To Life

Thomas Hardy

‘To Life’ by Thomas Hardy is a deeply poignant poem that personifies life as a dreary individual whom the speaker accosts out of sadness.


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.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: It is folly to try and change life when all we have control over is ourselves

Speaker: A person in sorrow

Emotions Evoked: Disgust, Frustration, Hope

Poetic Form: Ballad

Time Period: 20th Century

Thomas Hardy's poem offers a creative and engaging extended metaphor that is addressed to life but instead reveals much more about human nature.

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 Hardy

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!

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!


‘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’ is comprised of four quatrains that follow a rhyme scheme of ‘ABAB CDCD EFEF GHGH.’ As a result, it most closely resembles the ballad form.

Literary Devices

‘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).

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

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.

Stanza Two

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.

Stanza Three

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.

Stanza Four

 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.


What is the theme of ‘To Life?

The poem explores themes such as the relative powerlessness we have over life as people despite our defiant insistence on doing just that.

Why did Thomas Hardy write ‘To Life?

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.

What is the tone of the poem?

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.

What does the speaker know life “would’st tell” regarding death, time, and destiny?

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.

Similar Poems

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.

Poetry+ Review Corner

To Life

Enhance your understanding of the poem's key elements with our exclusive review and critical analysis. Join Poetry+ to unlock this valuable content.

Thomas Hardy

This poem by Thomas Hardy depicts an existential frustration familiar to anyone who's suffered a series of incessant sorrows. At its core, the poem illustrates a meeting between its misery-plagued speaker and a personification of life that takes the appearance of a vagabond. An interaction that the poet uses to express their dissatisfaction and disappointment with the bleak course of their lives.
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20th Century

This poignant poem by Thomas Hardy was published in the early half of the 20th century and offers a still-moving expression of grief. It echoes both Victorian realism and Romanticism that informed many of the poet's writings. In addition, it is also characterized by its highly personalized perspective and use of symbolism.
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Thomas Hardy remains an important English poet whose most famous works are steeped in an expression of intense grief. This anguish, like the poet's foray into writing poetry at the age of 49, occurred late in life with the death of his wife Emma in 1912. It was a tragedy that marred him deeply, and poems like this one reveal the full extent of that injury.
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One of the minor themes found within this poem by Thomas Hardy concerns death. They mention it only once, capitalizing it to imply its immense significance and possible treatment as a proper noun. Another connection with death is revealed in the speaker's descriptions of life as a cloaked individual, an image that alludes to or, at the very least, parallels the portrayal of death as a grim reaper.
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A theme inherent to Thomas Hardy's poem is the disappointment that the speaker expresses when describing life. Throughout the poem, they criticize life for their bedraggled appearance, frustrated and deeply dismayed by life's appearance. This interaction between the speaker and a personification of life underscores the melancholic futility of raging against life's woes.
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New Life

A desire for a new life is one of the central themes of Thomas Hardy's poem. This is essentially what the speaker asks for when they ask life to change both its clothes and temperament for their benefit. One of the points of the entire metaphor is to reveal the absurd pointlessness of trying to instantaneously transform a life of sadness into one of joy.
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The speaker of Thomas Hardy's poem expresses a number of different emotions toward the personification of life that approaches them. While their feelings shift near the end of the poem, at first, they greet the individual with something akin to disgust. The poet's diction and imagery emphasize just how "weary of seeing" life's "sad seared face" the speaker is.
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An emotion that defines Thomas Hardy's poem is the speaker's intense frustration with life. On the surface, this annoyance stems from their ragged and sad appearance, which the speaker cannot bear to see. But viewed through the poem's extended metaphor, the poem becomes an agonizing expression of one's existential frustrations with life.
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Although it is minute, there is a glimmer of hope offered within Thomas Hardy's poem. Though whether it is sincere or just a sardonic bit of irony depends on the reader's interpretation of the poem. Either way, the final stanza represents a shift in the poem as the speaker relents in making demands of life, choosing to hope that what they "feign" they shall one day actually believe.
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Hard Times

As with a number of Thomas Hardy's more famous poems, this one touches on the human experience with agonies and sorrows. Unlike so many of his poems, it doesn't center solely or specifically on grief but rather engages with life's woes in general. The result is a poem that captures honestly the unabashed desire we all have to dispel and resolve hard moments at our convenience.
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Life is obviously the core topic of Thomas Hardy's poem. Offering a dramatized illustration of the ever-human desire to escape whatever turmoil our lives have been turned upside down by. The poet was also one particularly acquainted with such tragedies. Yet he's also quite lucid about them as well, never losing sight of the sad delusions inspired by such sorrows.
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The poem relies on Thomas Hardy's personification of life as a vagabond individual encountered by the speaker. In choosing to symbolize life as such a person, the poet influences the reader's perception of the speaker. Casting a questionable light on their vociferous complaints against life. In this way, Hardy reveals the complexity of such pain.
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Some interpretations of Thomas Hardy's poem might observe a degree of selfishness within the reader. Certainly, the poet's framing of the scene as an interaction between the speaker and an impoverished individual is intentional. Their complaints are rendered far more personal, as they're directed at another person rather than an idea or concept.
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This poem by Thomas Hardy is a great example of ballad poetry. Structured into four quatrains, the poem offers a compellingly complete scene that utilizes its rhyme scheme to create a lilting cadence. One that adds to its overtly melancholic and lamentable moods. The result is a poem that expresses the lyrical woes of grief.
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Steven Ward Poetry Expert
Steven Ward is a passionate writer, having studied for a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and being a poetry editor for the 'West Wind' publication. He brings this experience to his poetry analysis on Poem Analysis.

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