The two were silent in a sunless church,
Whose mildewed walls, uneven paving-stones,
And wasted carvings passed antique research;
And nothing broke the clock’s dull monotones.
Leaning against a wormy poppy-head,
So wan and worn that he could scarcely stand,
--For he was soon to die,--he softly said,
“Tell me you love me!”--holding hard her hand.
She would have given a world to breathe “yes” truly,
So much his life seemed hanging on her mind,
And hence she lied, her heart persuaded throughly,
’Twas worth her soul to be a moment kind.
But the sad need thereof, his nearing death,
So mocked humanity that she shamed to prize
A world conditioned thus, or care for breath
Where Nature such dilemmas could devise.
The poem 'Her Dilemma' by Thomas Hardy comes from "Wessex Poems and Other Verses," first published in 1898.
In many ways, the poem is actually a fairly simple and straightforward narrative. The first stanza establishes the scene, and sets a somber tone – one in which a man and a woman are "silent in a sunless church", surrounded by "mildewed walls, uneven paving stones", and where "nothing broke the clock's dull monotones".
The second stanza turns its focus to the man who, the reader is informed, is "[s]o wan and worn that he could scarcely stand" – he is dying and, in his final moments, he wants nothing more for the woman to tell him that she loves him. It is in the third stanza that the dilemma which forms the heart of the poem is revealed – he has made his request, yet she is confronted by the knowledge that she does not truly love him, and she never has. Her dilemma, then, is a deceptively simple one – to lie to this man, and tell him what he wants to hear, or remain truthful and silent.
If she were to lie, it would make him happy in his final moments, but she would have to live with the knowledge that she told a lie within the walls of a church – yet, denying his dying request must also seem needlessly cruel. In the end, she is persuaded by a sense of compassion to tell the lie, believing that it "'[t]was worth her soul to be a moment kind".
The final stanza reveals some sense of the woman's shame, not just directed at herself for telling the lie but at a world that could conspire to force her into such a situation – one "[w]here Nature such dilemmas could devise". It is likely that this poem was intended as something of a challenge to the reader – the dilemma faced by the woman, and the question the poem puts before the reader, is one of whether it is ever morally justified to tell a lie.
The fact that this central issue would have to seem of significantly less importance to a modern reader than it may have done to a reader in 1898 would have to be taken as a clear example of the ways in which moral values can change over time. For the modern reader, it would have to seem only natural to come down on the side of the woman, and to understand her reasons for choosing to tell the lie – yet, it is also worth considering that it may not have been quite so simple for readers back when the poem was first published, which is quite possibly why Hardy felt the need to offer up the poem as a challenge.
It is worth noting, also, that the actual context of the relationship between the man and the woman in the poem is never really established. All the reader knows about them is what they are given by the opening line – that they are together in a church. It seems likely that the reader is meant to assume that they are, in fact, husband and wife and that the dilemma the woman faces comes at the end of a loveless marriage. Yet, at the same time, it also seems just as possible to take the relationship between the two as being that of an estranged father and daughter – reading the poem with this assumption in mind give it a different feel yet, ultimately, does not change its meaning. Without knowing exactly what Hardy himself intended for their relationship to be, it seems as though either interpretation is valid.
The collected poetry of Thomas Hardy, available from Amazon
© 2014 Dallas Matier