‘The Mock Wife’ by Thomas Hardy was published in the poet’s 1925 collection, Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs and Trifles. It is a nine stanza ballad that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. ‘The Mock Wife’ exhibits a number of the telltale signs of a ballad, but does not stick to the traditional English, pattern of rhythm. Instead, the lines are separated out into lines only of similar length. Each contains somewhere between fourteen and twenty syllables.
These quatrains follow a specific rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of AABB CCDD, and so on, alternating end sounds as Hardy saw fit. There are a few moments in which end sounds are used more than once. For example, lines three and four of the seventh and ninth stanzas rhyme. As do lines one and two of the fourth and ninth stanzas.
Context to The Mock Wife
‘The Mock Wife’ is one of a few poems in the collection that is connected to real life events. Specifically, the poem comes from the historical execution of an eighteen year old woman named Mary Channing in 1706. She was burnt at the stake in the Maumbury Rings, a Neolithic henge, in Dorchester for the apparent murder of her husband. Her husband, John Channing, a grocer, had a dying wish. This is what The Mock Wife focuses on.
Summary of The Mock Wife
‘The Mock Wife’ by Thomas Hardy tells briefly of the life and death of John Channing and his wife who was executed for his murder.
The poem begins with the speaker telling the reader that they know a bit about the “dark drama.” The details are sharp, forcing a reader to come to terms with the death of John Channing in 1705. As the lines progress John’s last dying wish is expressed. It is clear from his statements that he doesn’t know he has been murdered. His wife is on her way to prison, but he has no idea. He asks that she be brought to his side so that he might kiss her one last time.
The onlookers don’t know what to do about this conflict. His wife is too far for her to come back, plus it just wouldn’t be the right thing to do. Eventually they make a deal with themselves and with the neighbour. Another woman, of similar age and shape, lives next door and they asked her to pretend to be the wife. She does so, and the dying John kisses her until he falls back exhausted and passes on.
They were able to grant his final wish, a fact they are relieved about. The poem concludes with the introduction of a small amount of uncertainty about the wife on the day of her execution, six months from the main events of the poem. The speaker includes details that discuss the possibility that she did not kill her husband. Nevertheless, she is burnt at the stake for the murder.
Although the poem in quoted in full below, you can also read the poem in full here.
Analysis of The Mock Wife
It’s a dark drama, this; and yet I know the house, and date;
That is to say, the where and when John Channing met his fate.
The house was one in High Street, seen of burghers still alive,
The year was some two centuries bygone; seventeen-hundred and five.
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker explains that the story he’s going to tell is a dark and dramatic one. This does not make it obscure of ephemeral though, in fact, he knows the house and date where the most important parts of the drama took place. The house on “High Street” was where “John Channing met his fate.”
Hardy’s speaker does not reveal all the details at this time, stretching out the drama in order to keep the reader’s attention. It takes a few stanzas for the manner of, and reason for his death to be revealed. In the second stanza of ‘The Mock Wife’ he leaves the reader with the year of John’s death, 1705.
A reader should take note of how Hardy makes use of alliteration, with “dark drama” and anaphora with the repetition of “The” at the start of the third and fourth lines. Both of these techniques are repeated throughout the text.
And dying was Channing the grocer. All the clocks had struck eleven,
And the watchers saw that ere the dawn his soul would be in Heaven;
When he said on a sudden: “I should like to kiss her before I go, —
For one last time!” They looked at each other and murmured, “Even so.”
The speaker goes on to tell the reader that John Channing was a grocer and was dying when “all the clocks…struck eleven.” This is the climax of his dying moments, and he has something he wants to have happen before he’s gone. John decides that he wants to kiss his wife one last time before he goes. Generally, this would not be strange, but in this story his wife is the murderer. This presents a problem to be solved to those looking over John’s deathbed.
These observers around the dying man comment, “‘Even so.’” This indicates their surprise that he’d want anything to do with his wife. In the next lines though, it is revealed that he doesn’t know she is the main suspect.
She’d just been haled to prison, his wife; yea, charged with shaping his death:
By poison, ’twas told; and now he was nearing the moment of his last breath:
He, witless that his young housemate was suspect of such a crime,
Lay thinking that his pangs were but a malady of the time.
