Monday, July 7, 2014

The Dead Man Walking - Thomas Hardy

They hail me as one living,
But don't they know
That I have died of late years,
Untombed although?

I am but a shape that stands here,
A pulseless mould,
A pale past picture, screening
Ashes gone cold.

Not at a minute's warning,
Not in a loud hour,
For me ceased Time's enchantments
In hall and bower.

There was no tragic transit,
No catch of breath,
When silent seasons inched me
On to this death ....

- A Troubadour-youth I rambled
With Life for lyre,
The beats of being raging
In me like fire.

But when I practised eyeing
The goal of men,
It iced me, and I perished
A little then.

When passed my friend, my kinsfolk,
Through the Last Door,
And left me standing bleakly,
I died yet more;

And when my Love's heart kindled
In hate of me,
Wherefore I knew not, died I
One more degree.

And if when I died fully
I cannot say,
And I changed into the corpse-thing
I am to-day,

Yet is it that, though whiling
The time somehow
In walking, talking, smiling,
I live not now.

Death in life is one of the most common themes in poetry, and it's easy to understand why.  Death is the contrast to life, the antithesis to any joy and pleasurable sensation we can possibly know.  To be dead inside is to take no sensation whatsoever from life, to have become numb to its joys and pains.  In Hardy's poem, it is the result of many tragedies, gradual, without any one sudden incident, until the narrator's once healthy zest for life is reduced to no internal sensation whatsoever.

The descriptors of Hardy's walking dead man are striking.  He is a dead man "untombed" and merely a "shape that stands here," a "pulseless mould."  It's beyond despondent, it's plain unfeeling.  I think Hardy recognizes that if he created someone who felt agony at the wrongs and tragedies they've experienced, he could not realistically claim them to be a dead man walking.  Dead men don't feel, and someone feeling pain is much more alive than someone who is nothing more than "a shape that stands here."

The narrator used to be quite a vibrant man, it seems.  He was a "Troubadour-youth" who "rambled with Life for lyre," a transient man, seeking the great thrills of Life, traveling with a song and a poem.  The "beats of life" raged inside him like fire.  It's a picture of brilliant youthful energy.  I confess, I feel much like that.  I want to continue to travel for a time after I leave Korea, because I'm eager to explore more of the world, and I know I'm certainly bringing some songs in my heart on the trip to share with others.

The habits of that transient troubadour were the first thing to slowly kill him, internally, though.  The more he knew of man, the icier his heart became.  It sounds like he witnessed the great depths of cruelty which can live in the human heart.  Seeing the "goal" of man chilled him.

Further killing him were the deaths of his friends and family.  He stood "bleakly," still able to feel, but gradually dying on the inside.  The next great blow to his life was the hate and scorn of his Love.  His "Love's heart kindled in hate" of him, he knows not why.  He died "one more degree" then, and presumably, stopped keeping track.  We're told that he cannot say exactly when it is that he became the "corpse-thing" that he is today.  Now, despite his walking, talking, and even smiling (a false mask) he is dead.

It's scary to think that people can be so totally dead inside as to no longer feel any sadness.  To be alive and unfeeling?  It's so against the natural condition that it's frightening.

1 comment:

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