Thomas Hardy's poetry often retold an event that he had experienced or real life case that he had explored. This is the case in his poem, "A Trampwoman's Tragedy," published in 1903. The poem follows the style of a ballad which "tells a story similar to a folk tale or legend." "According to Hardy, the poem was based on the case of Mary Ann Taylor, who had already been dead about fifty years."
The poem consists of 12 stanzas with eight lines per verse. The rhyming pattern follows this scheme: a,a,a,b,c,c,c,b. Interestingly, the second line of each stanza repeats a portion of the first line; and when read together, condenses the story:
The livelong day
We jaunted on
Ay, side by side
My man and I,
The narrator is the trampwoman, who with her companions, travels around the English countryside staying in inns along the byways where people can sit unnoticed. She is accompanied by another woman, Mother Lee, and two men, the fancy man (her lover) and jeering John. To complicate the story, the trampwoman is pregnant with the fancy man's child.
Foolishly, the narrator begins to tease her lover: sitting next to John; sitting on John's lap; and indicating that John is the father of the baby. Enraged by the taunting, the fancy man stabs John to death.
Eventually, her lover is convicted and hung. Mother Lee dies before the execution. Lying under a tree, the trampwoman''s baby, born on the day of the execution, is still born. Weak from the birth, she sees the ghost of her lover, asking whether the child was his or not. She tells him that she had never been with another man after they had sworn their love for each other; he disappears with a smile. The trampwoman lives on, wandering alone and haunting the moor.
Hardy often emphasizes the ironic occurrence. His irony is primarily situational. Nothing turns out as it should. Fate steps in and cheats the parties involved. These characters make terrible decisions which yield horrendous consequences. Utilizing irony to explore gender and the differences between the sexes, the participants endure sorrow, regret, and intense anger.
The trampwoman symbolizes a type of woman who through her life has been careless and cruel. Lacking foresight, she goes too far; and the consequences strike not just her but her companions as well. She does not even recognize the depth of the fancy man's anger until she is unable to recognize his voice:
Then in a voice I had never heard,
I had never heard,
My only Love to me: "One Word,
My lady if you please!
Hardy's choice of words illustrates his disdain for his heroine: wanton unchaste, ill-mannered, and undisciplined.
In his poem, the tragedy is reminiscent of the "Adam and Eve" saga; woman manipulates man and causes destruction. In her stupidity and misguided actions, the trampwoman destroys the man she loves and the baby she desires.
Hardy's ability to choose words that transcend the hundred years that have passed flows throughout his poetry. The reader can relate to his characters and their humanity because his characters' feelings are universal and timeless. His characters live in a different time and space, yet this great writer bridges that gap and draws the reader into the world of the trampwoman and her fancy man.