Thomas Hardy’s The Newcomer’s Wife explores the story of a newly married man listening in on a conversation about the sexual history, previously unknown, of his wife. He listens outside the door of a bar while the locals talk of his wife. Although to a foreign man, which he is, she may seem ‘innocent’, the locals say is actually a prostitute. That night, after hearing this news, the man jumps over the ‘harbour-wall’ to his death. The poem has elements of tragedy, but can be understood as comedy more than a tragic poem.
Structure in The Newcomer’s Wife
Thomas Hardy splits the The Newcomer’s Wife into 5 stanzas, with each stanza measuring four lines. There is a continuous couplet rhyming system throughout the quatrains, with an AABB rhyme scheme. This sing song rhyming, along with consistent meter along the lines propels the poem forward. You can imagine this tragicomic poem being chanted in a tavern. The neat rhyme scheme also means that when the poem does conclude, the ending is satisfying, both content wise and aurally.
You can read the full poem here.
The Newcomer’s Wife Analysis
The opening pronoun and verb focus The Newcomer’s Wife on the waiting man. He has heard something which has forced him to ‘pause’ in his footsteps, listening to the conversation on the other side of the ‘door ajar’. Although the poem is more so about the newcomer’s new wife, he is still an ever-present spectator in the poem, alike the reader. This is suggested by the focus on him standing and listening in the first line.
The setting of the ‘lively liquor-bar’ matches the tone elicited by the rhyme scheme. The ongoing tavern conversation being reflected through the bouncing rhythm. Also, the difference between the ‘lively’ bar and the ‘paused’ man show the difference between the Newcomer against the native people, himself being an outside to the action. There is a divide between the local people and the onlooking ‘newcomer’, also shown between the difference in knowledge.
The information about his wife’s sexual history ‘reached him’, suggesting something that he learned without seeking. The shock at hearing this information, indeed ‘paus[es]’ the man. This was not something he wanted to find out, and clearly it impacts him greatly, as we see by the end of the poem. The short term nature of the marriage, only having ‘married the week before’ also feeds back into this shock. The honeymoon period has been disrupted by this newfound knowledge, which greatly pains the newcomer.
It is here in stanza two of The Newcomer’s Wife that we find out his wife is actually a prostitute, with ‘hack’ being a slang term for this. This is the first piece of information that the newcomer hears from the natives, clearly shocking him. The communal ‘We’ insinuates that amongst the whole community this is common knowledge, furthering the distinction between the knowing ‘we’ and the shocked ‘he’.
The crude nature of the tavern setting comes out in the semantics of this stanza. By describing the woman as ‘slightly worn’, Hardy invokes typical misogynistic language which would have been used to describe the ‘hack’. The focus on her beauty, ‘she’s pretty yet’, furthers this objectification.
The pluralisation of ‘newcomers’ also suggests that even amongst newcomers, this is a girl often pursued. The locals are laughing at the newcomer, thinking he has ‘snatched’ a ‘prize’, but really having married a prostitute.
This is not a hostile poem, with the atmosphere of the bar discussing the newly weds founded on light banter, rather than malicious distain. Hardy’s ‘I am glad’ shows that the locals do care for the ‘hack’, this is just lightheaded poking fun.
The community is defined as a cohesive unit, with the middle three stanzas all being presented within speech marks. There is not one defined speaker within the poem, instead the community talks through a homogenous ‘we’. This firstly reflects the close-nit community that Hardy is exploring, but also furthers the distinction between the foreign ’newcomer’ and the cohesive communal unit.
The choice of ‘reign’ builds the suggestion of ownership within the newcomer’s relationship. The woman, throughout The Newcomer’s Wife, is objectified in relation to her beauty and her sexual history. Using the semantics of monarchy, the suggestion of ‘reign’ leads the newcomer to be ruling over the woman. This feeds back into the context of the time of writing, with Hardy writing within the Victorian period in which women were not seen as equal value within society as men. The power dynamics in the poem are furthered when considered that the ‘wife’ doesn’t have an active voice, only being talked about rather than heard from.
This stanza shifts away from the conversation within the tavern, moving back to the narrative of the ‘newcomer’. This is indicated by Hardy shifting from using quotation marks at the beginning and end of each stanza back to narrative verse. This stanza focuses on ‘that night’ following the conversation, detailing the suicide of the ‘newcomer’ after he realises his wife is actually a prostitute.
The enjambment of ‘place / Found’ allows the poem to flow quickly onto the final line, which makes the punchline ending spring up suddenly. The final image of ‘crabs upon his face’ is elevated through the final rhyme, neatly drawing the poem to a conclusion. Hardy’s word choice of ‘crabs’ at first seems to relate to the sea creatures in the water past the ‘harbour-wall’. This makes sense, as the man has jumped into the water to his death. Yet, taking into the account the contextual information given by the locals, that the woman he married was a sex worker, ‘hack of the parade’, the image then takes upon a new meaning. ‘Crabs’ is actually a reference to public lice, with this slang term often being used to describe the condition. The ambiguity of what Hardy actually means here generates a final snigger as the poem closes.
The comedy is built through the cohesion of several poetic elements. Firstly, the infectious rhyme scheme, with The Newcomer’s Wife emitting a sense of the sing-song tavern environment sets the joyous tone, allowing for the poem to be interpreted as comedy. By writing in direct speech, Hardy emulates the conversation as if we were a part of it, including the reader in the joke. Finally, the double meaning of the final line leads to a quick final joke, with the ambiguity of ‘crabs’ being a subtle wink to the reader.