The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Thomas Hardy’s “The Ruined Maid” is a dialogue between two farm girls in late Victorian England, one of whom has left the farm for city life, and the other of whom has remained in the country. The poem consists of six quatrains, each of which is organized in the same fashion. The first girl—unidentified by name and yet living on a farm—addresses the other girl, named Melia, who answers. In all but one stanza, the last one, the first girl has three lines of the quatrain, and Melia is given a one-line response in which she uses the word “ruin” or some variation of it. Through this conversation, Hardy provides social commentary about his real subject: prostitution and its effects.

The poem is set in “Town,” presumably a small rural town to which Melia has returned and near which she previously lived. The two girls have not seen each other for some time, and the chance meeting on the street affords them an opportunity to catch up. It is not clear that, previously, they have been close friends; however, they have been close acquaintances, and hence there is something of an intimate, yet casual, conversation.

In the introductory stanza the first speaker addresses Melia by inquiring, at once, about her “fair garments” and “such prosperi-ty.” Melia replies, “‘O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?’” This establishes the pattern of the poem as well as indicates the characters and personalities of the two young girls....

(The entire section is 489 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The twenty-four lines of the poem are deliberately written in an uncommon meter of three dactyl feet followed by an iamb. Hence, each line has an unusual count of an odd number of syllables: eleven. All of the verses have an aabb rhyme scheme. It is curious that Hardy did not choose iambic pentameter for this poem, since iambs more accurately reflect actual speech in English; however, this peculiar form gives the poem a certain racy, conversational tone which keeps the interchanges moving.

The most important poetic mechanism, however, is not revealed by mere scansion of lines. Rather, the central literary device at play here is that of the pun. While most great poets hold puns in disdain and use them seldom, if ever, in serious poetry, Hardy chooses to organize the entire discourse around the one word “ruin,” which appears in the last line of each stanza in Melia’s responses to the other girl. Specifically, “ruin” means being destitute of any financial resources or worldly goods; at the same time, it means being void of chastity and purity—that is, Melia, now working as a prostitute, is morally ruined.

The irony of Hardy’s punning needs further explanation. Melia is morally ruined, although she now has money and therefore is not financially ruined like her acquaintance. On the other hand, the girl who has no money has her chastity and is not ruined. Both girls are “ruined,” but each in a different way. In the last...

(The entire section is 430 words.)