Comment closely on the following poem (The Self-Unseeing by Thomas Hardy), paying particular attention to its presentation of memories.
The Self-Unseeing portrays Hardy reminiscing over his childhood life with his parents. In the first stanza, the setting - their old house - is described in a way that conveys a sense of age and weariness, through such words and phrases as ‘ancient’ (emphasizing the age), ‘footworn and hollowed and thin’ (alluding to the emptiness which has overtaken it through the passage of time after it has been abandoned), ‘former’ (revealing the extent of change in the house, eg. by the door no longer being there), and ‘dead feet’ (those of his parents). At this point in the poem Hardy speaks in the present tense from the outside of the house, in order to convey its emptiness to the reader.
The second stanza ignores these aspects of the house, instead focusing on his memories of his parents, which contrast with the first stanza by filling the house with life and action. A happier mood is created here, through a sense of warmth created by the fire, and his mother’s smile, which, along with his father’s playing the violin (‘bowing it higher and higher’), shows the happiness he felt while living with his parents. The musical effect of the violin is also complemented by that of the smooth-flowing ‘abab‘ rhyme scheme. The present tense verbs ‘smiling’ and ‘bowing’ imply that these memories were vivid, as if by introducing the setting to the reader he is reliving them. Hardy’s reference to his parents using the pronouns ‘she’ and ‘he’ rather than their actual names transforms the personal tragedy of the death of his parents to a universal one to which the reader can more easily relate. However, this tragedy is buried beneath the warm, welcoming mood established by the aforementioned use of language in this stanza. Hardy illuminates these memories in the final stanza with light imagery - ‘blessings’ (which tend to be associated with heaven and therefore light), ‘day’, ‘glowed’, ‘gleam’, which underscore the joyful feelings previously evoked. This use of light imagery serves as a metaphor to reveal how Hardy, ‘childlike’, ‘danced in a dream’, and overall, the diction shows that his memories had a dazzling and pensive quality.
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However, it can be seen from the concluding line, ‘Yet we were looking away!’, that he feels remorseful for not fully appreciating what he had at the time. It is this line which gives meaning to the poem’s title - he (the ‘self’) was ‘unseeing’ and could not see the true value of his life with his parents. This makes the light imagery all the more powerful, as Hardy uses it to show that he is now able to see what he was unable to in his childhood. His newfound appreciation for his memories is also evident in the first stanza, where ‘here is’ and ‘here was’ sorrowfully reveal the setting of which he is about to reminisce.
Overall, Hardy’s memories are presented in this poem with both regret and happiness. The phrase ‘hollowed and thin’ in the first stanza, in light of this regret, describes the likely state of his soul following the loss of his parents. The regret is subtle at first, but becomes much more apparent after reading the last line; it is as if Hardy uses this line to allow the reader to look back (as he had looked back on his past) and be filled with regret through this reflection. The past-tense verbs ‘walked’, ‘sat’, and ‘stood’, which are simply describing what once was, become tinged with regret (as if mourning) upon a second glance. In contrast, the passive verbs ‘danced’, ‘emblazoned’, and ‘glowed’ preserve their cheerful connotations, which suggest that to Hardy, reminiscence is a bittersweet experience. This idea is supported by the structure of the poem: three quatrains with ‘abab’ rhyme schemes; although the rhyme scheme establishes a sense of reminiscence, there are emotions both positive and negative associated with it. The simple pattern of it also mirrors the simplicity and naivety of childhood. The structure, rhythm, and diction of the poem thus convey a powerful message - that pleasant experiences will eventually become memories, carrying both the happiness of their past occurrence and the regret and sadness of knowing that their time is past.