'A Wife in London' and 'Drummer Hodge' by Thomas Hardy - Analysis
Westminster Bridge, London - Early 1890s
'A Wife in London' by Thomas Hardy - December 1899
A Poem of the Boer war
I ~ The Tragedy
She sits in the tawny vapour
That the City lanes have uprolled,
Behind whose webby fold on fold
Like a waning taper
The street-lamp glimmers cold.
A messenger's knock cracks smartly,
Flashed news is in her hand
Of meaning it dazes to understand
Though shaped so shortly:
II ~ The Irony
'Tis the morrow; the fog hangs thicker,
The postman nears and goes:
A letter is brought whose lines disclose
By the firelight flicker
His hand, whom the worm now knows:
Fresh ~ firm ~ penned in highest feather -
Page-full of his hoped return,
And of home-planned jaunts by brake and burn
In the summer weather,
And of new love that they would learn.
He ~ has fallen ~ in the far South Land . . .
In this article, all quotes and images have been credited accordingly.
My own work is protected by copyright law.
Copyright Tricia Mason. All Rights Reserved.
You comments would be much appreciated.
The mists of London are described thus by Hardy:
'the tawny vapour'
'webby fold on fold'
'the fog hangs thicker'
Indeed, London's fogs and mists were quite famous, the result of smoke and incoming sea-mists. This mixture of smoke and fog was named 'smog' ~ or a 'pea-souper'.
David Urbinato has written an essay on:
London's Historic "Pea-Soupers".
He writes that London's smog is part of the city's history, stating that 'complaints about the smoky air ... date back to at least 1272, when King Edward I ... banned the burning of sea-coal'.
Looking nearer to the time of the poem he notes that a 'fog in 1879 lasted from November to March, four long months of sunshineless gloom.'
He tells of a 'fog monitor', who gave reports on the state of London's air in 1901-2. These are some of the items he quotes:
"White and damp in the early morning, it became smoky later, the particles coated with soot being dry and pungent to inhale."
"It was soon found that light fogs largely attributable to smoke were permanent."
"From the summit of St. Paul's Cathedral ... the average limit of visibility was only one-half mile."
Full article here:
Smog - Full article here:
- London's Historic "Pea-Soupers" - About EPA | US EPA
- Victorian London - Weather - Fog
More on London's fogs.
'A Wife in London' Analysis
One of the the first things that the reader notices about this poem is the weather.
It is set in the cold mists of London.
First, Hardy describes the 'tawny vapour' and then, the 'fog' which 'hangs thicker'. This language reflects the immediacy of misery. One can almost feel the cold dankness around one's body. The dismal weather mirrors the mournful mood.
From its beginning, 'A Wife in London' conjures up feelings of sadness. 'She sits in the tawny vapour that the Thames-side lanes have uprolled', it says. No young wife would be content to sit in the cold mist, unless her mind were full of misery.
The second stanza explains her sadness ~ and the whole mournful feel of the poem; 'he has fallen in the far south lands. It is stated shortly and sharply. There is nothing to misunderstand, yet the young wife feels dazed by it and doesn't feel able to fully comprehend the news. She is too stunned. She is in shock. Hardy conveys this in just a few simple words: 'Of meaning it dazes to understand'.
Thus, part one of the poems gives us the facts, and part two shows us the irony ~ a form of irony which must have been a truth for many young couples at the time ~ and, indeed, whenever couples are parted by war. Shortly after receiving a telegram with news of her husband's death, this young woman receives a letter from him ~ full of love and hope and plans.
Hardy's poem is written in two sections, each containing two verses. The rhyme pattern is ABBAB, so, although regular, it does not have a 'sing song' quality to it. That, together with the changing meter, adds poignancy to the message.
Each of the two sections gives one specific piece of information. The first is that the woman's husband has died; the second is that the woman receives a posthumous letter from her deceased spouse. This, again, adds to the poignancy of the poem..
Hardy's poem is written in the third person.
