Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant
- Ah, now we're getting to the good stuff. The land becomes a map of everything that's happened over the course of the century. In fact, it starts to embody the Century. Or at least, the dead century.
- Why is the Century "outleant"? Heck, is "outleant" even a word? You've got us there, folks. According to the good people at the Oxford English Dictionary, "outleant" is not and never has been a word.
- Before we start calling shenanigans, though, we should point out that this is one of several non-words in Hardy's poem. "Darkling," anyone? Hardy's probably not just making up words because it's fun. (OK, making up words is pretty fun. If you don't believe us, check with Disney. They got all sorts of mileage out of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. But that's not our point.)
- What was our point? Oh, yeah: non-words. We're guessing that Hardy's speaker sees himself at the end of an era. It's a Huge Moment. It's so huge, in fact, that the English language just doesn't have enough words for him to describe what he's seeing. That's where all of these new words come in.
- We've got to admit, this isn't exactly a travel brochure, is it? (As in, come to England…where everything looks like rotting corpses." Hmm.)
His crypt the cloudy canopy
The wind his death-lament
- Since we're on the subject of death….
- The century is dead. Dead as a doornail.
- But have you noticed that, by this point, we're spending far more time discussing the once-life of abstract concepts like "Winter" or "the Century" than we have spent discussing people. It's a nifty sleight-of-hand, actually: Hardy's speaker makes us focus on the death of inanimate (or conceptual) things that we forget that they're not alive. Or, well, dying.
- All of nature seems to conspire to mourn the passing of the century. The sense that the outer world will mimic or manifest your own emotions a very Romantic notion (as in, Wordsworthian. Not bodice-ripping Harlequins novels. Take our word for it, they're very different things).
- A Romantic poet might believe that if you're smiling, the sun would come out. Hardy's at least a century away from the Romantics, but he seems to be stealing a few tricks from their bag in this particular phrase.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry
- We've said it before, we'll say it again. Death and decay, folks. Got it?
- Notice, though, that even as our speaker gets off on the ending of all things, the poem's rhythm remains utterly constant and conventional. Here's what we mean:
- Try reading lines 13-14 aloud. They should sound something like this: The AN-cient-PULSE-of-GERM-and-BIRTH / Was-SHRUNK-en-HARD-and-DRY.
- Notice how there's a totally regular pattern of accented and unaccented syllables? All in all, it's a conventional rhythm. Which, when you're talking about death and decay and everything changing, is pretty surprising. You'd expect that the poem's rhythm would be all over the place.
- It just goes to prove that old, old saying: the beat goes on. It's almost like there's tension between the regularity of the rhythm and the huge void that the speaker seems to see in the actual world.
- We should point out here that these two lines are heavy hitters when it comes to Hardy's own personal symbolism. He's totally into metaphors of germination (or, in other words, the process of a seed developing into a plant). Or, in this case, failed germination. Check out what we have to say about it in "Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay."
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
- OK, back up just a second here. Wasn't the whole place emptied out by now?
- Yes, it was. In fact, the speaker says so, right about at line 8. So where do all these spirits come from?
- We're guessing that, by this time, the speaker is so wrapped up in his gloom-and-dooming that he's starting to get a little free-and-easy with his descriptions. It's sort of like when you've just had a no good, very bad day: suddenly everything seems absolutely horrible. There's just no standing in the way of melodrama.
- So the place seemed cleared out earlier? Well, that's just too bad. Our speaker has more depressing descriptions to share. And he happens to need some people around in order to do it.
- Speaking of melodrama, did you notice how hard Hardy's working to point out that there are no real people in this poem? He takes just about every chance that he can get to push the point home: why, for example, does he choose to use the word "spirit" instead of "person"?
- Hardy's being a clever, clever man here. He allows his speaker to refer to humans-as-ghosts (or ghosts-as-humans) by using one little bitty word.