Possessing a keen interest in architecture, Thomas Hardy combines this interest with a melancholy vision of life in the imaginative art form of poetry. "The Harbour Bridge" is in a metrical form of several stanzas common in Anglican hymns as it mimicks Prior's Eighty-Eighth Psalm. There is, in Hardy's poem, the blending of personal meditation and philosophical discourse with the presence of the "Hardyesque" themes of an inexorable, but neutral life force named "Immanent Will" that has man acting out its dictates.
The poet contemplates the structure of the bridge as the controlling metaphor for the forces of life. Life is acted out on this bridge as painters, the dreamy-eyed girl, the "practical woman" who traverse the structure, and finally the sailor and his wife who meet upon it are observed; however, this portrait of a microcosm of life turns to the contemplative. For, there on the bridge is the dissolution of a marriage, and what one critic calls Hardy's depiction of
...humans' efforts to achieve love and dignity and significance [that] simply create “satires of circumstance.”
The wife becomes what for Hardy is "time's laughing-stock" as the sailor tells her that her efforts to save their marriage are too late:
"I can't give up the other woman now;
You should have talked like that in former days,
When I was last home.”
Thus, with some mimicking and variation of the sonnet form with rhyming couplets throughout, and certainly a mimicking of the hymn of Prior, Hardy's frequent theme of the loss of a center to meaning is illustrated in this melancholy poem with typically vivid imagery as despite the light, the wife's life that has lost its moorings from her mistakes in human communication is put into darkness:
And soon above, like lamps more opaline,
White stars ghost forth, that care not for men's wives,
Or any other lives.
Other color imagery foreshadows the tragic ending of the poem as black repeats itself as the bridge is "hanging dark/Against the day's end sky...." and the painters of the bridge
As cut black-paper portraits hastening on
In conversation none knows what upon:
Their sharp-edged lips move quickly word by word
help to shade the dark tone of this poem.