TREE-LEAVES labour up and down,
And through them the fainting light
Succumbs to the crawl of night.
Outside in the road the telegraph wire
To the town from the darkening land
Intones to travelers like a spectral lyre
Swept by a spectral hand.

A car comes up, with lamps full-glare,
That flash upon a tree:
It has nothing to do with me,
And whangs along in a world of its own,
Leaving a blacker air;
And mute by the gate I stand again alone,
And nobody pulls up there.
                                      — 9 October 1924

[first published in Hardy's Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs, and Trifles (1925).]

The term "rhetorical context" implies the amount of information that the literary work superficially conveys about the circumstances under which it was supposedly written or uttered. For example, by the allusions to the car head-lights and the labouring tree-leaves, we may deduce that the setting is a windy night in the autumn, perhaps in England rather than America ("labouring" is the British spelling). The references to the automobile and telegraph strongly suggest a late-nineteenth- or early-twentieth-century setting.

1. How much more "rhetorical context" does one require to make sense of this poem? That is, what has Hardy not revealed on the surface that is essential to a thorough interpretation of the poem?

2. Let us consider the poem simply as a text, noting its general features, including narrative perspective, setting, rhymes, imagery, onomatopoeia, etc., and how these contribute to the theme. If the theme is implicit rather than explicit, attempt to give it in the form of statement of textual or authorial intention--use a subject and predicate.

3. Why does Hardy provide a specific date? In "Tintern Abby" Wordsworth also provides an exact date for the events described in his poem. What attitudes towards poetry do the two men share? How do their basic conceptions of poetic subject, for example, differ from those of, say, Pope?

4. Michael Millgate's biography of Hardy provides some important information about the context of the poem:

In the spring of 1923, a cancerous lump on Florence Hardy's throat was misdiagnosed as a swollen gland. However, in September 1924, Hardy's second wife of ten years went up to London, where she was operated upon by surgeon James Sherren, much to Hardy's dismay, magnified by his life-long fear of the surgeon's knife. On 1 October, the surgeon reported to Hardy that the operation had been a complete success, the entire tumour having been removed successfully. Florence would be free to return home after spending a few days recuperating at the Fitzroy Square nursing home.

Victorian novelist and poet Thomas Hardy, aged 74 at the time he wrote the poem, had been married ten years to Florence Dugdale, some thirty years his junior, but a noted children's author in her own right. Nine days after the operation, Henry Hardy, the poet's younger brother, was entrusted with the task of driving her home from London. According to Millgate, "Elaborate plans were laid for the journey to and from town [i. e., London], Hardy supplied route maps for the [hired] driver and rugs for the patient, and Henry embraced the whole project with great enthusiasm . . ." (513). The party did not arrive back in Dorchester until well after dark.

How have these details about the circumstances surrounding its composition sharpened your interpretation of the poem? How has this information altered your initial interpretation of the poem?

5. Millgate describes Hardy's mental state a week prior to the incident that precipitated the poem:

May O'Rourke, arriving at Max Gate the morning of the operation, was shocked by Hardy's physical appearance, and even after the news of the operation's success had arrived he remained as if 'dazed'. He felt additional distress and some guilt at not being on hand in London itself, but Florence could only have been disturbed by his frail and fretful presence . . . [Millgate 513]

It was, moreover, only twelve years since the death of his first wife of forty years, Emma Lavinia Gifford Hardy (died 27 November 1912).

How does this final piece of information affect your interpretation of the poem?

6. Finally, although Hardy lived the first sixty-one years of his life under the reign of Queen Victoria (ruled 1837-1901), he wrote this poem during the reign of King George V, and did not die until 1928. Accordingly, should it be classified as Victorian or Georgian? Why?

References

Hardy, Thomas. Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs, and Trifles. London: Macmillan, 1925.

Millgate, Michael. Thomas Hardy: A Biography Reconsidered Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.


Victorian Web Thomas Hardy

Last modified 4 September 2005