Like many of Hardy’s poems that were written after his wife’s death in December 1912, ‘The Going’ is an expression of the complex grief that dominated the poet’s mentality for a significant period of his life. This grief is moulded into a rough elegiac structure, travelling through emotions of shock, despair and resignation, all of which often accumulate into a sense of confusion about his wife. However, although reconciliation does eventually occur, one cannot help but notice that Hardy has to force himself to come to terms with the loss of his wife. Moreover, behind the thin veil of acceptance, he exposes the mental frailty that grief has left behind.
The first stanza is essentially questioning the late Emma Hardy on why she died so suddenly, without expressing any feelings of previous unhappiness. By asking ‘Why did you give no hint that night […] you would close your term here,’ without any introduction, the author is immediately interrogating his wife. This demonstrates his pure desperation to communicate with his wife once more. In addition to this, the subject of the stanza is you, which suggests that Hardy believes his wife to be some way responsible for her own tragic death. He does so despite the fact that he had failed to notice her ill health and unhappiness. Therefore, one can interpret Hardy’s questioning to be a shift of guilt onto his wife’s shoulders, which ultimately contributes to a sense of confusion, but also seems to be Hardy’s method of coping with grief, as admission of guilt would lead to painful regret, as well as anger.
Another key feature of the first stanza is a sentiment of an almost metaphysical separation between Hardy and his dead wife. He bemoans the fact that his wife has gone to where he ‘could not follow, with wing of swallow.’ By comparing his wife to a bird, he has endowed her with the ability to fly. This perhaps illustrates her freedom, while Hardy is trapped on earth, in human form. Ultimately, this alludes to Hardy’s feelings of isolation, and a desire to break free from his grief by following his wife.
The second stanza’s opening lines of ‘Never to bid good-bye,/ Or lip me the softest call,’ largely echo the essence of the beginning of the poem. By repeatedly asking his wife questions without answer, Hardy illustrates an unproductive, cyclic mourning from which he is struggling to escape. Moreover, the use of ‘lip me’ has sexual connotations, due to its association with kissing. Hardy’s somewhat unusual diction exposes his desire for some intimacy between him and his wife, which was apparently lacking in the later years of their marriage.
The permanence of his grief is portrayed as he ‘saw morning harden upon the wall’. This metaphor expresses how in the same way that plaster sets on a wall, the morning of her death has cemented itself within Hardy’s emotional memory. Likewise, if one interprets ‘morning’ to be a pun on ‘mourning’, one can infer that Hardy is demonstrating his lingering grief. Within grief, Hardy encounters a sense of being ‘Unmoved, [and] unknowing’. The use of the prefix ‘un’ allows Hardy to express what he is not feeling, rather than what he is feeling, which suggests a sense of loss and numbness. This numbness is a manifestation of the meaningless and the uniformity of Hardy’s existence when he cannot be with his wife.
Despite his obvious grief, Hardy does not directly mention death at all in the first two stanzas. Instead, he expresses dying with euphemisms such as ‘close your term here’. This could perhaps demonstrate that Hardy’s passion for his wife was an indispensable part of his identity. Therefore, Hardy is almost refusing to admit to himself that she is truly dead, as the consequential feelings of loss and numbness would be catastrophic for any hope of reconciliation.
The 3rd stanza continues the interrogative manner of the poem as Hardy asks ‘Why do you make me leave the house/ And think for a breath it is you I see [?]’ In addition to the poet’s frustrated attempts to come to terms with his wife’s death, Hardy indicates a level of confusion and irrationality. By stating that he leaves the house to search for her, he is doing so in spite of her having gone ‘Where I could not follow’. This clearly suggests that Hardy’s cravings for his wife are so strong that he is overruling a rational understanding that she has died, in order to attempt to satisfy his longing to be reunited with her. Ultimately, his continued searching reflects a level of denial in his grief. However, this irrationality ultimately leads to even greater frustration, as he can never find Emma; indeed, the illusion of seeing his wife ‘sickens’ Hardy.
