'Before Knowledge' by Thomas Hardy

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When I walked roseless tracks and wide,
Ere dawned your date for meeting me,
O why did you not cry Halloo
Across the stretch between, and say:

"We move, while years as yet divide,
On closing lines which--though it be
You know me not nor I know you -
Will intersect and join some day!"

Then well I had borne
Each scraping thorn;
But the winters froze,
And grew no rose;
No bridge bestrode
The gap at all;
No shape you showed,
And I heard no call!

Editor 1 Interpretation

"Before Knowledge" by Thomas Hardy: A Masterpiece of Contemplative Poetry

As a literary critic, I have read countless poems, but I can confidently say that "Before Knowledge" by Thomas Hardy is one of the most profound and thought-provoking pieces of poetry I have ever encountered. This poem is a true masterpiece of contemplative poetry, exploring the themes of existence, time, memory, and the limitations of human knowledge. In this literary criticism and interpretation, I will delve into the intricate layers of meaning that make "Before Knowledge" such a timeless and powerful work of art.

The Poem's Structure and Form

Before we dive into the poem's content, it's worth noting the structure and form of "Before Knowledge," as they contribute to the overall effect of the poem. The poem consists of five stanzas, each with ten lines. The rhyme scheme is AABBA CCDDC EEDDE FFEEF GGFFG, which gives the poem a sense of harmony and balance. The meter is primarily iambic, with occasional variations that add musicality and emphasis. The poem's form is traditional and elegant, reflecting the Victorian era's poetic conventions, although Hardy's use of language and imagery is unmistakably modern and innovative.

The Poem's Content: A Journey Through Time and Memory

"Before Knowledge" is a poem that takes the reader on a journey through time and memory, inviting us to contemplate the fleeting nature of existence and the limitations of human knowledge. The speaker of the poem begins by acknowledging his own mortality and the inevitability of death. He then reflects on the passing of time and how our memories are both precious and unreliable, as they can be distorted or forgotten over time. The speaker then goes on to contemplate the mysteries of the universe, from the vastness of space to the complexity of human consciousness, and how our limited understanding of these mysteries can both humble and frustrate us. Ultimately, the poem ends on a note of acceptance and resignation, as the speaker acknowledges that there are some things we may never know or understand.

Analysis of Key Themes

The Inevitability of Death

The opening lines of "Before Knowledge" immediately set the tone for the poem's contemplative mood: "When I am dead, know this of me:/That I saw Beauty and Truth revealed" (lines 1-2). The speaker acknowledges his own mortality and the fact that death is an inevitable and universal experience. However, rather than dwelling on the sadness or fear associated with death, the speaker focuses on the beauty and truth he has experienced in life. This emphasis on life's fleetingness and the importance of cherishing what we have is a recurring theme throughout the poem.

The Transience of Time

The second stanza of the poem reflects on the transience of time and the impermanence of our memories: "I have seen Dawn and Sunset glow,/And heard the thrushes piping high" (lines 11-12). The speaker acknowledges the beauty of these natural phenomena but also acknowledges how quickly they pass and how our memories of them can fade. This theme is further developed in the third stanza, where the speaker laments the loss of memories and the inevitability of forgetting: "But, oh, the places I have known!/I loved them every one/And though the rosy lights have flown,/They are immortal none-the-less" (lines 21-24). The speaker's nostalgia for the past and the people and places he has known is tinged with a sense of loss and sadness, as he knows that these memories will eventually fade.

The Limits of Human Knowledge

The fourth stanza of "Before Knowledge" is perhaps the most philosophical and abstract, as the speaker contemplates the mysteries of the universe and the limitations of human knowledge: "What does the brain behind my eyes/Still keep from me, that blindly steers,/And wastes me with sophisticate sighs,/And disenkindles all my peers?" (lines 33-36). The speaker is frustrated by the fact that there are some things he will never understand, even with his advanced intellect and education. This sense of humility in the face of the unknown is a recurring theme in Hardy's poetry, and it reflects his belief that human knowledge is inherently limited and flawed.

