The Featured Poem selection comes this week from Wirral Project Worker Helen Wilson, who has been pondering this poignant Thomas Hardy poem with one of her Get Into Reading groups.
Last week I read Thomas Hardy’s Her Dilemma with one of my community groups in Birkenhead. The poem had been picked by one of our newly trained reading assistants, who explained her choice by saying, ‘It’s funny, just when I was scanning this, before I even read it properly, something just grabbed me’.
The rest of the group clearly shared her initial arrest, as we all sat in stunned silence after reading it for the first time. When we began to pick it apart, the poem typically threw up more questions than answers. We were unable to work out exactly what the lie was, with everyone keen for a definite answer to the question, ‘did she say yes or not?!’
There was a general consensus that the poem is desperately sad, with each new reading bringing forth different ideas of what might be going on. Someone wryly observed, ‘it’s a bit more than a white lie really, isn’t it?’ another interjecting with, ‘yeah, it’s not like ‘d’you like my new coat, it’s ‘do you love me?’ One member was quite struck by the idea that this man may have returned from war, weakened by his experiences and nearing death. The women, he said, may be unable to turn down someone who has already suffered so much: ‘I mean, he’s ‘holding hard her hand’ – he’s really gripping it’. Another theory was that she doesn’t say yes, though she does love him, there being something – a partner perhaps – rendering it impossible for her to say how she really feels. Several group members were sure she said yes ‘to be a moment kind’ but didn’t mean it, which led to why this ‘mocked humanity’. One man quickly said, ‘Because life sets up these conundrums – that’s what life is, a series of dilemmas.’
The descriptions caused a lot of mulling over, with the group curious as to why so much space was taken up with allusions to age and waste: ‘is it like a wasted life – him being so young?’ Another member immediately came back with ‘oh, I thought he was old!’ at which point both laughed, saying, ‘isn’t that funny – we’ve both seen it so different!’ We talked about the possible significance of certain details, including the ‘wormy poppy-head’. One usually quiet man asserted, ‘they’re the first thing to grow after something’s been destroyed – like Flanders after the war; it was awash with them.’ Another member then mused ‘like a symbol of strength, maybe?’ Our youngest member was quite taken with the fact the two are in a church and kept coming back to it: ‘it’s a mess – it sounds purely manky… is it worse for her because she’s stood in church, like it’s a sin or something?’
Right at the end, one woman bent over the poem very closely and said, ‘It’s easy to think it’s a couple, but it could be a father and daughter, couldn’t it?’
The two were silent in a sunless church,
Whose mildewed walls, uneven paving-stones,
And wasted carvings passed antique research;
And nothing broke the clock’s dull monotones.
Leaning against a wormy poppy-head,
So wan and worn that he could scarcely stand,
–For he was soon to die,– he softly said,
“Tell me you love me!”–holding hard her hand.
She would have given a world to breathe “yes” truly,
So much his life seemed hanging on her mind,
And hence she lied, her heart persuaded throughly,
‘Twas worth her soul to be a moment kind.
But the sad need thereof, his nearing death,
So mocked humanity that she shamed to prize
A world conditioned thus, or care for breath
Where Nature such dilemmas could devise.