Many of the poems written by Thomas Hardy reckon with life’s various anguishes, from existential exhaustion to the long-suffering grief of losing a loved one. ‘To Life’ isn’t devoted to any sorrow in particular and instead wrestles with the perpetually disappointing and depressing nature of reality.
One that takes the shape of an extended metaphor that personifies life as a hapless vagabond who disturbs and unnerves the speaker with their very presence. Its use of figurative language causes it to stand out as one of the more unique and original pieces the poet wrote as an expression of life’s miseries and the all-too-human desire to fashion (no matter how illusory or deluded) respite from them.
To Life Thomas HardyO Life with the sad seared face, I weary of seeing thee,And thy draggled cloak, and thy hobbling pace, And thy too-forced pleasantry!I know what thou would’st tell Of Death, Time, Destiny—I have known it long, and know, too, well What it all means for me.But canst thou not array Thyself in rare disguise,And feign like truth, for one mad day, That Earth is Paradise?I’ll tune me to the mood, And mumm with thee till eve;And maybe what as interlude I feign, I shall believe!
Explore To Life
‘To Life’ by Thomas Hardy is a poem that imagines life as a bedraggled stranger who disheartens the speaker with their appearance.
‘To Life’ opens with the speaker addressing life as if they were a real person. They described them as having a “sad seared face” and wearing a heavily soiled cloak. Their distasteful appearance and gait are made all the more dismaying because of their noticeably strained politeness.
The speaker then claims to know what life would tell them regarding death, time, and destiny. Revealing they’ve known for a long time the hidden truths each has to offer and “what it all means” for them. They then ask life to improve their appearance and put on a rarer “disguise” with which to at least pretend — “for one mad day” — that earth is really a paradise.
Structure and Form
‘To Life’ makes use of some of the following literary devices:
- Metaphor: throughout the poem Hardy uses the description of life’s appearance as a means of relating to life’s joys and sorrows. “But canst thou not array / Thyself in rare disguise” (9-10) is an example of the metaphor used to compare their outfit with their temperament.
- Personification: The poem imbues life with qualities reserved for humans, as when the speaker refers to their “sad seared face” (1).
- Kinesthetic Imagery: There is also imagery that illustrates movement, which appears when the speaker describes the way life moves at a “hobbling pace” (3).
- Visual Imagery: Hardy characterizes life as a poorly clothed drifter, envisioning them with a “seared face” (1) and wearing a “draggled cloak” (3).
O Life with the sad seared face,
I weary of seeing thee,
And thy draggled cloak, and thy hobbling pace,
And thy too-forced pleasantry!
The first stanza of ‘To Life’ begins by personifying life as flesh and blood. Yet life’s appearance as this forlorn and filthy vagrant only inspires disdain in the speaker. Their “sad seared face” (1), “dragged cloak, and…hobbling pace” (3) give way not to pity but vitriol. The implication is that the speaker is less than welcoming of a life that constantly takes a form of sorrow and pain.
“I weary of seeing thee” (2), the speaker asserts without remorse. Expressing explicit abhorrence over life’s tendency to put on a “too-forced pleasantry” (4). Which is overshadowed and rendered meaningless in the face of its constant proclivity for misery.
I know what thou would’st tell
Of Death, Time, Destiny—
I have known it long, and know, too, well
What it all means for me.
Stanza two of ‘To Life’ opens with the speaker making a perplexing declaration. “I know what thou would’st tell / Of Death, Time, Destiny—” (5-6) they allege. The implication is that the speaker has already guessed at their fate regarding each, answering for themselves questions about the afterlife or their purpose.
Yet the speaker’s self-assurance only gives way to more foreboding assertions as they confess to knowing ” what it all means for [them]” (8). In other words, it’s not just life that appears so characterized by disappointment and heartache, but every aspect of existence as well.
But canst thou not array
Thyself in rare disguise,
And feign like truth, for one mad day,
That Earth is Paradise?
In the third stanza of ‘To Life,’ the speaker asks of life: “canst thou not array / Thyself in rare disguise?” (9-10) The request recalls their disgust over life’s appearance in stanza one. In asking life to change out of its “dragged cloak” (3) into better clothes, the speaker expresses that ever-human desire to transform sadness into joy as easily as one might get dressed.
The stanza’s last two lines emphasize this interpretation of Hardy’s extended metaphor. As the speaker pleads with life to at least pretend “for one mad day, / That Earth is Paradise?” (11-12) Insinuating the depressing sentiment, it would be lunacy to ever believe that life on Earth is remotely ideal.
I’ll tune me to the mood,
And mumm with thee till eve;
And maybe what as interlude
I feign, I shall believe!
The final stanza of ‘To Life’ finds the speaker relenting in their demands toward life. Telling the personified individual that they’ll “mumm with thee till eve” (14). This stanza marks a jarring shift in the speaker’s treatment of life, now accepting them as a kind of odd companion, whereas previously, they’d been only selfishly critical.
Instead of demanding that life changes their appearance for their sake, they decide to just stick around and keep life company. In a way, they decide to take their own advice and choose to feign their enjoyment until they actually come to believe it.
The poem explores themes such as the relative powerlessness we have over life as people despite our defiant insistence on doing just that.
Hardy’s poem offers a different perspective on life’s sorrows than many of his other poems. Instead of focusing on the incident of anguish itself, such as the death of a loved one, it uses an extended metaphor to personify life. Yet the poem still arrives as a poignant expression of grief over life’s incessant tendency toward disappointment.
The poem’s tone changes throughout and hinges on the speaker’s treatment of life. In the first three stanzas, they’re critical and make demands of its personification. Yet, in the final stanza, their tone changes and becomes far more amicable — even friendly.
Although it’s shrouded in ambiguity, one interpretation is that this is the speaker telling life they are not naive. They have known grief over death, grown melancholy over time’s passage, and understand that destiny is fickle. In other words, this desire for a reprieve from life’s woes comes from someone who has already suffered plenty.
Here are some more poems by Thomas Hardy that you might enjoy:
- ‘Beeny Cliff’ – this poem takes a hard look at grief’s ability to the very way we experience or perceive a once fond location.
- ‘A Sunday Morning Tragedy’ – This is a deeply sad poem about a mother and daughter struggling after the latter’s unintended pregnancy and abandonment by their lover.
- ‘He Never Expected Much’ – This poem conveys life’s often unfair and chaotic nature.