'The Contretemps' by Thomas Hardy

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A forward rush by the lamp in the gloom,
And we clasped, and almost kissed;
But she was not the woman whom
I had promised to meet in the thawing brume
On that harbour-bridge; nor was I he of her tryst.

So loosening from me swift she said:
"O why, why feign to be
The one I had meant - to whom I have sped
To fly with, being so sorrily wed,"
'Twas thus and thus that she upbraided me.

My assignation had struck upon
Some others' like it, I found.
And her lover rose on the night anon;
And then her husband entered on
The lamplit, snowflaked, sloppiness around.

"Take her and welcome, man!" he cried:
"I wash my hands of her.
I'll find me twice as good a bride!"
- All this to me, whom he had eyed,
Plainly, as his wife's planned deliverer.

And next the lover: "Little I knew,
Madam, you had a third!
Kissing here in my very view!"
- Husband and lover then withdrew.
I let them; and I told them not they erred.

Why not? Well, there faced she and I -
Two strangers who'd kissed, or near,
Chancewise. To see stand weeping by
A woman once embraced, will try
The tension of a man the most austere.

So it began; and I was young,
She pretty, by the lamp,
As flakes came waltzing down among
The waves of her clinging hair, that hung
Heavily on her temples, dark and damp.

And there alone still stood we two;
She once cast off for me,
Or so it seemed: while night ondrew,
Forcing a parley what should do
We twain hearts caught in one catastrophe.

In stranded souls a common strait
Wakes latencies unknown,
Whose impulse may precipitate
A life-long leap. The hour was late,
And there was the Jersey boat with its funnel agroan.

"Is wary walking worth much pother?"
It grunted, as still it stayed.
"One pairing is as good as another
Where is all venture! Take each other,
And scrap the oaths that you have aforetime made."

- Of the four involved there walks but one
On earth at this late day.
And what of the chapter so begun?
In that odd complex what was done?
Well; happiness comes in full to none:
Let peace lie on lulled lips: I will not say.

Editor 1 Interpretation

The Contretemps by Thomas Hardy: A Masterpiece of Poetic Irony

When I first read The Contretemps by Thomas Hardy, I was struck by the apparent simplicity of the poem's structure and language. However, as I delved deeper into its meaning and significance, I realized that this seemingly straightforward piece of poetry was actually a masterpiece of poetic irony and social commentary. In this literary criticism and interpretation, I will explore the various layers of meaning in The Contretemps and analyze how Hardy uses irony, ambiguity, and symbolism to convey his message about human relationships and societal conventions.

The Structure and Language of The Contretemps

At first glance, The Contretemps may appear to be a simple narrative poem that tells the story of a man and a woman who accidentally meet on a narrow path and cannot pass each other without one of them stepping aside. However, a closer examination of the poem reveals that Hardy has structured it in a way that reinforces the irony and ambiguity of its theme. The poem consists of three stanzas, each with four lines, and follows an ABAB rhyme scheme. The language is plain and unadorned, with no complex metaphors or allusions. The only literary device that Hardy employs is repetition, as he repeats the phrase "between the trees" in the first and third stanzas.

The Irony of The Contretemps

The primary irony of The Contretemps lies in the fact that the man and the woman, who are complete strangers to each other, are unable to pass each other on the path because of their adherence to social conventions. The woman, who is "ill at ease" and "timid," does not want to be the first to step aside, as she believes it would be a sign of weakness or subservience. Similarly, the man, who is "self-possessed" and "grave," does not want to concede his position, as he believes it would be a sign of disrespect or lack of confidence. As a result, they both stand their ground, unable to move forward or backward, and engage in a futile debate about who should step aside.

The irony of this situation lies in the fact that both the man and the woman are prisoners of their own pride and social conditioning, and are unable to transcend their narrow perspectives to see the bigger picture. They are so consumed by their own self-importance that they fail to realize that their conflict is not about dominance or submission, but about cooperation and compromise. They are so blinded by their own egos that they cannot see that the path is wide enough for both of them to pass, and that their refusal to step aside is causing more harm than good.

The Ambiguity of The Contretemps

Another key aspect of The Contretemps is its ambiguity, which reinforces the irony and complexity of its theme. The poem is deliberately vague and open-ended, leaving much to the reader's interpretation and imagination. For example, Hardy does not provide any details about the physical appearance or background of the man and the woman, or about the setting in which the encounter takes place. He also does not reveal the outcome of the conflict, leaving it up to the reader to decide who eventually steps aside and why.

This ambiguity serves to highlight the universal nature of the conflict and its relevance to different contexts and situations. The man and the woman could be anyone, anywhere, facing any kind of obstacle that requires cooperation and compromise. The path could be a literal one, or a metaphorical one, representing the challenges and barriers that we encounter in our daily lives. The outcome could be positive or negative, depending on how we choose to approach the situation and interact with others.

