In my first posting on Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Voice’ about his dead wife Emma’s calling to him (The Misty Woman (1 of 3), I attempted to described how a close examination of the language of the first line reflected not only his intense longing, but the theme of the whole poem – a woman moving in and out of his consciousness.
What I want to do in this posting is take a closer look at one aspect of the structure of the language throughout the remainder of the whole poem and examine how that contributes (perhaps, albeit subconsciously) to the meaning.
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.
Introducing some terminology
A noun phrase is just a group of words that with a noun or pronoun as a head word. A noun phrase could just be a single noun (“writing”), or the phrase could give us more information about the noun (“the writing”, “the boring writing”, “the long and boring writing”, “the very long and boring writing”). In these example the additional information about the noun is given before the noun. Grammarians talk about the head word (the noun) being premodified.
However, the additional information about the noun can come after the head word (“the writing that was boring”, “the writing I found to be boring”). In these examples we can say that the head word was post-modified. They are also slightly more grammatically complex because the post-modification contains a verb phrase (“was”, “found to be”). So, in the noun phrases in these examples, the head word was postmodified by a clause.
And, of course, in English, nouns can be both pre- and post- modified (“the very long and complex writing that I found to be boring …”
As a simple rule of thumb, the more words in a noun phrase, the more complex it is, especially if there is post-modification.
Back to the poem
What I have done below is simply list the noun phrases in the poem:
woman much missed
the one who was all to me
the town where you would wait for me
the original, air-blue gown
the wet mead
wan wistlessness (possibly meaning “pale melancholy”)
the thorn from norwood
What do you notice about them? One simple observation is that approximately half of them (11 out of 24 – “I”, “you”, “me”) are pronouns. This emphasizes the personal nature of the poem and adds an intensity to the interaction.
In the second part of the poem, where he is questioning the reality of his memory, lots of the nouns have long vowel sounds (“breeze“, “mead“, “leaves”, “thorn“), or they have a repeated “s” sound (“listlessness”, “wistlessness”). It could be argued that both of these sounds give an almost physical presence to the wind sweeping through the latter part of the poem.
What is particularly interesting is the use of adjectives in premodification in the poem. Hardy hardly uses any – just a total of four. Two of them are unremarkable (“wet mead”, “wan wistlessness”). These noun phrases are simple with monosyllabic premodification. However, contrast these with “the original, air-blue gown”. Hardy gives intensity by using two adjectives instead of one. The phrase also stands out because of the use of polysyllabic words (six syllables in total). And it is the only place in the poem where we are given any colour (“air-blue” contrasting with “wan” later in the poem).
The choice of “air-blue” brilliantly reflects the ambiguity running throughout the poem. On the one hand it is startling (for reasons mentioned above) and intense. He remembers what she looked like in a vivid way. The woman finally comes out of the mist. In one sense you could make an argument that this particular noun phrase represents the highlight of the poem. However, at the same time, like the second part of the poem, it is riddled with doubt. Air-blue. Is it real? Is she real? Or is the blue sky or the air that I am seeing?