“The Voice,” by the English poet Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), is usually (and correctly) interpreted as a reflection of Hardy’s own feelings after the death of his first wife, Emma. When they were young, they were deeply in love; as they grew older, they became increasingly estranged and even bitter; but after Emma’s death, Hardy mourned her loss profoundly. In this poem, the speaker seems to hear the voice of a woman he once loved, who is now gone, and whom he associates with the pleasures of the distant (not the recent) past.
The poem’s opening words, “Woman much missed” (1), are typical of the plain, unsentimental style of much of Hardy’s writing. This fact is important, since this poem could easily have been exceptionally saccharine and sentimental. The speaker does not, for instance, address the woman as “Darling much missed” or “Sweetheart much missed.” Instead, the simple, neutral word woman already suggests, perhaps, some of the recent estrangement the couple had suffered—a suggestion that makes the poem’s later tenderness all the more effective.
That note of tenderness already enters the poem in the second half of the first line, when the haunting repetition of “call to me, call to me” begins to imply how much the speaker does indeed miss the woman he addresses. Obviously the woman cannot literally call to the speaker; it is the speaker’s own thoughts and memories that call to him, and the repetitive phrasing suggests how obsessive those thoughts and memories are. Although the entire poem is addressed to the missed (and missing) woman, in fact the text is a kind of internal dialogue between the speaker and his own emotions. He recollects, and imagines, the woman as she once was, and he loves those precious recollections.
Part of the effectiveness of the opening stanzas results from the way the speaker, in one long, stanza-length sentence, summarizes the full complexity of the couple’s relationship, moving from the present, to the recent past, and then to the distant past. The phrasing throughout this stanza (and indeed throughout the entire poem) is plain and straightforward. It reflects the kind of colloquial directness that is one of the keynotes of Hardy’s style—a style that rarely seems artificial, or contrived, or “Romantic” (in the worst senses of that word). The fact that Hardy can use his plain style so effectively, and so evocatively, in a love poem is all the more impressive, since it is often in love poems that writers who came before (and after) him can often seem most maudlin.
The mere fact that the speaker doubts his own perceptions (“Can it be you that I hear?” ) makes him seem all the more reliable and trustworthy. He does not exclaim, “Ah! It is you I hear!” Instead, he remains sensible and level-headed, so that when he does allow his memory and imagination to travel to the distant past (“Let me view you, then” ), his use of his imagination does not seem far-fetched. The speaker is an intelligent man who realizes, even as he evokes the past, that the past is gone forever. It is, in fact, partly that realization that makes his memories seem so poignant. In his mind, he goes back to the past and recalls how his wife, then, would wait for him to return from his travels. They encountered each other, then, in physical reality, and he recovers her now in his recollections. The second stanza thus emphasizes two kinds of encounters: one real, one imagined. And, as the speaker summons up his vision of his beloved as she existed in the past, he also makes her seem real to us in the present. In this stanza, he addresses her four different times as “you,” just as he had done in the first stanza. Later, as the vision of the beloved fades, the word you itself will appear only one more time in the poem.
No sooner does the speaker evoke the beautiful image...
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