The Ruined Maid
“O ‘Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?” —
“O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?” said she.
— “You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,
Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks;
And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers three!” —
“Yes: that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,” said she.
— “At home in the barton you said thee’ and thou,’
And thik oon,’ and theäs oon,’ and t’other’; but now
Your talking quite fits ‘ee for high compa-ny!” —
“Some polish is gained with one’s ruin,” said she.
— “Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak
But now I’m bewitched by your delicate cheek,
And your little gloves fit as on any la-dy!” —
“We never do work when we’re ruined,” said she.
— “You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream,
And you’d sigh, and you’d sock; but at present you seem
To know not of megrims or melancho-ly!” —
“True. One’s pretty lively when ruined,” said she.
— “I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!” —
“My dear — a raw country girl, such as you be,
Cannot quite expect that. You ain’t ruined,” said she.
I have read Hardy poems for some time now and they all seem to have a similar earthy feel to them, being about life and relationships in a Wessex countryside setting. Now the first thing to remember is there is no such place as Wessex, even if there is an Earl of Wessex in the British Royal Family. That aside, before you read this may I suggest you read Woman Much Missed as well, to get a flavour of his poems. Then read some more. They are simply glorious in places. And then read this so it is not your first Hardy poem.
Okay, so what is this one about? Well, one person is speaking of another, someone called “Melia,” or more likely, “Amelia” and that person speaking, we assume, is female because of the ending. She says “O ‘Melia, my dear, this does everything crown! Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?” This is a surprise meeting between the two in the town but we see from the tone of the language used that meeting in town is unexpected. The words “who would have thought” lead us to that assumption. Then we get something that you need to be aware of; the use of archaisms, or archaic language. This is when someone uses language that is so old and ancient it is considered to be archaic in its use and the word “whence” is one such word. She asks “whence such fair garments, such prosperity?” and is saying where did you come by, or how did you come to own such garments, or clothes that are so expensive?
The next line is therefore slightly confusing. Is she saying it ironically, when she responds with “O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?” She has been ruined financially by someone or something and the reader is left wondering if the person in the poem is at any fault. The girl continues by adding “You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks, tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks.” Because the speaker has caused this to happen, the woman in this poem has gone from affluence to poverty and the speaker is to blame.
Or so it seems!
Did she promise to keep her and then go back on her word? Maybe, but she says “now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers three,” hinting at the fact that this is a woman well dressed and well looked after, a woman of refinement and style, the style that only lots of money can buy. This is then confirmed rather sarcastically by the words “Yes: that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,” said she.” At this point, if you are not reading this with the right amount of exactness and accuracy, you can be misled. It is one of those poems. Ask yourself, how many are speaking here? The first three lines are a woman [most likely] speaking or talking to another woman and the last line is the woman replying. The woman then continues with “At home in the barton you said thee’ and thou,” using archaisms once again, as if she thinks she is from a higher class than the other. Couple this with the next line where she adds: “thik oon,’ and theäs oon,’ and t’other’; but now your talking quite fits ‘ee for high company” and you get the impression that she thinks the world of her. She is the epitome of perfection especially because her speech is that which is not pure and perfect. Her language used is colloquial and local to that Wessex area that exists in Hardy’s work, based in the south west of England.
But her response is sarcastic, sardonic even as she retorts with “some polish is gained with one’s ruin.” It is as if she is playing with emotions. The person is “bewitched by [her] delicate cheek,” as if everything in her leads to one conclusion, that she is the image of perfection. To some this might sound a little odd but ask yourself this; when you meet that person of your dreams, you just ‘know.’ That is the myth of love at first sight and when that happens you see your partner as the epitome of perfection. This is what is happening here; one person infatuated with this woman so much that he is unable to see past any imperfections. Her response once again is sarcastic, with “we never do work when we’re ruined.” She does not see herself in the same way. She sees a flawed person, not something that is perfect, but the other is different in assumptions, such is the extent of the love for this woman.
There is also a negativity to this woman as she sees that she has been ruined. “You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream,” does suggest she at some point in their relationship, was not happy with her life, or lifestyle. She would insult where she was and what she had got. She would “sigh” and “sock,” which presumably is a term of negativity towards something, but in this present time she does not seem to know the boundaries of being “melancholy” or sad. The use of language here is interesting because although sarcastic, it shows the difference between how a man views a woman and how a woman sees a woman. “True,” says she, “One’s pretty lively when ruined.”
At this point the narrative of this poem has dealt with the past and the present in their relationship, but in the last verse it takes the reader into the future. The speaker says “I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown, and a delicate face, and could strut about Town!” Clearly, this is something she has the ability to do. It is also something that some of the others are able to do as well. “My dear,” she asks, “a raw country girl, such as you be, cannot quite expect that.” In her eyes, she cannot claim to be on the receiving end of negativity, her being a country girl, as perfect as she sees her.
But this response is interesting in that she simply adds back “You ain’t ruined.” Being ruined makes it so that you feel as if you can do nothing. Her use of non-standard English, even as basic as it is, coupled with her sarcasm, makes for an interesting person being created in this poem. She has everything compared to the other’s very little. She is the epitome of Tess of the D’Urbevilles [give it a read – you’ll love it] and she is the simple country girl. There is a chasm between the two and she knows it, but she sees someone that has the ability to see beyond class boundaries and into the heart of a relationship. But she feels she has been ruined; by life, by another man maybe, or even by the narrator himself, who is trying desperately to redeem himself in the sight of her inability to forgive. This is why this is such a good poem to unlock.