To an Unborn Pauper Child

Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy

Nationality: English

Thomas Hardy is remembered today for novels such as 'Jude the Obscure' and 'Tess of the d'Urbervilles.' 

But, there is a wealth of content to explore in his masterful poetry.

In ‘To an Unborn Pauper Child’ by Thomas Hardy, the speaker addresses an unborn child in a way that allows him to express his feelings about life and humankind. The speaker goes through various phases that are revealed with each stanza. He begins by lamenting over life and the tragedy that an innocent unborn child would one day have to face the horrors of life and humankind. With each stanza, the speaker expresses intense longings, only to end the stanza with his reluctant acceptance that what he longs for could never be. This is to the detriment of the child to whom he speaks. By the end of ‘To an Unborn Pauper Child,’ however, the speaker makes a surprising shift in tone and ends the poem by inadvertently revealing that though the world abounds with evil and the human race seems desperately hopeless, the ability to have hope that exceeds reason is also what makes human beings so unique and allows people to press on through hardships and look for joy in life.

To an Unborn Pauper Child by Thomas Hardy


To an Unborn Pauper Child Analysis

Stanza One

Breathe not, hid Heart: cease silently,
And though thy birth-hour beckons thee,
Sleep the long sleep:
The Doomsters heap
Travails and teens around us here,
And Time-Wraiths turn our songsingings to fear.

The speaker begins the poem by addressing an unborn child. The title reveals that this child carries no political or situational significance. He is but another poor, insignificant being. The speaker beseeches the child, “breathe not” but encourages him to “cease silently”. It quickly becomes clear that the speaker has sinister feelings toward life, especially life as a pauper. The fact that he addresses a subject who obviously cannot understand or respond reveals that this is rather directed at a general audience whom he intends to overhear his speech to the child. He continues speaking to this unborn child, telling him to “sleep the long sleep” even though his “birth-hour beckons”. This man has now asked the unborn child to die rather than breathe his first breath or experience the hour of his birth. The speaker’s feelings of angst and disdain for life are further revealed as his language intensifies.

The tone of the stanza implies that the speaker has no disdain for the child to whom he directs these words. Rather, he has sympathy for any pauper child born into the world, and he believes that the child would be more fortunate to never take his first breath than to grow up to experience the pain life would bring. His voice reflects that of the famous king Solomon of the Bible. This poem takes on an Ecclesiastical theme and tone. In this biblical book, the king laments over the human condition and concludes that “the dead who had already died” were “happier than the living” and then goes on to say that those who were never born and never saw the light of day were the happiest of all. This is the idea the speaker expounds upon with this poem. He believes that the suffering this pauper child will endure from the moment he is born is not worth having a life at all. The use of words such as “Doomsters” and images such as “time-wraiths” give the poem a darker, more cynical tone. The speaker seems to welcome death over life, and yet does not portray death as something beautiful and tender. He still refers to death as something that comes with the “time-wraiths” or rather grotesque ghosts or beings believed to be seen when someone is near death. Although the speaker does not paint a pretty picture of death, he still maintains that it is better than life and that an unborn pauper child would experience less pain and suffering if it never took its first breath.


Stanza Two

Hark, how the peoples surge and sigh,
And laughters fail, and greetings die;
Hopes dwindle; yea,
Faiths waste away,
Affections and enthusiasms numb:
Thou canst not mend these things if thou dost come

The word “Hark” begins this stanza. The word means “listen!” or “pay attention!”. This word means that the next things the speaker will say are highly important. He wants those listening to his speech to the unborn child to pay particular attention to these lines. He asks his audience to look around and see “how the people’s surge and sigh” and the way that “laughters fail” and “greetings die”. The speaker essentially concludes that he sees no joy in people. He hears no one laughing nor enjoying one another’s company. He observes people as their “hopes dwindle” and their “faiths waste away”. The speaker claims that people’s “affections and enthusiasms” have gone numb. Then, he directs his attention toward the unborn child once again and tells him that even if he comes into the world, he will never be able to change the fact that people live without joy, hope, faith, or affection.


Stanza Three

Had I the ear of wombed souls
Ere their terrestrial chart unrolls,
And thou wert free
To cease, or be,
Then would I tell thee all I know,
And put it to thee: Wilt thou take Life so?

With this stanza of ‘To an Unborn Pauper Child,’ the speaker continues in his dismal views of life, but here he makes a simple wish. He wishes that he could speak to the souls that are still within the womb, that he might warn them about the tragedy of life. He claims that if the unborn had the choice whether to be born into the world or die in the womb, he would tell them exactly what life was like, and ask, “will thou take Life so?” the speaker implies that had he known what life would be like and been given the choice to live or not, he would choose not to have experienced life, and he seems rather certain that most would choose likewise if they really knew what life would bring.


Stanza Four

Vain vow! No hint of mine may hence
To theeward fly: to thy locked sense
Explain none can
Life’s pending plan:
Thou wilt thy ignorant entry make
Though skies spout fire and blood and nations quake.

Although the speaker has already made his speech to the unborn child and expressed his wish to communicate with unborn souls, he accepts that he cannot make any difference. He knows that the unborn child will malt an “ignorant entry” anyway because there is no way to prepare an unborn child for the tragedies life will bring. Because the unborn and young children have a “locked sense” there is no way to communicate the realities of life until the child is old enough to experience the horrors of human life.


Stanza Five

Fain would I, dear, find some shut plot
Of earth’s wide wold for thee, where not
One tear, one qualm,
Should break the calm.
But I am weak as thou and bare;
No man can change the common lot to rare.

Since the speaker has accepted that he cannot speak info the womb and beseech the child not to be born, he next makes the wish that he could somehow protect the child against the evils of the world. He desperately wishes that he could find some way to shut out the pain and shut down the world’s plan for the child and instead keep him from ever having to experience “one tear” or “one qualm”. He resents that he cannot do this, and admits to the child that he is “weak as thou and bare”. At the end of this stanza, he resents the fact that he cannot change the evil in the world or even keep one child safe from tragedy. He resolves himself to the fact that “no man can change the common lot”.


Stanza Six

Must come and bide. And such are we —
Unreasoning, sanguine, visionary —
That I can hope
Health, love, friends, scope
In full for thee; can dream thou’lt find
Joys seldom yet attained by humankind!

The final stanza of this poem takes on a surprising tone as the speaker abruptly shifts from a tone of dismal lack of joy to one of ironic hope. The speaker has, with each stanza, accepted that which he could not change. He could not keep the unborn child from being born. He could not keep him from experiencing pain and tragedy in life. When once the speaker has accepted these truths and his own lack of control, he chooses to hope against the odds. He chooses to hope that the child might find “health, love, friends” and even a “scope” through which to view life in a positive light. The speaker admits that he is perhaps being “unreasoning, sanguine” and perhaps even a bit “visionary”, but he chooses to hope against the odds that this child might live to experience life differently from the average pauper child. The speaker has a dream for this child, that he might live to experience “joys seldom yet attained by humankind”.

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Allisa Corfman Poetry Expert
Allisa graduated with a degree in Secondary Education and English and taught World Literature and Composition at the high school level. She has always enjoyed writing, reading, and analysing literature.
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