‘Wessex Heights’ by Thomas Hardy is an eight stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains are quite long, containing somewhere around 12-15 words per line. The lines follow a very consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of AABB CCDD, and so on, changing end sounds as the poet saw fit.
An important feature of Hardy’s writing to take note of before reading ‘Wessex Heights’ is the setting. Wessex is an area of the United Kingdom in which Thomas Hardy set all of his major novels. It is located in the south and southwest of England. He named the area after the medieval Anglo-Saxon kingdom that existed there prior to unification.
As an example of Hardy’s creativity, many of the places used in his novels exist/existed in real life but were given different names in the books. It was at the end of his career, after he retired from writing novels, that he spoke about the “fictional“ area. It was based around the small area of Dorset in which he grew up.
Throughout the poem, the speaker describes how the only places he is able to find comfort are outside, away from the town. He is relaxed only when’s standing on the heights in Wessex, looking out over his life. When he is in town, he is constantly haunted by figures from the past. These take on the form of phantoms that follow him no matter where he goes. Some, such as that which appears on the “great grey Plain,” are more frightening than others. They are invisible to everyone else, but to the speaker, they are constant companions he’d rather get rid of.
Hardy makes use of a number of poetic techniques in ‘Wessex Heights’. These include alliteration and enjambment. The latter occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “dreaming” and “dying” in the first stanza and “watching, wondering what” in the fourth stanza.
Another important technique that is commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. This forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between the third and fourth lines of the fifth stanza.
Wessex Heights Analysis
There are some heights in Wessex, shaped as if by a kindly hand
For thinking, dreaming, dying on, and at crises when I stand,
Say, on Ingpen Beacon eastward, or on Wylls-Neck westwardly,
I seem where I was before my birth, and after death may be.
In the first stanza of ‘Wessex Heights,’ Hardy’s speaker describes the “heights in Wessex”. This is a reference to the high points, scattered throughout Hardy’s semi-fictional setting. The speaker recalls them fondly, describing them as though they were crafted by “kindly hand / For thinking, dreaming, dying on”.
Most importantly, they can arrive at these places in “crisis”. When he is at a turning point in his life and wishes to get away from the chaos occurring down below, the “heights” provide him with that escape. The speaker gives two examples in the third line of the areas he likes to venture to. One looks eastward and the other westward. They gave him an outlook that spans from his “birth” to “after death”.
In the lowlands I have no comrade, not even the lone man’s friend —
Her who suffereth long and is kind; accepts what he is too weak to mend:
Down there they are dubious and askance; there nobody thinks as I,
But mind-chains do not clank where one’s next neighbour is the sky.
In the second stanza, Hardy describes why the heights are so important to him. In addition to giving him perspective on his life, they provide him with the refuge from which he can escape the facts of his life in the “lowlands”. When he’s there, in the commonplaces of his everyday life, he has no friends. He has no one to even keep him company in his most desperate moments. In the second and third lines, the speaker compares himself to those around him. He looks at the men and women and sees them as “Dubious and askance”.
He’s unsure about who they are, who they want to be, or who he is to them. What he is sure of, is that there is “nobody” who thinks as he does.
Luckily for him, he found a place from which he can escape the “mind-chains”. The heights are open, freeing, and calming place. While there, he doesn’t have to think about all the things that weigh on his mind. His new neighbor is the sky.
In the towns I am tracked by phantoms having weird detective ways —
Shadows of beings who fellowed with myself of earlier days:
They hang about at places, and they say harsh heavy things —
Men with a wintry sneer, and women with tart disparagings.
The speaker mentally travels back down to the towns in the third stanza of ‘Wessex Heights’ and describes the terrible and haunting days he has spent there. While walking through the streets, he is “tracked by phantoms having weird detective ways“. They are able to find him out and follow him, no matter the tactics he employs to try to avoid them. These are “beings“ he knew at one point during his life. They were his “fellows” from “earlier days”. No matter what he does when he’s in town, he can’t escape them.
They “hang about at places” and say “harsh heavy things” to him. The men and women alike, in their unique ways, smear and disparage him. From this stanza, it is unclear whether or not these “beings” are partially or entirely in Hardy’s mind. But, the fact that he refers to them as phantoms, suggests that they might merely be reflections of the past.
Down there I seem to be false to myself, my simple self that was,
And is not now, and I see him watching, wondering what crass cause
Can have merged him into such a strange continuator as this,
Who yet has something in common with himself, my chrysalis.
