Death and Decay in Thomas Hardy’s Poems

A lot of Thomas Hardy’s poems share these themes of death and decay. The poems may have diverse topics, but they speak volumes about these themes symbolically or directly. Hardy explains the themes of death and decay in the poem “I look into my glass” in a way that breaks a lot of stereotypes. The poem begins with Hardy’s dissatisfaction at his physical state in his old age. Phrases like “wasting skin” and “heart had shrunk as thin” give evidence that Hardy is no more in his prime.

Further into the poem, it is revealed that Hardy wishes for “endless rest” (which is a metaphor for death) because he is “lonely”, “wasting” and because “hearts (have) grown cold” to him. In the last stanza of the poem, Hardy blames “Time” (which can be interpreted as a connotation for fate) for his “griev(ance)” and says that life is not the same anymore because his spirit and vigour have been handicapped due to physical restrictions. This poem talks about death as a welcome option that someone who is decaying must embrace “with equanimity”.

Hardy symbolically compares his physical reflection is a physical “glass” to introspection, retrospection and acceptance of the fact that one has come close to the end of their life. Hardy also talks about how this acceptance of death does not come easily, when he says “part steals; lets part abide”, but inn all of this internal conflict, he is aware of death lingering close by. In another poem – “In the time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’”, Hardy talks about war and consequent deaths that it causes. In the poem, Hardy talks about the defeatist atmosphere that wars generate.

He talks about the aftermath of war using phrases such as “smoke without flame”. Hardy talks about was and how unwanted it is – and the death it causes. He uses puns like “harrowing”, which can indicate shovelling of dirt AND a disturbing experience. The usage of the phrase “couch grass” is also a pun. It can represent either a barrier or trench used by soldiers in combat or a weed that needs to be exterminated. Hardy expresses his dislike for war using strong words such as “annal” and complains that war and destruction “will go onward the same”.

In contrast, to “I look into my glass”, where the mood of the poem was introspective and personal, this poem is written in a detached, numbed and ‘helpless’ tone. In “I look into my glass”, Hardy talks about how one should embrace death with open arms when their time comes. In “In the time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’”, he talks of death as injustice, unnecessary and devastating; something that no one can possibly welcome “with equanimity”. Both poems talk about death in contrasting perspectives that are correct – but in their own context: that of “wast(ing) an” and “war”.

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