TTHA Poem of the Month » The Voice of Things

The Voice of Things

Welcome to the Poem of the Month for February. This is ‘The Voice of Things’, from Moments of Vision (no. 353 in Jim Gibson’s Variorum edition), one of a number of poems in the volume in which Hardy ponders the ‘forty Augusts – aye, and several more’ separating his first meeting with Emma in Cornwall in 1870, and her death in 1912. But other than that interval of time there is nothing in the poem to identify either Emma or Cornwall, and those who want to resist a biographical reading can point out that neither Hardy himself nor his biographers mention a visit ‘a double decade’ after the first.

There are a few manuscript variants worth noticing. ‘Augusts’ was originally ‘years’; in line 2, ‘loosed’ replaced Hardy’s first thought, which was ‘free’; in line 7, the manuscript has ‘shapes’ instead of ‘toils’. Otherwise the diction is entirely characteristic of Hardy: the short final line of the stanzas, the dialect word ‘thwarts’ (obstacles), the formal ‘supplicate’, the colloquial (and idiosyncratic) ‘wagging’, the suddenly flat ‘Things that be’.

The Voice of Things’ takes its place in a long line of poems in which the speaker contemplates the landscape – Wordsworth’s ‘mighty world of eye and ear’ – and either seeks some relation to it, or reflects on its blank refusal to offer meaning or comfort (Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ is a familiar example). What does this poem take from or add to that tradition? What does its jagged diction and edgy rhythm contribute to its meaning? And how should we understand the ending: as a moment of vision, or of its failure?

I look forward to your comments.

	              The Voice of Things 

	Forty Augusts – aye, and several more – ago,
   		When I paced the headlands loosed from dull employ,
	The waves huzza’d like a multitude below
   		In the sway of an all-including joy
      			Without cloy. 

	Blankly I walked there a double decade after,

		When thwarts had flung their toils in front of me,

	And I heard the waters wagging in a long ironic laughter

		At the lot of men, and all the vapoury

			Things that be. 

	Wheeling change has set me again standing where

		Once I heard the waves huzza at Lammas-tide;

	But they supplicate now – like a congregation there

		Who murmur the Confession – I outside,

			Prayer denied. 



  • 1. JeffWild replies at 7th February 2012, 5:51 pm :

    In the last stanza as the poet faces “Wheeling change” I sense that in his prayer he is asking for things to be different somehow. But the Voice of Things denies that prayer and instead tells him to learn from the waves who “murmur the Confession”, which I take as a sign of acceptance of “Things that be.”

  • 2. Will S replies at 8th February 2012, 9:58 pm :

    I think it’s the third stanza of this poem which is so extraordinary and so powerful. The first two stanzas are beautifully expressed (I particularly love the multiple meanings of the ‘waters wagging’), but, in content, they are simply a conventional (and you might add, a boringly conventional) example of the pathetic fallacy: the waves are seen as conforming to, and reinforcing, the poet’s mood. Even when they are unsympathetic and laugh at him, they still relate to him.

    But everything changes with the third stanza. The waves seem to have become independent of the poet and his feelings. They’re supplicating for something (but for what?); they’re confessing (their sins, presumably – but what have they done wrong?), whilst the poet is excluded from this process: ‘Prayer denied’. So, presumably, what he’s asked for has been refused; the sins which he has confessed have not been forgiven.

    For me, the third stanza conveys a sense of desolate emptiness. The consolation which the pathetic fallacy once offered is no longer available. Nothing in the external world now sympathises with the poet’s mood; nothing reflects his state of mind. He’s on his own.

  • 3. pvm replies at 9th February 2012, 1:06 pm :

    Thank you for these comments. The phrase ‘waters wagging’ was stuck in my mind, until I remembered the line it reminded me of, from ‘Beeny Cliff’, in which the waves are ‘engrossed in saying their ceaseless babbling say’. In that poem the lovers are equally ‘engrossed’, and one reason the waves ‘seemed far away’ is that the lovers are self-sufficient, noticing the outside world but not troubled by the question of what (if anything) it ‘means’. Here, as Will suggests, the speaker seems to expect that the world will ‘mean’ in some way, until his third visit, in the third stanza, and the sense that whatever meaning there might be in the natural world it is not addressed to him — unless it is only to impress upon him a sense of exclusion. But what exactly he is excluded from, and what he prays for, isn’t, as far as I can see, spelled out for us — perhaps nothing more specific than, as Jeff puts it, for ‘things to be different somehow’, except that there seems to me something more final, more absolute, in the very sound of the last words: ‘Prayer denied.’ It sounds almost like a judgement?

  • 4. Will S replies at 9th February 2012, 2:15 pm :

    When Hardy says ‘congregation … who murmur the Confession’ he must be thinking about the General Confession in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. In case there’s anybody who is not familiar with it (of course, many English people of my generation will know it by heart!) I’ll take the liberty of reproducing it here – Cranmer’s language is truly wondrous:

    ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father, We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, We have offended against thy holy laws, We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done, And there is no health in us: But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders; Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults, Restore thou them that are penitent, According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord: And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name.

  • 5. Carolyn McGrath replies at 9th February 2012, 10:59 pm :

    Really enjoying the contributions this month. ‘The Voice of Things’ prompted the thought of the absence of the voice of god, the tension between the two thoughts not surfacing until that third stanza where we find the association of the sound of the waves with ‘Lammas-tide’ (August 1st), and compared with ‘a congregation’ and ‘Confession’. There are biblical undertones, I suppose, earlier in ‘multitude’, maybe in ‘huzza’d’ or even ‘all-including joy’, but these can be taken with a secular pinch of (sea)salt until the unequivocal references to religion.

