Sound Patterns in Thomas Hardy’s ‘His Immortality’

Today is a day of firsts for me. It is the first hour of the day that I have not used my phone once (whoop!). But it’s also a day of firsts because of something more, well, noteworthy- this will be the first article we have here on BreaktheEnigma about Phonetics! 🙂

Phonetics (the study of speech and language sounds) is very interesting, and definitely something I love. On the other hand, I also love Thomas Hardy‘s beautiful poem His Immortality. Sometimes when you can’t choose between two things though, the solution is to choose both 😉 So today I thought I’d centre this article on the combination of the two, by writing about Sound Patterns in His Immortality. I hope you’ll enjoy reading it 🙂

The significance of sound patterns in poetry can be seen in that the particular type, structure and placing of certain words is sometimes interconnected with the meanings the poet wishes to convey to their reader. The choice of one word, for example, out of a verray of synonyms may well have been done for a reason. So too is rhyming one word with another, because the similarities in the sounds of some such words occasionally is linked with a shared meaning between those words, which may be used to reinforce a certain emotion or theme in the poem. This is something I’ll be discussing here in this article about Hardy’s His Immortality.

As you can see below, the first two lines of Hardy’s poem each contain eight syllables, but Hardy’s made the rest of the stanza more unpredictable:

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Upon reading the first two lines, we might have expected to hear eight syllables in the third line, but unexpectedly we don’t. In the second stanza, whilst the first line is parallel to the first line of the first stanza in terms of a pattern in the number of syllables- they both contain eight- the second line of the second stanza contains ten syllables, whereas the second line of the first stanza contains eight.

The significance of a variation in the number of syllables in different lines is that the poem is complexified- the reader does not know what to expect in the following line. It also makes the patterns in the sounds of certain words more obvious: because we are expecting a divergence, when we hear two or more words that sound similar, or a line that in terms of its syllables mirror another, it is more noticeable. Indeed, you might notice that all of the first lines of every stanza in the poem each contain eight syllables, (as demonstrated below). This similarity in the sequence of speech sounds in these lines connects the lines together, the existence of four lines in each of the stanzas emphasising this pattern of continuity.

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Collins and Mees (2013) write about how “Certain function words are pronounced differently according to whether they are stressed or unstressed”, and, certainly, weak and strong forms of words are another technique used by Hardy for the uses of rhythm, and also, perhaps, to emphasise certain words which hold some significance to the poem’s subject and theme.

Skandera and Burleigh (2011) define the strong form as “that pronounciation variant of a given word which contains a strong vowel, and from which no sounds have been omitted (or elided)”, whilst a weak form is one that “contains a weak vowel, or from which one or more sounds have been omitted, or both”. As the (annotated) first stanza below shows, the most predominant form evident in Hardy’s poem is arguably the ‘weak-strong’ form. Note: ‘w’ represents weak forms, whilst ‘S’ is used to represent those strong forms of words.

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As you scan the full poem, you might wonder why some words are more stressed than others, and are they normally stressed? For example, in the second line of the third stanza (shown below), the form of the word <him> is arguably strong (this means stressed). Thus, according to Greven (1972), it would be pronounced “[him]” rather than “[im]”.

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Considering the prominence that might be given to certain words for the use of emphasising certain themes, subjects or issues, it is arguably suitable that <him> should be seen as a stressed syllable due to the importance of the subject to the poem as a whole.

Indeed, <him> is repeated again the next line, giving further emphasis to the word. In this way, the emphasis or repetition of certain sounds could be seen as emphasising certain words which are vital to the poem’s subject. However, perhaps it is also important to note how the weak/strong forms contribute to the rhythm of the poem. In the case of the second line of the third stanza (shown above) we can see that there is a consistent iambic structure in the line.

Rhyme is also a significant technique at using sound to emphasise certain themes and subjects in the poem.

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In the first stanza, as you can see above, the words <part> and <heart> rhyme because of the recurring arrangement of certain phonemes, in this case, with the repetition of the phoneme [ɑːt], which occurs at the end of both words.

Perhaps it is also significant that the words preceding both <heart> and <art> respectively both begin with the labio-dental fricative [f] and both are  two-syllable words. When looking at the meanings of <heart> and <part>, one sees that they are also connected- the heart is a part of the body. Thus, Hardy could be seen as illustrating the bond that keeps the dead man and those grieving him together- he remains with them in memory.

In the second stanza, although the first and second lines (shown below) have an unequal number of syllables, the first line containing eight syllables whilst the second line containing ten, they both nevertheless have similarities in their sound patterns.

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[As shown above], Hardy is able to rhyme the words <wore> and <upbore> because of a similarity in the endings they both share: the phoneme [ɔː]. You can see this in the second and third lines of the second stanza (shown above). Both <beheld> and <excelled> end in [eld].

It’s interesting that out of the many other synonyms for <see>, Hardy should use the past tense of the word <behold>. It could be that his motives in doing so were for the objective of maintaining rhyme throughout his poetry, although it is also interesting to notice how there is a repetition of the bi-labial plosive [b] in the stanza, which occurs at the end of line two in <upbore> and at the end of line four in <beheld>.

Although Hardy continues his rhyme sequence in the third stanza, until the end of the poem, there is also a repetition of other recurring sounds.

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The alveolar nasal [n] (shown above) is repeated at the end of every last word of every line, yet another effective means by which Hardy connects each line to the other in his poem.

Whilst this is true, rhyme does remain a significant method not only of maintaining the structure, rhythm and theme of His Immortality, but also conveying and reinforcing certain themes and ideas in the poem.

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The words <chill> and <still> and <spark> and <dark> rhyme together, as we’ve seen on previous occasions, because of a recurring pattern in the plosives they contain. However, there is more to Hardy’s rhyme than first seems.

There is a significance in that the first two words Hardy rhymed in his poem- the words <heart> and <part> are similar to the last two words of his poem, <spark> and <dark> in terms of one of the vowels which is prevalent in all these four words.

 

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The importance of this connection is that it could be seen to symbolise the end of a journey. By connecting the death of the man as described at the beginning of the poem to the death of the persona himself at the end of the poem, it might be argued that the sense of finale is emphasised, conveying a powerful message to the reader.

However, there are other patterns in sounds in the final stanza. In particular, you might notice the repetition of the alveolar fricative [s] in the words <still> and <spark>, a repetition of the labiodental fricative [f] in the words <find> and <feeble>, but also, of more importance, arguably a connection between the words <chill> and <still> that rhyme together, because the words, when put together, reinforce the theme of death that recurs in the poem- of bodies dead and cold.

Indeed, in the second stanza, there is alliteration in the second line, in the words <still> and <soul> with the recurrence of the alveolar fricative [s]. In light of the theme of death that exists in the poem, the significance of Hardy’s use and repetition of the word <still> could be that it is used to represent the human body in its deceased form.

It could be argued that Hardy uses alliteration for the words <still> and <soul> to emphasise the contrast between the body, which is temporal, and the soul, which is immortal. Alliteration is also used in the third line of the second stanza. The words <life> and <less> both share the alveolar lateral approximant [l]. Hardy’s motive for including this sound pattern in his poem could be to encourage the reader to connect the words together- literally, thus, putting <life> and <less> to give the word <lifeless>.

Considering the theme of death in the poem, it could be argued that Hardy is thus shown to use sound patterns to reinforce the overall subject of his poem, thus pointing to a connection between sound patterns and meaning in this work of poetry, a significant interrelatedness.

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