'San Sebastian' by Thomas Hardy

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With Thoughts of Sergeant M---- (Pensioner), who died 185-

"WHY, Sergeant, stray on the Ivel Way,
As though at home there were spectres rife?
From first to last 'twas a proud career!
And your sunny years with a gracious wife
Have brought you a daughter dear.

"I watched her to-day; a more comely maid,
As she danced in her muslin bowed with blue,
Round a Hintock maypole never gayed."
--"Aye, aye; I watched her this day, too,
As it happens," the Sergeant said.

"My daughter is now," he again began,
"Of just such an age as one I knew
When we of the Line, in the Foot-Guard van,
On an August morning--a chosen few--
Stormed San Sebastian.

"She's a score less three; so about was she--
The maiden I wronged in Peninsular days....
You may prate of your prowess in lusty times,
But as years gnaw inward you blink your bays,
And see too well your crimes!

"We'd stormed it at night, by the vlanker-light
Of burning towers, and the mortar's boom:
We'd topped the breach but had failed to stay,
For our files were misled by the baffling gloom;
And we said we'd storm by day.

"So, out of the trenches, with features set,
On that hot, still morning, in measured pace,
Our column climbed; climbed higher yet,
Past the fauss'bray, scarp, up the curtain-face,
And along the parapet.

"From the batteried hornwork the cannoneers
Hove crashing balls of iron fire;
On the shaking gap mount the volunteers
In files, and as they mount expire
Amid curses, groans, and cheers.

"Five hours did we storm, five hours re-form,
As Death cooled those hot blood pricked on;
Till our cause was helped by a woe within;
They swayed from the summit we'd leapt upon,
And madly we entered in.

"On end for plunder, 'mid rain and thunder
That burst with the lull of our cannonade,
We vamped the streets in the stifling air--
Our hunger unsoothed, our thirst unstayed--
And ransacked the buildings there.

"Down the stony steps of the house-fronts white
We rolled rich puncheons of Spanish grape,
Till at length, with the fire of the wine alight,
I saw at a doorway a fair fresh shape--
A woman, a sylph, or sprite.

"Afeard she fled, and with heated head
I pursued to the chamber she called her own;
--When might is right no qualms deter,
And having her helpless and alone
I wreaked my lust on her.

"She raised her beseeching eyes to me,
And I heard the words of prayer she sent
In her own soft language.... Seemingly
I copied those eyes for my punishment
In begetting the girl you see!

"So, to-day I stand with a God-set brand
Like Cain's, when he wandered from kindred's ken....
I served through the war that made Europe free;
I wived me in peace-year. But, hid from men,
I bear that mark on me.

"And I nightly stray on the Ivel Way
As though at home there were spectres rife;
I delight me not in my proud career;
And 'tis coals of fire that a gracious wife
Should have brought me a daughter dear!"

Editor 1 Interpretation

The Beauty and Tragedy in Thomas Hardy's "San Sebastian"

Have you ever read a poem that leaves a lasting impression on you? One that makes you ponder and reflect on life, love, and tragedy? Thomas Hardy's "San Sebastian" is such a poem. Written in 1898, the poem tells the story of a young woman who falls in love with a sailor, only to lose him to the sea. In this literary criticism and interpretation, I will analyze the themes, symbolism, and imagery in "San Sebastian" and explore how they contribute to the poem's emotional impact.

The Themes of Love, Loss, and Fate

At its core, "San Sebastian" is a poem about love and loss. The narrator tells the story of a young woman who falls in love with a sailor named Harry, who sails away on his ship, never to return. The poem explores the depths of the woman's love for Harry and the devastation she feels at his loss.

The theme of fate also runs throughout the poem. The woman's love for Harry is portrayed as a force beyond her control, as if they were destined to be together. Similarly, Harry's fate is determined by the sea, which takes him away from the woman he loves.

As readers, we are left to question whether love and fate are intertwined, whether love is a force that can overcome fate, or whether fate is a cruel master that ultimately determines our lives.

The Symbolism of the Sea

The sea is a powerful symbol in "San Sebastian." It represents both the beauty and danger of nature, as well as the uncontrollable force of fate. Throughout the poem, the sea is described in vivid detail, from its "fleece-like foam" to its "depths of violet blue."

In the woman's eyes, the sea is a source of both hope and despair. She prays for Harry's safe return, yet she also knows that the sea has the power to take him away forever. The sea becomes a symbol of the unpredictability of life, of the way in which fate can change our lives in an instant.

The Imagery of Nature

Nature imagery is also prevalent in "San Sebastian." Hardy uses vivid descriptions of the landscape to create a sense of both beauty and foreboding. The woman's love for Harry is compared to the "sunlit land" and "fair green isles," while the sea's power is likened to the "roaring surge" and "iron coast."

The contrast between the beauty of nature and the tragedy of the woman's loss creates a sense of tension in the poem. Hardy's use of imagery draws us into the world of the poem, allowing us to feel the woman's pain and the power of the sea.

