Thomas Hardy - an Analysis of a Great English Poet

Thomas Hardy - 1840-1928

Though Thomas Hardy is still best known as a novelist, his first love was poetry which he wrote throughout his long life.

However he did not publish any poetry until he was in his late fifties. Career-wise, he went through three distinct phases. Without independent means, he trained and worked as an architect with considerable success. Then, in 1872, aged 32, he published his first successful novel, Under the Greenwood Tree, followed two years later by Far from the Madding Crowd. The favourable public response to these early Wessex Novels encouraged him to quit architecture for a literary career.

His work was substantial rather than prolific. His settings are largely rural and traditional but he does not romanticise the lives of his characters; rather he shows us flawed people suffering the terrible consequences of bad choices, social inequality and societal prejudices. Some people understandably find his work depressing, but what lifts it to a higher plane is the author's huge compassion for the human race.

His two last novels, published in 1891 and 1895 are Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. Hardy recognised these as his greatest works, but the public, or more correctly the establishment, was not ready to accept the challenges to Victorian hypocrisy (in Tess) or Victorian morality (in Jude). Hardy was vilified in public and was so disillusioned at his treatment that he abandoned novel writing completely and turned his attention to poetry.

Thomas Hardy

a most humane man
a most humane man

Hardy - the Poet

Three years after his public humiliation, now aged 57, Hardy published Wessex Poems and Other Verses. Were these the poems of a 57 year-old? Yes and no. Hardy had lived with his poems for decades. Though some were conceived in his youth and middle years, they had grown to maturity with himself, through editing and final selection. His work is crafted, considered, refined and infinitely subtle.

From the writer of Tess and Jude, one would not expect a lot of jollity or gaiety, and indeed Hardy's poems tend to be sombre in tone, though often leavened with surprising metrical patterns borrowed from his local folk and church music. And always there is his huge love of humanity. Hardy is sometimes satirical, but never vicious.

Hardy - the Poems

Hardy's collected poetical work extends to about 1000 pages of verse. Here are some 'typical' examples, with my observations on each, which you may very well wish to ignore. What matters is the poetry, some of the finest in the English language.

My first choice is a very approachable poem, presented as a conversation, with no commentary by the poet. It is a typical Hardy theme - death, loss, and self realisation.

In the Moonlight
"O lonely workman, standing there
In a dream, why do you stare and stare
At her grave, as no other grave there were?

"If your great gaunt eyes so importune
Her soul by the shine of this corpse-cold moon,
Maybe you’ll raise her phantom soon!"

"Why, fool, it is what I would rather see
Than all the living folk there be;
But alas, there is no such joy for me!"

"Ah - she was one you loved, no doubt,
Through good and evil, through rain and drought,
And when she passed, all your sun went out?"

"Nay: she was the woman I did not love,
Whom all the others were ranked above,
Whom during her life I thought nothing of."

The dignity in grief of the workman is in stark contrast to the shallow talk of the uninvolved stranger with his ready conclusions and pat sympathy. And in the middle of the poem is the striking word, fool. In 19th Century no workman would address a gentleman as fool, unless, as in this case, suddenly snapped out of a 'dream' of introspection.

This next one is more complex. It is clearly autobiographical and gives an insight into the subtlety of Hardy's thoughts.

A Confession To A Friend in Trouble
Your troubles shrink not, though I feel them less
Here, far away, than when I tarried near;
I even smile old smiles--with listlessness--
Yet smiles they are, not ghastly mockeries mere.

A thought too strange to house within my brain
Haunting its outer precincts I discern:
--That I will not show zeal again to learn
Your griefs, and, sharing them, renew my pain....

It goes, like murky bird or buccaneer
That shapes its lawless figure on the main,
And each new impulse tends to make outflee
The unseemly instinct that had lodgment here;
Yet, comrade old, can bitterer knowledge be
Than that, though banned, such instinct was in me!

Presented as a sonnet, a form traditionally employed for introspection, the poet notices and abhors a fleeting thought of self-preservation at the expense of his old friend. The word of brilliance in this poem is bitterer, in the final couplet. It stumbles the hitherto smooth rhythm, drawing attention to itself as an analogy of the poet's sudden awareness of the thought.

Finally, one of Hardy's deepest poems from Winter Words, published posthumously in 1928, the year of his death.

Before life and after
A time there was - as one may guess
And as, indeed, earth's testimonies tell -
Before the birth of consciousness,
When all went well.

