A Discussion of Thomas Hardy Late Lyric "Winter Night in Woodland (Old Time)"

Philip V. Allingham, Contributing Editor, Victorian Web; Faculty of Education, Lakehead University (Canada)

[text of poem]

Like his other lyrics written between 1922 and 1925, Hardy's "Winter Night in Woodland (Old Time)" eschews both the bitterness of the war poems and self-flagellation of the "Emma" verses as it reverts to the Green World of his early life and writing career. His once-innocent vision the Green World, however, is now filtered through the consciousness of a worldly-wise adult who acknowledges the presence of "dark figures" among us and yet knows enough of the world not to be disturbed by them. The series of quasi-pastoral poems from this period includes "The Sheep-Boy," "Life and Death at Sunrise," "A Light Snow-Fall After Frost," "Last Week in October," "A Sheep Fair," "Last Look Round St. Martin's Fair," "Shortening Days at the Homestead," "An East-End Curate," "A Backward Spring" (the exception, being published in Moments of Vision in 1917), "Ice on the Highway," "No Buyers," and "Winter Night in Woodland." These Hardy poems differ greatly from the traditional pastoral originated by Theocritus and Virgil and maintained by Shakespeare and Sir Philip Sidney, which describes a golden age of humanity and nature in harmony; it is based on the idealised vision of urban-dwellers. Thus, the countryman Hardy's more realistic vision lacks the traditional nostalgia for a natural life of peace and simplicity, and it cannot therefore be termed an "idyll." The unalloyed purity of nymphs, shepherds, and shepherdesses of Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Christopher Marlowe is replaced in Hardy by those engaged in the Darwinian struggle for survival in a countryside not entirely devoid of the sinister.

The setting of "Winter Night in Woodland (Old Time)" is drawn partly from Hardy's personal experiences of the area around his boyhood home, the old cottage at Bockhampton, and partly from the fictive woods of Under the Greenwood Tree and The Woodlanders. This is not the purely pastoral world of Shakespeare's Forest of Arden, for negative elements are present, such as the obscuring fog in "The Sheep-Boy" and a drenching downpour in "A Sheep Fair." In "Winter Night in Woodland (Old Time)," such an element is the presence of night-time predators and outlaws: foxes, bird-baiters, poachers, and smugglers. It is neither the bloody Forest of Ardenne, the killing ground of the First World War that spawned Hardy's bitter anti-war verses, nor the bleak natural world of "The Darkling Thrush" and Jude the Obscure. The pheasants (like the heifer about to be sacrificed in Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn") are still unharmed in the golden moment Hardy captures, not trashing about on the ground in their death-throes, as in that memorable incident in Tess of the D'Urbervilles.

A setting sun has suddenly penetrated the gathering gloom at the end of Hardy's life, casting a golden glow over the woodland, and, though it has set before the poem begins, there is a delicacy and mellowness that belie the night-time setting. These are not the deep and dark woods of Robert Frost's snowy evening, for Hardy (although a detached observer rather than an engaged commentator) permits us to hear (stanza one) and see (stanzas two and three) the interaction of the animals and the humans attuned to this green world, and then both to see and hear once again those cherished figures from the Mellstock Quire, "Robert Penny, the Dewys, Mail, Voss, and the rest," who have just completed their seasonal tromp around the cottages to sing the old songs of Hardy's youth. Their culminating entry into the woodland clarifies the setting as remembered and allusionary rather than the present and the real.

Initially, each stanza seems detached, a lyric description which has nothing in common with its mates but the elements of time and place. But gradually the scenes overlap into a collage of the real pastoral that young Thomas Hardy knew in those Bockhampton woods, each scene developed by selective detail, predators and prey, lawbreakers and musicians. No violence enters here; although there is the promise of death from "The hand of man" raised against the fox and the pheasants, there is no actual carnage; the anticipated slaughter is not to be on the grand scale of the Great War, nor is it to be pointless and wasteful: everyone is doing what he needs to do to survive. This is an ecological microcosm, a world in balance, unlike the greater world about whose fate Hardy has lamented in prose and verse, the increasingly cruel and callous society of mankind which fails to appreciate the natural world. "Yet this [natural cycle] will go onward the same, / Though Dynasties pass," as Hardy himself reflects in "In Time of 'the Breaking of Nations'" (1913, but probably begun upon the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870). In "Winter Night in Woodland (Old Time)," we and Hardy take comfort in watching the enduring scene which camera-like Hardy has recorded in these "Winter Words" because he depicts the "Human Show" as part of a greater whole. There is nothing impersonal, despite the absence of the narrator in these scenes, about the lovingly chosen details that accumulate to produce this appreciation of the Green World, for despair and satire both are absent. Lines that seem "value-free" are in fact an assertion of the value of observation without intrusion, of simply letting the natural rhythm of things be without overt comment or criticism because Nature merely Is -- it is neither good nor evil.

References

Hardy, Thomas. The Variorum Edition of the Complete Poems of Thomas Hardy, ed. James Gibson. London: Macmillan, 1979.

-- -. The Complete Poetical Works of Thomas Hardy, Vol. 3, ed. Samuel Hynes. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985.


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Last modified January 5, 2003