“The Voice” is one of a sequence of elegies that Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) wrote as “Poems of 1912-13”. These are generally regarded as some of his best poems, being more heartfelt and personal than many of his earlier poems. Other poems in the collection include The Haunter, The Walk, Your Last Drive and After a Journey.
The sequence of 21 poems was written as a reaction to the death of Emma, Hardy’s wife of 38 years, in November 1912. The marriage, although long, had not been happy. Apart from the marriage being childless, Hardy had allowed his work to take priority over it and had pushed Emma to the margins of his life.
Emma, who was a strong-willed woman, resented her husband’s attitude, and there were many arguments. There is evidence that Thomas was unfaithful to her, and he was certainly attracted to Florence Dugdale, 38 years younger than Thomas, who stayed for some weeks at the Hardy home acting as a secretary. Eventually, Emma virtually shut herself away in two attic rooms in their Dorchester house, where she wrote a diary which is believed to have been entitled “What I think of my husband”.
Emma died at the age of 72 from what her death certificate said were impacted gallstones, but Hardy was either not aware that she had been seriously ill, or he chose to ignore her symptoms. Whatever the case, her death came as a great shock to him. His grief at losing his wife was compounded by a profound sense of guilt and remorse, especially when he found her diary, which he burned.
In March 1913, he visited Cornwall with his brother, and it was during his stay there that most of the “Poems 1912-13” were written, including “The Voice”. The significance of the location is that it was in Cornwall that Thomas had met Emma back in 1870. Hardy had been a junior architect in his youth, and had been sent to inspect the dilapidated church at St Juliot, near Boscastle, where the rector was married to Emma’s sister. Hardy’s memories during his 1913 visit were therefore of the young Emma with whom he had fallen in love.
The voice that is the subject of the poem is therefore Emma’s voice, calling to him from beyond the grave. The first stanza reads:
“Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.”
The use of monosyllabic words, the repetition in the opening line and the simple bouncy rhythm make this sound almost like a song lyric, and a tune such as “Blow the wind southerly” comes to mind.
The voice that Hardy hears is telling him that Emma, in death, has changed back from the bitter woman who wrote the vituperative diaries and who shunned his company and now regards him as she did when they first knew each other at this very spot. At least, that would appear to be the poet’s hope.
The second stanza is as follows:
"Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!"
The musical rhythm continues, although it is broken in the last line with the use of a rather clumsy four-syllable word, which is the only one in the poem. Hardy is keen to continue the device of the double rhyme in the first and third lines, so that “call to me / all to me” in the first stanza is followed by “view you then / knew you then” here. This is unfortunate, because Hardy is forced to use “view” instead of “see”, which might have been the more natural word in the context; “view” seems too impersonal a choice of word here.
There is a definite longing here, in that the poet wants to imagine her exactly as she was in the days of their courtship, moving from a ghost with only a voice to one that can be seen.
However, things start to change in the third stanza:
"Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?"
Doubt is now creeping into Hardy’s mind, as though he realises that the voice might be only in his imagination as he stands at the place where he stood with Emma all those years before, but the only sound is that of the wind.
The word “wistlessness” in the third line is an interesting one, as it would appear to be an archaic word meaning ignorance in the sense of “being unwitting”, although it is clearly chosen to fit the rhyme scheme. The word might also be understood as being the opposite of “wistfulness”, which implies a desire to know someone. It is Emma who is “dissolved” to this state, and who can no longer know him, but perhaps she does not want to know him, and is punishing him for his neglect of her during her lifetime.
(In some versions of the poem, the word printed is “existlessness”, which is even more awkward and clumsy).
The fourth and final stanza comes as a shock:
“Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.”
The earlier rhythm has disappeared completely, and there is no music here at all. We move suddenly from the voice, that the poet has realised is probably only imagined, to the actions of himself. He “falters forward” against the northerly wind as he moves away from the spot. Reality has intervened in the shape of leaves falling around him (which is a bit odd, given that Hardy’s visit to Cornwall was in Spring, not Autumn).
However, in the very last line it all changes again. In another sudden switch, there is no doubt or equivocation; it is “the woman calling”, stated as a fact without question. Just as he had dismissed the possibility that Emma was calling to him, and was putting it out of his mind, she does exactly that. Despite the fact that he does not deserve her presence, she is there, because her spirit is greater and nobler than his.
Although “The Voice” has a few stylistic faults it is still a powerful poem that is spoken from the heart. Through it, and other poems in the collection, Hardy both punishes himself for his past behaviour and hopes for forgiveness. He knows that he is not worthy of her attention from the “other side” but he cannot allow himself to think that he has lost her for ever.
Hardy was greatly affected by the suddenness of Emma’s death, which meant that he had had no chance to reconcile himself with her and to seek her forgiveness for his neglect of her. By writing “The Voice”, intended as a way of expressing his emotions and state of mind, he was able to come to terms, at least to some extent, with his feelings at the time, and to attempt, albeit too late, some sort of reconciliation with the woman he had wronged.
For analyses of other poems by Thomas Hardy, see A Circular, A Thunderstorm in Town, After a Journey, Beeny Cliff, Channel Firing, The Haunter, The Oxen, The Walk, The Year's Awakening, Your Last Drive
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Daiches, D. A critical history of English literature. 2nd ed. Secker and Warburg, 1969.
Hardy, Thomas. Selected poems (ed. Harry Thomas). Penguin, 1993.