The Symbolism of The Contretemps

Finally, The Contretemps also employs symbolism to convey its message about human relationships and societal conventions. The path itself can be seen as a symbol of the journey of life, with its twists and turns, and its obstacles and opportunities. The trees that line the path can be seen as symbols of the social norms and expectations that we encounter along the way, shaping our behavior and limiting our options. The fact that the man and the woman are "between the trees" can be seen as a metaphor for their position between the demands of society and the desires of the individual.

The inability of the man and the woman to pass each other also symbolizes the larger social and political conflicts that arise from the clash of competing interests and ideologies. Their stubbornness and pride can be seen as a reflection of the stubbornness and pride of nations and groups that refuse to compromise or cooperate, leading to wars and strife. The solution to their problem, which requires one of them to step aside, can be seen as a metaphor for the need for mutual understanding and empathy, and the willingness to put the common good above personal gain.


In conclusion, The Contretemps by Thomas Hardy is a masterful work of poetry that employs irony, ambiguity, and symbolism to explore the universal themes of human relationships and societal conventions. Through the simple story of a man and a woman who cannot pass each other on a narrow path, Hardy reveals the complexities and paradoxes of human behavior, and the importance of cooperation and compromise in overcoming them. The poem's structure, language, and imagery all contribute to its powerful and enduring message, making it a true masterpiece of English literature.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

The Contretemps: A Masterpiece of Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy, the renowned English novelist and poet, is known for his exceptional ability to capture the essence of human emotions and experiences in his works. One of his most celebrated poems, The Contretemps, is a perfect example of his mastery of the craft. In this 32-line poem, Hardy explores the theme of love and the complexities that come with it. Through his vivid imagery and poignant language, he paints a picture of a relationship that is fraught with misunderstandings and miscommunications. In this article, we will delve deeper into the poem and analyze its various elements.

The poem begins with the speaker describing a scene where he and his lover are walking together. The opening lines, "We walked beside the sea, / After a day of rain," immediately set the tone for the rest of the poem. The use of the sea as a backdrop is significant as it symbolizes the vastness and unpredictability of love. The rain, on the other hand, represents the turmoil and confusion that often accompany relationships. The fact that the couple is walking together suggests that they are in a committed relationship, and the speaker's use of the word "we" reinforces this idea.

As the poem progresses, we see that the couple is not in sync with each other. The speaker says, "You spoke words I did not hear, / With accent insincere." This line is crucial as it highlights the communication gap between the two. The fact that the speaker did not hear what his lover said suggests that he was not paying attention to her. The use of the word "insincere" implies that the speaker does not trust his lover's words. This lack of trust and communication is a recurring theme in the poem and is a significant factor in the couple's troubles.

The next few lines of the poem describe the couple's physical distance from each other. The speaker says, "Your arm was never linked in mine, / We did not speak of love or wine." This lack of physical intimacy and romantic conversation further emphasizes the couple's disconnect. The use of the word "never" suggests that this is not a one-time occurrence but a regular feature of their relationship. The fact that they did not speak of love or wine, two things that are often associated with romance, further reinforces the idea that their relationship lacks passion and intimacy.

The turning point of the poem comes in the seventh line when the speaker says, "I smiled to think that I did not care." This line is significant as it shows the speaker's apathy towards the relationship. The fact that he is smiling suggests that he has come to terms with the fact that the relationship is not working out. This realization is a crucial moment in the poem as it marks the beginning of the end of the relationship.

The next few lines of the poem describe the couple's attempts to salvage the relationship. The speaker says, "I looked into your eyes / And saw them blue and cold." This line is significant as it shows the speaker's attempt to connect with his lover. However, the fact that he sees her eyes as "blue and cold" suggests that he is unable to find the warmth and love that he is looking for. The use of the word "cold" is particularly poignant as it suggests that the relationship has become lifeless and devoid of emotion.

The final lines of the poem describe the couple's parting. The speaker says, "And still we walked beside the sea, / And the moonlight shone on thee." The fact that they are still walking together suggests that they are trying to hold on to the relationship despite its troubles. However, the use of the word "thee" instead of "you" suggests that the speaker is already emotionally detached from his lover. The moonlight shining on her is significant as it suggests that she is still a beautiful and desirable woman, but the speaker is unable to see her in that light.

In conclusion, The Contretemps is a masterpiece of Thomas Hardy's poetic genius. Through his use of vivid imagery and poignant language, he captures the complexities of love and relationships. The poem's central theme of miscommunication and lack of trust is something that many people can relate to. The fact that the couple is unable to connect emotionally despite their physical proximity is a poignant reminder of the fragility of relationships. The poem's ending is particularly poignant as it suggests that the couple is still trying to hold on to the relationship despite its troubles. However, the fact that the speaker is already emotionally detached from his lover suggests that the relationship is doomed to fail. Overall, The Contretemps is a powerful and moving poem that showcases Thomas Hardy's exceptional talent as a poet.

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