“The Bride-Night Fire” has the distinction of being the first poem by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) to have been published. Hardy always thought of himself as a poet first and a novelist a distant second. However, he had no success when a young man in getting his poems into print, so he turned to novel-writing as a means of earning a living and only became a full-time poet later in life after his final novel, “Jude the Obscure”, was published in 1895. He therefore had a number of unpublished poems hidden away that had to wait several years for their opportunity to appear in print.
“The Bride-Night Fire” (which is subtitled “A Wessex Tradition”) was written in 1866 and first published in 1875. He had been asked by the editor of “The Gentleman’s Magazine” for a suitable “short sketch, brief story or article” to fill a space in a forthcoming issue, but Hardy dug out this poem instead. It was immediately accepted, and the reading public were thus made aware for the first time that this established novelist was also a poet. The poem was included in Hardy’s first poetry collection, “Wessex Poems and Other Verses” that was published in 1898.
The poem is not typical of the bulk of Thomas Hardy’s poetic output, but it was a good choice for him to submit for publication at that time. He was known as a teller of stories about the rural working class (such as his novel “Far From the Madding Crowd” that had appeared in 1874), so a poem about similar people, and which used their language, would not have come as a shock. However, his readers were not aware that Hardy had an acute and ready sense of humour, which tended to be suppressed in his novels, most of which concerned the visitations of fate on its unfortunate victims, and “The Bride-Night Fire” was regarded in this latter light by some early critics, much to Hardy’s annoyance.
They had long met o’ Zundays – her true love and she –
And at junketings, maypoles, and flings;
But she bode wi’ a thirtover uncle, and he
Swore by noon and by night that her goodman should be
Naibour Sweatley – a wight often weak at the knee
From taking o’ sommat more cheerful than tea –
Who tranted, and moved people’s things.
She cried, ‘O pray pity me!’ Nought would he hear;
Then with wild rainy eyes she obeyed.
She chid when her Love was for clinking off wi’ her:
The pa’son was told, as the season drew near,
To throw over pu’pit the names of the pair
As fitting one flesh to be made.
The wedding-day dawned and the morning drew on;
The couple stood bridegroom and bride;
The evening was passed, and when midnight had gone
The feasters horned, ‘God save the King,’ and anon
The pair took their home-along ride.
The lover Tim Tankens mourned heart-sick and leer
To be thus of his darling deprived:
He roamed in the dark ath’art field, mound, and mere,
And, a’most without knowing it, found himself near
The house of the tranter, and now of his Dear,
Where the lantern-light showed ’em arrived.
The bride sought her chamber so calm and so pale
That a Northern had thought her resigned;
But to eyes that had seen her in tidetimes of weal,
Like the white cloud o’ smoke, the red battlefield’s vail,
That look spak’ of havoc behind.
The bridegroom yet laitered a beaker to drain,
Then reeled to the linhay for more,
When the candle-snoff kindled some chaff from his grain –
Flames spread, and red vlankers, wi’ might and wi’ main
Around beams, thatch, and chimley-tun roar.
Young Tim away yond, rafted up by the light,
Through brimbles and underwood tears,
Till he comes to the orchet, when crooping from sight
In the lewth of a codlin-tree, bivering wi’ fright,
Wi’ on’y her night-rail to cover her plight,
His lonesome young Barbree appears.
Her cwold little figure half-naked he views
Played about by the frolicsome breeze,
Her light-tripping totties, her ten little tooes,
All bare and besprinkled wi’ Fall’s chilly dews,
While her great gallied eyes through her hair hanging loose
Shone as stars through a tardle o’ trees.
She eyed him; and, as when a weir-hatch is drawn,
Her tears, penned by terror afore,
With a rushing of sobs in a shower were strawn,
Till her power to pour ’em seemed wasted and gone
From the heft o’ misfortune she bore.
‘O Tim, my own Tim I must call ’ee – I will!
All the world has turned round on me so!
Can you help her who loved ’ee, though acting so ill?
Can you pity her misery – feel for her still?
When worse than her body so quivering and chill
Is her heart in its winter o’ woe!
‘I think I mid almost ha’ borne it,’ she said,
‘Had my griefs one by one come to hand;
But O, to be slave to thik husbird, for bread,
And then, upon top o’ that, driven to wed,
And then, upon top o’ that, burnt out o’ bed,
Is more than my nater can stand!’
Like a lion ’ithin en Tim’s spirit outsprung –
(Tim had a great soul when his feelings were wrung) –
‘Feel for ’ee, dear Barbree?’ he cried;
And his warm working-jacket then straightway he flung
Round about her, and horsed her by jerks, till she clung
Like a chiel on a gipsy, her figure uphung
By the sleeves that he tightly had tied.
Over piggeries, and mixens, and apples, and hay,
They lumpered straight into the night;
And finding ere long where a halter-path lay,
Sighted Tim’s house by dawn, on’y seen on their way
By a naibour or two who were up wi’ the day,
But who gathered no clue to the sight.
Then tender Tim Tankens he searched here and there
For some garment to clothe her fair skin;
But though he had breeches and waistcoats to spare,
He had nothing quite seemly for Barbree to wear,
Who, half shrammed to death, stood and cried on a chair
At the caddle she found herself in.
There was one thing to do, and that one thing he did,
He lent her some clothes of his own,
And she took ’em perforce; and while swiftly she slid
Them upon her Tim turned to the winder, as bid,
Thinking, ‘O that the picter my duty keeps hid
To the sight o’ my eyes mid be shown!’
