TTHA Poem of the Month » To an Unborn Pauper Child

To an Unborn Pauper Child

The Poem of the Month for May 2012 is ‘To an Unborn Pauper Child’, from Poems of the Past and the Present, number 91 in Jim Gibson’s Variorum edition (from which this text is taken). It was first published in The Academy in 1901, in a version consisting of just verses three, four and five, with the last two transposed. Written below the title in the manuscript are the words: “‘She must go to the Union-house [i.e., the Workhouse] to have her baby.’ (Casterbridge [deleted]) Petty Sessions” — as Fanny Robin has to do in Far from the Madding Crowd.

Hardy included the poem in both Selected Poems and Chosen Poems. As usual, he made a number of changes between the manuscript and the printed text, and then for different texts. The most notable of these are in line 13, where instead of “Had I the ear of wombèd souls” The Academy has “Had I the circuit of all”, and line 30, where The Academy reading is “No man can move the stony gods to spare!” In line 32 “sanguine” is a manuscript revision for “fatuous”, and in line 22 “pending” replaces the earlier reading “dismal”. In the last line, Hardy hesitated between “seldom” and “never”, before settling for the (very slightly) more optimistic word.

As Tim Armstrong has noted, Hardy wrote a number of poems in the 1890s on it being better not to have been born — a piece of wisdom associated with Sophocles, and supposedly imparted by Silenus to King Midas (as Nietzsche recounts in The Birth of Tragedy). Hardy’s best known rendering of the idea is in the “In Tenebris” poems, but it’s also the thought suggested by Tess’s naming her child Sorrow, and later given voice by Little Father Time in Jude. For some readers, if not all, it hovers behind “Midnight on the Great Western”. In that poem, as here, the speaker tries to find reason to hope, including the idea that the “journeying boy” may know a better life, or at least have intimations of one, that he does himself.

What does this poem add to those other meditations? Does it matter that the poem addresses an unborn pauper child, since it hardly allows that “humankind” as a whole has much chance of joy? The speaker describes him/herself as “visionary” in holding out hope, but might we not feel contrariwise that this is a a speaker morbidly committed to the idea that life disappoints — rather as we might argue that the speaker of “Midnight on the Great Western” seems simply to assume that the boy must necessarily be journeying towards some sad future (and not, for example, going home to be reunited with family or friends)? To put the question another way, how far should we distance the speaker from the poet?

I look forward to your comments.

		     To an Unborn Pauper Child


		Breathe not, hid Heart: cease silently, 

		And though thy birth-hour beckons thee, 

			Sleep the long sleep: 

			The Doomsters heap 

		Travails and teens around us here, 

	And Time-wraiths turn our songsingings to fear.


  		Hark, how the peoples surge and sigh, 

		And laughters fail, and greetings die: 

			Hopes dwindle; yea, 

			Faiths waste away, 

		Affections and enthusiasms numb: 

	Thou canst not mend these things if thou dost come.


  		Had I the ear of wombèd souls 

		Ere their terrestrial chart unrolls, 

			And thou wert free 

			To cease, or be, 

		Then would I tell thee all I know, 

	And put it to thee: Wilt thou take Life so?


		Vain vow! No hint of mine may hence 

		To theeward fly: to thy locked sense 

			Explain none can 

			Life’s pending plan: 

		Thou wilt thy ignorant entry make 

	Though skies spout fire and blood and nations quake.


  		Fain would I, dear, find some shut plot 

		Of earth’s wide wold for thee, where not 

			One tear, one qualm, 

			Should break the calm. 

		But I am weak as thou and bare; 

	No man can change the common lot to rare.


  		Must come and bide. And such are we— 

		Unreasoning, sanguine, visionary— 

			That I can hope 

			Health, love, friends, scope 

		In full for thee; can dream thou wilt find 

	Joys seldom yet attained by humankind!


