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Extended Commentary of 'The Convergence of the Twain' by Thomas Hardy

Categories: Thomas Hardy

On the Title: Hardy uses two interesting words: ‘convergence’ and ‘twain’. A convergence is a meeting of two paths, or entities – in this case, a collision! ‘Twain’ is an archaic word for ‘two’, i.e.; both the ‘Titanic’ and the iceberg. Such a title immediately positions the reader to the direction in which the poem will go. Hardy is not, as many elegiac poems of the day were, preparing to mourn the loss of the ship and the lives upon it but rather proceeding to examine the philosophical nature of the collision; perhaps it was fated?

The other current use of “twain” was in the pseudonym “Mark Twain,” made famous by the publication – initially in England – of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in 1886.

Clems adopted the nom de plume to suggest “uncomfortable waters” or “tight navigation,” since two fathoms (“twain,” the sounding of a Mississippi deck-hand measuring the depth beneath the keel) would be dangerous for a steamboat.

Background Information: The ocean liner ‘RMS Titanic’ famously sank, at two o’clock in the morning, upon the 15th April 1912.

The disaster claimed 1,502 lives. Hardy was asked to write a poem to be read at a charity concert to raise funds in aid of the tragedy disaster fund. It was first published as part of the souvenir program for that event.

Overall Structure: Hardy writes eleven regular triplet stanzas, with an AAA rhyme scheme throughout. The use of triplets allows for a more thorough exploration of ideas in each stanza; unified by the use of the rhyme scheme.

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Perhaps he also does this to create the effect of inevitability, for the rhymed words form their own “paths coincident” that lead to a preset conclusion – the reader knows, that is, with which sound each stanza will end after he or she has only read the first line of that stanza. However, that knowledge only appears are having read the first few stanzas or so, echoing the idea that knowledge of those coincident paths of which the poem speaks is not always immediately discernible.

Themes: The Vanity of Man, The Relationship between Man and Nature, Fate, Classical Entities.

Difficult Language Notes: “The Immanent Will” – a force of fate.

“Salamandrine” – associated with the salamander (a mythical creature)

The poem runs in straight sets but I wish to divide in two for ease of analysis. ‘Part I’ exists from Stanzas I to VI, whilst ‘Part II’ takes the form of Stanzas VII to XII.

Part I Notes:

First Stanza Notes:

Hardy introduces his poem in medias res – the ship has been sunk and lies silently at the bottom of the ocean. He creates a calm effect over his poem through the consonance of the ‘s’ sounds:

“In a solitude of the sea

Deep from human vanity,

And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.”

Particular elements of diction are worthy of note:

  • “Deep from human vanity” – this line points to the emerging theme of man’s failed vanity, in creating such a grand object to rule over the natural world, only to have Nature smite it. The phrase “Pride of Life” accentuates this principle. Note how Hardy uses capital letters to make otherwise simple abstract nouns definitive.

Although this is pre-emptive, I will now examine the theme of vaingloriousness (and point out notable pieces of evidence throughout the remainder of the poem) which Hardy presents. He uses irony to evoke the ridiculousness of man’s plans. In stanzas I through to V, he juxtaposes images of the ships opulence, such as its “mirrors meant / To glass the opulent” and the ship’s “gilded gear” with images of the “cold currents”, “sea-worms” and “moon-eyed fishes” that now flow, crawl and swim through those former interiors. This creates a tangible image of the human vanity referred to in this first stanza; what people design for greatness ultimately ends up in a place of abasement.

  • “Stilly” is a highly unusual adverb. Hardy uses it to create a sense of ‘peace’. This is furthered by “solitude” and “couches”. ‘Couches’ suggests restfulness, or an equanimity. S.L.S considers an image of a ‘death bed’ upon the sea floor.

Second Stanza Notes:

Hardy focuses upon images of death and change in this stanza:

“Steel chambers, late the pyres

Of her salamandrine fires

Cold currents third, and turn to tidal rhythmic lyres.”

The furnaces of the ship, which contained the “salamandrine fires” of her engines (a form of LIFE), now have “Cold currents thrid” (note the a contrast in temperature – and consequently, a contrast in living state) running through them. ‘Thrid’ itself is another reference to the title, as an archaic word for ‘two’. Where there was once heat and life driving the engines of the ship, there is now coldness and death. A further juxtaposition within this second stanza is the use of the word “pyre”, as it connotes funerals and death, while the use of “salamandrine” insinuates a certain tenacity for life (as salamanders were said to live through fires) that could be associated with the ‘Unsinkable Ship’ idea – there was a theory prior to the sinking, now tragically ironic, that the Titanic was unable to sink.

