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 I 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. II 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. III 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? IV 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. V 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. VI 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!