    I suppose the tension breaks abruptly with the last four words of the poem. I accept these can be read the way others have suggested, the notion of the speaker’s prayer not being answered, but I also think that a stronger case for no prayer having been uttered can be made. It seems to me that the speaker is ‘denied’ the ‘option’ of prayer. I want another word to ‘option’ really but I hear the speaker as stating that this lack of capacity for prayer is what excludes him from both ‘the lot of man’ and that of ‘all the vapoury/Things that be’, which includes the waves. It is truly ironic that the prayers heard in the poem are heard only by the speaker and there is no hint that they are heard, let alone answered, at all. His being denied the capacity to pray does not allow the suggestion that the prayers of others are in any way successful. As Will says, there is a ‘desolate emptiness’ or an ‘inconsolable loneliness’ to these words. There is no communion in the absence of consolation.

    Just on the words that resonate: those simple words ‘paced’,
    ‘walked’ and ‘set me again standing’ are very striking as the speaker recognises his lack of volition in the face of ‘Wheeling change’. I also like the way the penultilmate line of the second stanza ends so wispily with ‘vapoury’, which then contrasts so starkly with the emphatic final lines of the third stanza: ‘- I outside, / Prayer denied.’ which can only be followed by silence.

  • 6. Carolyn McGrath replies at 11th February 2012, 11:50 am :

    I googled ‘communion versus alienation’ and discovered this very interesting church music blog which not only makes very pertinent
    points in relation to this POTM but is also generally informative
    and interesting. I thought Roy might be particularly interested, being our ‘resident musician’, but I hope others do too:

  • 7. pvm replies at 20th February 2012, 7:29 pm :

    Here is a comment from Betty Cortus, posted from my email

    The concept of waters “wagging” struck me as jarring, even outlandish at first, but when viewed as an example of the pathetic fallacy the action of wagging fingers or wagging tongues in human terms evokes a chiding or accusatory tone. Unlike the believers who have the consolation of confession and the absolution of their sins, the speaker appears to be haunted by a nameless unassuaged guilt, with forgiveness forever denied. It was Will’s citing of the words of the General Confession that started me on this train of thought.

  • 8. pvm replies at 20th February 2012, 7:31 pm :

    Here is a comment from Eric Christen, via my email:

    I always like to see a poem placed within the long and rich flow of
    literature. Hardy very obviously belongs to this flow, and, what is more, is
    an active element in it. In this particular case I wish to quote from
    Baudelaire’s “Obsession” in LES FLEURS DU MAL, which Hardy had read when he
    composed his own poem :

    Je te hais, Ocean! tes bonds et tes tumultes,
    Mon esprit les retrouve en lui; ce rire amer
    De l’homme vaincu, plein de sanglots et d’insultes,
    Je l’entends dans le rire énorme de la mer.

    As I don’t have a proper translation of Baudelaire, here is a rough one,
    hastily improvised :

    I hate thee, Ocean! thy leaps and tumults,
    My spirit finds them in itself ; this bitter laughter
    Of vanquished man, full of sobs and insults,
    I hear it in the enormous laughter of the sea.

    Please pardon this atrocious translation of mine – but the main point is to
    see both the possible link and the marked difference between the two poems.
    By contrast this may help to read Hardy’s poem in more depth.

    Eric Christen

  • 9. Carolyn McGrath replies at 23rd February 2012, 11:58 am :

    Another way I have been reading those last four words is to strictly refer them back to the voice of the waves in that it is only their supplication that is being referred to as ‘prayer’. With this reading, the denial of their entreaty is in the persona’s remaining ‘outside’. For the ‘prayer’ to be fulfilled, the persona would no longer be ‘standing where / Once I heard the waves huzza’, but responding to the waves’ plea to join them by taking a step off that headland and coming ‘inside’. In this way, ‘prayer’ is being used ironically to refer to the supplication of the waves’ for the persona to end his sorry life.

    The textual evidence for this, beyond the words themselves, is the punctuation. The use of dashes in the first line of the poem to separate the additional aside, “- aye, and several more –“, is repeated in the penultimate line to make a distinction between the metaphor of ‘supplicate’ and the simile used, “- like a congregation there/ Who murmur the Confession –“. By doing so, the reader is encouraged to link the final words back to the preceding clause just as ‘ago’ links back to the opening words of the poem.

    If this is an acceptable interpretation, the curt and dismissive tone of those final words is all the more poignant as the speaker – as we know from the pathetic fallacy of the previous stanzas – must share the earnest wish of the waves but yet finds himself unable to fulfil this desire. Reasons are not given. Maybe it is just that suicide is not an option, despite the strong impulse.

    The cause of his misery is not spelt out either. The first two stanzas refer to ‘dull employ’ and ‘thwarts’ and ‘toils’, but no work-associated clues are given in the third stanza. However, the reference to ‘Lammas-tide’ could be associated with marriage, and so, for those seeking a biographical link, a case could be made for Emma’s death and his sense of guilt and loss being the source of anguish. Whatever it is, it has stopped him in his tracks and he finds himself stationary and on the brink but incapable of resolving his situation. Maybe there is an implicit acceptance that ‘wheeling change’ may, in time, bring some consolation.

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