The fourth stanza of ‘Wessex Heights’ describes the speaker’s fears of being untrue to himself. When he is in town he often finds himself putting a face, changing his personality, and becoming who he feels like he has to be. But, it is his simplest self he wants to stay true to. The person he was or would like to be without the exterior influences of the disparaging men and women.
The speaker imagines his simple self watching and judging his current, complicated and fake self. He wonders how he became the person he is now, and how related he still is to the person he used to be.
I cannot go to the great grey Plain; there’s a figure against the moon,
Nobody sees it but I, and it makes my breast beat out of tune;
I cannot go to the tall-spired town, being barred by the forms now passed
For everybody but me, in whose long vision they stand there fast.
In the fifth stanza, the speaker goes through two different places he tried and failed, to find refuge in. These two places, the “great grey plain” and the “tall-spired town,” contrast the calming influence of the heights. When he tried in the past to go to the plain, he found there was “a figure against the moon”. He was the only one who could see it, and it made his “breast beat out of tune”. This is a simple, poetic way to describe a racing heartbeat. Because Hardy does not give more than the basic details about this situation, a reader will be unable to form a final opinion about why the speaker is/was so haunted by the past. Or, why this figure, in particular, was so distressing.
Previously, when trying to visit the town, he found that it was “barred by the forms now passed“. With this reference, it becomes clear that the people/beings the speaker has been seeing are dead. They are, or were, actual ghosts and not physical humans who berate and pester the poet when he shows his face in town.
There’s an important transition between the third line and the fourth line of the fifth stanza. The third line is enjambed, meaning that the reader has to move down to the fourth line in order to finish the phrase comfortably. In this case, the fourth line is very important. It provides a necessary and altering conclusion to the third. One realizes that the “passed” beings The speaker sees are invisible to everyone but him. In fact, he says that to him, they aren’t passed. They are just as real as they were before.
There’s a ghost at Yell’ham Bottom chiding loud at the fall of the night,
There’s a ghost in Froom-side Vale, thin-lipped and vague, in a shroud of white,
There is one in the railway train whenever I do not want it near,
I see its profile against the pane, saying what I would not hear.
In the sixth stanza of ‘Wessex Heights’, Hardy follows a familiar pattern, referencing multiple places the speaker is unable to visit. The first and second lines of the stanza speak on ghosts at ” Yell’ham Bottom and “Froom-side Vale”. The first make some kind of shouting noise “at the fall of night“. The second, located in the Froom-side Vale, is “in a shroud of white“ and has thin lips. The third line informs the reader that there is another ghost the speaker definitely does not want near him “in the railway train“. It says things to him, reflected in the “pane“ of the window, that he does not want to hear.
As for one rare fair woman, I am now but a thought of hers,
I enter her mind and another thought succeeds me that she prefers;
Yet my love for her in its fulness she herself even did not know;
Well, time cures hearts of tenderness, and now I can let her go.
There’s a turn in the poem at the beginning of the seventh stanza as the speaker looks to the past. He speaks on something more beautiful than the ghosts which seem to plague his every waking hour. The speaker recalls “one rare fair woman”. The internal rhyme in this line helps to depict the speaker’s own perfect mental image of this person. She maintains an important place in his mind, but he knows the same cannot be said about her. He believes that whenever thoughts of him enter into her mind “another thought succeeds [him] that she prefers”.
Even though the woman never knew how much she cared, he is still willing to speak about her. In the seventh stanza, unsurprisingly, the speaker states that he has found a way to let her go. Time has cured his heart of its tenderness.
So I am found on Ingpen Beacon, or on Wylls-Neck to the west,
Or else on homely Bulbarrow, or little Pilsdon Crest,
Where men have never cared to haunt, nor women have walked with me,
And ghosts then keep their distance; and I know some liberty.
The eighth stanza of ‘Wessex Heights’ is somewhat of a reiteration of the first. The speaker again references the first two places in the east and the west that he can visit and look out over his life. He adds that he can also travel to “homely Bulbarrow” And “little Pilsedon Crest”.
To some, his existence might seem lonely, and perhaps it is. But, it is clear the speaker feels lucky that he has found any escape at all. He relishes the fact that men have “never cared to haunt” the land he walks on, nor does he have memories of walking there with a woman. All the ghosts of his most familiar places are shed when he enters these lands which have been, and always will be, completely his. It is in the absence of previous experience that he can “know some liberty“.