’s wishes.
What noise is that? One noise, and two
Resound from a near gun.
Two corpses found; and neighbours knew
By whom the deed was done.
In the last stanza of ‘The Forbidden Banns’ the speaker asks the listener a question, they wonder aloud, “What noise is that?” There were two gunshots nearby. When the neighbours went in to see what happened, “Two corpses found.” There was no doubt in their mind about who did the “deed.”
Due to the fact that it was two corpses found by the neighbours, it is likely that these were the husband and wife, rather than the two children, or the wife and one child. He wanted to rid himself of his own depression, and take his wife with him as he saw her being the cause of all his misfortune. From his father’s death to his disappointing kids, she was the one who needed to take the blame.