A simple reference to the characters described in the first part of the poem. Overall, though, it refers to an earlier work by Hardy, named ‘The Woodlanders’. Marty South – note the lack of explicit gender reference in the name – is a character from ‘The Woodlanders’ whose thoughts are expressed in an odd, stream-of-consciousness-esque reverie. Hardy is interested in the melancholy of both human relationships and within nature; the lack of meaning he can find in natural suffering.
Hardy splits the poem into two parts, with two very different structural styles:
Despite being linked in content, the two parts have very different structural nuances.
“Halt and hoary” is an archaic phrase for ‘old and grey’.
Nature’s lament, Man and Nature, Relationships
The poem must be discussed separately, in terms of its parts, before comparing the two. However, Hardy writes in such short stanzas that analysing each one would be pointless, yet the meaning behind Hardy’s ‘Part I’ is described very gradually.
Therefore, a summary:
Hardy writes, in the first person, of a couple who work in forestry. It is assumed that the persona is female (or otherwise homosexual, which would present an interesting perspective) and is called ‘Marty South’ – in this case, the ambiguous name is quite certainly female. South is a character originating, as mentioned before, from Hardy’s earlier work ‘The Woodlanders’. South is engaged in a relationship with a partner upon whom she dotes, but is slighted due to the male’s ‘wandering eye’. South ‘writes’ to explain his apparent indifference towards her.
However, Hardy uses this idea of suffering (in relationships) and applies it, in Part II, to the trees that the pair plant.
Relative movement of the two characters is of great importance to Hardy – or rather, the fact that the persona doesn’t move and therefore suffers the cold of the ‘blast and breeze’. This is made clear, along with the setting for her predicament, in the first stanza; “He fills the earth in/ I hold the trees”. The woman has no mobility.
This is made clearer in the second stanza; “what I do/ Keeps me from moving/ And chills me through.” More importantly, though, “he does not notice”. This simple observation of a married man not noticing his wife’s routine suffering (suffering, as it is later revealed, which is endured only to be near him.) is shocking to the reader. The wife is made initially into a tragic beast of burden – this lack of physical motion will eventually come to represent her inability to achieve any motion in life. Hardy deliberately utilises the understatement and plainness of speech to accentuate this fact. In the next stanza, he reveals why.
“He has seen one fairer”. Again, utilising understatement, Hardy introduces (in a noticeably less ‘fixed’ reality) a third figure to the poem – the male’s true love interest. Hardy, by portraying such a betrayal from the victim’s eyes (as well as condemning the male to interest based upon attractiveness alone) again achieves a sense of sympathy from the reader. The male’s “eye… skims me as though I were not by.” Apart from the obvious sense of being ignored, Hardy’s use of ‘skims’ is particularly effective in emphasizing the male’s partial glimpse of his partner.
[Add. Note: The last line of each stanza is somewhat contracted, drawing attention to it. It is therefore noticeable that each ‘4th line’ features an emotive sentiment – all express revealing elements of the characters’ relationships. This is equally accentuated through the rhyme scheme, which draws both the 2nd and 4th lines together.]
Hardy’s key emphasis next is that “since she passed here” the male has thought only of (the new) ‘her’ and the forest; “the woodland hold him alone.” Equally, the persona is busy with her thoughts – presumably in the form of this reverie! This stanza’s final line is particularly noticeable through its contraction. On a different note, there is an element of complaint in the persona’s tone; she “never win[s] any small word of praise!”
This highlights a coming theme, in that the pair fail to talk to each other at all. They are both equally silent with their thoughts and he, as above, never offers praise – nor, it seems, any verbal or emotional contact. What makes the relationship tragic is that she makes no effort either:
The final two stanzas of the first part require more focussed analysis, as they begin to move to action on the part of Marty – or rather (as it may be) to further inaction.
“Shall I not sigh (1) to him
That I work on
Glad to be nigh to him (2)
Though hope is gone (3)?
Nay, though he never
Knew (4) love like mine,
I’ll bear it ever (5)
And make no sign (6)!”
Desperation, along with paradoxical pleasure, dominates Hardy’s final stanzas: ‘sighing’ has always been a poetic expression of desperation, enforced by the visible expression of hopelessness (3). One therefore questions Marty’s judgement; if she is aware that her relationship with her male partner has been afflicted to its present demise (an argument further supported by the use of the past tense at (4)) then why does she stay there? Why is she unable to move herself physically, emotionally or verbally from her fixed spot? She is like the tree which she plants; immovable but suffering because of it.
Much as one can muse upon Hardy’s own Modernist views (see the previous poem for the question of Modernist principles upon human suffering) on the matter, the persona suggests a very simple answer – see (2). She still loves the male. This creates a scenario – an immovable object, enduring suffering, refuses to resign from desperation because Nature/emotion has dictated it must stay – which is passed on to Part II.
[Note the irony of the persona: she says, through the medium of literary suspension, that she can make no sign. But we are reading it… She’s making a sign, therefore… So, perhaps Marty South’s Reverie is her paradoxical sign?]