Another element to take note of in the 3rd stanza is the reference to the ‘yawning blankness’ that that Hardy sees in the place where he believes to have seen his wife. Blankness has connotations of uniformity, which reflects the meaningless repetition of Hardy’s existence now that he is without his wife. Moreover, the word yawning has an onomatopoeic quality, due to the stretched out vowel sound, which illustrates how Hardy’s suffering through disappointment is excruciatingly extended. Furthermore, yawning has an obvious connotation with sleep and tiredness, which demonstrates the exhausting nature of Hardy’s grief. Ultimately, both blankness and sleep both evoke images associated with the long, uninterrupted peace of death. Therefore, Hardy is perhaps suggests that life without Emma is little more than death to him.
As the poem progresses to the 4th stanza, Hardy’s tone shifts, and for the first time he recalls concrete memories of his wife’s life. This perhaps suggests that slowly, he is beginning to move on from feelings of immediate frustration and shock, and he can now experience a certain level of nostalgia without being overwhelmed by grief. However, throughout his recollections of his wife, Hardy somewhat demonstrates that her death was perhaps foreshadowed, even if at the time these warning signs went unnoticed. Emma would ‘abode/ By those red-veined rocks far West.’ Red-veined evokes an image of blood rapidly rushing through the body, and therefore suggests his wife’s fierce force of life, in contrast to the morbid tone of the poem previously. However, the strain of protruding veins suggests a certain level of desperation to keep the blood flowing, and therefore Hardy is illustrating a sense of clinging on to survival. Moreover, the fact that she aboded near ‘rocks far West’ inevitably draws connotations with the setting of the sun, which can be interpreted as a metaphor for the eventual death of Hardy’s wife. In addition to the energy of the red-veined rocks, Emma is said to have ’rode/ Along the beetling Beeny Crest’. The alliteration of ‘b’ sounds creates a light, bubbling flow to Emma’s movement, which suggests her light-hearted cheerfulness in her day-to-day existence.
Despite some optimistic imagery, the final line of this stanza seems to allude to the concept of fate. Hardy writes of how ‘Life unrolled us its very best.’ Despite the subject of the line being ‘Life’, the action of unrolling seems to suggest that the relationship of the Hardy’s came undone. Moreover, Life with a capital L suggests a powerful force, such as that of fate, which dictates our existence. Ultimately, this ‘unrolling’ seems to have led to death, in spite of any previous happy memories.
In the 5th stanza, Hardy seems to finally express a certain level of regret about the latter stages of his marriage. He laments how he and his wife did not think to restore ‘those days long dead’. However, despite his wish to have relived the romantic, early days of his relationship, there is a certain level of irony as these days are in fact ‘dead’, and are therefore irretrievable. Essentially, any hope would be in vain. Moreover, one can note that Hardy has mentioned the word ‘dead’ for the first time in the poem. However, he is referring to days, rather than his wife being dead. Hardy’s, admittance that death is a reality, but refusal to accept that his wife has completely left him suggests that fundamentally, he knows that his wife is dead, but is still in a certain stage of denial.
The poet opens the final stanza (which would traditionally express a sentiment of reconciliation) with an unusual use of cliché. He exclaims ‘Well, well!’ This phrase lacks both originality, and directed meaning. This suggests that Hardy cannot find a way to express himself naturally, and is therefore relying on a pre-prepared saying. Moreover, this phrase’s lack of meaning (i.e. it lacks any verb or subject noun) demonstrates that the poet does not in fact have any ideas on what he wishes to write in terms of content. Considering the reconciliatory nature of this paragraph, this incompetence suggests that Hardy has to force himself to try to move on, despite the fact that he is in incapacitating state of grief. In fact, the extended caesura employed by Hardy as he states his fear that he will ‘sink down soon….’ slows down the poem. This disruption of flow suggests that Hardy is struggling to find words to express himself, which demonstrates how grief has created a level of mental weakness. Furthermore, the action of sinking is a downward process that leads to death. Hardy’s admission that he is in fact sinking demonstrates how he has given up on struggling and resistance, and is allowing himself to be overcome by his own grief.
Essentially, Hardy has allowed his wife’s death to ‘undo’ him, which illustrates how his personal identity has been taken apart, due to the fact that Emma was a fundamental part of it. As a result of his mental confusion, Hardy has lost a sense of self-understanding, and he has therefore lost any ability to express himself emotionally. This has made any form of reconciliation or emotional progress extremely unlikely, meaning that Hardy is left in a state of purposeless grief.
By George Nairac