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Aaron Hill

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How does Aaron Hill use memory to combine generalised moralising with personalised lament in the poem in list B? Use close reading to support your points.

In the poem ‘Alone, in an Inn, at Southampton’, by Aaron Hill, the speaker recounts the memories he once shared with his wife whilst staying in a room at a guesthouse before her death. He is now writing as a widower in the same room twenty years later and he expresses his feelings of anguish by projecting specific memories of his wife on to objects within the room, before going on to make broad statements on morality and the vices of life. The poem could be said to be split into three parts, the first section being the speakers lament for his wife, the second section outlining his now changed philosophical outlook on life, and the third detailing his resolution which concludes the poem. This essay aims to show, through close reading, how the protagonist of the poem combines his personal memories and feelings of sorrow with his own general moralising about life’s hardships.
The first section of the poem begins as a simple lament, as the speaker remembers his wife and the happiness she brought him and contrasts it with the emptiness and loneliness which he feels now in her absence:
“Twenty lost years have stoln their hours away,
Since, in this inn, ev’n in this room, I lay:
How chang’d! what then was rapture, fire, and air,
Seems now sad silence all, and blanc despair!”

In the opening lines, Hill describes the distinction between what was happening in the room twenty years ago as opposed to what is happening now, where at one time there was “rapture, fire and air” and now all that exists is “silence” and “Blanc despair!”. The “rapture” and “fire” presumably has sexual connotations and is an insight into how the speaker remembers the intensity of the passion with which he and his wife made love to one and other in the room, but the added element of air also potentially shows how they shared more than just a physical bond. According to ancient thought, the element of air has a deeper spiritual meaning and is thought to reflect the purity of one’s soul as well as being an invisible force which acts as a calming agent (Internet 1). This means that the speaker could be remembering everything his wife brought in to the room- passionate physical love and also a calming emotional love. Now, with her no longer present, there is nothing to fill the void she left behind except sadness, silence and despair.

The next lines of the poem stay true to what is, so far, a poem of memories and mourning as the speaker goes on to make a comment about what the feeling of youth is to him and with what happiness he remembers his wife:
“Is it, that youth paints every view too bright,
And, life advancing, fancy fades her light?
Ah! No – nor yet is day so far declin’d,
Nor can time’s creeping coldness reach the mind. ‘Tis – that I miss th’ inspirer of that youth;
Her, whose soft smile was love, whose soul was truth.”

It is at this moment where the speaker ultimately pays the biggest compliment of all to his wife as he rejects the idea that he has lost the feeling of youth or that “time’s creeping coldness” has reached him yet. He is claiming rather that the key to his vitality was his wife and the feeling she aroused in him. There is also simplicity to Hill’s writing at this point of the lament which is reminiscent of his poem ‘Whitehall Stairs’, as they both use a similar rhyme scheme of rhyming couplets with short syllables. They also contain declarations of love which are simple to comprehend and almost fun to read, despite the fact that in both poems the speakers are emotionally distraught. With this in mind, Hill’s poem is something which the typical reader can enjoy and perhaps relate to without having to deeply analyse each line like one would for other writers of the time such as Swift, Pope or Thompson. This adds a sense of basic humanity to the poem and helps build a foundation of simplistic vulnerability which allows the reader to better connect with this personal lament.

As the poem continues, the speaker begins to project his memories from twenty years ago on to various objects within the room which is potentially the most moving part of the poem as it is easy to imagine the character staring at these objects and the memories of his wife being reflected back to him:
“There hung the watch, that beating hours from day,
Told its sweet owner’s lessening life away.
There, her dear diamond taught the sash my name;
‘Tis gone! Frail image of love, life, and fame.
…Sullen and dim, what faded scenes are here!
I wonder, and retract a starting tear.”

Firstly, Hill uses the image of a clock to show how it was constantly telling his wife that time was slipping away, yet it is only with foresight of her death that the information which the clock possessed now seems bitterly relevant. The next memory the speaker reveals is one in which his wife seemingly spells out his name using the reflection from her diamond ring on to the window. Now when he looks at the window all that is reflected back is a “Frail image of love, life, and fame”. This metaphor could insinuate that now after his wife’s death, the speaker is just a frail image of all his memories, which relates back to how his feeling of youth was also dependent on the presence of his wife. Hill’s rhyme scheme and punctuation at this point in the poem also helps contrast the speaker’s happy memories with the sadness he feels now in recollection of these thoughts. The use of a semi colon to separate the memories with the present whilst using rhyming couplets to show how they are interconnected illustrates the emotional turmoil which the speaker is experiencing. On one hand, he has these happy thoughts and associations but they are ultimately ruined by the recurring realization that memories are all that remains of his wife. This also creates two differing tones, as the speaker seems almost happy whilst he is lost in his memories before quickly being brought back to reality and continuing on in a sombre voice. This section then concludes with other memories of how the speaker’s wife interacted with the room before he fights the urge to cry and moves on to his segment of general moralising.