  • 1. Betty Cortus replies at 3rd May 2012, 5:57 pm :

    I read this poem on two levels, first—guessing from the subtitle in the manuscript—it is a personal appeal to the fetus of a poor, probably unmarried woman, warning it of the unlikelihood of life after its birth offering it any of the good things depicted in Stanza VI. Instead, the lack of hope, faith, affections, and enthusiasms, are a more certain depiction of the life ahead for the child. The speaker is well aware, however, that the unborn one has no awareness of the imminence of its birth, nor any power of its own to avoid entering this life and submitting to the dubious fate in store for it.
    On a deeper level, the poem is an expression of the feeling that the oblivion before and after death is preferable to life in this world for all humankind, a concept that Hardy has articulated in a number of other poems, as Tim Armstrong has astutely observed. The idea that the time before birth is preferable to life itself shares a tenuous bond with Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality” ode, however the dramatic difference between the two poems is evident when one considers that Worthworth’s anterior life envisages it as being spent with God in idyllic joy and glory. Hardy, on the other hand, in several other poems of this kind sees nothing more than a state of numb oblivion before birth, in which the sole advantage over life is the total absence of consciousness, and therefore of pain.
    It is well to remember, however, that although the bleakness of this concept is apparent in poems such as this, Hardy also has written other poems expressing a sheer exuberance and joy about being alive. They may be rarer, but they do demonstrate that the poet’s thought processes were not always dominated by unrelieved gloom.

    Betty Cortus

  • 2. Carolyn McGrath replies at 13th May 2012, 12:53 am :

    This is such a hard poem to take: it is tender, as Rosemarie has said on the main Hardy forum (why not here?), but it is heartbreakingly so. To rephrase a later poet for the purposes of this poem: ‘My subject is Life, and the pity of Life. The poetry is in the pity.”
    It is vital to the poem that the child addressed is an ‘unborn *pauper* child’ as the reader is thereby induced not to recoil in horror at the speaker’s shocking plea for it to ‘unwill’ itself. One would not have to be a regular magistrate at district petty sessions, as Hardy was, to know that ‘Life’s pending plan’ for such a child was unlikely to result in ‘Joys’ when these are ‘seldom yet attained by humankind!’. If the child were not stillborn, the chances were it would become, within the first months of its life, a victim of infanticide or die of so-called ‘natural causes’, such as disease or malnutrition. In the event of its surviving beyond its third year, life would be subject to the harsh regime of the union-house, a life of exploitation and slave labour. As bastardy and poverty were ‘crimes’ in the eyes of the English bourgeoisie (and not much has changed), to add insult to injury, the child would face the social stigma and contempt reserved for those considered surplus to requirements.
    Under these circumstances, the question, ‘Wilt thou take Life so?’ might be judged rhetorical, but, oddly enough, I don’t think it can be so in the sense that the answer cannot be assumed. Although the speaker’s view seems clear from the opening line, he does not at any point presume to speak for the ‘wombed soul’. He merely wishes to ‘put it to thee’, but pf course it cannot be heard by the child. In any event, the unborn child is not ‘free/To cease, or be’. The question, though hypothetical, demands to be taken seriously and it seeks resolution in the mind of each reader. We may find ourselves at this point contemplating our own choice for ‘unbeing’in these circumstances. It is in this disturbed state that the reader proceeds to the second half of the poem.
    The compassion and lovingkindness of the speaker for the unborn is never in question. The endearments ‘hid Heart’ and ‘dear’ are really touching. The feelings evoked in the reader for the unborn pauper child shift, over the next three stanzas, to embrace the speaker, the reader and the whole of humankind. The speaker acknowledges his own helplessness and nakedness and, confronted with our own ‘ignorant entry’ into this world that has no ‘shut plot’ in all ‘earth’s wide wold’, it has been persuasively argued that, certainly in the case of the unborn pauper child, one might indeed be better off not being. The final
    stanza of the poem surprises and maybe even subverts that.
    Having induced the reader to contemplate the unpalatable rightness of rejecting existence, the speaker then points out that, as a consequence of being part of ‘we’, humankind, he is also ‘helplessly able’ to ‘hope’ and ‘dream’ for ‘Health, love, friends, scope/In full for thee’ and to ‘find/Joys’ even when
    ‘seldom yet attained by humankind!’.
    Is such a triumph of hope over experience to be sneered at? It is due, the speaker says, to our being: ‘unreasoning, sanguine, visionary’ . It is an ironic light at the end of a dark tunnel (pun intended) for the born to be gifted with characteristics such as these which seemingly override millennia of experience. I find myself relieved, however, and recall the pluralised
    ‘laughters’, ‘greetings’, ‘Hopes’, ‘Faiths’, ‘Affections and enthusiasms’ of the earlier stanza, even though I know they will most likely ‘fail’, ‘die’, ‘dwindle’, and ‘yea,’‘waste away’ and ‘numb’.
    It is surprising to me that this final stanza soothes me as much as it does and I can only think that the poem is more finely-balanced in its optimism and pessimism than it appears at first glance. The poem does not in the final stanza deny the possibility that these visions may be realisable. The past does not have to be a predictor of the future, again, despite appearance. Change is possble although a long shot. On another level, the compassion of the poem implies the need to go further than ‘hope’ and ‘dream’ and see our way to alleviating poverty rather than callously condemning the poor for being always with us. That final stanza may not be a ‘shut plot’, but such is the nature of hope, it gives a small measure of comfort even when our reason tells us otherwise.