None suffered sickness, love, or loss,
None knew regret, starved hope, or heart-burnings;
None cared whatever crash or cross
Brought wrack to things.

If something ceased, no tongue bewailed,
If something winced and waned, no heart was wrung;
If brightness dimmed, and dark prevailed,
No sense was stung.

But the disease of feeling germed,
And primal rightness took the tinct of wrong;
Ere nescience shall be reaffirmed
How long, how long?

(In the first line of the final stanza, feeling is a noun and is the subject of germed, a verb meaning germinated). This poem stems from Hardy's conviction that if there was any creative force in the universe, it was wholly impersonal and neither moral nor immoral. Hardy is saying that good and evil are the children of consciousness. Nescience (lack of consciousness) is valueless but painless. He is raising the possibility that our state of awareness is a temporary aberration.

Thomas Hardy's place in literary history is assured by his novels. His poetry deserves to be better known. I hope that my tribute to a great English poet will bring him a few more readers.

Thank you for reading!

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Comments 39 comments

Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor

Ok -- I'm intrigued, and I didn't think I would be. I suppose I'm just familiar with the poems of his that are usually anthologised; you've shown me that there is more to Hardy than pawky sentimentality. Thank you. I'm a real fan of his prose and his take on this whole blighted apple, the earth, so thanks for showing me more.

tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 7 years ago from South Africa

Thanks Para - I've long been a fan of Hardy and I guess Jude is my favourite, though I love the other novels as well. I have also long been a fan of his poetry, and your description of his work: "substantial rather than prolific," seems so apt.

It is his humanity that shines through so clearly and movingly.

Love and peace


cindyvine profile image

cindyvine 7 years ago from Cape Town

Far from the madding crowd is my all time favourite novel

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Teresa - you need to read more of him. The anthologists were always catering to popular taste. Hardy wasn't.

Tonymac - Jude is a wonderful novel, as is Tess. The world he writes about is real and human, unlike the 'stupid' class-ridden world of Jane Austin. There are so many of his poems that I could have cited, but these three are always in my memory.

Cindy - It is a great novel. Have you read any of his later works? Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess, or Jude? He only got better!

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ColdWarBaby 7 years ago

You are a scholar and very well read it seems. I only wonder how you find the time.

You've introduced me to another source I never knew. Thanks for that.

I think the last is clearly the best. I often wonder myself if a world without the confusion of human emotions would be a better one. Is there some, as yet unknown, purpose for it or is it just an unfortunate, failed experiment of evolution?

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

CWB - thank you for that! The last one, Before life and after, was later set in a song cycle, Winter Words, by Benjamin Britten. The classic version is with Britten playing piano and Peater Pears (tenor) singing. Btw - the trigger for this Hardy hub was reading somewhere that he published his first poetry collection aged 57, which is my age. Maybe all is not lost!

cindyvine profile image

cindyvine 7 years ago from Cape Town

Yeah, have read some of the others but that one remains my favourite and loved the movie as well with Julie Christie and what was the name of the guy who starred as Gabriel Oak? I had the hots for him when I was at school. He looked so....manly.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Cindyvine - yes, that was a good movie. I'm no good on actors' names though. When I watch a movie I just decide it really is Gabriel Oak (or whoever) on the screen!

Melody Lagrimas profile image

Melody Lagrimas 7 years ago from Philippines

Although, I,ve heard is name, I am not so familiar with his works, thanks for sharing this.

Hope you caould take a look at my poetry hubs too.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Thanks Melody :) I'll take a look at yours too.

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ColdWarBaby 7 years ago

Alas, such fame oft comes not to the likes of you and I til we cast off this mortal coil.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

or not even then!

K.D. Clement profile image

K.D. Clement 7 years ago from USA

Wonderful hub. Love Hardy and love his poetry too. Tess and Jude are two of my most favorite novels of all time.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

K.D. Clement - mine too. Thanks for the read :)

countrywomen profile image

countrywomen 7 years ago from Washington, USA

WOW!! That is such a wonderful hub. I love poems but somehow my command of English language isn't sufficient for me to express myself. In school as long as we could convey the meaning we were given marks hence my grammar is weak and more ever I make lots of spelling mistakes too. I am planning to join our nearby community college this summer for a writing course to improve my English. I really admire the folks from UK for their command of the English language. No wonder some of the best poets came from UK (of course I admire some American poets too).

