The vehicle of a poem is the figure that carries the weight of the composition. The tenor is the subject to which the vehicle refers. (These useful terms come from I.A. Richards, author of Practical Criticism, which has the peculiar distinction of being the funniest work of literary criticism ever written.) Usually when two critics disagree about the meaning of the poem, one is reading at the level of the tenor, the other at the level of the vehicle. Great poetry succeeds at both levels. Consider J.V. Cunningham’s To the Reader:
Time will assuage.
Time’s verses bury
Margin and page
For gloss demands
A gloss annexed
Till busy hands
Blot out the text,
And all’s coherent.
Search in this gloss
No text inherent:
The text was loss.
The gain is gloss.
The vehicle here is scholarship, and how readily a work can be buried in the footnotes. On this level the poem is witty but not very profound. Yet there is the strange first line: Time will assuage — what exactly? What time always assuages: experience. What sort of experience? The answer is in the second-to-last-line, which refers to the text not as “lost,” as you might expect from the vehicle, but as “loss,” which is quite different. Cunningham is speaking of unhappy experience — but in general, rather than mourning some particular loss. The visceral quality of the experience necessarily diminishes as time passes. What is gained is “gloss” — only from a distance can you evaluate the experience and learn from it. The loss is real, but so is the gain, which may be sufficient compensation. This is the tenor.
To the Reader is remarkable in that every detail functions on both levels; most poems are sloppier. The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay, by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., is a more typical example. (It’s too long to reprint here, but go read it, it’s worth your time.) As Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities, pointed out a while ago, at the level of the tenor the poem deals with the implosion of American Protestantism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The shay’s career, like Protestantism’s collapse, begins with the Lisbon earthquake in 1755. Musil writes: “In America, the New England Protestants had their own interpretation of the earthquake: God was showing the world that what the world thought was ‘Godly’ just didn’t measure up to divine standards at all. So the New England Protestants set about redesigning their Calvinist faith.” Just as the Deacon, a cleric, builds his shay. One hundred years later, the attempted reforms of Protestantism collapse, just like the shay, and “Seventh Day Adventists, Mormonism, Unitarianism and many, many other new or revitalized religions emerged from that mid-19th-century religious ‘Big Bang.'”
The one-hoss shay, however, does not gradually fall apart, as religious reforms do. On the contrary, Holmes takes pains to point out that, since every part of the shay is precisely as well-constructed as every other, the end finds
The poor old chaise in a heap or mound,
As if it had been to the mill and ground!
You see, of course, if you’re not a dunce,
How it went to pieces all at once, –
All at once, and nothing first, –
Just as bubbles do when they burst.
Musil says about this that “Holmes exaggerates the precision of the collapse,” but there’s more to it than that. In fact this detail is irrelevant to the tenor but indispensable to the vehicle, which is literal in this case. The poem, at the level of the vehicle, satirizes engineering. (It is quite popular with engineers, and hangs in many workshops.) Every made object has a weakest point, where it eventually breaks. Holmes’ Deacon neatly solves the problem by building each part to last exactly one hundred years. This is a superb joke on engineering but has nothing to do with Protestantism, just as the shay’s birth on the day of the Lisbon earthquake has a great deal to do with Protestantism and nothing to do with engineering. Some details work on one level and some on the other, whereas Cunningham manages his two levels seamlessly. This is one distinction between great and less great poetry.
To return for the last time to the Thomas Hardy poem, My spirit will not haunt the mound, with which I began the series: at the level of the vehicle, the poet says that he will live on only in the memories of those who cared for him in life. But at the level of the tenor, however, Hardy is addressing not his friends, but his readers. Otherwise why is he writing poetry at all? The details of where his “phantom-footed shape will go” are notably general: there are “places,” and “ways,” and that’s all. The places and ways are real, and they are imagined. They are from his life and his writing both.