A Few Thoughts About Thomas Hardy’s “The Going”

All week I have been thinking about “The Going,” and so I will walk through it now. This will be neither a thorough analysis nor (I hope) a ghastly “think-aloud.” It is just a preliminary gesture, but one that I put together in my mind.

The poem has to do with a woman (his estranged wife, Emma) who left suddenly through death. The speaker laments not only her loss, but the loss of the moment when he might have known she was leaving. Because he did not know she was leaving, he was not allowed the moment’s significance or sorrow.

I have been drawn to Hardy’s poetry lately (by which I mean over the past few years, and stretching back farther). They have the ghostliness of loss. They hint at something of Donne (in my ear) and anticipate something of Auden—but they have an idiosyncratic mixture of song-like cadence and stark individual expression. As I read them over and over, I find myself taken into certain words and phrases.

In  this poem, the verse is accentual, with alternating stanza patterns. The first, third, and fifth stanzas begin with the question “Why” and follow the pattern (of stress counts per line): 4 4 4 4 2 2 4. The even-numbered stanzas give no answer, but instead reflect on something that the question brought up. Their stress count pattern is 3 3 4 4 2 2 4. Both stanza types have the same rhyme scheme: ABABCCB. The “Why” stanzas are somewhat stylized; the reflective stanzas, while close in form, contain a more private and unusual language. The rule does not always hold but describes the overall gist.

Here is the first stanza:

Why did you give no hint that night
That quickly after the morrow’s dawn,
And calmly, as if indifferent quite,
You would close your term here, up and be gone
aaaaaWhere I could not follow
aaaaaWith wing of swallow
To gain one glimpse of you ever anon!

The word “quite” may sound, to the modern ear, a little stilted after the adjective “indifferent,” but that’s due to our tone-deafness, not any enhanced modern sensibility. I will discuss “quite” more at the end; it has rich meaning and was still used after the adjective in Hardy’s time. It’s use in that position was already somewhat archaic (it seems) but still had meaning and resonance.

But look at the second and third lines of “The Going”: “That quickly after the morrow’s dawn, / And calmly, as if indifferent quite….” The words “quickly” and “quite” form the outer ends of a series of symmetrical alliterations and assonances. “Dawn” and “calmly” contain the same vowel sound (and prominently so); “dawn” and “indifferent” punctuate the “d” sound. The sounds of these lines suggest something enclosed, wrapped up—the one who departed, or the one left behind, or the closed-up “term” itself.

Now the second stanza:

aaaaaNever to bid good-bye
aaaaaOr lip me the softest call,
Or utter a wish for a word, while I
Saw morning harden upon the wall,
aaaaaUnmoved, unknowing
aaaaaThat your great going
Had place that moment, and altered all.

There are the stunning lines “while I /  Saw morning harden upon the wall,” and “That your great going / Had place that moment, and altered all.” I pause over “That your great going / Had place that moment, and altered all,” which suggests time, place, and motion all in one—a moment that physically exists and is gone, and in going takes something great away, but without the speaker’s knowledge. He saw “morning harden on the wall” (also a unity of thing, time, and motion) and was oblivious to the greater and more terrible unity.

The third stanza cries:

Why do you make me leave the house
And think for a breath it is you I see
At the end of the alley of bending boughs
Where so often at dusk you used to be;
aaaaaTill in darkening dankness
aaaaaThe yawning blankness
Of the perspective sickens me!

What a contrast—between the “end of the alley of bending boughs” and “The yawning blankness / Of the perspective.” It is a contrast not only between the memory and the loss, not only between the hope and the disappointment, but also between a lilting, lyrical language and something vacant and strange. Without knowing it, the speaker is emerging into his own life, which to him seems desolate but rings fiercely.

The next stanza evokes memories of the departed one, who used to ride horseback “Along the beetling Beeny Crest” and would “rein” near the speaker (not “reign”—I believe the homophone is significant) and “muse and eye” him “While Life unrolled us its very best.”

aaaaaYou were she who abode
aaaaaBy those red-veined rocks far West,
You were the swan-necked one who rode
Along the beetling Beeny Crest,
aaaaaAnd, reining nigh me,
aaaaaWould muse and eye me,
While Life unrolled us its very best.

