Hardy opens the poem by setting the scene in the spring-time in Cornwall over forty years earlier. He paints a magical picture whose backdrop is the sea with its jewel like colors, shimmering between creamy opals with iridescent lights, to sapphire blue. ‘The woman’ is riding while Hardy bicycles beside her. There is no main clause in this sentence: it sets the scene and we wait until the second verse to find out what is happening.
The opening verses are full of carefree happy words, like free (verse 1) and light heartedly (verse 2) and the bright jewel colors of the sea and the brightness of the woman’s hair: ‘opal and …..Sapphire…..bright hair’. The exclamation, ‘O’ lends the lines enthusiasm and excitement. The beautiful romantic landscape forms a fitting setting to the love of ‘the woman’ and the writer: “The woman whom I loved so, and who loyally loved me”. This sentence can be taken as an emphasis on the perfect instance of their love.
The second verse focuses on the sound of the sea. The lovers are above the seagulls and the sea, which occupies a lower sky. I think the idea here is that it can often be hard to tell where sky stops and sea begins. So the sea far below them looks like a lower sky. The fact that they seem to be above the sky adds to the sense of their exhilaration. The mewing of the seagulls and the babbling of the waves is far away from them. The repeated ‘ay’ sound and the pairs of alliterated words convey the distant noise of the waves and the gulls: pale, plained, waves, away, saying, say. The sense of distance is underlined by the contrasting ‘nether’ and ‘aloft’. The waves babble onomatopoeically, with repeated s’s and ls: ‘engrossed in saying their ceaseless babbling say’. They are also ‘engrossed’ in their babbling say, so that the lovers are not impinged upon by the waves and they ‘laughed lightheartedly aloft’. The alliteration links them and adds to their sense of oneness, as does the consonance of ‘laughed’ and ‘aloft’. I think that the rhythm breaks a little, with ‘laughed lightheartedly aloft on that clear- sunned March day’ as if the lovers are free from even the clutches of rhythmic constraints in their new found happiness. It is as if the stresses bounce waywardly on the important words, emphasizing the laughter and the spring sun.
The first verse has focused on colors and on ‘the woman’; the second on the sounds of the gulls and the waves and on the laughter of the lovers in the spring. In the third verse there is a little shower of the kind that you can see driven across the sea towards the cliffs where you are walking.
The verbs associated with weather are full of energy: ‘flew’ and ‘burst’. However, this brief change in the weather signals a change of direction in the poem. The first three verses have been in the past tense as Hardy momentarily recaptures the place, the lovers and the feelings of 43 years earlier.
With the fourth verse the poem moves in the present tense. The place is the same: ‘still in all its chasmal beauty bulks old Beeny to the sky’. ‘Chasmal’ seems to be a coined word, chasm meaning an abyss and also meaning a separation, a rift. It would thus also suggest the difference between that happy time forty-three years earlier and the grief stricken present and, perhaps, the estrangement between Hardy and his wife that had later saddened the marriage. But if Hardy has so many memories of her and of the happiness that they shared together as they rode and walked along the cliff, Emma is now dead and it means nothing to him anymore. The ‘wandering western sea’ of verse 1 has become ‘that wild weird western shore’. ‘The woman riding high above with bright hair flapping free, the woman whom I loved so, and who loyally loved me’ has become ‘the woman now is elsewhere whom the ambling pony bore, and nor knows and nor cares for beeny and will laugh there nevermore.’ It is as if Hardy cannot bear to speak aloud the word ‘dead’ and seeks comfort in evasion ‘-elsewhere’. The last line is filled with negatives: ‘nor’, ‘nor’, ‘nevermore’. The feelings and laughter have dwindled to desolation: ‘nor knows nor cares’. This is the definition of Emma’s death. Hardy is alone. The ‘we’ and ‘us’ of verses 2 and 3 are gone. He conveys the desolation and loneliness of his life without Emma very effectively.
While the tone of the poem is that of melancholy, the reminiscence is lighter and fonder. Stanza 1 and 2 of the poem recalls a romantic and happy time, while stanza 3 sees the stirrings of trouble in their relationship. In stanza 4 the poet points out at the things that might have been and in stanza 5 the poet is emphasizing the fact that human life/love is fleeting and illustrates that the landscape/nature (Benny cliff) will always exist. The rhyme scheme is that of AAA, BBB, CCC, etc.
Theme and Central Idea:
Benny Cliff is a pessimistic poem in that the past cannot be recaptured here. In this the poet is mourning at the death of his wife, Emma. This poem is an elegy that the poet has written for his wife. The poet recounts the memories of his love life with his beloved wife and lives through it.