Yet, for all of the tragic (or formerly energetic, given the nature of fire) nature of the ship, Hardy once again returns to ideas of peace and harmony. “Rhythmic tidal lyres” are reminiscent of the classical entities – such as Apollo’s lyre and his place in Arcadia – and consequently calming images. The distinct iambic meter in this phrase aids the calming lilt of the lines. Hardy presents the Titanic’s corpse in a peaceful light, however chilling and panicked her death.

Third and Fourth Stanza Notes:

I have above described the idea of vanity. I will pick out key phrases from these stanzas which support this idea – their key point is to achieve the above:

  • “mirrors meant to glass the opulent” CONTRASTED TO “grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent” sea worms. Note the cruelty and emphasis on “indifferent”.
  • “Jewels in joy designed” CONTRASTED TO “lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind” Note the use of polysyndeton.
  • “gilded gear”. Note alliteration.

Fifth and Sixth Stanzas:

Thus far Hardy has thoroughly examined the idea of vanity and the sunken ship itself. At stanza VI, Hardy changes his focus to the process by which the ship sank, in reference to Hardy’s ‘question’ formulated in stanza V.


“Dim moon-eyed fishes near

Gaze at the gilded gear

And query: ‘What does this vaingloriousness down here?


Well: while was fashioning

This creature of cleaving wing,

The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything”

It is obvious that Hardy engineers the explanation of the collision as a response to the “fishes’” question – although one would initially expect the final line of stanza V to be rhetorical. Before diverging upon the analysis of Hardy’s response, note some key elements of this stanza:

* “moon-eyed” (white and dull) contrasts with the shiny, golden nature of the “gilded”. This accentuates the differences between the metallic (man-made) ship and the natural world. Also note the alliteration used in this line. Question why?

* In an final assault on the vanitas vanitatum, observe that Hardy utilises anthropomorphisation to allow even the fish to question Man’s will in creating such ‘vaingloriousness’ – a Natural force (perhaps a personification of Nature itself?) labels the ship a vanity. What consequence does this have?

This query, although appearing rhetorical, is answered by Hardy. Denoted by the use of ‘Well’, he switches to a colloquial register – this again adds to the sense of a Volta at stanza VI. Also note the sudden introduction of prominent enjambment at the end of the poem.

The sense of stanza VI rolls into the VIIth, in direct opposition to the previous use of ‘poetic closure’ to end all previous stanzas – Hardy normally uses a form of punctuation. Now it’s gone. Apart from being a ‘change’ in its innate self, the enjambment aids in increasing the pace of the poem. This is highly significant. Seeing as, from this point forth, Hardy creates a ‘convergence of the twain’ within the poem itself – i.e.: he brings the two entities together (I will later explore this process in detail) from obscurity to the point of their collision – then increasing the pace at which the two entities move (which is obviously determined by the pace of the poem) must bring them together faster. This adds to the sense of movement, of fast movement and of dramatic effect. Well done, Mr. Hardy.

Note some language details:

“Creature of cleaving wing” is a very interesting phrase. “Cleaving” has multiple meanings, all of which are appropriate to Hardy’s imagery. Primarily, he may be imagining the ship as it ‘cleaves’ through the water, as all good ships should do. Remember, in its day the Titanic was the fastest liner afloat. “The cleaving wing” may therefore be the iron bow of the boat. Notice how Hardy is utilising additional anthropomorphisation, in referring to the ship as both a “creature” and one with “wing[s]”. The iceberg, however, remains inanimate. I doubt that there are any really deliberate poetic techniques to be synthesized from this but perhaps Hardy encourages a larger empathic response from the animate ship than from the inanimate iceberg?

However, we must also acknowledge the metallic “knife-like” associations with ‘cleaving’ – like ‘cleaver’. This has a highly inanimate connotation. [Another weak point, acknowledged.]

There also exists an archaic definition in the verb ‘to cleave’ – as in a Biblical usage – meaning ‘to join in matrimony’. This is of enormous interest. Hardy later plays a great deal upon the idea of the twain being marital (and even sexual) mates. Throughout the poem he refers to them with terms connotating a “confirmed relationship”. We may be “reading into” the phrase a little too deeply but it is a comment worthy of note. Perhaps Hardy is using the archaic definition of the verb to further advance his marital imagery? He is certainly no stranger to using such odd vocabulary; observe “The Darkling Thrush”!

Finally, I wish to examine ‘The Immanent Will’. “Immanent” is not an archaic spelling of “imminent” – do not get confused in terms of these different words! “The Immanent Will” is somewhat comparable, in terms of a philosophical idea, to the Christian concept of the “Holy Spirit” or “Holy Ghost”. It is a spiritual, but existent, entity within every object which determines its fate or actions. Christianity has branches – notably in Catholicism – which believe in a pre-determined plan, of God’s design. In other words, we are all on a plan set out by God. The Holy Spirit helps us to achieve what God wishes; it provides inner strength and resolve.

