"Night In The Old Home": A Poem by Thomas Hardy
“Night in the Old Home” by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was probably written soon after the death of his mother (Jemima Hardy) in April 1904. It was included in his 1909 collection “Time’s Laughingstocks and Other Verses” in the section headed “Pieces Occasional and Various”.
The old home of the title is the cottage at Higher Bockhampton, Dorset, where Hardy had been born and lived until his marriage in 1874. His unmarried siblings (a brother and two sisters) had continued to live there and Hardy was a frequent visitor. However, the death of Jemima Hardy at the age of 91 meant that the link had been broken between the cottage and the two generations of Hardys who, apart from his grandfather who had died in 1837, had lived there during Hardy’s lifetime and been inseparable from it.
When the wasting embers redden the chimney-breast,
And Life's bare pathway looms like a desert track to me,
And from hall and parlour the living have gone to their rest,
My perished people who housed them here come back to me.
They come and seat them around in their mouldy places,
Now and then bending towards me a glance of wistfulness,
A strange upbraiding smile upon all their faces,
And in the bearing of each a passive tristfulness.
'Do you uphold me, lingering and languishing here,
A pale late plant of your once strong stock?' I say to them;
'A thinker of crooked thoughts upon Life in the sere,
An on That which consigns men to night after showing the day to them?'
'--O let be the Wherefore! We fevered our years not thus:
Take of Life what it grants, without question!' they answer me seemingly.
'Enjoy, suffer, wait: spread the table here freely like us,
And, satisfied, placid, unfretting, watch Time away beamingly!'
The poem comprises four four-line stanzas with an ABAB rhyme scheme. The “B” rhymes work on the last three syllables of the lines as opposed to just the final one, hence “track to me/back to me” and “seemingly/beamingly”. This is known technically as “triple rhyming” and is usually used by poets to produce a comic or ironic effect. “Night in the Old Home” is an example of a poem that uses triple rhyming without such an intention, and it is a tribute to Hardy’s skill that he can do so without lapsing into banality. “The Voice” is another such example among Hardy’s poems. It might also be noted that the triple rhymed lines contain an extra beat, such that the second and fourth lines of each stanza have six beats whereas the first and third lines only have five.
The first stanza begins with the physical scene of “the wasting embers redden[ing] the chimney-breast” but then immediately widens the poet’s situation to include “Life’s bare pathway” that “looms like a desert track to me” after “the living have gone to their rest” (namely the brother and sisters mentioned above who presumably preferred an earlier bedtime than the poet). The reader can therefore picture Hardy sitting alone in the cottage at night, left with only his pessimistic thoughts for company. It is then that he sees a vision of his “perished people” coming back to him.
The second stanza describes his forbears sitting close to him in the room. He does not say how many of them there are, but he had previously mentioned that they were the people “who housed them here”, so the assumption must be that he is referring to his parents and paternal grandparents. They give him “a glance of wistfulness”, which is rhymed in the stanza with their “passive tristfulness”. As might be expected from ghosts, they look upon the living with something akin to envy, but their sadness, being passive, relates to themselves and is not occasioned by seeing the poet.
That said, each face bears “A strange upbraiding smile”. Why upbraiding? This could refer to Hardy’s current situation or to memories from his boyhood. If the former, perhaps Hardy is assuming that his forbears would have been unhappy at the way he had rejected the unquestioning Christianity of his parents and the unconventional morality expressed in novels such as “Jude the Obscure”. If the latter, this could be a reference to his extreme sensitivity as a young child, or perhaps to his comment to his mother that he did not wish to grow up, which she found hurtful given that he had nearly died at birth and she had only just been able to save his life. She had never forgotten this, and maybe Hardy was recalling this youthful indiscretion many years later.
Third and Fourth Stanzas
The rest of the poem is a conversation between the poet and the ghosts, with Hardy’s speech forming the third stanza and the fourth being his forbears’ reply. Hardy questions them about their judgment of him, wondering if they are disappointed at his being “a pale late plant of your once strong stock”, which refers to the fact that although his parents produced four children who survived to adulthood, none of them had children themselves. As Thomas was the only one to marry, the onus to continue the Hardy line would have fallen on him.
If that is not the reason for their supposed displeasure, perhaps it is because he is, in their eyes, “A thinker of crooked thoughts upon Life in the sere”. “Sere” is an interesting word to use here, given that it means “dry” or “withered”. It is quite possible that Hardy was desperate for a rhyme for “here” and that what he really wanted to say was “Life in the raw”.
Hardy surmises that his crooked thoughts might also concern “That which consigns men to night after showing the day to them”. This is a bit obscure, and only makes sense if one knows something about Hardy’s career as a novelist. Could it be that he was harbouring guilty feelings about the motivations of some of his characters who chose the wrong path and suffered as a result? Or perhaps it was his approval of characters, like Jude, who flouted Victorian moral conventions? Hardy knew that his own wife, Emma, was profoundly shocked by “Jude the Obscure” (1895) and even went so far as to travel to London to try to persuade Hardy’s publisher to refuse to release it. Is he assuming that the ghosts would agree with Emma?
The final stanza gives the ghosts’ comforting reply to “let be the Wherefore” and “Take of Life what it grants, without question!” Their instructions to him are to “Enjoy, suffer, wait” and “spread the table freely like us”. He must be “satisfied, placid, unfretting” and “watch Time away beamingly”. In other words, they advise Hardy to live his life as they lived theirs, taking things as they come and not caring what others think, those others including themselves.
What can the reader make of this? It sounds as though Hardy is erecting a few “Aunt Sallies” and cheerfully knocking them down again; these are imagined objections to the way he has turned out, and, being imaginary, they can easily be dismissed. The poem could therefore be an exercise in self-justification, with Hardy convincing himself that he has nothing to worry about, especially as the words of the ghosts are his own, simply being put into the mouths of others.
Another way of looking at “Night in the Old Home” is that this is Hardy giving advice to the reader rather than to himself. The instructions given in the final stanza are surely of universal application, and it is not just Hardy who would be wise to “take of Life what it grants”. However, such advice sounds more convincing when presented as the wisdom of the past being passed down through the generations. As mentioned above, Hardy had no descendants, but the urge to pass on the baton is a strong one and, for Hardy, his readers must serve as his children in this respect.
Whatever Hardy’s motivation in writing the poem, few would object that “Night in the Old Home” says things that make sense and are worth saying. If everyone was satisfied with their lot in life and “watch[ed] Time away beamingly”, surely the world would be a much better place?
As a footnote, the cottage in question still stands and is open to public view, being in the care of the National Trust. Visitors can see the cramped room in which Hardy met his forbears and can feel the heat from the fire that is normally kept burning in the fireplace that is mentioned in the poem’s opening line.