Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

While Victorian England is stereotypically recalled for its extreme antiprurience, the facts often bear out a different matter. Such was the case with prostitution in London in the late 1800’s when, according to some estimates, as many as 20 percent of teenage females may have been forced into supporting themselves in this manner. Hardy’s purpose in this poem is to focus on and dramatize the plights of young women entering such lives. In so doing, he displays both extreme sympathy and a lack of compassion for both young women. The poet’s attitude toward both of them evidences a rather dual attitude.

The first girl is obviously enamoured with Melia’s appearance, language, and relative wealth. An air about her indicates admiration, even envy or jealousy, for the new circumstances of her acquaintance from “Town.” Melia has returned with what appear to be better possessions, clothes, and speech. However, the first girl does not realize the source of these items; nor does she truly understand, for example, that “gay bracelets and bright feathers” hardly constitute the dress of high society. She does not see these for what they truly are: trade markers and prostitute flags.

Melia herself also has something of an ambiguous regard for her new circumstances. She seems pleased with her dress and diction; she now claims proudly to have “Some polish”; she boasts that she doesn’t have to work and also of having a “lively”...

(The entire section is 480 words.)