Tuesday 8 August 2023

Thomas Hardy’s “How She Went to Ireland”: An Analysis

I’m being a poor Victorianist today and straying outside the nineteenth century to analyze one of Thomas Hardy’s lesser-known poems, “How She Went to Ireland,” which was written in response to the death of writer Dora Sigerson Shorter in 1918. 

While Hardy is now remembered best for his great nineteenth-century novels (think: Tess of the d’Urbevilles (1891) and Jude, the Obscure (1895)), he ended his career as a thoroughly modern poet. His verse often touches on the loss of religious faith as a harbinger to an emotionally challenging new century, while his language has a simplicity which can be hard to reconcile with the wordy descriptions we associate with Victorian prose.

Bringing you another poetry analysis!

“How She Went to Ireland” reads as follows:

Dora’s gone to Ireland

Through the sleet and snow;

Promptly she has gone there

In a ship, although

Why she’s gone to Ireland

Dora does not know.

That was where, yea, Ireland,

Dora wished to be:

When she felt, in lone times,

Shoots of misery,

Often there, in Ireland

Dora wished to be.

Hence she’s gone to Ireland,

Since she meant to go,

Through the drift and darkness

Onward laboring, though

That she’s gone to Ireland

Dora does not know.

One of the first things we notice about the poem is its fairy-tale or fabulistic quality, which is in keeping with Dora Sigerson Shorter’s own writing (she was also a poet and one fascinated by Gaelic myth and culture). Contributing to this are the poem’s frequent repetitions (“Ireland”—four times, “Dora”—five times, “gone”/”go”—six times) and the subtle variation in sentence structure that draws our attention and demands analysis. “Why she’s gone to Ireland/Dora does not know” in the first stanza is replaced by “That she’s gone to Ireland/Dora does not know,” confirming for the reader that Dora is dead, not just confused about the motive for her journey.

Similarly, the Ireland of the first stanza seems like a tangible place, reachable by ship and plagued by realistic weather conditions. But, from the second stanza, the Ireland written about here takes on a mythic quality. Dora, a proud Irish nationalist, “wished to be” in the Ireland that she’s now gone to, meaning the name of the country now seems to refer to an afterlife—albeit one that, in a post-faith world, the dead, like Dora, can have no consciousness of. 

A few other details are worth paying attention to. The phrase “shoots of misery” in the second stanza conjures up the violence of Ireland’s recent past (this poem was written only two years after the 1916 Easter Rising), as well as the imagery of budding plants (“shoots”) and physical sensation (the shooting pain we may feel in our nerves).

Hardy is also pointed in his use of line breaks. The words “though” and “although” are separated from the clauses they are grammatically part of, introducing a pervasive doubt reminiscent of Hardy’s better-known poems, like “The Darkling Thrush” (1900). The sing-song rhyme scheme (ABCBAB) and childlike language of “How She Went to Ireland” may lull us into a false sense that the story we’re being told is simple, but the poem is ultimately unsettling. Death is now merely “drift[ing]” through “darkness,” since we lack the guiding light of religious belief to light our way.  

What to do you make of this short but interesting Hardy poem? I’d love to hear from you. Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Want to get monthly updates from my blog? Sign up to my email newsletter here.