Hardy considers the probable fate of a child soon to be born into poverty. This is a poem which grew from an incident that he probably witnessed in the Dorchester Magistrate’s Court but Hardy’s sincerity and compassion for the plight of human beings makes the incident of concern to us all. The poem begins startlingly with an opening line in which Hardy addresses the child as “hid heart” because it is as yet unborn in its mother’s womb, and advises it not to be born – to “Breathe not” and to “cease silently”.
The rest of the verse gives Hardy’s reason for this advice. It is better to “Sleep the long sleep” because fate (“The Doomsters”) will bring the child troubles and difficulties (“Travails and teens”) in its life, and “Time – wraiths turn our songsingings to fear”, that is our spontaneous feelings of joy and happiness in life are turned to fear by time. Time as usual in Hardy’s writings is seen as the enemy of man and the unusual conceptions of Fate as “Doomsters” and Time as “Time-Wraiths” (Spirits) suggests a conscious and deliberate process at work.
STANZA 2 In the second stanza, Hardy develops the idea of the destructiveness of time urging the child to listen to how people sigh, and to note how all such natural positive values as laughter, hopes, faiths, affections and enthusiasms are destroyed by time. Set against these positive nouns are negative verbs suggesting this withering process: “sigh”, “fail”, “die”, “dwindle”, “waste”, “numb”. The verse concludes by stressing that the child cannot alter this process if it is born.
In the third stanza, Hardy vows that if he were able to communicate with the unborn before their life on earth began, and if the child were able to choose whether to live or die, he would impart all his knowledge to the child and ask it if it would take life as it is. STANZA 4 Hardy immediately, and forcefully, rejects this as a futile vow, for he nor anyone can explain to the child what will happen to it when it is born (“Life’s pending plan”). The stanza contains weaknesses of style: the oddity of “theeward” and the awkward inversion “Explain none can”.
But the last two lines present starkly the inevitability of birth in spite of the most dreadful events Life can bring. This ability to look unflinchingly at unpalatable reality is one of Hardy’s major strengths as a poet. In contrast to the ending of the fourth stanza, the fifth one opens very gently. Hardy speaks directly and tenderly to the child, in simple monosyllables, wishing that he could find some secluded place (“shut plot”) in the world for it, where its life would be calm, unbroken by tear or qualm.
But with tender simplicity, and the absence of any bitterness, Hardy recognises that “I am weak as thou and bare” – he is unable to influence fate as the child. STANZA 6 The poem ends with the recognition that the child must come and live (“bide”) on earth, and the hope that – in spite of the evidence – it will find health, love and friends and “joys seldom yet attained” by people.