The Voice Summary
An unnamed speaker calls out to an unnamed "woman most missed." Or, in other words: a woman most definitely dead. He imagines that he hears her calling to him. More specifically, he imagines that she is saying that she no longer is the way that she used to be, after she had changed from the way that she originally was (when she and the speaker first got together) In short, he misses the woman of the distant past, who changed into a not-so-lovable person in the recent past. Confused? It's okay; this first stanza is a doozy. Check out our "Detailed Summary" for the play-by-play.
The speaker then asks if he really is hearing the voice of the woman. If so, he says, let me see you, woman! Let me see you standing where you used to stand back in the day, in your blue dress. Or, he asks, is he only hearing the wind traveling over the landscape? Is he only imagining a ghost who will never be heard again?
The poem ends as leaves fall all around the speaker. He hears the sound of the wind, and the sound of the woman calling. Is the woman a ghost? A zombie? Is she just in the speaker's mind? The poem raises these questions, but never answers them. (Thanks for making our job harder, poem. Gosh!)
Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
- We're gonna start off real slow with "The Voice," because Hardy packs a whole lot into this first line. Let's start off by listing what this line tells us.
- First, we have an unnamed speaker who is speaking. (See how easy that was? This will be a piece of cake!) Though the speaker is definitely a Hardy-type guy, we will call him "the speaker" anyway ('cause there's no way of knowing the degree to which this poem is autobiographical).
- So, our speaker is speaking to a "woman much missed." Why is she missed? The poem doesn't tell us (though we know from Hardy's life that this poem was inspired by the death of his estranged wife, Emma Gifford).
- Still with us? Good. It's about to get tricky, cause, even though the woman is dead, the speaker says that she "call[s] to [him]." We are now entering creep city.
- When a speaker of a poem addresses a dead, non-existent, and/or inanimate person or object, we call this an apostrophe. (Nope, not the handy dandy punctuation mark). An apostrophe is a form of address (or type of speech) in a poem.
- Our speaker's apostrophe is sounding a bit desperate. The repeated phrase "call to me" makes it sound like he's pleading with the dead woman—like he wants her to be calling him.
- That second "call to me" even sounds like a command, like he's issuing an imperative: Call to me, dead lady!
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.
- In the next three lines we get a little back story on our desperate speaker friend. And it's a little muddled, so we'll take this slowly, too.
- In line 2, the speaker is still asking the woman to call to him, and specifically, he wants her to say that now (in death) she is not as she used to be.
- But then in line 3, he gets even more specific, and says that the way she used to be was changed from how she really used to be in the distant past.
- So, we've got a bunch of timeframes at play here, and the woman meant different things to the speaker at different times. Here's a little chart:
- Distant Past = the woman was "all" to the speaker.
- Recent Past = the woman is "changed" from how she was "at first," which means that she is presumably no longer "all" to the speaker. ("At first," the couple's "day was fair," which is really a metaphor. The speaker's not talking about the weather here; he means that their relationship was going strong.)
- Present = the woman is missed.
- So, the speaker in these lines is lamenting for the distant, not the recent past.
- Now that we've got the basics down, here are some more things to think about:
- The poem is rhymed! It's got a pretty traditional ABAB rhyme scheme going on. By that, we mean that lines 1 and 3 rhyme (A), and lines 2 and 4 rhyme (B).
- But one cool thing to note about the rhymes is their extent: there are three syllables at the end of all the odd-numbered lines that rhyme. (And that's a lot; usually only one or two of the syllables will rhyme). This is called a triple rhyme.
- Check it out: "call to me" (1) and "all to me" (3). That's some commitment to rhyme, Hardy. For more on this technique, check out "Form and Meter."
- You may have a different opinion, but these rhymes seem a bit overboard to us. We'd even go as far as calling them contrived. There's something unnatural about them. But hey: what counts as "natural" in a poem about ghosts?
- But what's even more interesting about the poem's form is that it's got a crazy meter (also known as rhythm) going on. It's written in something called dactylic tetrameter. (We know: oy vey! But don't fear. Instead, swing by the "Form and Meter" section for more details).
- For now, just know that this crazy dactylic tetrameter feels like a waltz that's more than a little dizzying. What makes it especially dizzying is the fact that all of the even-numbered lines are two syllables shorter than the odd-numbered lines. This has the effect of making us feel like we're teetering on a ledge, about to fall over it, at all times.
- In fact, the way we feel when reading the poem (confused, dizzy) is pretty much how the speaker is feeling throughout the poem. Good work, Mr. Hardy!
- You have succeeded in making us all just a little weirder than we were yesterday.
Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!
- In the last stanza, the speaker seemed pretty darn sure that the dead women was calling to him. But here, he's not so sure. He asks her: is that you? Am I really hearing your voice, dead lady? This line is filled with doubt.
- He doubts himself so much that he asks her to appear, so that he can "view" her.
