At Castle Boterel by Thomas Hardy

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Summary and Analysis

“At Castle Boterel,” by the English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), describes the speaker’s return to a place associated, in his mind, with a deeply significant moment in his relationship with a woman he loved—a woman who is now no longer with him. The poem reflects Hardy’s own intense sadness at the death of his wife, Emma. Even though their relationship had been full of tension, when Emma died, Hardy strongly mourned her passing. One need not, of course, know this autobiographical background in order to understand the poem’s meaning or appreciate its power. The text is full of resonance simply on its own terms.

The poem’s opening stanza already emphasizes several key details that contribute to a depressing tone. These include the speaker’s isolation; dismal, rainy weather; and the sense of appearances “fading” (3). Already, then, the tone of the poem seems somewhat gloomy. No sooner have we become accustomed to this dark mood, however, than an abrupt and striking shift occurs as we move from stanza 1 to stanza 2. No punctuation concludes the first stanza; instead, we suddenly find ourselves in the same physical place but in a far distant time. No longer are we present with the speaker in the rainy weather described in the poem’s opening lines. Instead, in a sense, we are now inside his mind, inside his memory, as he unexpectedly recalls an important day in the past. He recalls being at this same place, but during a day that he remembers as having been “dry” (7).

Suddenly, too, he is no longer alone. Instead he is accompanied by a “girlish form,” a phrase that seems significant in various ways. First, the adjective girlish implies that the speaker is recalling his youth. There would be no need to use the word girlish if he were simply remembering a very recent period in his life. Second, the word girlish implies youthful beauty. Third, the fact that the young woman is described as a “form” implies that she no longer seems quite real, quite genuinely substantial. In his memory, she is almost a kind of phantom, but she seems no less important for that reason. In fact, his memories of her and of that day seem so important to him that they momentarily supplant his experience of the present. The distant past now becomes far more present in (and to) his mind than the actual present seems. This is especially true when he uses the present-tense verb climb to describe their past behavior (7). The speaker and the girl had climbed down from a carriage so that the pony pulling it up a hill would have a lighter load.

Stanza 3 is deliberately mysterious in tone. The couple, walking behind that carriage so long ago, spoke of something that in one sense now seems relatively unimportant (it “matters not much” [12]). Yet the subject of which they spoke also somehow seems something that life cannot do without (13), at least until hope and feeling disappear (14-15). Presumably this unnamed “something” is love, but the fact that the speaker refuses to openly name it seems significant. Perhaps he is evasive because he wants to avoid seeming sentimental or trite. Perhaps he wants to stimulate his readers to think for themselves. Perhaps his feelings of grief and loss are still too tender to allow him to mention love openly. Whatever the explanation, stanza 3 seems especially tantalizing precisely because the speaker is so reticent. The power of good writing, sometimes, resides less in what is said than in what is left unsaid.

Apparently, what matters more to the speaker than the long-ago subject of discussion was the experience  of that crucial moment, even though it “filled but a minute” (16). Paradoxically, of course, the experience of true communion with a person he loved has, thanks to memory, filled many more minutes than just one. It is in fact filling the time needed to create this poem, and to read it. The crucial “minute” from so long ago helped transform the speaker’s...

(The entire section is 1,139 words.)