Hardy did not have an easy relationship with religion; born a Christian, he went through multiple tumultuous periods of atheistic belief. That’s probably why he hasn’t gone and just written; “God, or some deified entity, has allowed and planned for the demise of this here ship. And that’s why the iceberg, which could have been anywhere in a 3,000 mile radius of the vast Atlantic Ocean, just so happened to strike the ship. Deal with it.”

So, instead, he has substituted a strictly non-religious term to his idea of Fate. Indeed, he later refers to the Classical ‘Fate’ entities to again replace any otherwise religious terminology. Remember also that Hardy is not aiming to criticise Christianity in a poem intended to raise money for the victims’ families. Thus, clear religious controversy was not a good idea.

Stanzas VIII and IX Notes:

“And as the smart ship grew

In stature, grace and hue,

In shadowy silent distance grew the iceberg too.

Alien they seemed to be:

No mortal eye could see

The intimate welding of the later history,”

Again, Hardy invites further comparison through the use of juxtaposition; he now places the two entities in a relative time scale. The use of the word ‘as’ creates this effect, as it brings almost a simile-esque comparative sense to the stanzas. We must focus on the idea of the twain ‘growing’ – as that is the image which Hardy evokes – and the way in which both are joint in the use of the same verb. The obvious mental image is one of a familial relationship; they grow simultaneously but are fatally unaware of each other. Indeed, the distance between them is made explicitly clear and further emphasized by the alliteration used with “shadowy” and “silent”.

Observe, in the phrase “In stature, grace and hue”, Hardy returns to the original theme of the ship’s grandeur. He appears, in this occurrence, to be rather more commending (or perhaps simply more mournful) of the ship and its purpose.

Stanza IX further dwells upon the notion of fate. Indeed, Hardy utilises some more imagery worthy of note, full of oxymorons.

“The intimate welding of the later history”

It takes little to see that this further advances the ideas of both the twain’s ‘marital intimacy’, of the metal-related imagery associated with the ship, but also, in the final few words, the idea of Fate.

If one can know, in the present, the details of the future’s past – in other words, the near future – then surely one is saying in an oddly convoluted way that a certain action is destined to soon take place? It’s an oxymoronic (“later history” is oxymoronic in my book!) way of saying the same as before; the twain are destined to collide.

Stanzas X and XI Notes:

“Or sign that they were bent

By paths coincident

On being anon twin halves of one august event,

Till the Spinner of the Years

Said ‘Now!’ And each one hears,

And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

Very little needs to be said about the action in these stanza. The Twain collide, bringing together the long wait in both metaphorical and poetic terms. Hardy’s precise choice of words and imagery is somewhat more interesting, however.

For example:

* “Paths coincident” does not point to a coincidence, as one might initially assume, but rather to a “co-incident” (i.e. “together”) act. The Twain are, on reflection, on a course which emulates two graphical lines, in the way that they bisect. Does this then also reflect a sense of Fated entity? Graphical lines do not change, thus their ‘collision’ is determined and sealed.

* “Twin halves of one august event” reminds the reader of the action and precise existence of the collision. In the end, the act was a very physical, not philosophical one. Hardy acknowledges this, but attempts to draw out the unified nature of the Twain, in the intrinsic act of their collision. Note that the usual use of “august” to mean “awe inspiring or admiration; majestic” is not intended by Hardy here in a positive way. He merely wishes to express wonder at the grand, if tragic, culmination of two great forces. And yes, it is rather melodramatic.

* Hardy at lasts then returns to his Fated theme with the phrase “The Spinner of the Years”. Reminiscent of the Classical Greek Moirai or the Roman Parcae (three old hags who would run, spin and cut the threads of life), Hardy refers to the middle of the three – the Spinner. Spinning a mortal thread has always occupied a position in mythology. Hardy utilises it to draw out a sense of fate. Fate itself conducts the affair, it seems, given that the Twain act upon the word “Now!” to converge.

* Emerson Brown, scholar of medieval literature, pointed out that the poem is 33 lines long, whilst line 33 echoes the 33-year-old Christ’s last words: “consummatum est.” In any case, when “consummation comes”, Thomas Hardy sends 1,500 souls to the bottom with an obscene pun. To “come” has borne a sexual connotation since the 17th century, at least, while consummation traditionally means the fulfilment of the marriage contract by intercourse. The image of the ‘Titanic’ and the iceberg copulating is hard to take seriously – therefore we must question whether Hardy truly intends it. Nevertheless, it advances the idea of the twain existing in a marital bond.

Note the sudden use of speech, in the present tense. Very dramatic. Brings the Twain together in Time for the last time!

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Extended Commentary of 'The Convergence of the Twain' by Thomas Hardy. (2017, Oct 15). Retrieved from

Extended Commentary of 'The Convergence of the Twain' by Thomas Hardy
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