A Victorian Critique: Appearance Versus Reality in Hardy’s “The Ruined Maid” and Robinson’s “Richard Cory”

1355 words | 5 page(s)

It is always interesting to compare the different treatments of two poets on a similar subject. Through poetic analysis, finding similarities and differences, we gain a deeper understanding of the content of both poems. Such is the case with Thomas Hardy’s “The Ruined Maid” (1866) and Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory” (1897), both of which are Victorian Era poems that explore themes of appearance versus reality. During the repressive Victorian Era, it was common for writers and poets to treat the subject of duality in their works, i.e., the inner reality versus the outward veneer one must put on to function within a heavily-conformist society. Themes in Victorian works such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray draw a distinct separation between one’s true nature and one’s face of conformity. Oftentimes, these two personas are deeply distinct. In their respective poems, Hardy and Robinson also work within the archetypal dual nature of the Victorian persona, evincing a kind of split personality within the speakers in their poems. While both Hardy and Robinson treat similar Victorian themes and subjects in their poems, there are also distinct differences between the two. Many of these differences can be found through analysis of language. Hardy’s poem has a light-hearted, almost comical feel while Robinson’s work is serious and depressive in nature. In “The Ruined Maid” and “Richard Cory,” Hardy and Robinson both work within the Victorian archetypal structure of duality; however, both poets’ treatment of the subject differs in terms of the poetic devices of language, i.e., meter, rhyme, and tone, with Hardy’s poem serving as a societal satire and Robinson’s poem having more of a direct correlation between tone and subject matter.

Thomas Hardy’s “The Ruined Maid” concerns two speakers who share a common history but have since followed different life paths. The narrative follows the interaction of the two as a chance encounter in town allows them to catch up after some time had passed between meetings. The initial speaker, a “raw country girl” (line 23), is a maid who has worked on the rural farm her entire life. She yearns for the sophistication of urban life she sees embodied by the second speaker, a woman who left the farm (and her dignity) behind by becoming a prostitute or mistress for pay. Ironically, through her new vocation (and despite her social ruination), the woman gains a higher standard of living and is able to afford material items, such as “fair garments” (line 3) and “gay bracelets and bright feathers three” (7). The first speaker, the maid whose reputation is not “ruined,” becomes envious of the second speaker’s outward appearance and the fact that she was able to escape the basic life of a typical maid and the manual labor that comes with the profession. Hardy seems to point to a societal flaw, whereby the only way for a woman to get ahead in Victorian society is to sell her body and ruin her reputation.

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Hardy structures the poem so that the main speaker’s dialogue is followed by a response from the second speaker. Sound and language play a huge role in our reading of the poem. Hardy’s use of closed anapestic rhythm (repetition of two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable) gives the poem a sort of galloping or romping feel, making the reader feel the lighthearted nature of the tone. For example, Hardy writes, “O ‘Melia, my dear, this does everything crown! / Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?” (lines 1-2, italics added for stressed emphasis). The entire poem reads this way—two unstressed syllables, followed by a stressed syllable—in a pleasant rhythm, almost carrying the feel of childlike verse (in fact, anapestic rhythm is oftentimes used in children’s books). Adding to this effect is Hardy’s closed rhyme scheme, which can be described as a form of rhymed couplets, repeated in a very specific form, i.e., AA BB CC BB DD BB… Note that the rhyme scheme returns continually to “BB” form, as Hardy repeats a similar tonal rhyme. He also repeats the phrase “said she” in the last line of each of the six stanzas. This closed form, with the regular meter and rhyme, allows the reader to feel a cheerful sense of well-being, in sharp contrast to the poem’s subject matter, dealing with the false and pretentious nature of Victorian conformity. For Hardy, this contrast may be exactly the point of his work.

Like Hardy’ poem, Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory” also deals with issues of the falsehood of Victorian conformity and the struggle between inner desire and outward appearance. However, Robinson’s use of poetic language is vastly different and points toward a far more serious treatment of the same subject. Robinson’s poem follows the narrative of a speaker observing a wealthy socialite, Richard Cory, the namesake of the poem, as he goes about town, impressing others with his wealth and social status. As the speaker laments his own poverty in relation to Cory’s vast wealth, the final lines of the poem resonate in bitter irony: “And Richard Cory, one calm summer night, / Went home and put a bullet through his head” (lines 15-16). Like Hardy, Robinson also critiques Victorian hypocrisy in his poem. His ironical treatment of the social mores of Victorian society point to a deep flaw in the system, where one man can be so outwardly put together and yet unable to express his apparent inner anguish that drives him to suicide at the end.

One of the main differences between Hardy’s language and that of Robinson is the latter’s serious tone, emphasized through his more pedestrian meter and rhyme scheme. Unlike in “The Ruined Maid,” Robinson’s poem uses regular iambic pentameter (each line containing five iambs, or ten syllables each, in an unstressed/stressed pattern), which gives the verse a serious feel, in contrast to Hardy’s romping anapestic rhythm. Robinson’s rhyme scheme follows a regular alternating form, i.e., ABAB CDCD EFEF GHGH, with the rhyme scheme failing to repeat in other stanzas, as was the case with “The Ruined Maid.” As a result, the tone in “Richard Cory” is solemn, introspective, and gloomy, as contrasted to Hardy’s carefree verse: Robinson’s poem makes the reader empathize with the speaker in a way that Hardy’s poem is unable to connect. “Richard Cory” allows us to see the plight of both sides of society, i.e., the wealthy man who has all the material things he needs and yet is inwardly driven to suicide, versus the poor man, who yearns for the status of the other, or at least enough not to go hungry: “So on we worked, and waited for the light, / And went without the meat, and cursed the bread” (lines 13-14). It is difficult to imagine the economic severity implied by these lines told in Hardy’s lilting, lyrical verse.

Both Thomas Hardy’s “The Ruined Maid” and Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory” deal with the Victorian paradigm of hypocrisy; however, it is the tone employed by the latter that makes a more direct correlation between form and thematic content. At times, Hardy’s poem reads like a lyric from a children’s book, belying the gravity of the subject matter. That being said, this sharp contrast may be exactly the point for Hardy, who seeks to satirize Victorianism to evince his main thematic critique. Also, “The Ruined Maid” it is a fun and carefree poem to read aloud, something that cannot be said of Robinson’s work. Overall, both poems have their merits, and it is interesting to see how two different poets treat the same subject matter in vastly different ways.

  • Hardy, Thomas. “The Ruined Maid.” Poetry Foundation. Retrieved from
    https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/44332. Accessed on 22 Feb. 2017.
  • Robinson, Edwin Arlington. “Richard Cory.” Poetry Foundation. Retrieved from
    https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/44982. Accessed on 22 Feb. 2017.

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