Let's Read a Poem - Thomas Hardy's "The Convergence of the Twain"
I quite liked this exploration of a W.H. Auden poem and the painting it’s based on. It’s been a long time since I’ve written down a close reading, so let’s do one. I’m picking “The Convergence of the Twain” by Thomas Hardy, as it’s perhaps the single poem best known to me; I memorized it in college, during class time, when I was meant to be doing something else. I loved it that much. Still do.
In a solitude of the sea
Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.
We are not in the solitude of the sea; we are in a solitude of the sea. Why? Because a solitude is one of many, where the solitude is one of one, and this increases the sense of vastness that is essential to Hardy’s project here. And because it deepens the sense of alienation and strangeness that permeate the poem, which works again and again to establish how bizarre it is for us to be here, at the bottom of the ocean, by and in the wreck of human folly. Likewise, we are not far from human vanity but deep from human vanity. This has the same basic advantages as the preceding lines - it emphasizes physical depth, obviously, but also again sounds strange, as we are very accustomed to saying that something is “far from X” but not at all accustomed to saying that something is “deep from X.” And what are we deep from? Human vanity and “the Pride of Life,” in capital letters. Hardy was religiously disquieted his entire life, trying on various forms of Christianity and settling into a strange sort of self-made folk religion late in life. There’s atheism in a poem like “Your Last Drive,” but you also see constructions like this in Hardy’s poetry - not God, or even a god, but some sort of mysterious but nameable force that shapes the world and our destiny within it. Again, we are far from home.
“Couches” here is an archaism, and from my research it would have been in Hardy’s time as well. I would translate it in this context as “to lie in wait.” In college I misread it consistently as “crouches” and that works OK too.
Steel chambers, late the pyres
Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.
The steel chambers here are, I take it, the engines of the ship - they were “late the pyres,” that is, once sites of burning, the burning of the fuel to generate propulsion, the sooty furnace of a seagoing vessel.
“Salamandrine” here is indeed a reference to salamanders, but not the humble amphibian of our corporeal world. Instead it’s a reference to a mythic beast from medieval times, here depicted in a common form in a bestiary of that era. The salamander was a fire monster, and thus a good candidate for driving an internal combustion engine - and once again, we are in the realm of the fantastical, the inhuman, even as we observe human machinery. “Thrid” is another archaism, but you can just substitute “thread” there; cold currents are threading their way through the engines and in so doing turning them into “rhythmic tidal lyres.” A lyre is the classic u-shaped harp that you may have seen on ancient Greek pottery. “Rhythmic tidal” is a gorgeous little bit of redundancy, in my opinion. All tides are rhythmic, after all. But we are invited to think of water flowing forever more through apparatus that was designed for fire, and perhaps making a little celestial music in doing so.
Over the mirrors meant
To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls — grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.
The first two lines are as straightforward as they come, really, once you recognize that “to glass” means literally “to mirror, to reflect.” The Titanic was a luxury ship, and thus its mirrors were designed to reflect opulence. But now that purpose stands in deep ironic relief with this gross sea worm crawling over them. The run of adjectives at the end is precisely the sort of thing a creative writing teacher might tell you to strike, but here it works perfectly - one thing after another emphasizing the worm’s superior ability to define the current reality, in contrast with the gaudy but impotent mirrors. And we might suppose that the adjective that disturbs Hardy the most is “indifferent,” as this lowly lifeform putters about totally unimpressed with the vastly expensive human creation around it.
Jewels in joy designed
To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.
Again, the repetition of the theme of the human intent undone by an indifferent nature (or better, Indifferent Nature). The jewels “ravish the sensuous mind,” with the old-fashioned meaning of ravish (literally, to rape) lending a sinister air, especially since the sensuous mind seems like a vulnerable thing. This stanza has perhaps the poem’s most effective aesthetics, as you have alliteration - not just in terms of having the same initial sound but in terms of a flowing and pleasing line - that’s stopped in its tracks by those repeating Bs, bleared and black and blind. Say those first fourteen words out loud, feel the pleasant ease of how they roll along on your tongue, and then feel it come to a sudden and repeated halt - pop! pop! pop! Just as the meaning is undone (the beauty of the jewels in joy designed undone by the cold darkness of the ocean floor), so too is the sound undone (the flowing music of most of the stanza suddenly stopped in its tracks by those staccato bs). They’re called voiced bilabial stops, after all. That’s a master, kiddos, that’s how you do it, that’s how poetry works.