    Carolyn McGrath

  • 3. Mark Richardson replies at 13th May 2012, 8:37 am :

    I’m new to THHA Poem of the Month, and glad to have found it. Last week, as it happens, I read “To an Unborn Pauper Child” with a seminar where I teach (at Doshisha University in Kyoto). I take the view that it matters little that the poem addresses an unborn “pauper” child; I associate the poem with a number of poems on “anti-natalist” themes (as the philosophers say). “The Unborn” (from “Time’s Laughingstocks”) suggests that Hardy would say to any child what he says to the child of the pauper. In “By the Earth’s Corpse” (nestled close to “An Unborn Pauper Child”) he puts quasi-anti-natalist arguments in the mouth of God himself, who repents of ever having created life at all.

    Anyhow, remove the word “pauper” from the title and poverty (as a theme) is present nowhere in the text of the poem (though that’s merely a thought experiment).

    I keep a web-blog, devoted to literary criticism (chiefly poetry, and very often Hardy). For what it may be worth, I have a go at “To an Unborn Pauper Child” here (the thing is too long to post in this forum; I beg your forgiveness for providing a link):

    Also there are readings of “The Convergence of the Twain” and “Drummer Hodge,” and a number of other poems by Hardy.


  • 4. pvm replies at 13th May 2012, 2:57 pm :

    I think I shall sit on the fence as to how far it matters in the poem that the speaker addresses a pauper’s child. Carolyn is certainly right that Hardy must have encountered such cases as a JP: there were still about 600 Union workhouses in existence at the time of his death, with about 200,000 residents (if that’s the term), before they were abolished by a Local Government Act in 1929. But the anti-natalist theme is an old one (variously ascribed to Sophocles, Silenus and others), and if life chances are few for anyone, the additional burden of pauperism might be thought not to make a great deal of difference. But if we suppose it does matter, it might at least encourage us to reserve judgement on the speaker, rather than accuse him (we aren’t told the speaker’s gender, but it’s hard to imagine these words being spoken in the poem by a woman — at any rate, few readers seem to do so) of being committed to a pessimistic reading of life. In the end, is the poem as much about the speaker as the unborn child, like some of Blake’s ‘Songs of Experience’ (I’m thinking especially of ‘Infant Sorrow’), leaving us to wonder not so much what the future might hold for the child, as what the past has done to the speaker — as well as, to pick up again on what Carolyn says, recognising that he can’t quite ‘Wait in unhope’?


  • 5. Carolyn McGrath replies at 13th May 2012, 6:37 pm :

    I don’t wonder what the past has done to the speaker. Sometimes religious believers respond to atheists with that question but there is no logical reason for doing so. There is terrible pain and suffering in the world which one may easily conclude cannot be ‘balanced out’ by the pleasures of life. Is that pessimism or disappointed idealism? Is that the same thing?

    There feel there is a resistance in the speaker to compromise. However, the opening phrase of the final stanza states in resignation that all ‘Must come and bide.’ Suicide is not an option it seems once born into this planet. There is a distinct difference to the speaker between an unborn child and a child after birth. Once here we must ‘bide’ – until our change come – and it is the speaker’s loving attention to wishing the best for the child that resonates most at the end of the poem. There is no self-centred thought, no hoping or dreaming on his own behalf or an indifference to the child’s fate. I find the tone of the poem intensely moving – like ‘The Oxen’, ‘hoping it might be so’, but evenmore so for its loving protectiveness to find a spot ‘where not/One tear, one qualm,/Should break the calm.’ It is a strongly parental desire and one which is hopeless. The speaker to me is one who has not been able to reconcile him/herself to the imperfect world.