It becomes clear in the third stanza that she has just been “Haled” or forcibly taken to prison. She was suspected of giving him poison and been charged with “shaping his death.” Both these historical characters are young at the time, lending more sorrow to their situation.
Additionally, John’s innocence is meant to play on the reader’s emotions. He is totally unaware that he has been murdered and that his wife did it. He thinks that his “pangs” are just a “malady” or illness of that period. The man does not know any better and clearly no one thought it right to tell him, this is a choice that is still up in the air, to whether it was right or wrong, at the end of ‘The Mock Wife.’
Outside the room they pondered gloomily, wondering what to do,
As still he craved her kiss — the dying man who nothing knew:
“Guilty she may not be,” they said; “so why should we torture him
In these his last few minutes of life? Yet how indulge his whim?”
There is a small difficulty for the onlookers to contend with, the wife is in prison. They don’t know “what to do” as they stand in the hallway and “ponder…gloomily.” The men want to make him happy in the last moments of his life, but they don’t know how to “indulge his whim.” They consider the fact that it is not John who committed the crime, but the wife. He shouldn’t have to suffer any more than he already is.
And as he begged there piteously for what could not be done,
And the murder-charge had flown about the town to every one,
The friends around him in their trouble thought of a hasty plan,
And straightway set about it. Let denounce them all who can.
Apparently, there is no way for his wife to be released from prison to his bedside. The dying man begged “piteously” for someone to help him and the onlookers give in. They decide that there must be some way for him to get what he wants. Together, they come up with a “hasty plan.”
They know that the ‘murder-charge had flown about town to every one.”There is no one in the town who doesn’t know John was about to succeed to his wife’s poisoning. The men also know that most of these people would judge them for trying to retrieve the wife. They’re determined to find a solution though.
“O will you do a kindly deed — it may be a soul to save;
At least, great misery to a man with one foot in the grave?”
Thus they to the buxom woman not unlike his prisoned wife;
“The difference he’s past seeing; it will soothe his sinking life.”
The sixth stanza of The Mock Wife is entirely dialogue and explains how the men went searching and found a woman. They are speaking to her in these four lines, telling her that there is a “kindly deed” that she needs to do for them. Their plan is to save the husband’s soul by getting rid of some of his misery.
They want the woman to “sooth his thinking life” by pretending to be his wife. The two have something of a resemblance but the men don’t think it matters anyway, he is “past seeing.”
Well, the friendly neighbour did it; and he kissed her; held her fast;
Kissed her again and yet again. “I — knew she’d — come at last! —
Where have you been? — Ah, kept away! — I’m sorry — overtried —
God bless you!” And he loosed her, fell back tiredly, and died.
The fake wife comes to the man’s house and complies with the request they put to her. The two kissed and the dying man “held her fast.” He embraced her again and again. In these lines Hardy makes use of dashes in order to indicate pauses in speech while the man kisses the “mock wife.”
John Channing exclaims over how glad he is that his wife is there and that he doesn’t care why she didn’t come sooner. It is after this exciting, energetic encounter that the man fell back, tired, and died. Although no one wanted him to die, at least they were able to give him the final moments that he sought.
His wife stood six months after on the scaffold before the crowd,
Ten thousand of them gathered there; fixed, silent, and hard-browed,
To see her strangled and burnt to dust, as was the verdict then
On women truly judged, or false, of doing to death their men.
The eighth stanza gives a few details about the wife. It was six months before she appeared on the scaffold. There were 10,000 people crowded around to watch her death. They did not cheer, but instead stood “fixed, silent and hard-browed.” As chaotic as public exhibitions are known to be, this on was calm and purposeful. It appears that she was hanged and then “burnt to dust.” Almost everyone there wants to see the woman die, they have no sympathy for her.
Some of them said as they watched her burn: “I am glad he never knew,
Since a few hold her as innocent — think such she could not do!
Glad, too, that (as they tell) he thought she kissed him ere he died.”
And they seemed to make no question that the cheat was justified.
In the last four lines of The Mock Wife the speaker reveals that not everyone felt so passionately about her guilt. There were some who thought that she was innocent. They speak out loud, expressing their relief that the husband was never told about what happened. It would’ve only increased his grief to know that his wife was soon to die as well and that she was the reason for his demise. It is interesting to consider what the husband would’ve thought of his wife. Would he have believed her capable of murder? Or would he have had another explanation for his illness?