At nine in the morning there passed a church,
At ten there passed me by the sea,
At twelve a town of smoke and smirch,
At two a forest of oak and birch,
And then, on a platform, she:
A radiant stranger, who saw not me.
I queried, “Get out to her do I dare?”
But I kept my seat in my search for a plea,
And the wheels moved on. O could it but be
That I had alighted there!
In “Faintheart in a Railway Train,” Thomas Hardy makes a claim for the “Carpe Diem” of romantic poetry. His speaker is an antihero, in that he does not exhibit the bold romantic qualities that the poem supports. By presenting the wish of the speaker to have been less shy, and showing his regret with the last two lines, “…O could it but be, That I had alighted there!,” Hardy puts forward both an image of how romanticism should be, and of how one should act in order to avoid the situation of this antihero.
Much of the poem is written in the passive voice, echoing the speaker’s inability to get off of the train. Line six demonstrates this, “A radiant stranger, who saw not me,” as does line seven, “I said, ‘get out to her do I dare?’.”
The major metaphor used in the poem is that of the train that the speaker is on. From it, he watches the scenery, his life, go by. The train is the forward motion of his life, passive, because he does not or cannot interact with his surroundings
The scenery acts as symbols for the world and its mysteries which are passing by him. The church may represent religious mystery and the sea is a common symbol for natural mystery. In describing, “a town of smoke and smirch,” (line 3), the poet presents the civilized world as dirty and impure, which leads us to characterize the speaker as slightly resentful of it. Together these images simply show that his life is passing him by.
The issue of the forest is more complex. In the forest which passes him he sees two trees, an oak and a birch. Used as symbols, these two trees generate a conflict as the birch is representative of purity, being a whitish, slender tree, and the oak is representative of strength, experience, and while not immoral, a value of paganistic moral absence. At the time Hardy was writing, 1840-1928, and even still today though to a lesser degree, this was the relationship implied in romanticism: the female birch and the male oak. This image is followed immediately by the appearance of a woman, the poetic invitation into the world of romanticism, and his opportunity to “seize the day.”
In the eighth line, Hardy’s speaker keeps to his seat in his, “search for a plea.” That is, he attempts to, or considers becoming bold, romantic and daring, but, as evidenced by the ninth line, “And the wheels moved on,” he fails at this. His character is pathetic, and the outlook is bleak. Still, the course of the poem would support the values that the speaker lacks, allowing it to embody the uplifting attitude of the romanticism it promotes.
Hyne, Samuel. "Faintheart on a Railway Train" The Complete Poetical Works of Thomas Hardy
. Oxford: Clarendon, 1995