A Wife in London Analysis by Thomas Hardy

A Wife in London Analysis: This is another poem about the Boer War. A wife receives two communications in quick succession. In a version found on-line, the two parts have an additional title – “The Tragedy” and “The Irony”, which point up the message of the whole.

London is not a place usually associated with Hardy, who was born and spent much of his life in Dorset.  However, he trained as an architect in London in his twenties and visited frequently.

There is an account of the time he spent in London here. The evocation of London in this poem is at least as notable as that of the Wife – if not more so.

The poem has a variety of metric patterns, a mixture of three, four and two-beat lines, but the pattern of each stanza is the same. Whilst the apparent irregularity gives it an uneasy feeling, as it does not settle into a regular beat, the overall regularity of the structure suggests a kind of inevitability.

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. 

The stanza heading prepares us for the emotional content of the verse, but the focus of this first stanza is very much on the Wife’s surroundings – a foggy evening in London.

This could also be seen as a pathetic fallacy – the darkness and gloom mirroring the bad news that is about to be delivered. However, London was often smothered in fog at this time, from coal-fired homes and factories.

Thomas Hardy

The fog was a dirty yellow color (“tawny”) as it contained particulates of soot, coal-dust, and other pollutants.  It was known as a “pea-souper” for its thickness and color.

The fog was so thick that it acted almost like a solid – a feature that other poets have exploited, as in TS Eliot’s “The Love-Song of J Alfred Prufrock” (1920) which contains the lines:

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes, 
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes, 
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening, 
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains, 
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys, 
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap, 
And seeing that it was a soft October night, 
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep. 

Fog like this persisted right through until the 1950s, when the first Clean Air Act was introduced, forbidding the burning of coal in homes.

The fog has rolled up from the City (of London), probably uphill to the suburbs (the City is in the Thames river valley, which would have added to the density of the fog).

It is described as “webby” suggesting it is clinging and sticky like a spiderweb.

The streetlamps, which would have been gaslighted, are seen as dimly as if they were candles.  “Cold” adds to the dreariness of the evening, as the faint light brings no comfort.

A messenger's knock cracks smartly, 
                Flashed news is in her hand 
                Of meaning, it dazes to understand 
Though shaped so shortly: 
                He--has fallen--in the far South Land . . . 

The Wife receives a telegram – a short message sent, most probably by 1899 in London, electronically.

The use of “flashed” harks back to an earlier time when messages were sent by means of Morse code and flashing lights – the pattern of “On” and “Off” spelling out letters.

Telegrams were received by a Telegraph Office and delivered by hand. They came to be well-known as bearers of bad news, as their use suggested that the message was too urgent to be delivered by the normal postal system – which at this time, was significantly faster than modern-day post.

There is some irony in the contrast between the efficiency (“cracks smartly”) and speed (“flashed”), with which the message is delivered, emphasized by the consonance (“knock/cracks”) and assonance (“cracks/flashed/hand”), and the suggestion that it simply appears in her hand, (“is in”) without intermediary, and the Wife’s dazed incomprehension of a message she would rather have not received at all, let alone with such haste.

The abruptness of the message is conveyed in the alliterated and clipped "shaped so shortly"  whilst the hyphenation, in contrast, draws out the final line, reproducing her puzzlement as she tries to grasp the meaning of the text – her husband has died in the Boer War in Africa.

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: 

The irony of the title is created by the different speeds of communication between the Telegram and the post.

The next day she receives a letter through the post from her husband, written and sent while he was still alive, but overtaken by the telegram announcing his death.

This time the news is delivered leisurely – the fog is thicker, slowing movement, the postman “nears and goes”, almost unremarked, the rhythm suggesting a leisurely “to-ing and fro-ing”.

The letter is brought to her by someone else, probably a maid (“is brought”) as she sits by the fireside.

She reads it by firelight, which is not strong and steady, but “flickering” suggesting the fragility of life. Hardy’s use of metonymy – “His hand” – is creepy here.

“His Hand” means “his handwriting”, but as it is immediately followed by the idea of “worm(s)” knowing “his hand” as well as she does, the word “hand” becomes synonymous with his body, buried in the ground.

I wonder, also, if anyone else read “worm” as “warm”, following on the idea from the fire?  If so, it is probably a deliberate trick by Hardy.

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. 

The final stanza develops the idea of her reading his handwriting. It is assured, written confidently (“highest feather”).

There is a ghost of a pun here – “penned” means “written in “ and pens were made from the quills, or feathers, of geese and swans until the mid-19th century.

The letter has pages describing how he hopes for his return home and the trips he has planned for them into the countryside in the summer – “break” means a clearing in a wood and “burn” is a small stream.

The last line is ambiguous and perhaps explains the naming of this as a “Tragedy”. What is this “new love”? Does it mean “renewed”, as in finding the love between them again, after an absence, or does it suggest a “new love” for a baby, either already conceived or, hopefully, to be so, which they will learn to love? 
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