‘The Old Workman’ by Thomas Hardy is a six-stanza poem with an AABB rhyme scheme. It gives no names while still delivering the concise story of a “mason” who became irrevocably injured while building a “mansion-front.” Despite his wound, the home’s inhabitants never know the story of his injury—or much information at all about him—which shows a lack of compassion and care on their part. The care from the “mason,” though, is obvious since he is pleased with his work, regardless of how it affects him and how little the inhabitants concern themselves with his problem. He takes pride in his work and for how he has provided for this family, in a way that could either show professional commitment or an understanding of a hierarchal station in life.
As a parallel, either way, ‘The Old Workman’ can be seen as a metaphor for a parent caring for a child. The work and sacrifice are real for that parent, and the child might never know of the parent’s struggles. Still, the result is seeing that the child is provided for and having a piece of oneself live on through the child’s being. Pride, commitment, and a bit of immortality, it seems, are the comparable details from which to draw the parallel.
The Old Workman Analysis
First and Second Stanza
Why are you so bent down before your time,
Old mason? Many have not left their prime
So far behind at your age, and can still
Stand full upright at will.
He pointed to the mansion-front hard by,
And to the stones of the quoin against the sky;
“Those upper blocks,” he said, “that there you see,
It was that ruined me.
There is no indication about who is speaking in these two stanzas—not the person asking the question or the one answering. This decision on Hardy’s part is an initial method to create the anonymity of ‘The Old Workman’ that is prevalent within the poem. Since the “mason” does not have great significance in regard to “the mansion-front” he helped to construct, choosing to build an impression of insignificance by giving him no name, and extendedly not even naming the person with whom he is conversing, is a sensible strategy on Hardy’s part. Just as it does not matter to those inhabiting “the mansion-front” who was the constructor, it does not matter in the grand scheme of the poem what this person’s name is.
Regardless of who is speaking, the person asking the question at the beginning of ‘The Old Workman’ dives into the heart of the issue. This “mason” has a visible physical issue that stands out enough to merit wonder. He is “bent down” until he cannot “[s]tand full upright at will.” Although the questioner never mentions the age range for this wounded person, the notion that others “have not left their prime [s]o far behind at [the mason’s] age” makes it clear that he is too young to be this worn down, despite having been referred to as the “[o]ld mason.” This paradox hints that the “bent” man has aged before his time.
The person responding to the question seems to take no offense as if he is not surprised that someone would ask. Instead, he simply offers an explanation by indicating a section of “upper blocks” that he blames for his “ruin.”
Third, Fourth, and Fifth Stanza
There stood in the air up to the parapet
Crowning the corner height, the stones as set
By him ashlar whereon the gales might drum
For centuries to come.
“I carried them up,” he said, “by a ladder there;
The last was as big a load as I could bear;
But on I heaved; and something in my back
Moved, as ’twere with a crack.
So I got crookt. I never lost that sprain;
And those who live there, walled from wind and rain
By freestone that I lifted, do not know
That my life’s ache came so.
The injured person offers further explanation of his issue in these stanzas, and the way they are told is in such a simplistic fashion that it hints at what should be an uncomplicated scenario. According to the account, the “big…load” of “blocks” was too much for him, “[b]ut on [he] heaved” until “something in [his] back [m]oved.” Basically, he pushed his body farther than it was able to go, and his back is now “crookt,” meaning he will forever suffer damages of trying to make sure the “upper blocks” found their place.
The manner in which this story is delivered is so factual though that it bears an unavoidable quality, as if what happened was destined to be and nothing could have prevented it. This is an interesting twist to the tale since simply not carrying the “upper blocks” up the “ladder” would have prevented the problem, so if something is unavoidable in the situation, it must run deeper than the act itself. With this in mind, the reader can infer that the “mason” felt a commitment to keep pushing past his point of comfort, like he had no other choice, and this led him to forever damage himself. This commitment could be from a station in life or loyalty to his career, but whatever it spawns from, it pushed him to a place where he, by account, never even entertained the thought of not seeing to the task.
Worse, the people “who live there, walled from wind and rain” are not aware that the “mason” damaged himself to construct their home. The stanzas do not clarify if this lack of knowledge is because the home’s occupants do not know the “mason” or because they simply do not know the source of his “life’s ache” outright, but the treatment of the final line of the fifth stanza makes it feel as though they are aware of his plight—just not that it “came so.” Whatever their awareness, they are protected by the structure that the “mason” built while he endures suffering from his time of having built that protection.
Sixth and Seventh Stanza
They don’t know me, or even know my name,
But good I think it, somehow, all the same
To have kept ’em safe from harm, and right and tight,
Though it has broke me quite.
“Yes; that I fixed it firm up there I am proud,
Facing the hail and snow and sun and cloud,
And to stand storms for ages, beating round
When I lie underground.
These stanzas of ‘The Old Workman’ are the culmination of everything that has already been noted in the aforementioned ones, and at least one answer to a question is found within the first line of the sixth stanza. The uncertainty was noted that Hardy never mentions if the home’s inhabitants do not know the “mason” or are simply unaware of why his injury occurred, but the reader can now know the inhabitants “do not know [him], or even [his] name.” It is still likely, given the wording at the end of the fifth stanza that they have seen him enough to note his injury, but their understanding of his plight greatly lessens with this new information. In fact, if one believes because of the “came so” wording that the homeowners know of his injury, their lack of acknowledgment to ask of his well-being shows a deficiency of compassion on their part.
Ironically, that deficiency of compassion is not mirrored in the “mason” as he legitimately seems to be fine with the way things turned out on a level deeper than his physical injury. To him, “all the same,” he is glad “[t]o have kept [the family] safe from harm,” and he is “proud” of his accomplishment. In this building, essentially, his time and effort will live on “to stand storms for ages,” even after his life has passed. In this, it could be assumed that not only does the “mason” have the noted commitment to his work, but he could also see that parting with a piece of his well-being has gained him a bit of immortality.
One concept that is never fully addressed is whether the “mason” feels his work commitment because he is a dedicated worker or because he is connected to a certain station in life. Given that the home’s inhabitants are so unaware and uncompassionate toward him, it offers support to the notion of stations, but it is still speculation.
Regardless, this poem can be seen, overall, as a commentary on the relationship between a parent and a child. The parent works without the worry of their own ailments to provide for that child, and the child may never know the toll the effort takes on that parent. Still, that parent can live on beyond their passing through that child. In this, the concept of taking pride and finding “good[ness]” in breaking oneself for another, while achieving immortality through that sacrifice, makes perfect sense. Whether or not this was Hardy’s intention, the correlation is strong and valid.
About Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy was an English poet from the 1800s, but he was noted for his skills in novel writing as well. Although he was born in 1840, his writing career extended into the 20th century, making his name one that had relevance in his own time during two different centuries. He was heavily influenced by his country and culture, and those concepts arise within his written works. He died in 1929, and his ashes were placed in Westminster Abbey. Read more poetry by Thomas Hardy.