- Then, he gets really specific. He wants her to stand where she used to stand and wait for him. He wants her to wear her old blue dress.
- Now things are getting creepier. When before, we just had a slightly dizzying dude hearing voices, now we've got a demanding dizzying dude conjuring ghosts in blue dresses.
- We can be pretty sure that the speaker here wants to see the woman of the distant past whom he loved, who was "all to [him]." He wants to see her as he "knew [her] then." He's not just longing for the past, but the very faraway past.
- And there's something very telling about the words he uses to describe the woman's dress. He calls it an "air-blue gown." What exactly does he mean by "air-blue"? Does he mean "sky blue"? Or, does he acknowledge the ghostliness of this desired dress by calling it "air-blue"?
- If we take a step back, we see that our speaker takes one more step over the edge here. Is there a real ghost in the poem? Do ghosts exist in this world? Or, is everything in the speaker's head? Is he able to create in language a voice that doesn't exist in real life? So many questions, so few answers. Let's read on..
Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?
- Now even more doubt creeps in. The speaker asks if it's possible that he's not hearing the voice of the woman. He thinks that maybe he's only hearing the voice of the wind.
- But interestingly, he's still addressing her (check out that "you" at the beginning of line 11). He's gonna talk to the dead woman whether she's real or imaginary.
- And the fact of her imaginariness echoes one of the most startling things about this stanza: the extensive triple rhymes of the words "listlessness" and "wistlessness." (We're pretty sure that Hardy made up this second word).
- Let's face it: these lines, like the fact that the speaker is talking to a dead woman, are ridiculous. And that's the point.
- So, we've got a "listless" (or lethargic) wind, traveling across a sad British landscape (for "mead," think meadow), and a dead woman who has "dissolved" to "wan wistlessness" (or something like pale melancholy), who will never be heard from again. Even the alliteration in this line is sad—those repeated W sounds just break our Shmoopy hearts just a little bit.
- It seems that the ghost has been replaced by the most pathetic breeze imaginable. There is no woman calling, just the lame wind. Thanks for the good cheer there, Hardy.
- And to top it all off: the meter starts to break down in line 12. While most even-numbered lines have 10 syllables, line 12 has just 8 syllables. It's as if the speaker stops short, and can't be bothered to keep to the meter anymore. (Check out "Form and Meter" for more deets on this.) He's just so sad.
Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.
- The breakdown of meter continues in the last stanza of the poem, which goes a little haywire. All patterns are abandoned. It even looks different on the page.
- We imagine that the speaker is doing an intake of breath here—like he's about to sob about his lost loved one. This is how it feels to us: lines 13 and 14 are condensed (this is the intake), line 15 is like one big fast-paced sob, and then line 16 is quiet resignation. (Feel free to disagree with us on this one—you don't have to read these lines as a big weepy sob as we do.)
- Now that we've discussed form, let's dig a littler deeper. The speaker begins the stanza with the phrase "Thus I": it sounds like he's making an argument. It's very lawyer-ish.
- But instead of making an argument, the speaker starts to fall apart. He's "faltering forward;" the leave around him are "falling." Hear all those alliterative F sounds"? The speaker is starting to sound like he's losing steam.
- Then in line 15 the speaker acknowledges the "thin" sound of the wind—again, with a lot of alliteration ("thin," "through," "thorn") and now also some assonance, or repeated vowel sounds ("thorn," "norward").
- These short lines are compact and sonically-dense—so many repeated sounds. And these shouldn't surprise you. "The Voice" after all, is a poem all about sounds. How can we distinguish voices from the wind? The sounds of nature and (wo)men? Where do our senses begin and end?
- Then, in the final line of the poem ("And the woman calling") we return to the beginning of the poem, in a way. The speaker has been asking whether the woman is real—whether he hears her voice, or just the wind's—but in this final line, he seems to forget all of his doubt. He hears the wind in line 15, and in line 16, he hears the "woman calling"—making an ongoing demand that stretches into eternity.
- Then there's this "thorn from norward"—or, a thorn from the north. This seems to be a metaphorical thorn, not a literal thorn on a rosebush. In this line, the speaker equates the wind as a kind of thorn in his side—a pain or disturbance that he just can't shake off.
- Something else to ponder: the voice almost becomes part of the landscape in the final lines, as we suddenly get an idea of the speaker's body in space. He's faltering, surrounded by falling leaves, being blown over by the wind. In this last stanza, the landscape reflects the inner feelings of the speaker.
- T.S. Eliot (author of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and modernist poet extraordinaire) called this kind of symbolism the "objective correlative," in which something outside a person (here, the landscape) reflects the person's inside emotions (grief, faltering).
- Has the speaker gone nuts? Has his grief overwhelmed him so much so that he hears ghosts? Has he lost his ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality
- Or, is this a poem that really and truly believes in ghosts?
- The poem doesn't answer these questions for us, which is one reason why we love it so much. At the end of the poem, we're left with more questions than answers—and that's okay with us.