Two of Thomas Hardy‘s poems, “The Self-Unseeing” and “The Haunter”, stand as examples of his ability to utilize the universal emotions of loss and missed opportunities to create works which are both powerful and disturbing. In both he begins by describing the setting and then moves to emphasizing feelings which are inherent in the human spirit (pun intended) and with which a reader can easily identify. Hardy’s control of setting, voice, and tense, can be readily seen in these two poems.
The two poems are voiced by characters who exhibit feelings of futility because of their inability to communicate. In “The Self-Unseeing” the character is alive and reminiscing the dead, while in “The Haunter” a dead companion’s spirit is brooding over the still-living. It is Hardy’s ability to successfully adopt both voices which makes each poem so emotionally charged. Hardy’s choice of meter and rhyme scheme, in conjunction with his detailed description of setting, add to the haunting quality of each poem.
The ABAB rhyme scheme of “The Self-Unseeing” marches the reader’s eyes child-like through the poem. Hardy used this scheme to lurch the reader along, adding to its haunting effect. The setting established in the first stanza is bare and ominous; its centralization of the ground below brings the reader down, as if on the floor. This point of view is carried through the poem by its attention to “the dead feet” and the reader’s view is from the ground up to the man’s “bowing it higher and higher.” The last stanza reinforces this feeling by setting the reader’s viewpoint at child-level. The poem occurs above eye level, swirling around the first person narrator and creating a sense of dizzy disorientation. The sprinkling of action words in the third stanza – danced, blessings, emblazoned, glowed – combine to bolster this effect.
The rather intricate rhyme scheme of “The Haunter” similarly adds to the haunting effect of the poem, but in a more mature fashion. Spoken by a female and with a more complicated phrase structure, “The Haunter” manages to convey a much scarier atmosphere simply because of the perceived preternatural intellect of its narrator. The woman who speaks to the reader acknowledges that she is a spirit, speaking of herself as a “haunter” and a “faithful phantom.” She “hovers” and is invisible, is as close as his shadow. (She is actually rather frighteningly like an ex-girlfriend who doesn’t realize that her beau has found another.) She is a contemporary stalker, following him wherever he goes, always watching, and trying to be heard.
The most disturbing facet of “The Haunter” is the female voice’s inability to communicate with her beloved. The despair which manifests itself in only the last line of “The Self-Unseeing” is prevalent throughout the longer poem. The child-figure of “The Self-Unseeing” is merely “looking away,” but the spirit in “The Haunter” is actively trying to tell her love that she is near him. This sense of hopelessness pervades the poem in lines such as, “How shall I let him know,” and “Always lacking the power to call to him,” as well as in her insistent pleas for help in revealing her condition. Whether these supplications are directed at the reader or simply rhetorical cries is not implicitly clear. Regardless of their object, the pleas are desperate. Note that Hardy’s minimal use of the exclamation mark in both works adds weight to their presence. In “The Haunter” it would not have been surprising if Hardy had peppered the piece with emphatic cries for recognition; instead Hardy lets the futility of the lines build to each sudden lament.
The lead voices’ inability to communicate also promotes a sense of strained detachment in each poem. In “The Self-Unseeing” this is exhibited from the first stanza in the voice’s description of the remembered surroundings. The poem occurs in the narrator’s past, although it is written in the present tense. The lines “Here is the ancient floor … Here was the former door …” both tell of things which exist somehow simultaneously in the past and in the present. This duality complements the sense of distance Hardy was trying to create. Like the paradox of the title, the remembered event that is the poem’s subject exists in a non-time. “Yet we were looking away!” exclaims the narrator at last. There is a missed opportunity that is not revealed to the reader, but its importance to the narrator is obvious. Something is trapped in a state of “could have been” and it has obsessed the self-unseeing.
“The Haunter” is a present-tense work, but it is chilling because of the closeness of the first person narrator and the haunted. While the first poem is a memory, “The Haunter” is an evolving work. It is occurring while it is read, and the reader can imagine himself as an active participant instead of a passive listener. This is especially emphasized in the last verse, in which the female is practically begging for (the reader’s?) assistance in her efforts at interaction. The theme of the missed opportunity is active in “The Haunter” also. In this work, though, it is seen from the contrasting point of view. Here can be heard the lament of the opportunity-missed, “When I could answer he did not say them: / When I could let him know.” The one who is still alive, who has not been able to forget the lost love is, presumably, equally distressed to no longer have the option of engaging the haunter. Hardy used a feeling with which every reader can empathize – this longing to change the past – to add life and depth to his characters, making them even more horrible because of their similarity.
“The Haunter” and “The Self-Unseeing”, The Complete Poems of Thomas Hardy, Gibson, James ed., Macmillan Publishing Company, London, U.K.,1976
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