The Dead Man Walking
By Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Publication
Tone
Summary
Text of the Poem
Theme
End Rhyme
Meter
Figures of Speech
Study Questions
Writing Topics
Author's Biography

Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2012

Type of Work

.......
"The Dead Man Walking" is a lyric poem centering despair and pessimism. A lyric poem presents the author's imaginative or emotional response to a person, a place, a thing, an event, or an idea. Unlike a narrative poem, a lyric poem does not tell a story.

 
 
Publication

.......
"The Dead Man Walking," completed in 1890, was first published in London in 1909 by Macmillan and Company in a collection of Hardy's poems entitled Time's Laughinstocks and Other Verses.

Tone

.......The tone of the poem is gloomy. The speaker is in such deep despair that he compares himself to a dead man.

Summary

.......The speaker tells the reader the following:
.......I am a walking dead man, although people take me for a living being when they say hello to me. I am just a shape without a heartbeat. My death did not happen all at once, but gradually.
.......When I was young, I roved about like a troubadour. Life was my musical instrument, my lyre, and I had fire in me. But when I noticed the goals that others pursued, I grew a little cold and I died a little. When the people around me went to the grave and left me behind, I died a little more. When my beloved started hating me—for what reason, I don't know—I moved still closer to death.
.......I still am not sure exactly when I became a dead man. But I do know that now—when I walk or talk or smile—I am not alive.
.

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The Dead Man Walking
By 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 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. 


Notes

1.
. bower: Boudoir; bedroom.
2
..Troubadour: Wandering minstrel. A troubadour composed lyric poems that he sang.
3
..lyre: Stringed instrument.
4
..Last Door: Death.
5
..Wherefore: Why.

Theme: Despair

.......The speaker suffers from deep despair, dwelling only on the negative and seeing nothing at all in life to cheer him. Observing the questionable practices of others in the pursuit of their goals precipitates his gloominess. The loss of friends and loved ones, followed by his beloved's rejection of him, deepens his gloom. Unlike others who mourn losses and experience disappointment, the speaker seems unable to rebound.
.......The poem appears to reflect the author's own tribulations. He endured criticism of his novels (most of which today enjoy the favor of critics), struggled with crises of faith, and had a troubled marriage. His marriage problems were partly due to his wife's negative reaction to his controversial novels—such as Jude the Obscure, which attacks  the institution of marriage. He and his wife became estranged, although he grieved profoundly for her after she died in 1912.

End Rhyme

.......The second and fourth lines of each stanza contain end rhyme. All of the end rhymes are masculine except the end rhyme in lines 10 and 12, which is feminine. In masculine rhyme, only the final syllable of one line rhymes with the final syllable of another line. In feminine rhyme, the last two syllables of one line rhyme with the last two syllables of another line. In the feminine rhyme in lines 10 and 12, hour technically has only one syllable. However, it is pronounced as if it has two. It rhymes with a two-syllable word, bower.

Meter

.......The meter generally alternates between iambic tetrameter and iambic dimeter. The lines in iambic tetrameter end with a catalectic (incomplete) foot, giving them seven syllables instead of the usual eight.
.......The first stanza demonstrates this pattern.

......1.................2..............3..........4
They HAIL..|
..me AS..|..one LIV..|..ing,......................(iambic tetrameter with an incomplete foot at the end)

.......1...................2
But DON'T..|..they KNOW.........................................(iambic dimeter)

....1..............2...............3..............4
That I..|..have DIED..|..of LATE..|..years,....................(iambic tetrameter with an incomplete foot at the end)

..........1....................2
Un TOMBED..|..al THOUGH?....................................(iambic dimeter)

.......Line 17 departs from the pattern. It has eight syllables, consisting of an iamb, an anapest, an iamb, and a catalectic foot.

Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. For definitions of figures of speech, click here.

Alliteration
A pulseless mould,
A pale past picture, screening (lines 6-7)
When silent seasons inched me (line 15)
Wherefore I knew not, died I (line 29)
Anaphora
Not at a minute's warning,
Not
in a loud hour (lines 9-10)
Metaphor
Throughout the poem, the speaker compares himself to a corpse. Here are other metaphors:
With Life for lyre (line 18)

Comparison of life to a lyre


When passed my friend, my kinsfolk,
Through the Last Door (lines 25-26)
Comparison of death to "the Last Door"

Paradox
The poem is about a living dead man.
Simile
The beats of being raging
In me like fire. (lines 19-20)

Comparison of heartbeats or the rhythms of existence to raging fire

Study Questions and Essay Topics
  • Write a short poem centering on a gloomy or pessimistic theme.
  • Identify examples of alliteration other than those listed under Figures of Speech.
  • Do you think the use of the word bower in the third stanza alludes to the author's problems with his wife, Emma? Explain your answer
  • Do you know any "dead persons walking"? If you do, tell your class about them. There is no need to mention names.
  • What would you advise the speaker to do to revitalize his life?