Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray
- So it's winter. Or at least a very cold and dreary autumn. We're not talking springtime and puppies and balloons here. We're talking cold and ice and gray, gray, gray. You excited? We sure are.
- Our speaker's leaning up against a gate leading to a big patch of brush and brambles. In other words, this is no walk in Central Park. (Since we're dealing with the other side of the pond, we should probably be talking about London's Hyde Park. But you get the idea.)
- What's he doing? Well….nothing. Not that we can tell, at any rate. In fact, this poem is about a whole lot of Nothing. You'll see what we mean in just a minute.
- Just who is this "I," anyway? Well, we'll get to that in our "Speaker" discussion. The quick and dirty version, however, is that he's probably your friendly neighborhood downer. That's right: he's the guy that's sucking on lemons when everyone else is drinking lemonade. Don't believe us? Read on, friends, read on.
- One quick note: see how Frost gets a capital "F"? It's almost as if Frost attains human-like characteristics. After all, humans have proper names that get capitalized. Elements of nature, like snow and ice and frost, tend not to have proper names. Unless, of course, you're in a Hardy poem. Then, all bets are off.
- Before we move on, though, we'd like to emphasize the "almost human" part of Frost's description. Here's what we mean: our speaker thinks that Frost is "spectre-gray." "Spectre" is a fancy nineteenth-century word for "ghost." So if Frost is human-like (with a capital letter), it's also ghost-like, which is not exactly human. Hmm. Non-human humans? Are you confused yet? We sure are.
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day
- Now that we've established how dreary this winter day is, our speaker takes the opportunity to hammer home the point one more time.
- If you're a coffee drinker, you know that the dregs are those nasty, grainy, bitter things that cling to the bottom of your cup and make your last sip of caffeinated goodness taste like sludge. If you're not a coffee drinker, you can take our word for it: dregs are nowhere near delicious.
- So when our speaker says that we're in the dregs of winter, he wants to make it clear that this is not the pretty falling snow that you see in Christmas specials. This stuff's gray and grimy. Think Fargo, not White Christmas.
- Oh, and have we mentioned that our speaker's up to his animist tricks again? (Check out what we have to say in Hardy's "Calling Card" about this. The man's a big, big fan of animism.) Day's got an eye. Winter seems to be a person. They may be one foot in the grave already – but they're more alive than any of the other things that we've encountered in the poem thus far.
- Speaking of dying, we should mention that this whole world seems mostly dead. After all, as our speaker sees it, day was already weakening before Winter's dregs started making things even worse.
- As we pointed out in our "In a Nutshell" section, Hardy writes this poem at the end of the nineteenth century. But we're not celebrating the new century and looking ahead to good times. No, sir. We're very, very, very unhappy. It's like that kid at elementary school graduation who starts sobbing about how much he's going to miss school lunch. Sheesh.
- Then again, maybe that's just out twenty-first century biases kicking in. After all, the nineteenth century was a pretty scary place to be. Who's to say that the twentieth century wasn't even worse? Maybe our speaker is right to be so concerned.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres
- Our speaker's still in descriptive mode. As he gazes into the patch of tangled brushes, he can only see…death and destruction.
- In this case, the vines in front of him look a lot like the broken bits of a lyre, a classical harp-like instrument. In other words, if you were hoping for songs and music, folks, look somewhere else. There is no music or happiness here. We repeat, no music. No happiness. Sorrow. Pain. SUFFERING!
- OK, now we're as caught up in melodrama as our speaker. We've got to admit, it's sort of fun. You should try it sometime.
- On a serious note, we should point out that Hardy's working hard to incorporate classical allusions (read: references to ancient times, specifically, Greece and Rome in the olden days) into this poem. Talking about weather like it's a person is something that just about every ancient religion spent a good deal of time doing.
- The lyre is a classical instrument, as we said. It also makes a cameo in scores upon scores of old poems. Hardy's twist on things is to point out that even these classical elements, the stock and trade of traditional poetry, are on their way out.
- We've got some thoughts about this. Check out what we have to say in "Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay."
And all mankind that haunted night
Had sought their household fires.
- If we had any doubts about our speaker being a loner, they're laid to rest here. (Hey, who wouldn't want to spend some time with this guy? That's what we want to know.)
- It turns out that it's past the time when normal folk are out and about. It's probably getting late, in fact, judging from the way that the speaker suggests that everyone else he knows is curled up by the fire, enjoying dinner and maybe even a nice cuppa tea. There is life out there somewhere, it just doesn't happen to be anywhere nearby.
- Or wait…is there life out there? After all, our speaker makes it clear that the people who were out and about earlier were "haunting" the landscape. We're back to the whole sorta-human-but-not-really thing that was going on a few lines earlier.
- We've got a theory about why Hardy's so bound and determined to make this poem into a prequel for Night of the Living Dead. Here goes:
- Hardy's writing at the end of the Industrial Revolution, which turned the nineteenth century onto its head. Britain transformed almost overnight: what was once a mainly agrarian nation (that's farmers, by the way) became industrial. People migrated to cities, which soon became packed with smog and soot and all sorts of other nasty things.
- More to Hardy's point, though, the Industrial Revolution changed how work was done. Men and women used to be in charge of their own lives. Sure, they were poor. Maybe they even worked as peasants for rich landowners. But they were in touch with the land and they got to control their own schedules. (You could play the theme song to The Sound of Music just about now. You know, the one that goes on about how the hills are alive?)
- Once people started working in factories, however, all that changed. They had to work 12 or 14-hour a day jobs doing the same mind-numbing tasks over and over and over. They never saw the sun. In fact, they turned pale as…ghosts. (You can see where we're going with this one, huh?)
- If you want some devastating descriptions of factories and industry messing people up, check out Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell.
- So if folks are walking around like ghosts, it might just be because industry has turned them into automatons. It's sort of like those scary sci-fi movies from the '70s that feature robots taking over peoples' lives.
- Then again, Hardy could just be turning the end of the century into the End of Days. As in, the world is about to come crashing down around our ears at any moment. You're all almost dead already. See?
- Either way, it's pretty clear to see that our speaker, much like Hardy himself, is no big fan of the modern age.