  • 6. pvm replies at 13th May 2012, 7:33 pm :

    I think your last sentence, Carolyn, is close to what I was asking about — the sense that this speaker seems unreconciled to the world. I don’t myself see him quite as I do the speaker of ‘The Oxen’, as an individualised ‘I’, who reflects on his own beliefs and hopes for belief, so much as a figure who might have got on with Little Father Time, and the ‘coming universal wish not to live’ — that is, a speaker from whose stance (the negative side of it, I mean, not the compassionate one) we might want to dissent, and suspect — this may be what Betty implied in her post — that Hardy expected us to do so. Perhaps he’s just Hardy’s pessimist playing the ‘sure game’ — hope for almost nothing, and you won’t be cheated — but he sounds tome so much less resilient than Hardy was.

  • 7. Mark Richardson replies at 14th May 2012, 10:17 am :

    This is all very interesting. For my part, I think the poem takes fully into account, and even credits, an anti-natalist position, while nonetheless registering the intuitions that lead most folk to resist that position; it is as if Hardy had allowed the Spirit of the Years and the Chorus of the Pities alike to speak in the poem (to fetch in two figures from The Dynasts). Hence its complexity. Hence *his* complexity.

    Something strikes me in the foregoing thread of comments: shouldn’t we hesitate before supposing that to characterize a person (or speaker) as committed to a pessimistic view of the world is also to “accuse” him/her? Pessimism (like anti-natalism) is simply a position one might hold (and one the speaker of “To an Unborn Pauper Child” might hold); and it is quite compatible with, and can spring from, the deepest compassion. I mention that in a musing way, because Hardy consistently compels us to entertain, and to credit, some rather dark views of the world. And yet I (as do all here) find him unfailingly tender (and in his own very peculiar way philanthropic, or anyway never misanthropic, the last line of “The Mongrel” notwithstanding).

    It occurs to me also to wonder whether we might (or perhaps even ought to) allow the bibliographical setting of the poem to bear on us as we read it. I ask because several other lyrics in “Poems of the Past and Present” wonder whether the world might be “mended” or whether it is, instead, irremediable. The book closes (“haply”) on just such a note of equivocation.

    And then we have “Mad Judy,” where frankly anti-natalist sentiments are bracketed off–I think we are to feel ironically and unduly so–as insane. I say “ironically” because the poem almost certainly doesn’t invite the reader to take the view the speaker and townsfolk take. I gather we are to find them altogether too complacent, and yet we cannot but be disturbed by Judy, too. As goes the poem, so goes the book it inhabits: it unsettles all things.


    When the hamlet hailed a birth
    Judy used to cry:
    When she heard our christening mirth
    She would kneel and sigh.
    She was crazed, we knew, and we
    Humoured her infirmity.

    When the daughters and the sons
    Gathered them to wed,
    And we like-intending ones
    Danced till dawn was red,
    She would rock and mutter, “More
    Comers to this stony shore!”

    When old Headsman Death laid hands
    On a babe or twain,
    She would feast, and by her brands
    Sing her songs again.
    What she liked we let her do,
    Judy was insane, we knew.

  • 8. Carolyn McGrath replies at 15th May 2012, 8:53 pm :

    I love your website, Mark, and will have to take some time reading more of your postings there. I recommend everyone drop by and read your posting there as it probably is too long to post here.
    I understand what you are you saying about the anti-natalist position and I don’t think my reading contradicts that. I suppose the final stanza is the ‘sticking point’ in that it can be read as either being heavily laden with irony/sarcasm or as being ironic/paradoxical in relation to the anti-natalist view point, a ‘despite’.
    I also want to come back to the the notion of ‘pauper’, as I do think it, aside from ‘registering the intuitions that lead most folk to resist that position’, which I also argued, it provides a powerful metaphor for the existence of humankind as a whole: like a pauper, in comparison to our capacity for ‘visioning’, the ‘scope’ of human lives since the beginning of time has certainly not been ‘full’. Can ‘fullness’ be achieved on earth? Maybe a few Zen masters? Anti-natalist it may be, but there is acknowledgement that a ‘philosophical viewpoint’ means diddly in the face of reality: ‘Must come and bide’. Human ‘singsongings’ may turn to fear, but people still look askance at those who choose not to have children, even if they think the sky is falling.
    Talking of skies, may your red skies be at night (Thanks for Mad Judy’s songs)
    best wishes and welcome

