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Form as Moral Content in Thomas Hardy’s “During Wind and Rain”

Posted By John Foy On October 22, 2012 @ 4:19 pm In Classic Reading,October 2012: Thomas Hardy Special Issue,This Month | 3 Comments

Read the poem here. [1]

When beginning to think about the poem “During Wind and Rain” by Thomas Hardy, I thought it might be useful to go back for some context to the old pessimist Yvor Winters, who always had provocative things to say about form.  If he was a pessimist, well, so was Thomas Hardy.  In his book Defense of Reason, Winters speaks of form as being in some way equivalent to moral content:

Form is not something outside the poet, something “aesthetic,” and superimposed upon his moral content; it is essentially a part, in fact it may be the decisive part, of the moral content, even though the poet may be arriving at the final perfection of the condition he is communicating while he communicates it and in a large measure as a result of the act and technique of communication.

This may sound today like too grand a claim for the formal aspect of a poem, and the word “moral,” cheapened as it has become in political and religious discourse, requires careful handling.  But let’s see how Winters’ idea might apply to “During Wind and Rain”:

They sing their dearest songs—
He, she, all of them—yea,
Treble and tenor and bass,
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

They clear the creeping moss—
Elders and juniors—aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat. . . .
Ah, no; the years, the years,
See, the white storm-birds wing across.

They are blithely breakfasting all—
Men and maidens—yea,
Under the summer tree,
With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to the knee. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.

They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them—aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs. . . .
Ah, no; the years, the years
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.

The poem is made up of four seven-line stanzas, each one beginning with a tableau of conviviality and domestic concord among members of a family.  These cheerful pictures, outlined with the simplest efficiency, are carried in the first five lines of each stanza.  The last two lines of each stanza (the sixth and seventh) act as a ballad-style refrain that looks away from the happiness to the inevitability of time’s erosion.  Let’s look at the second stanza as an example of the recurring structural unit.

They clear the creeping moss—
Elders and juniors—aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat. . . .
Ah, no; the years, the years,
See, the white storm-birds wing across.

The first five lines show family members of different generations clearing and preparing the lawn, perhaps for a garden party.  The scene is festive.  Young and old, “elders and juniors,” are clearing away moss from the pathways and building a shady seat amid the garden’s trees.  It’s a glad state of affairs, but then the last two lines of the stanza turn bleak.  The storm-birds are harbingers not only of a particular storm but also of the general work of wind, rain, and time, which will erase the joyful moments in the garden along with the garden itself and the cherished people in it.  Hardy’s double-looking stanza points to both life and oblivion.  This rhetorical pattern, replicated in all four stanzas, contains two thematic perspectives, where the first five lines point one way and the last two point another.  It acknowledges Hardy’s understanding of the terrible duality inherent in the nature of things.  We are here for a while, and then we are gone.  In his stanza, the heedlessness and the impending dissolution don’t cancel each other out.  They exist together in tragic equipoise, five lines to life, two lines to dissolution, bound together by the structure.

Another formal element that serves the meaning is the shortened fourth line of each stanza. While the first three lines contain mostly three stresses, the fourth contains only two feet and two stresses.  When you come upon that fourth line, the change in sound pattern creates a sonic effect of falling short, a disappointment in the ear when the expected third stress fails to sound.  This rhythmic deflation of the fourth line hints at the inadequacy of gardens, nice houses, and families to save us in the grand scheme of nature and time.  Listen to how it plays out in the third stanza:

They are blithely breakfasting all—
Men and maidens—yea,
Under the summer tree,
With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to the knee. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.

There is a distinct note of sadness in the metrically truncated fourth line (“With a glimpse of the bay”) despite the fact that it conveys the pretty image of water seen in the distance across a summer lawn.  How does this happen?  It may have something to do with psycho-acoustics, but I would explain it this way: the shift from a quick, tripping three-beat line to the shortened two-foot line with only two beats falling at the end of two anapests imparts a sense of the fleeting and fragile.  By sonically suggesting things that will not endure, the line itself embraces the binary view inherent in the whole poem—the lovely image and the note of sadness.  Ezra Pound, remarking on Hardy’s poetry, called this quality “expression coterminous with the matter.” The minor key in this case is achieved not only by the rhythmic change-up, of course, but also by the way the image is set in the overall context of the poem.

What about the rhyme scheme?  It does not vary: a b c b c d a.  In each stanza, the end of the first line, which is part of the happy tableau, rhymes with the end of the last line, seven away, where the doomful message sounds.  In a well-wrought poem, this kind of sonic equality will suggest a relationship beyond mere sound.  In this case, the equivalence points up the radically ironic contrast in meaning:

They sing their dearest songs— … /
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

They are blithely breakfasting all— … /
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.

They change to a high new house, … /
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.

This musical echo reaching across the stanza is another technique for yoking together the happy five-line unit with the dark two-line ending.  It’s yet another way that the poem’s structure embraces the double truth that Hardy understands.  This “binding secret” (to slightly misuse Seamus Heaney’s phrase) is there, too, in the repeated long “a” at the end of lines two and four.  This rhyme, repeating continuously in those positions in each of the four stanzas, works against the discontinuity that the poem is about.

What does all this have to do with a moral attitude?  Robert Mezey, in his introduction to Hardy’s Selected Poems, notes that in great poetry “the moral and the aesthetic are rarely, if ever, separate things.”  What does that mean?  Well, let’s start by saying that a poem negotiates its way between the real and the ideal.  In Hardy’s poem, the real includes the fact that human joy is obliterated by time, wind and rain.  The ideal comes into play as language organized formally that controls time and imparts order.  Like any good poem, “During Wind and Rain” tries to rectify the real with the ideal.  Time passes, people perish, nature overwhelms.  This implies the futility of having a garden and a house.  But isn’t a poem like a garden or a house?  Can a poem last?  Perhaps it can if it is worthy of the idea that it expresses.  It must be commensurate in its form and comportment (the ideal) with the observed facts that it describes (the real).  Such a poem at least stands a chance of outlasting the specific garden, the house, the wife, the man.  In “During Wind and Rain,” Hardy has succeeded in “understanding his experience in rational terms,” as Winters writes, and has conveyed “the kind and degree of emotion that should properly be motivated by this understanding.”  He has disavowed the “jeweled line,” and there is no emotional exaggeration.  In Hardy, there is never an alcohol-fueled linguistic rampage, as in Hart Crane. This was a contrast that Yvor Winters was very fond of.  He bashed Hart Crane at every turn.  Winters considered Crane’s aesthetic to be a fancy escape from reality, or an evasion of reality.  If that’s true, then we might say that Hardy’s aesthetic has done justice to reality.  But how?  “During Wind and Rain” is structurally consistent with the duality it describes.  It enacts the falling short and embodies the ironies of circumstance that it dramatizes.  In this way it both acknowledges and rectifies the real.  As a highly organized structure, it is a gesture of faith in our ability to create order.  It reflects the will and effort that shaped it, and only in this way does the poem survive its truth.


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[1] Read the poem here.: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/184087

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