Thomas Hardy - 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.
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!