The Emotional Impact of "San Sebastian"

"San Sebastian" is a powerful poem that leaves a lasting emotional impact on the reader. Hardy's vivid descriptions of nature, coupled with the themes of love, loss, and fate, create a sense of tragedy that is both heartbreaking and beautiful. The poem's final lines, in which the woman begs the sea to return Harry to her, are particularly poignant:

"Oh, bring him back to me, thou surging vast,
Wild with the whirling tempests of the west -
For I am lonely by the lone sea cast,
And love him best."

These lines capture the depth of the woman's love for Harry and the pain she feels at his loss. They also remind us of the power of love, even in the face of tragedy.


In conclusion, "San Sebastian" is a powerful poem that explores the themes of love, loss, and fate. Hardy's use of symbolism and imagery creates a sense of beauty and tragic foreboding, drawing the reader into the world of the poem. Ultimately, the poem's emotional impact lies in its ability to capture the depth of human love and the pain of loss. As readers, we are left to ponder the mysteries of fate and the power of love to overcome even the greatest of tragedies.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry San Sebastian: A Masterpiece by Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy, the renowned English novelist and poet, is known for his profound and melancholic works that explore the complexities of human emotions and relationships. One of his most celebrated poems, Poetry San Sebastian, is a masterpiece that captures the essence of love, loss, and the fleeting nature of life. In this 2000-word analysis, we will delve deep into the themes, imagery, and literary devices used in this poem to understand its significance and impact.

The poem is named after the city of San Sebastian, a picturesque coastal town in Spain that was a popular destination for British tourists in the late 19th century. Hardy visited San Sebastian in 1892, and it is believed that the beauty and serenity of the place inspired him to write this poem. The poem is written in the form of a sonnet, a 14-line poem with a strict rhyme scheme and meter. The sonnet form is traditionally used to express intense emotions, and Hardy uses it to great effect in this poem.

The poem begins with a description of the beauty of San Sebastian, with its "azure sea" and "golden sand." The speaker is in awe of the natural beauty of the place and is reminded of the transience of life. He says, "Here, where the bay encroaches on the land, / And the cliffs outface the sea, / I stand and gaze, / And marvel at the swift and ceaseless craze / Of change that marks the world's mortality." The speaker is struck by the contrast between the eternal beauty of nature and the impermanence of human life. He is reminded that everything in life is fleeting and that we must cherish every moment.

The theme of mortality is a recurring motif in the poem. The speaker reflects on the transience of life and the inevitability of death. He says, "The waves that break upon the shore / Will break when we are gone, / And the same sea will still be breaking there / Long after we are dead and past all care." The speaker is aware that he is just a small part of the larger scheme of things and that his existence is insignificant in the grand scheme of things. This realization fills him with a sense of melancholy and resignation.

The poem then takes a turn towards the theme of love and loss. The speaker reflects on a past love and how it has affected him. He says, "I think of one who loved me, and is gone, / And feel as though a flower / Should look upon the sun and find it gone." The speaker is haunted by the memory of his lost love and is unable to move on. He feels as though a part of him is missing, and he is unable to find solace in the beauty of San Sebastian.

The imagery used in the poem is vivid and evocative. Hardy uses the natural beauty of San Sebastian to contrast with the speaker's inner turmoil. The azure sea and golden sand represent the eternal beauty of nature, while the speaker's sense of loss and mortality represent the impermanence of human life. The waves breaking upon the shore represent the relentless march of time, while the cliffs outfacing the sea represent the resilience of the human spirit.

The poem also makes use of several literary devices to convey its themes and emotions. The use of enjambment, where a sentence or phrase runs over into the next line, creates a sense of fluidity and movement in the poem. This is particularly effective in the lines, "And marvel at the swift and ceaseless craze / Of change that marks the world's mortality." The use of alliteration, where words with the same initial sound are used in close proximity, creates a sense of rhythm and musicality in the poem. This is evident in the lines, "Here, where the bay encroaches on the land, / And the cliffs outface the sea."

The poem's rhyme scheme is also significant. The poem follows the traditional ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme scheme of a sonnet. This creates a sense of symmetry and balance in the poem, which is in contrast to the speaker's sense of loss and disorientation. The final couplet of the poem, "And yet, though life be but a fleeting breath, / Love, like the sea, endures beyond our death," provides a sense of closure and resolution to the poem. The speaker acknowledges the transience of life but finds solace in the enduring nature of love.

In conclusion, Poetry San Sebastian is a masterpiece of English poetry that explores the themes of love, loss, and mortality. Hardy's use of vivid imagery, literary devices, and the sonnet form creates a powerful and evocative poem that captures the essence of the human experience. The poem is a reminder that life is fleeting and that we must cherish every moment. It is also a testament to the enduring nature of love, which transcends the boundaries of time and mortality. Hardy's Poetry San Sebastian is a timeless work of art that continues to inspire and move readers to this day.

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