In the second section of the poem, the speaker outlines his outlook on life, as he moralises on how life is ultimately a cruel struggle for people:
“Oh life! – deceitful lure of lost desires!
How short thy period, yet, how fierce thy fires!
Scarce can a passion start, (we change so fast)
E’re new light strikes us, and the old are past.
Schemes following schemes, so long life’s taste explore,
That, e’er we learn to live, we live no more.”

This part of the poem is introduced with the exclamation “Oh life!” which shows the shift from the personalised lament to a broader subject. The first couplet describes life as a “deceitful lure of lost desires” which is both “short” and “fierce”. The speaker at this point seems to be describing life as a cruel trick which inspires you to want most what you can no longer have. Evidence of this would be that in the previous four lines, the speaker described how looking out the window at the beauty of nature brought him “delight” before he equated this beauty with the beauty of his wife and the sights were now “all in sorrow drown’d” for him. This is an example of generalised moralising as the speaker makes a broad statement about how life lures and tricks people, yet these thoughts are obviously inspired by his own personal experiences. In the next couplet, the speaker describes how rare it is for two people to find passion together and since people change so quickly; that passion will inevitably burn out whilst a new one begins. This sentiment seems rather strange considering the speaker obviously loved his wife and spent, from what is evident in the poem, twenty years with her. Since he is speaking somewhat generally in this section, a possible interpretation could be that he is referring to how short lived real passion is between couples and that all of a sudden, people begin to change as their passion becomes a memory. This would then give sense to why the speaker has returned to this particular inn; as a way of reliving those memories of passion. Finally, the speaker makes a comment on how short life is despite all the experiences that people go through in their lifetime. He then makes a rather chilling remark on how, before “we learn to live, we live no more” which insinuates that no one truly takes the time to reflect or appreciate what they have. They rather get so lost in experiencing all of life’s “schemes” that before they have a grasp on life and its lessons, their life is over. This again is a general comment which is a mixture between a statement of philosophy and a statement of morality since it deals with the complexity of being a human being but more so with a focus on one of the negative aspects of existence.

This section of the poem is then concluded with further generalities about how the speaker finds life a terrible trick. It includes notions of suicide and expresses a desire for death as a means of escaping pain:
“Who, then, can think – yet sigh, to part with breath?
Or shun the healing hand of friendly death?
Guilt, penitence, and wrongs; and pain, and strife,
Form thy whole heap’d amount, thou flatterer, life!
Oh, take me, death! indulge desir’d repose,
And draw thy silent curtain round my woes.”

In the opening two lines, Hill uses a paradox in describing death as healing and friendly since, usually death would be described as the opposite of these things. This metaphor shows the extent of the speaker’s pain and although he is attempting to speak generally at this point, his own experiences are clearly influencing his general moralising. In the next lines, the speaker lists what he believes the main elements of life are – “Guilt, penitence, and wrongs; and pain, and strife”- before describing life as a “flatterer”. The idea that life is a “flatterer” could imply that life is insincere in its promises, as nature’s greatest gift, because in reality it is just a repetition of negativity. This section of philosophical speaking almost treats life as a character that imposes pain upon people’s lives and as a result, the speaker is moralising on how the ethics of setting people up for a torturous life is wrong. The philosophical voice then shifts back to the previous voice from the lament as the speaker begs for death to end his pain and “draw thy silent curtain round” his “woes”. The idea of curtains ending his pain likes to how a dramatic play would typically end with the curtains closing the performance. The idea of death being overly dramatic could perhaps be a comment on how humans deal with death. It is common knowledge that death is inevitable and occurs on a mass scale every day yet losing a loved one is still one of the hardest experiences a person can go through. Hill’s dramatics could be a comment on how being overly emotional and intense during grieving is an essential part of the mourning process.

The poem resolves with the speaker declaring why he cannot kill himself, as his children still “chain” him “down to life”. He nevertheless still waits for the day that his children will become self-sufficient so he can “smile at” his “discharge from care, and shut out the light”.

In conclusion, Hill recounts the speaker’s memories of his wife and the time they shared together in the room to contrast how miserable he is now in her absence. Hill then has the speaker go on to make general comments on morality, as the he treats life as a repugnant character who intentionally makes people miserable. This general moralising could only ever be related to by the speaker, however. In the end, what seems a complicated combination of personalised lament and general moralising turns out to be a rather simple story of sorrow as the speaker battles to discover how to go on living life when the only cure for his pain would be death and to be reunited with his wife.

Word Count: 2110

Internet 1- {} Consulted on 03/03/14
Gerrard, Christine, 2003. Aaron Hill: The Muses’ Projector 1685-1750. Oxford: New York

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