Hardy ~ who we understand as 'the narrative voice' ~ says 'she sits', and then he briefly tells her story. It is generic; it is about any wife. This one happens to be in misty London, but she is symbolic of all wives and lovers, whose partners have been killed in action. She is only real in that she is symbolic.
* * *
When Hardy wrote this poem, it was 'current affairs' ~ the 'news' of his day.
Today, for us, it is history.
Also by 'Hardy'
The Fate of One Soldier in a Historic War
The language is also symbolic. When Hardy uses the term 'a waning taper', it is a simile for light from the street lamp, but it is more than this; it is also a metaphor for the life of a dying soldier as it ebbs away ~ 'waning'.
Hardy's use of the word 'fallen' is also important. It means that this man has died ~ been killed in action. It is the euphemism for the deaths of soldiers at war.
Hardy's poem actually makes no mention of battles or war, or soldiers or fighting. The use of the word 'fallen', following the 'the messenger's knock' is enough. The reader understands. A telegram has arrived and it has 'flash'[ed] the 'news' of the death of this woman's husband's into 'her head'.
The reader, especially in 1899, would also have clearly understood the meaning of 'the far south land' ~ it was South Africa, with its weather so different from the fogs of London.
Death is mentioned, again, in the second section, but, again, without using the actual word. This is where Hardy notes that the hand which has 'penned' the letter to this young wife was now buried under the ground, where the worms live.
It is possible to recognise just a little hope and optimism in Hardy's poem. The letter home is 'page-full of his hoped return'. It is full of plans for the summer and of hopes for their 'new love' ~ but, sadly, the telegram described in the first section has already dashed those hopes.
Hardy's poem is full of the language of misery and of winter ~ words such as 'vapour' and 'fog' and the 'street light' which 'glimmers cold' and the 'firelight' of winter. There is that ironic mention of 'summer weather' and hope, but the reader already knows that the soldier will never experience that English summer and will never fulfil his hopes and dreams. This soldier has 'fallen'.
it is a moving poem. The cold misty atmosphere of Hardy's London is well suited to the mood of the poem's main content. One feels emotion for the grieving new bride, sitting grief-stricken in the mist, while her husband lies dead, many, many miles away, in the African heat. One feels the bitter-sweetness of her response to a letter, penned when there was hope that her husband would return ~ when his flesh was firm and alive, instead of being meat for worms.
It is very effective, and emotionally moving, as far as a response to the death of a soldier is concerned. The new wife is naturally distressed at the loss of her partner. Hardy's writing skills enable the reader to sympathise and empathise with his 'London wife'.
Drummer Hodge - By Thomas Hardy
Another Poem of the Boer War
They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
Uncoffined - just as found:
His landmark is a kopje-crest
That breaks the veldt around;
And foreign constellations west
Each night above his mound.
Young Hodge the Drummer never knew -
Fresh from his Wessex home -
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
The Bush, the dusty loam,
And why uprose to nightly view
Strange stars amid the gloam.
Yet portion of that unknown plain
Will Hodge forever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
His stars eternally.
The Soldier by Rupert Brooke (1914) - excerpt
Sentiments of war?
Whatever the century?
Whoever the poet?
* * *
"IF I should die, think only this of me: That there's some corner of a foreign field That is forever England."
'Drummer Hodge' Analysis
In some ways, Hardy's 'Drummer Hodge', written at the turn of the century, was a literary opposite of 'A Wife in London'. In contrast to the grieving widow at home, it shows the lot of the fallen soldier in Africa. Rather than the damp fog and mist, reminiscent of England, we have the dry 'dusty loam' and the arid karoo of a far distant ~ foreign ~ land. Instead of the 'city lanes' and the Thames, we have the the 'veldt', the 'karoo', the 'Bush' and the 'foreign constellations', which belong to 'the far south land'.
These are alien words to those at home ~ and also to many of those fighting in the field. As Hardy says, 'Young Hodge the drummer ... never knew the meaning of the broad karoo'. He was 'young', as drummers often were, and he had not long arrived in Southern Africa, for he was 'fresh from his Wessex home'. Like the grieving London Widow, this young Wessex boy, didn't understand.
