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To An Unborn Pauper Child by Thomas Hardy
About The Poet Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)
Thomas Hardy born on 2 June 1840 in the village of Higher Bockhampton in the county of Dorset was a prolific writer of poetry just as he was a prolific writer of novels. He was a first-rate novelist. He can not be ranked so high in poetry. A great poet he certainly is; but he does not rank with such greats as Pope, Wordsworth, Shelly, Keats, Byron, Tennyson, Browning and T.S.Eliot. His father, also named Thomas, was a stonemason, builder and a fiddler who used to play in the local parish choir. His
mother Jemima was the true guiding star of his life, who though, was a housemaid and a cook before her marriage was an avid reader of literary books.
Hardy inherited his musicality from his father and his love for books from his mother. He died on 11 January 1928.
The Background of The Poem
The poem ‘To an Unborn Pauper Child’ is taken from the collection, Poems of the Past and the Present: Poems of Pilgrimage, published in 1901. In the preface to the collection, Hardy noted: “the road to a true philosophy of life seems to lie in humbly recording diverse readings of its phenomenon as they are forced upon us by chance and change.” It is believed that the poem is based upon an actual incident that occurred in the Dorchester Magistrate’s Court which he chanced upon. Hardy read of a pauper woman in the records of the court of petty sessions which said that “she must go to the Union-house to have her baby”. His sympathetic nature and society’s callousness made him occasion this poem.
Summary of To an Unborn Pauper Child
To an Unborn Pauper Child’ is a dark poem which is meant to be a warning to the yet-to-be-born child. It bids the child to stop breathing while still in its mother’s womb and bid goodbye to the world. The world is a dark, dreary one full of ‘travails and teens’ – difficulties and sorrows, with nothing alleviating about it. So it is better to sleep the eternal sleep.
In the poem, Hardy tells the unborn child what is its fate would be. Poet is not in a position to offer any help or protection. Death in the womb would be the best end as the child would have to endure hardships, misfortune, suffering. He wishes the child should be blessed with good health, with love and all kind of joy.
The child can not look forward to a happy life when it comes into this world. The poet urges it to die in the womb. The poet draws attention of the child to unpleasant aspects of life, and the child’s inability to face the world. People groan, sigh, laughter stops and greetings die. Religious belief of the people languish, affection and enthusiasm do not last long. The child would enter this world without any knowledge about it.
The poet would be glad if he can find someplace where the child can spend a peaceful happy life. But the poet is helpless. Human beings are irrational but they are also hopeful, and they see silver lining of every cloud. The poet hopes and imagines that the unborn child would lead a happy, healthy and fruitful life.
It is one of the most pessimistic poems of Hardy. His view of life is identified as his philosophy conveyed to us by his novels. Hardy was prompted by an actual incident by the fate of a destitute pregnant woman who was ordered by a magistrate to go to a charitable institution and wait for her time of delivery. Hardy felt deeply sympathetic. He had seen such cases in society, examples of extreme poverty. The poem combines the most depressing picture of life. With dwindling religious faith, misfortune and afflictions abound, all the laughter of human beings comes to an end. The poem ends on a note of hope and best wishes.
Images and style
Apart from depressing view of life, we note that the poet’s most appropriate use of words and phrases convey ideas and feelings effectively. “Doomster” is a significant word. “Travails and teens” is the most effective phrase to convey misfortune and sorrow. “Laughter fails’”, “greetings die”, “hopes dwindle”, Faiths waste away’, “affections and enthusiasm numb” – these are very also effective phrases.
Structurally the poem is perfect, as his other poems are. We observe a concentration of feelings and thoughts and no digression or deviation. The poem is in regular six-line stanzas each having rhyme-scheme.
Written in the traditional rhythmic mode, the poem consists of six stanzas of six lines each, rhyming aabbcc. The first, the second and the fifth lines in each stanza are cast in iambic tetrameter; the third and the fourth in iambic dimeter and the sixth, which is the last line is fashioned in iambic pentameter, which gives the effect of a grand statement. Iambic is a traditional meter in English language composed of two syllables of which the first syllable unstressed or unaccented and the second one stressed or accented. The last three lines of the first stanza have been scanned for
you, which would give you an idea about the three different feet or meter used here. Please note that the end of each foot or meter is indicated with a slash (/) mark. The stressed syllable is highlighted and underlined while the unstressed is indicated in an ordinary font.
The poem is addressed to the child. It is an ‘apostrophe’: a rhetorical device in the form of an address to someone, not present. Many of the stanzas begin with injunctions and interjections: “Breathe not, hid Heart: cease silently”, “Hark!” “Vain vow!” “Must come and bide”.
Written in traditional meter and stanzaic pattern, the poem effectively makes use of alliterations such as, “hid Heart”, “cease silently”, “birth-hour beckons”, “Travails and teens” “surge and sigh”, “pending plan”, “wide wold” etc.
The personification of Time as Time-wraiths conveys the vagaries of time as well as the tormenting and obsessive nature of the phenomena on human psyche.
Questions and Answers of To an Unborn Pauper Child
1. What is Hardy’s injunction to the unborn pauper child in the first stanza?
Answer: The poem ‘To an Unborn Pauper Child’ begins with a shocking injunction. The poet bids the pauper child in his mother’s womb not to breathe, but to cease or die silently. To sleep the eternal sleep through its hour of birth is approaching near. The poet warns the child that doomsters or deities of fate are heaping hard times of pain and woe on human life. The spectres of time are turning the spontaneously happy moments (song singings) to fearful ones. He asks the child to listen to the sighs of countless people.
Not to breathe, cease silently, sleep the long sleep, though the birth hour.
2. What condition of the world makes it an undesirable place to be born?
Answer: In this world, laughter fails, greetings die in the throat. Hope diminishes; faiths lose their impact and cease to be. Affections freeze and enthusiasms abate. This condition of the world makes it an undesirable place to be born.
The doomsters heap troubles and pains, time-wraiths turn pleasant moments to fearful ones. It is a world where laughter fails, greetings die, hope dwindles, faiths waste away, affections and enthusiasms.
3. What is the “vow” that Hardy is unable to fulfil?
Answer: The poet says that he would gladly find some enclosed plot in the wide expanse of the earth, where the child would remain without a tear or disquietude. But the poet admits his incapacity to do this, as he is as weak as the baby. He cannot change the common destiny to a rare one.
His warning would never reach the baby that is locked away in its mother’s womb. So, since he is unable to change the fate of the baby or to give warning of what is in store for it, he asks the child to come and dwell on the earth.
The vow is that if he had the capacity to reach out to souls still in their mothers’ wombs, that he would inform them of all the trouble that awaits them in this world, which is “Life’s pending plan”.
4. What are the tones conveyed in the poem?
Answer: Hardy’s fatalism and pessimism is indisputably evident in the poem. The poet begins in utmost despair and speaks in a doom-filled voice that nothing is pleasant or promising for the yet-to-be-born child. But in the last stanza, there is resignation in his tone and the poem ends by expressing a fervent prayer that things may be better for the child.
The poem wavers between sympathy, despair and hopelessness and ends on a note of resignation and hope.
5. What is the wish that the poet has for the about-to-be-born child?
Answer: The poet wishes that the baby, once it is born, will live in love, good health, friendship and possibilities galore. He dreams that the child will attain joys which are rarely attained by mankind.
Since the child will be born contrary to the poet’s wishes, he should come and live on this earth. And being happy and optimistic in disposition, he hopes that the child attains full health, love, friends and possibilities on earth and finds joys which are seldom attained by mankind.