Analysis: Form and Meter
For a guy who's all about apocalypse and ending the earth, Thomas Hardy sure plays it safe when in comes to form. After all, with all that chaos and nothingness out there, it just doesn't make much sense to pay attention to something as trivial as a regular rhyme scheme, does it? Why not go crazy with words that don't sound at all alike?
Well, Hardy doesn't seem to agree. His poem is about as regular as they come (formally speaking, of course). It's divided into four nice, neat stanzas, each of which has eight nice, neat lines. Heck, even the rhyme scheme is as traditional as they come: it's all ABABCDCD. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Here's what we mean by that. Check out the first stanza:
I leant upon a coppice gate (A)
When Frost was spectre-gray, (B)
And Winter's dregs made desolate (A)
The weakening eye of day. (B)
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky (C)
Like strings of broken lyres, (D)
And all mankind that haunted nigh (C)
Had sought their household fires. (D)
Notice how "gate" rhymes with "desolate" and "gray" rhymes with "day"? Every other line rhymes with each other. That's what we mean when we say it's an ABAB rhyme scheme. It sets up a traditional rocking sort of motion when you read the poem, pulling you through the stanzas by interlocking the rhyming lines.
Even the meter is as normal and humdrum as they come: every other syllable is accented. All through the poem. An unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable is called an "iamb." So the meter here is considered iambi. Check it out:
I leant u-pon a copp-ice gate
Just like the rhyme scheme, the meter's supposed to be lilting. We'd write out more lines, but frankly, it's making us just a bit seasick.
Why does this matter? Well, you wouldn't think that Hardy would be the sort of guy to serve up the same ol' stuff all the time, would you? We mean, it's like he's creating the ambiance of a really edgy restaurant…and then he just gives you eggs and toast. We're not saying that eggs and toast is bad. It's just not…exciting.
You could say that the rhyme scheme introduces a bit of tension by clashing with the mood of the poem itself. In fact, we think we will. See, the speaker is intent on showing us all of the ways that the world is ending. Right this very second. Now! But the poem itself is strictly regular. Which can do one of two things: it can convince us that maybe we shouldn't trust the speaker as much as he'd like us to. After all, he must not have gotten everything right. It could also suggest that Hardy himself might not be as down-and-out as his speaker seems to be. After all, if he's still interested enough in convention to adhere to a traditional rhyme scheme, things can't totally be going to hell in a handbasket.