In my first two postings on Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Voice’ about his dead wife Emma’s calling to him (The Misty Woman (1 of 3), The Misty Woman 2 of 3)) I attempted to described how a very close examination of the language structures 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 final posting is take another closer look at another aspect of the structure of the language throughout the remainder of the whole poem and examine how that contributes (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.
In a previous posting I discussed Hardy’s use of noun phrases in the poem. In this posting I want to discuss how his verbs contribute significantly to the overall theme of the poem.
A simple (and relatively useful) definition of a verb is that it is a word that names an action (“jump”), a state (“is”), or a process (“think”). A verb phrase is just a group of words that gives us more information about the head verb. Examples of verb phrases of different complexity: “eat”, “to eat”, “might eat”, “eating”, “was eating”, “is eaten”, “have eaten”, “had been eaten”, “could have been eaten”, “might have wanted to eat”.
When discussing verbs people sometimes get very confused about the difference between tense and time. This isn’t helped by the fact that some of the older and more traditional grammar books talk about verbs having multiple tenses. For example, on one level it makes sense to talk about “will eat” as future tense (because we are referring to future time), and “had eaten” as past tense (because the action took place in the past). However, more modern grammarians draw a distinction between tense and time, and accept that if verbs do have tense, there are only two options (present and past). Future time is usually indicated by present tense modal verbs (“will”, “shall”). Tense is not identical to time. I repeat, tense is not identical to time.
Time is marked by something called aspect. Continuous aspect stresses that something is/was ongoing rather than completed – “is eating”, “was eating”.
Perfect aspect stresses that something is/was completed rather than being ongoing – “have eaten”, “had eaten”.
Just for completeness sake, verbs can also be active or passive. They can have someone doing something, or have something being done to something – “I ate the food” (active), “the food was eaten …” (passive).
Fixed or Floating
Before we examine the verbs in the poem, we also need to understand the following:
- Verb phrases can have tense, or not have tense.
- If tense is present in the verb phrase, it is always in the first word of the verb phrase, even when the tense is combined with continuous or perfect aspect, or with passivity.
- “eat” = present tense
- “ate” = past tense
- “is eating” = present tense + continuous aspect
- “have eaten” = present tense (because “have” is present tense) + perfect aspect
- “is eaten” = present tense + passive
- “eating” = continuous aspect participle, but no tense. You can’t grammatically say “I eating the cabbage”. If you introduce “am” and say “I am eating the cabbage” you introduce tense in the first word of the new verb phrase.
- “to eat” = infinitive, but no tense. You can’t grammatically say “I to eat the cabbage”.
- “eaten” = perfect aspect participle, or passive participle, but no tense. You can’t grammatically say “I eaten the cabbage”. If you introduce “have” and say “I have eaten the cabbage” you introduce tense in the first word of the new verb phrase.
- “was eating” = past tense + continuous aspect
- “had been eaten” = past tense (“had”) + perfect aspect participle + passive
- “will be eating” = present tense (because “will” is a present tense modal verb – “would” is the past tense – remember tense and time are different) + continuous aspect.
When a verb phrase has tense, it somehow fixes the action in time and space. When a verb has tense it is always clear who is doing something, and it is clear whether or not those things are happening in the present or past. Without tense, it isn’t always clear who is doing what or when it is happening. Tense makes things more concrete. For example, “ate” requires a grammatical subject (we need to know who is doing the action), whereas “eating” doesn’t in the same way. “He ate” is more definite than “eating”. When verb phrases have tense they are labelled as finite: without tense, they are labelled as non-finite. Finite verbs are more “fixed”, whereas non-finites are more “floating”.
Let’s look at Hardy’s verb phrases in the poem. As you would expect, there is a mixture of finite and non-finite ones.
Finites – call, call, are, were, had changed, was, can be, view, drew, would wait, knew, is
Non-finites – saying, standing, travelling, being dissolved, heard, faltering, falling, oozing, calling
There are at least four things that are interesting about the above lists of verbs.
First, approximately half of the verb phrases are non-finite. In everyday language non-finites are relatively rare. This high density contributes to a background vagueness about precisely who is the operator of the action. Compare this, for example, with another of Hardy’s poems where he remembers a former encounter with a woman – ‘Neutral Tones‘. The meeting here was painfully vivid and the action firmly took place in the past; the verb phrases are all finite. In ‘The Voice’, the high percentage of non-finites subconsciously adds to the uncertainty in the poem – to the mistiness of the misty woman and the environment in which she appears.
Secondly, virtually all the non-finites appear in the last two stanzas of the poem. The third stanza begins with a question (reflecting the poet’s the uncertainty) and then all the remaining verbs in the poem are non-finites. We are given something extremely concrete at the end of the second stanza (“the original air-blue gown” – see the previous post on the poem) and then it is as if the woman dissolves and the certainty again falls apart.
Thirdly, with one exception (“heard”), all the non-finites in the final two stanzas are continuous aspect participles. The ethereal presence is ongoing (rather than complete) as is the pain of searching for her. The poet longs to be able to fix her for a moment, but she continuously eludes him. He too gets sucked into the ethereal chase. The woman is still calling, and all around nature is moving unsteadily (leaves falling, wind oozing) and the poet is carried along, but he is tripped up. Any certainty that he had is gone. The irregular rhythm of the line “Thus I; faltering forward” reflects that disrupted movement. However even that disruption is non-finite and continuous. He doesn’t use the finite “I falter”or “I am faltering”, but rather the non-finite “thus I; faltering …”
Fourthly, there is a pleasing symmetrical echoing between the opening and final verbs – call/calling. The first verb is the present tense of “call”, and the final one is the non-finite continuous participle. These two verbs succinctly sum up the movement of the poem. She calls and he hears her, and then she partially vanishes; but he continues to hear something, even though her calling voice is uncertain.