In ‘The Voice’ Thomas Hardy hears his dead wife, Emma, calling to him, saying that now she is as Hardy first knew her at their meeting in March 1870 in Cornwall where Emma lived.
He questions whether it really is Emma that he hears, or is it only the breeze blowing that he mistakes for her voice.
His first wife’s death is the subject of most of the verses in Hardy’s Poems 1912-13.
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.
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!
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?
Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.
I first tried to get to grips with this poem over forty years ago when I studied it for A Level English Literature. Since then I have taught it to students studying on GCSE, A Level, and Degree courses. In the past twenty years my academic interests have moved from literature to language. What I want to do in a series of three postings is to show how a sharper attention to the structure of the language can enhance our understanding of the poem.
In this first post I want to devote my attention solely to the first line
Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me
Here Hardy is baring his emotion, and setting up the tension between reality and illusion that he agonises over throughout the rest of the poem. He starts the poem by the slightly unusual use of a Vocative – it’s a “Hey, you!” moment. He could have written the more sedate, “The woman who is much missed calls to me.” But he didn’t. He singles out and addresses the woman directly (“Woman much missed”), and in so doing grabs our attention. Like the overall meaning of the poem, that phrase is both powerful and vague. The vagueness lies in the use of the term “woman” rather than “Emma”. She is real in his memory, but perhaps he prefers the distance of “woman” as “Emma” might be too painful. The power of the phrase lies in its structure – how he orders the words, and in what he misses out.
The head word in the noun phrase is “woman”. He could have given us the modifying details about that woman before the noun – “the much missed woman”. However, by post-modifying the noun and placing the important details after the head word, there is much more emphasis on “missed”. He has also used omission to achieve effect. The more common construction would be to have the head word (“woman”) post-modified by a relative clause (“who is much missed”). In this case Hardy omits “who is”. As a result the verb phrase “is missed” is truncated, and the passive verb participle “missed” is press-ganged into doing the job of an adjective. The intensifying of the adjective by the adverb “much”, the brevity of the phrase, and the positioning of the modification, all combine to stress a considerable degree of missing. Notice too that in addition to not naming “Emma”, he also, at this stage in the poem, omits the “I” (“whom I miss”) – again perhaps to maintain a degree of protective distance.
This intensity is immediately followed a cry of “you call to me” introduced by the intensifying adverb “how”, with the calling repeated for further emphasis. If you doubt the power of this line compare it with the blandness of “The woman who is missed calls to me.”
Briefly, two other points about this line. First, if you listen to the poem rather than read it, you could be forgiven for hearing “mist” rather than “missed”. My nickname for Hardy’s “The Voice” is “The Misty Woman”. It is a poem about a woman coming in and out of his clear recollections – about a woman moving in and out of the mist.
Secondly, I fully accept that the additional “call to me” is for emphasis and adds to the intensity of the feeling. On face value it can be taken as an echo. He keeps hearing her voice. However, what I find interesting is that it is syntactically ambiguous. It could just be a repeat of “you call to me” with the “you” omitted. But without the “you” it has the syntax of an imperative, a command (“Call to me”). And if you combine this with the impersonal reference at the start of the line, on one level you have a slightly angry or frustrated man wanting something badly and trying to get his way – “Woman, call to me!”
As I have argued, the whole poem reflects the tension between a man seeing and hearing and yet not seeing and hearing. This line reflects that and possibly hints at another tension – that of a man who wants to see and hear more, but who is also afraid at the same time of the intense emotion that the vision might bring. Despite any ambivalence, the longing is also very powerful.