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Following is a poem by Thomas Hardy. There are sentences 'Simple shepherds all' three times. I think these sentences are a kind of addressing towards shepherds(=audience). However, one of my friends who is a literary critic said this means that 'like you all(=shepherds)’.He analyzes that To-morrow is my working day Simple shepherds all--means "To-morrow is my working day, like you all shepherds" Is his interpretation possible in this context? I don't think so, but I cannot explain why his interpretation is not correct considering the meaning in context. Do you have any idea to explain this?

The Stranger's Song by Thomas Hardy (As sung by Mr. Charles Charrington in the play of The Three Wayfarers)

O my trade it is the rarest one,
Simple shepherds all--
My trade is a sight to see;
For my customers I tie, and take 'em up on high
And waft 'em to a far countree!

My tools are but common ones
Simple shepherds all--
My tools are no sight to see:
A little hempen string, and a post whereon to swing,
Are implements enough for me!

To-morrow is my working day,
Simple shepherds all--
To-morrow is a working day for me:
For the farmer's sheep is slain, and the lad who did it ta'en,
And on his soul may God ha' mer-cy!

Thomas Hardy's poem, The Stranger's song

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    Sounds to me like he is addressing a group of his peers, and they are all simple shepherds.
    – tripleee
    May 9, 2023 at 6:39

2 Answers 2

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Your interpretation is correct. Your friend's is not plausible. The speaker is a hangman, and he is addressing a group of shepherds. In the first verse, he tells the shepherds that he is a hangman; in the second verse, he describes his tools (noose and gibbet); and in the final, he says he will be hanging a sheep thief the next day.

The lines simply do not bear the interpretation that the hangman is saying that his trade, his tools, and his working day are "like you all shepherds". If the hangman wanted to say that he was like the shepherds, using simple tools and working the next day, there would be some indication of that. But on the contrary, he says his trade is the rarest one. In other words, it's special and unusual, it is not a simple trade like sheepherding. He's boasting to the shepherds about the fact that he's a hangman. He is not trying to build solidarity with them.

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While the hangman contrasts his trade with that of "[you] simple shepherds all" in a literal sense, the comparison itself (qualified by "simple"), and thematic development culminating in the symmetry between the farmer's sheep slain and the lad (to be slain), all support convergence in the third stanza on precisely this "misreading": That the hangman is a kind of shepherd after all, if a rare sort, as well we all may be.

Through parallel constructions, the second stanza intones irony internal to the hangman's profession: So rare a trade, so common its tools. Further, while the hangman's trade is embroidered as "a sight to see", its means are not to see, invoking our common fate, the darkness to come, as well as blind judgment.

In this pivotal stanza, one might simultaneously misread "simple shepherds" as the hangman's "tools...but common ones": In a literal sense, these common ones comprise the sociological scaffolding for the hanging--the audience may also be reminded that simple folk are, too, the raw material of this trade, and their corpses, the product.

In this way, each repetition of the phrase occasions poetic waypoints and departures along this trajectory among many, not a monotonous, solely structural or emphatic mechanism.

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  • This is certainly a very fine and convincing interpretation of the poem, and I've upvoted it. That said, the metaphoric valence of "simple shepherds all" doesn't erase its literal meaning. It is in the first place a vocative. You can say that "a vocative isn't all that it is". But the question was phrased as, "is this an address to the shepherds or something else?" The answer to that can be "it's both". The answer cannot be "it's something else."
    – verbose
    May 10, 2023 at 7:45
  • "My trade is a sight to see" must refer to the fact that hangings were public events, with spectators. The hangman's tools, however - unlike a hanging - are not especially interesting and thus "no sight to see." May 11, 2023 at 19:40

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