‘The Phantom Horsewoman’ by Thomas Hardy is a four stanza poem that is separated into sets of nine lines. The stanzas each follow a consistent and structured rhyme scheme of abcbcbcaa, which varies according to the poet’s choice as the poem progresses.
Additionally, a reader should also take note of the poet’s choice to indent lines 2-8 of each stanza. In these section, the words and phrases appear more list-like rather than progressing in phrases of verses. This is achieved by restricting the words to either three and four per line as well as starting and ending them at the same point.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he knows of a “Queer” man who he always notices standing on a beach, within a cave, staring out at the surf. While they do not know for sure, those who know him believe he studies a vision of a woman riding a horse. This is a sight that haunts him throughout his days, not only when he is at the shore.
In the last section of the poem, the speaker describes how the woman seen by the man is as perfect as she was on the day in which the vision was reality. The man on the other hand, he appears as if he has laboured all his life.
Analysis of The Phantom Horsewoman
Queer are the ways of a man I know:
He comes and stands
In a careworn craze,
And looks at the sands
And the seaward haze
With moveless hands
And face and gaze,
Then turns to go…
And what does he see when he gazes so?
In the first stanza of the poem, the poet begins by crafting an introductory line for his speaker. This line is the starting point for the first listing of attributes which directly follow. From just the first line the reader will already know a number of different things about the person who is the subject of the poem. The person is a man, and he is “Queer,” or strange. This is a very broad term, lending itself to a wide variety of quirks or abnormalities. The full extent of these features will slowly be revealed as the poem progresses.
The first phrase that is presented in the central portion of this stanza, describes how the man “comes and stands” in an old, “careworn,” cave. It is from here that he looks out “at the sands” and the “haze” on the sea. The man is looking out into the distance, staring at something which no one is quite able to understand, and certainly unable to see.
While the man stares out at the sea he remains completely still. His hands are “moveless” and his “face and gaze” turn in a direction that is not ascertainable. The final line of this stanza emphasizes the point by asking, “what does he see” when he looks out at the distant sea?
They say he sees as an instant thing
More clear than to-day,
A sweet soft scene
That once was in play
By that briny green;
Yes, notes alway
Warm, real, and keen,
What his back years bring—
A phantom of his own figuring.
The second stanza is structured similarly to the first in that the first and last lines are longer than those located between them. In the lines which proceed, the speaker thinks over the most likely scenario for what the “Queer” man is seeing. While no one knows for sure, people have speculated and come to the conclusion that he sees “A sweet soft scene” that was once playing out in the “briny green” of the sea.
It is something that has long since passed and now only exists within the man’s mind. When he takes himself back to this time the speaker imagines things becoming “Warm, real, and keen” again. His years are rewound and he is able to see “A phantom of his own figuring.”
Of this vision of his they might say more:
Not only there
Does he see this sight,
In his brain—day, night,
As if on the air
It were drawn rose-bright—
Yea, far from that shore
Does he carry this vision of heretofore:
In the third stanza, the speaker continues on to describe what he, and those who have considered this man’s life, imagine he is seeing. They have clearly spent a lot of time thinking about his predicament and have come to the conclusion that he sees the “sight,” whatever it may be, “everywhere” he goes. It does not only come to him on the beach but throughout his everyday life. The vision appears on “the air” as if were “drawn rose-bright” in front of his eyes.
This stanza ends in the middle of a phrase, right before the reader finds out what it is the man is seeing.
A ghost-girl-rider. And though, toil-tried,
He withers daily,
Time touches her not,
But she still rides gaily
In his rapt thought
On that shagged and shaly
And as when first eyed
Draws rein and sings to the swing of the tide.
In the final nine lines of the poem, which are structured the same as those preceding it, the speaker describes a “ghost-girl-rider.” This person is the center of the man’s vision. She is there, wherever he looks.
Due to his obsession with the vision, or perhaps his inability to escape it, he appears to be “toil-tried,” as if he has spent his entire life laboring. The man grows more tired and “wither[ed]” every day but the woman who he watches does not. She still rides “gaily” through his “rapt thought.”
She appears to him, the same as she was when he first saw her “On that shagged and shaly / Atlantic spot.” She “Draws rein and sings” as she did in the past, every day before his eyes.