  • 9. Mark Richardson replies at 16th May 2012, 9:22 am :

    Thank you for the welcome, Carolyn. I like what you do with “pauper.” I think Hardy’s address to the unborn pauper child is generalized almost as soon as he undertakes it. He speaks as though to “all wombed souls,” or to “the circuit of all souls” (cancelled readings); and, as you suggest, he has in mind the poverty that comes of so much human endeavor. Interesting to me to see how often, and in how many guises, anti-natalist sentiments crop up in “Poems of the Past and Present” (and in all of Hardy’s poetry). (“Anti-natalist” is a heavy door-knock of a word; wish there were a more elegant one to hand.) The preface to “P of the P & P” reads, in part: “Of the subject-matter of this volume which is in other than narrative form, much is dramatic or impersonative even where not explicitly so. And that portion which may be regarded as individual comprises a series of feelings and fancies written down in widely differing moods…” And so it is. The sentiments expressed in “To an Unborn Pauper Child” strike me as given (more or less) in propria persona; that poem, I think, ranks as “individual” as against “impersonative.” “Mad Judy,” on the other hand, is “impersonative”; our speaker is a hale rustic; and, notably, no evidence of Judy’s insanity is adduced *other* than that she appears to disagree with the villagers in her hamlet on the question of whether it is “better never to have been.” (That is, if we *knew* her to be insane, independent of the speaker’s report, and to be suffering because of that insanity, we might ascribe her anti-natalism to that; Hardy disallows the possibility, with the result that the poem grows stranger, more disturbing, and richer.) Interesting to note that Hardy altered “neighbor swain” (in the holograph) to “babe or twain.” Judy’s festivity when Headsman Death carries away an infant is unseemly, to be sure. But Hardy won’t allow us to dismiss her out of hand. The worse thing that can be said of her is that she leaves out of account the terrible suffering of the parents whose babe is borne away. But then again: Judy confines her interest to the suffering of the child, whether just born, about to be born, or in prospect (as at weddings). She is here to speak for the “possible child,” and the point of view of “possible children” is as important as that of the parents who conceive them. (Cf. “The Orphaned Old Maid” on the selfishness of some parental motives.) I do not think we can consign her to the madhouse for restricting herself exclusively to the interests of (possible) children. Over against Judy’s “aberrancy” (the reading we have in the first edition of “P of the P & P” for “infirmity”), Hardy sets the equally (more?) unpalatable complacency of the hale swain of the hamlet, and indeed the hamlet for whom he speaks. Anyway, the book as a whole leaves one with precisely what Hardy’s preface to it anticipates: a multi-vocal, nuanced, and never “cooked up” attempt to front the hardest questions, which include that hardest question of all: whether it is better never to have been; whether (indeed) the world would be better without us. In a word, we are left to ask, without ever knowing the answer: Just *how* mad is Judy? Part of Hardy’s genius is to diffuse the most challenging of his notions so as to make them as inescapble (in his books) as they are haunting: just try to get away unscathed, and untutored.
    Best, Mark

  • 10. Carolyn McGrath replies at 20th May 2012, 9:12 am :

    I am stuggling to come to any satisfactory conclusion as to the political impact this poem would have had on contemporary readers. I like to think that, given reform was a very hot topic at the time, this poem is a sophisticated attempt by the writer to get under the radar of more right wing Liberals in order to inculcate the desire to enable a better life for the lowest of the low. By highlighting the poor most clearly undeserving of the designation ‘undeserving poor’, and by cleverly inducing the middle-class reader to identify themselves with this poor scrap, the poem promotes human rights whilst simultaneously taking an anti-natalist view as we have already discussed. The poem does not conclude on as positive note as suggested by the typo above, as the ‘wilt’ in the penultimate line is not stressed, but abbreviated,
    “can dream thou’lt find/Joys seldom yet attained by humankind!”, pushing the emphasis thereby on ‘Joys’. Are these the mainly simple ‘joys’ listed in the line before: “Health, love, friends, scope/In full for thee”, and if so, for scope to be in full for thee’, there would be the need to attain a society based on far more freedom, equality and fraternity.

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