'Drummer Hodge' was based on a real person, whose story Hardy had read in his local newspaper. In spite of this, and like the London widow, this boy is symbolic. He represents all of the others, suffering the same plight. 'Hodge' would not have been his real name, even though Hardy would have known it, and could have used it. 'Hodge' was a somewhat derogatory term for a 'country bumpkin'. Hardy did not approve of the negative stereoptype, but it suited this young drummer. He was a country boy who knew nothing of the world that he was going into ~ leaving his fresh green English county for the hot dry open grasslands and uplands of Southern Africa; ignorant and innocent of what lay before him.
He went as a drummer boy, an alien in an alien land, where he did not even understand the words around him, yet that is where he would stay for ever more. 'Uncoffined' he would be thrown into that foreign 'dusty loam' and covered over so that a 'small kopje' crest would mark the spot. 'They' would do it, whoever 'they' might be. Too anonymous to be friends, 'they' might be colleagues; 'they' might even be enemies.
The poem 'Drummer Hodge' has an ABAB rhyme scheme and is written in alternating tetrameter and trimeter. This gives a 'sing song' feel to the poem ~ something like a child's nursery rhyme. This is ballad meter ~ as had been frequently used by Wordsworth in his day. Wordsworth had believed that the gentle happy sound of ballad meter could act as a cushion against the harsh content of the message within a poem.
The third verse of 'Drummer Hodge', with it's phrase 'Yet portion of that unknown plain will Hodge forever be', reminds us of a poem from 15 years later ~ Rupert Brooke's 'The Soldier', which says 'If I should die, think only this of me:that there is some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.'
But the two Hardy poems, together, illustrate that Brooke's romantic notion is purely that ~ a romantic notion. The truth of dying at war, in a foreign field, is that one might be unceremoniously dumped in a makeshift grave and one's grieving relatives will be left to sit crying, without comprehension, in the mists of home. There will be no romance, only physical and emotional pain.
Background - Second Boer War
The Second Boer war was fought in Southern Africa, between the British (including people of the 'Empire') and the Boers ~ Afrikaaners of Dutch and other European origins ~ between October 1899 and March 1902. The Boer Republics of South Africa and the Orange Free State became British colonies by the end of the war, and later formed the Union of South Africa.
Mark Weber has written a very clear item about the conflict. He states that this was a war between 'globe-girdling British Empire, backed by international finance' and 'a small pioneering nation of independent-minded farmers, ranchers and merchants'. He continues by describing 'The Boers' recourse to irregular warfare' (Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberley are remembered as places where British troops came under siege.) 'and Britain's response in herding a hundred thousand women and children into concentration camps....'.
The war ended with the 'peace of Vereenigning', in May 1902.
There are a number of examples of poetry related to the Boer War.
There is a website about Thomas Hardy and the Boer War, which has a page on the poetry of the Boer War:
According to www.AskOxford.com, the word 'Boer' was originally Dutch. It simply means 'farmer'.
The 'Boers', as a people, were descendants of Dutch and Huguenot ancestors, who had settled in Southern Africa during the seventeenth century.
Boer War Links
Hardy and the War
Thomas Hardy's Cottage, Bockhampton, Dorset
Thomas Hardy was born, near Dorchester, in 1840, and died, in Dorchester, in 1928.
His birthplace, in the village of Bockhampton, is now in the hands of the National Trust.
The house was built by his great grandfather.
His father, after whom Thomas was named, was also a builder.
His mother was Jemima (Hand), and Thomas was one of four siblings.
He married, first, Emma Gifford. who died in 1912, and then Florence Dugdale, in 1914.
Thomas Hardy introduced his readers to his wonderful fictional version of Wessex ~ his homeland, which he so clearly loved.
He wrote plays, poems, short stories and novels.
His war poetry reflects the Boer War and the First World War.
Some of his well known works of fiction include:
~ Far From the Madding Crowd
~ Jude the Obscure
~ Tess of the d'Urbervilles
~ The Mayor of Casterbridge
~ The Return of the Native
~ Under the Greenwood Tree
Biography written by C. D. Merriman