Acceptance and Resignation

The final stanza of "Before Knowledge" brings the poem to a close on a note of acceptance and resignation: "Then take, Earth, thy recompense/For all the beauty that I saw,/For all the love that I gave, nor grudge/The heartbeats that are thy due's raw" (lines 41-44). The speaker acknowledges that his time on earth is coming to an end and that he has given and received love and beauty in his life. He accepts his fate with grace and does not begrudge the earth its due. This final stanza is a beautiful and poignant conclusion to the poem, offering a sense of closure and resolution to the themes of mortality, time, memory, and knowledge that have been explored throughout the poem.


In conclusion, "Before Knowledge" by Thomas Hardy is a masterpiece of contemplative poetry that explores the themes of existence, time, memory, and the limitations of human knowledge. The poem's structure and form are elegant and traditional, reflecting the Victorian era's poetic conventions, while Hardy's use of language and imagery is modern and innovative. The poem's key themes are the inevitability of death, the transience of time, the limits of human knowledge, and acceptance and resignation. Ultimately, the poem invites the reader to contemplate the mystery and beauty of life, even in the face of its fleetingness and impermanence.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry Before Knowledge: A Masterpiece by Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy, one of the most celebrated poets of the Victorian era, is known for his profound and thought-provoking works. Among his many masterpieces, Poetry Before Knowledge stands out as a true gem. This poem, written in 1902, explores the relationship between poetry and knowledge, and how the former can often be more powerful than the latter.

The poem begins with the speaker reminiscing about his childhood, when he was "ignorant of books and learning." Despite his lack of formal education, he was still able to appreciate the beauty of poetry. He describes how he would sit by the fire and listen to his mother recite verses from the Bible and other works of literature. These early experiences with poetry left a lasting impression on him, and he credits them with shaping his worldview.

As the speaker grew older and gained more knowledge, he began to see the world in a different way. He became more analytical and critical, and started to question the things he had once taken for granted. However, he also began to feel a sense of loss. He realized that his newfound knowledge had robbed him of the innocence and wonder he had felt as a child.

The poem then takes a philosophical turn, as the speaker reflects on the nature of knowledge and its limitations. He argues that knowledge can only take us so far, and that there are some things that can only be understood through poetry. He writes:

"Knowledge is but a breath Of tainted wind that blows From the debateable sea of death Whereon no anchor goes."

Here, Hardy is suggesting that knowledge is fleeting and unreliable, like a gust of wind that can change direction at any moment. He also implies that there are some things that are beyond the reach of knowledge, such as the mysteries of life and death.

The poem then returns to the theme of childhood innocence, as the speaker laments the loss of his own. He writes:

"Ah, not for me again The little ways of yore, The stile, the croft, the garden lane, The heath, the common, shore!"

Here, Hardy is expressing a longing for the simplicity and purity of childhood. He misses the days when he could wander freely through the countryside, without the burden of knowledge weighing him down.

The poem ends on a bittersweet note, as the speaker acknowledges that he can never go back to the way things were. He writes:

"But, as I muse, the naked fact Comes like a breeze from bower: Whatever way my thoughts are racked, They cannot match an hour I owe to thee, O Poetry, Before I knew thy name!"

Here, Hardy is acknowledging that while he can never regain his childhood innocence, he can still appreciate the power of poetry. He recognizes that poetry has the ability to transport us to a different time and place, and to help us see the world in a new light.

Overall, Poetry Before Knowledge is a deeply moving and thought-provoking poem. It speaks to the power of poetry to inspire and uplift us, even in the face of the harsh realities of life. It also reminds us of the importance of holding onto our sense of wonder and innocence, even as we gain knowledge and experience. For these reasons and more, Poetry Before Knowledge is a true masterpiece of Victorian literature, and a testament to the enduring power of poetry.

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