Now, “to beetle” in this context is “to project or overhang threateningly”; “Beeny Crest” is a cliff in Cornwall that overlooks the sea (cf. Hardy’s “Beeny Cliff”). Thus the “very best” of life already has something foreboding in it—a precipice and a woman who only “reins” nigh him but does not stay. It’s the “red-veined rocks” and the “swan-necked one” and the “musing” and “eying” that make up this good Life unrolling. Now life is unrolling again (as we see in the final stanza), but in a different way, and with different lyric.

The next stanza is to me the saddest:

Why, then, latterly did we not speak,
Did we not think of those days long dead,
And ere your vanishing strive to seek
That time’s renewal?  We might have said,
aaaaa“In this bright spring weather
aaaaaWe’ll visit together
Those places that once we visited.”

The plea seems already an admission of defeat; the speaker knows that there would have been no new places to visit, that the best they could have done would have been to “visit together / Those places that once we visited.” And yet, isn’t that what long-term spouses do? Does it really suggest an end to love? That frail hope that something might be renewed through revisiting—is it really that frail? But here the speaker recognizes, for the first time, that the failing was not only the woman’s, but his as well. “Why didn’t we think of doing that? It would have been so simple,” the stanza suggests. There’s a poignancy and a gentleness in the last three lines, the words that could have been uttered by either one but were not: “In this bright spring weather / We’ll visit together / Those places that once we visited.”
This seems to point toward a reconciliation, which the final stanza only partly provides. Yes, it seems that the speaker has accepted the state of things—but this does not prevent or ease his final cry.

aaaaaWell, well!  All’s past amend,
aaaaaUnchangeable.  It must go.
I seem but a dead man held on end
To sink down soon. … O you could not know
aaaaaThat such swift fleeing
aaaaaNo soul foreseeing—
Not even I—would undo me so!

There is the matter-of-fact “Well, well! All’s past amend, / Unchangeable. It must go.” It sounds like someone shaking his head and getting on with his day. But that isn’t quite the point; it’s his own life that seems about to go; he seems “but a dead man held on end / To sink down soon.” Then comes the brilliant unraveling of the final lines, which have a complex grammatical structure. “You” here is the subject, “know” the main verb; then, the subordinate clause “such swift fleeing … would undo me so” has the participial phrase “No soul foreseeing,” which modifies the “fleeing”—and then the phrase “Not even I,” which in turn modifies “No soul foreseeing.”

Thus the speaker is included among all souls, none of whom foresaw the swift fleeing, which in turn has undone the speaker—an event that the one addressed could not have foreseen. There are two levels of foreseeing: foreseeing the fleeing itself, and foreseeing how it would undo the speaker.

Now back to the word “quite.” One finds it in Shakespeare where rhyme does not require it, for instance, in Henry VI, Part 1:

Lords, view these letters full of bad mischance.
France is revolted from the English quite,
Except some petty towns of no import:

“Quite” derives from the adverbial form of the Middle English “quit, quite,” which meant “free, clear.” It originally meant “thoroughly” but came to mean “somewhat.” It is related to “quit” and “quiet” and even to “while”; it derives from the Proto-Indo-European root *qwi- “rest.” One can hear all of those tinges of meaning in Hardy’s “quite” in the first stanza. It is about quitting, quiet, utter removal, and thoroughness, all of which come up in the final stanza again.

I have read no criticism of this poem, so I don’t know to what extent these observations overlap with what has been said before. I like to think about poems on my own before reading what others have to say, unless the criticism is especially compelling in itself (in that case, it takes nothing away from my own thinking, but instead spurs thoughts). I was looking forward to laying down these thoughts all week, and know that they are just a beginning.

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2 Comments

  1. Sandolly

     /  May 13, 2013

    Dear Diana,

    I thought your commentary on “the Going” was wonderful, unlike most of the comments from other educators on the Internet. “The Going” is a poem I have loved since high school 55 years ago. It touched me then, and it still grabs me emotionally about loss and/or death. I appreciated also your studied analysis of the poem itself. Thank you.

    Reply

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