Thomas Hardy was an English poet who lived and worked between two literary eras, connecting the legacy of British Romanticism with the early 20th century poetry. Best known as a novelist, thanks to classics such as Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Far from the Madding Crowd, he is also rightly considered one of the finest poets of the 20th century. In the short winter-themed poem I have chosen for this post you will recognise the playful modernity of the form coupled with the Romantic interest in nature.
Below the poem you will find some notes and comments, a vocabulary exercise for the English language learners, as well as a few suggestions for further reading.
Scene.—A wide stretch of fallow ground recently sown with wheat, and frozen to iron hardness. Three large birds walking about thereon, and wistfully eyeing the surface. Wind keen from north-east: sky a dull grey. (Triolet) Rook.—Throughout the field I find no grain; The cruel frost encrusts the cornland! Starling.—Aye: patient pecking now is vain Throughout the field, I find… Rook.—No grain! Pigeon.—Nor will be, comrade, till it rain, Or genial thawings loose the lorn land Throughout the field. Rook.—I find no grain: The cruel frost encrusts the cornland!
The poem is rather short and straightforward, but the simplicity of its form is deceptive. It actually begins with a brief prose passage that sets the scene: the poem turns out to be a mini stage play. Its characters are three birds—a rook, a starling and a pigeon—walking on the frozen fields of Durnover.
Hardy helps us a bit by inserting the word ‘triolet’ before the ensuing exchange: a triolet is a mediaeval poetic form defined as a stanza of eight lines, constructed on two rhymes, in which the first line is repeated as the fourth and seventh, and the second as the eighth, which is exactly how the dialogue in this poem is structured.
While the protagonists are birds, we are subconsciously made to think about the people living in this rural setting. The land is frozen, the ground fallow. Far from an idyllic image of winter, here we have harsh conditions and worries over an uncertain future. What will the following spring bring? Will the ice thaw in time for the plants to sprout and grow? Will there be enough food for everyone after the long winter? Nature in this poem is dispassionate; it controls us, not the other way round. We are entirely at its mercy.
One final comment, regarding the place name ‘Durnover’. Many of Hardy’s works are set in Wessex, the western region of England, once a powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom. While a lot of it is fictionalised in Hardy’s novels and poems, Durnover is a real location in West Dorset: two millennia ago it was the original Dorchester. The Romans first founded it as a military settlement, naming it Durnovaria after a Brittonic tribe living in the area. Durnovaria later became a market town known in the Middle Ages as Dornwaraceaster and, finally, Dorchester. The modern Durnover is one of its suburbs, featuring in a number of Hardy’s works.
Find the words in the poem with the following meaning:
- friendly, cheerful, pleasant (adj.)
- idle; barren; unproductive – orig. referring to ploughed land left unseeded and uncultivated, but not in this poem (adj.)
- lonely, abandoned, ruined (adj.)
- not bright; boring; lifeless (adj.)
- to cover with a hard layer of something (v.)
- strong and cold (adj.)
- the change from the frozen to a soft or liquid state (n.)
- a friend, companion (n.)
- in a way that is sad and filled with longing and melancholy (adv.)
- biting something the way a bird does with its beak (n.)
You can check your answers by accessing the answer key.
Dorchester and West Dorset entries on the Britannica website
Winter in Durnover Field – a short animation created by Natasha Kirke for BBC Radio 4