In the tallet he stowed her; there huddied she lay,
Shortening sleeves, legs, and tails to her limbs;
But most o’ the time in a mortal bad way,
Well knowing that there’d be the divel to pay
If ’twere found that, instead o’ the elements’ prey,
She was living in lodgings at Tim’s.
‘Where’s the tranter?’ said men and boys; ‘where can he be?’
‘Where’s the tranter?’ said Barbree alone.
‘Where on e’th is the tranter?’ said everybod-y:
They sifted the dust of his perished roof-tree,
And all they could find was a bone.
Then the uncle cried, ‘Lord, pray have mercy on me!’
And in terror began to repent.
But before ’twas complete, and till sure she was free,
Barbree drew up her loft-ladder, tight turned her key –
Tim bringing up breakfast and dinner and tea –
Till the news of her hiding got vent.
Then followed the custom-kept rout, shout, and flare
Of a skimmity-ride through the naibourhood, ere
Folk had proof o’ wold Sweatley’s decay.
Whereupon decent people all stood in a stare,
Saying Tim and his lodger should risk it, and pair:
So he took her to church. An’ some laughing lads there
Cried to Tim, ‘After Sweatley!’ She said, ‘I declare
I stand as a maiden to-day!’
The poem comprises 19 stanzas, most of them being of either five or six lines. However, there are two stanzas that have seven lines and the final one has eight. The rhyme scheme of the five-line stanzas is ABAAB and of the six-line stanzas is either ABAABB, ABAAAB or ABAABA. This irregularity gives the ballad-like poem an unpolished, rustic feel, which is emphasised by the use of dialect words that would be understood by contemporary readers in Dorset but probably not anywhere else. In later editions of his “Wessex Poems” Hardy felt the need to provide “translations” of many of these words, which are found at the foot of each page of the poem.
Incidentally, one of the words that Hardy thought worthy of explanation was “Fall” for “Autumn”, thus indicating that this was one of many words that British emigrants to the American colonies took with them but which later died out at home. Likewise, it was the rural accents of southwest England that developed into the standard American accent.
The story that is told in the poem concerns Barbree, a young woman who lives with her uncle and is in love with Tim Tankens. However, her uncle is determined that she should marry Mr Sweatley, a “tranter” who carried goods around the neighbourhood with his horse and cart. The reader must assume that Sweatley is an older man who has made a good living for himself, although this is not actually stated. A tranter could certainly acquire wealth; one has only to remember the miserly Barkis in Charles Dickens’s “David Copperfield” who died a very wealthy man but who spent as little of it as possible.
In any event, we are told that Sweatley likes his drink. This is stated in the amusing lines: “a wight often weak at the knee / From taking o’ sommat more cheerful than tea”.
Barbree’s uncle has the banns of marriage read in church and so she is forced to marry Sweatley. The couple drive home to Sweatley’s house after the wedding, but Tim, in a distraught state, “roamed in the dark ath’art field, mound, and mere” until he finds himself within sight of the tranter’s house.
The tranter, before settling down for the night with his new bride, decides to have a drink in the lean-to next to his house, but manages to knock over his candle and sets fire to the house which, with its thatched roof, burns quickly and fiercely.
Barbree, who had been getting ready for bed and is thus in her skimpy night attire, is able to escape and run into the garden, where she is found by Tim. Hardy has fun with his description of Barbree as seen by Tim, such as: “Her light-tripping totties, her ten little tooes, / All bare and besprinkled wi’ Fall’s chilly dews”.
Two stanzas are devoted to Barbree’s emotional outpourings as she runs into Tim’s arms and expresses her horror at what has happened and her pleas to Tim to rescue her from her fate. There is another reference to “her body so quivering and chill”, but absolutely none to the fate that has befallen Sweatley, for whom she clearly has no feelings whatsoever.
Tim carries Barbree to his house and finds some clothes for her. However, he is also the perfect gentleman as he turns to the window while she changes into them. He then hides her away in the loft as he appreciates the scandal that would arise should it become known that a married woman was spending nights in the home of a lone bachelor. As he says: “ … there’d be the divel to pay / If twere found that, instead of the element’s prey, / She was living in lodgings at Tim’s”.
At the tranter’s house all that is found is a single bone, so it is assumed that both Barbree and Sweatley have died, which brings about a change in heart on the part of Barbree’s uncle, who repents his action in forcing her to marry the tranter and thus, he assumes, causing her death.
Meanwhile, Tim keeps Barbree in his loft and the couple, despite their mutual attraction, do nothing that might be deemed immoral. Despite their care, however, eventually “the news of her hiding got vent”.
The final stanza concerns the reactions of the populace when the truth is discovered. At first there is talk of a “skimmity-ride”, which was a means of exposing extramarital affairs by placing effigies of the offending couple on a donkey and parading them round the neighbourhood, with a view to humiliating them (Hardy later used a skimmity-ride to tragic effect in his 1884 novel “The Mayor of Casterbridge”).
However, once it is established that Sweatley is dead, and that Barbree and Tim would make the perfect couple, the locals reckon that they should “risk it, and pair”. Not only does common sense prevail, but Barbree is able to state in the final line: “I stand as a maiden today”.
As mentioned above, Hardy was amazed that some critics treated the poem as a tragedy about Tranter Sweatley rather than a comedy about Barbree and Tim. He was right to wonder at anyone who could not detect the light-heartedness running through it, in terms of the language, diction and exaggerated characterization of the individuals portrayed in the story. It is pure farce, with no deep message to tell, and thus falls into line with the long-established English tradition of such works, from Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale” onwards.
© John Welford