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Hi Countrywomen - Hardy was 57 before he published his poetry - there's plenty time for you yet :) Thanks for the read.

williamblake profile image

williamblake 7 years ago

I really enjoy the one of the english poet thomas hardy

Reena Daruwalla profile image

Reena Daruwalla 7 years ago from INDIA

I prefer Hardy the poet to Hardy the novelist. I always found his novels to be too grim; nothing nice ever seemed to happen to any of his characters.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Reena - I agree, the novels are pretty bleak. Very powerful and very well written, but not a bundle of fun! I enjoy them, but they don't suit every mood. Thanks for the visit :)

2uesday profile image

2uesday 7 years ago

I enjoyed this well written and interesting hub 'Tess' is a book I liked so much that after reading it in paper back I bought the book in a hardback copy. Some of his poetry I really enjoy at first reading other poems- I need to re-read sometime.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

2uesday - good to hear that TH is still selling hardbacks! Tess, I think, will still be around in 500 years. One of the great novels.

prettydarkhorse profile image

prettydarkhorse 7 years ago from US

Hi Dave, He lived well 88 years, I will search on his other works too, "He has compassion for the human race", that captivates me more,,,,then I agree with you ,he is a great poet and novelist, Have a good day, Maita

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

He also gives a very realistic picture of the English country life of the period. Not always pleasant, but perfectly (and sympathetically) observed. Happy reading!

Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 7 years ago from The English Midlands

Of Hardy's poems, I am most familiar with the war poems: 'A Wife in London' and 'Drummer Hodge' ~ both thought-provoking, I feel.

I have only read an abridged version of 'Tess of the Durbervilles'.

The one full-length Hardy novel that I have read is 'Under the Greenwood Tree'. It truly evokes a lost age.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Yes, Under the Greenwood Tree and Far from the Madding Crowd are very pastoral and of a lost age.

noah 6 years ago

Just came across Before Life and After in the song by Britten and was curious about the meaning since I have not read any of Hardy's poems. Now I would like to read more and I thank you for providing interesting background to this poem.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 6 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Hi Noah - I'm very fond of that Britten song cycle. Thanks for the visit :)

MathewDavidson 6 years ago

Thanks so much for sharing these poems. I had not yet discovered them. I am a fan of Thomas Hardy and I also believe his poetry is sadly underated. 'At Castle Boterel', 'The Convergance of the Twain', 'The Darkling Thrush' and 'Neutral Tones' are some of my faviroutes by him. His pure emotional honesty is incredible, and allows you to see into his soul. A man so troubled by time, who denotes his thoughts with such conviction- An underated idol for mankind

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 6 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Mathew - I had to look up 'Neutral Tones', but only because your choice of the previous three showed me you have a well-attuned 'ear' for Thomas Hardy. Wonder if you've read his novella, 'The Well-Beloved'?

Thanks for responding.

MathewDavidson 6 years ago

Ahh, Neutral Tones is a less complex poem in the light of Hardy's techniques. It is an astonishing poem, of the time Hardy seemed to realise that the love between himself and Emma had died. He draws a picture in neutral tones as the controlling metaphor, using absense of colour to denote how the world has been drained of meaning, hence the title. The title also refers to the tone in which Hardy writes this poem, as although the dying of love between Hardy and Emma must cause an outpour of feeling, Hardy remains emotionally restrained- critics have argued that this is an attempt to be objective, but others see it as a self-protective manouvre.

No I have not yet read 'The Well-Beloved', but I will look it up and let you know how I found it.


Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 6 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Thanks for that analysis. It is indeed a very personal 'context' poem, but no less powerful for that.

Sanjeev jha 5 years ago

You was the great poet of the world .Noone just like him

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

He was certainly up there with the greats.

snakeslane profile image

snakeslane 5 years ago from Canada

Thank you for the bio and poetry lesson, a generous contribution.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 5 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

snakeslane, thank you for the read and comment :)

marieryan profile image

marieryan 3 years ago from Andalusia, Spain

Hi Paraglider

My favourite Hardy novel is "The Mayor of Casterbridge" which I read and studied for GCSE English Literature Exam. Exam taken at 16 years in Britain. I didn't know about his poetry. Thanks so much for the hub.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 3 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

That's a good novel, Casterbridge. I think my favourite Hardy novel is Jude the Obscure, but I think also that depends what mood I'm in!

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Beth37 3 years ago

Very nice.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 3 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Thank you Beth, and welcome :)

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