The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 591

“In Tenebris” is a sequence of three meditative poems, divided into six quatrains in poem I, four in poem II, and five in poem III. Each poem is headed by a Latin epigraph or motto from the Psalms that expresses alienation and despair. The title is Latin for “in the darkness,” anticipating the light and dark imagery in all three poems. The original title in Poems of the Past and the Present, “De Profundis,” or “Out of the Depths,” also reflects the speaker’s gloomy vision and his preoccupation with physical and spiritual death.

“In Tenebris” is an intensely personal expression of grief and isolation written in the first person. It was written in 1895-1896, when Thomas Hardy was despondent about the decline of love in his marriage and the public’s rejection of Jude the Obscure (1895), his last novel before he gave up fiction and devoted himself to poetry. Biographers and critics disagree about the extent to which this poem expresses Hardy’s bitterness about his own experience and conveys an attitude of unrelieved pessimism, “pessimistic” being a label Hardy himself rejected. Although the speaker claims to be emotionally dead in poem I, the energy with which he mocks the optimistic majority in poem II and questions his own fate in poem III suggests that he is exploring alternative responses to the harsh realities of life that he faces unflinchingly.

The motto of the first poem, which translates as “my heart is smitten and withered like grass,” introduces a series of terse poetic statements comparing the cruel catastrophes of nature as winter approaches with the speaker’s stoic assertions that he cannot be hurt by these signs of approaching death; he is already dead, having lost friendship, love, and hope.

The mottoes of poems II and III place the speaker and his woe in the context of a society in which he has no place. Poem II is headed by lines which translate as “I looked on my right hand and beheld, but there was no man that would know man cared for my soul.” The tone of derision throughout this poem is obvious from its opening lines, as the clouds echo the shouts of the “stout upstanders” who assume all is for the best. Each stanza begins by mocking the masses, with their “lusty joys” and smug Victorian belief in progress, and ends with the speaker’s denigration of himself as one born at the wrong time. This contrast climaxes as the entire last stanza mimics the crowd’s rejection of the speaker’s insistence on facing “the Worst” to find a “way to the Better.” He imagines them casting him out as one who is deformed, who “disturbs the order here.”

Poem III’s opening Latin reference to warlike ancient tribes in distant places reinforces the speaker’s sense of alienation: “Woe is me that I sojourn in Mesech, that I dwell in the tents of Kedar. My soul hath long dwelt with him that hateth peace.” The first and last stanzas repeat his notion that his life might as well have ended before his disillusioning realization that “the world was a welter of futile doing.” The middle stanzas recall three different moments in his youth that might have been more fitting times for him to die, while he was welcoming spring, feeling secure with his mother on Egdon Heath, or suffering a childhood illness. Thus “In Tenebris” concludes with the speaker daring to question even the divine law that determines when life begins and ends.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 627

The three poems of “In Tenebris” combine a number of the poetic techniques that distinguish the large and diverse body of poetry written throughout Hardy’s life. His adaptions of traditional meters can be seen in the contrast between the short lines of poem I, with its heavy use of spondees and trochees in the first and last lines accenting the funereal theme, and the much longer lines of poems II and III that imitate heroic and alliterative verse as the speaker mocks society and questions fate. The poem’s diction, in addition to blending colloquial, formal, and archaic words, includes original coinages such as “unhope” and “upstanders.” The biblical quotations and the images from the events and landscape of Hardy’s childhood show the influences of his past in relation to the modern social and philosophical themes of the poem.

The structure of each poem of “In Tenebris” is regular and repetitive, reflecting, perhaps, the speaker’s entrapment in his own vision of despair and alienation, but also his persistent assertion of that vision in defiance of all opposing forces. The common patterns of language and imagery that unite the three poems follow the movement of the speaker’s thoughts as he views himself in the context of nature, society, and the universal laws of time and fate.

Every stanza of poem I begins with an image from nature showing the harm done to flowers, birds, and leaves by the cold and tempests of winter, except that the last stanza uses the black of night to introduce another symbol of death that reappears later. Every second line (all except one beginning with “But”) stresses the speaker’s immunity to these rhythms of nature, since he is permanently enervated, heartless, and hopeless—past the stages of grieving or doubting for a season. The occurrence of one or two phrases of negation in every stanza further emphasizes the speaker’s insistence that he is beyond the reach of the horror and dread that winter, night, and death usually evoke.

Poem II also contains a number of negative statements and images from nature in every stanza, but they have become part of a more expansive and energetic outcry against society. Statements such as “the clouds’ swoln bosoms echo,” “breezily go they, breezily come,” and “their dawns bring lusty joys, it seems” add a mock-heroic flavor to this exposure of the easy optimism of the masses. The speaker’s more sensitive view that “delight is a delicate growth cramped by crookedness, custom, and fear” relates to the other images of deformity he attributes to himself. The fact that this poem not only uses the same rhyme in the second half of every quatrain, but repeats the same word—“here”—at the end of every stanza, however, suggests that the speaker is determined to stand his ground with his unpopular but honest compulsion to face “the Worst.”

In poem III, the images of nature are associated with specific memories of home near Egdon Heath. The heavy use of alliteration, along with some archaic language, gives this poem a more dignified and ponderous tone, as the speaker turns from his satire of contemporary society in poem II to question universal laws of time and death. The images of light and dark culminate in the realization that, since true vision and knowledge bring pain and frustration, it would be better to have been overtaken by the darkness of death earlier in life. This idea is repeated throughout the first and last stanzas, with three occurrences of the same phrase indicating the persistent desire to consider a better time when “the ending [might] have come,” creating an especially emphatic ending for a series of poems that explores various dimensions of spiritual and physical death.

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