'The ultimate aim of the poet should be to touch our hearts by showing his own'
(Hardy quotes from Leslie Stephen in his notebook on 1 July 1879)
'If Galileo had said in verse that the world moved, the Inquisition might have left him alone’.
(Thomas Hardy in The Life of Thomas Hardy)
‘Now there is clarity. There is the harvest of having written twenty novels first…’
‘The trenchant simplicity of his assumption that poetry was an entirely natural medium of expression, and, as such, entirely appropriate to any human situation.’
‘My opinion is that a poet should express the emotion of all the ages and the thought of his own.’
(Thomas Hardy in The Life of Thomas Hardy)
When in 1898 Thomas Hardy published his first book of verse, Wessex Poems, he was already famous as a novelist. It was the hostile reception of his novel, Jude the Obscure, in 1896 which had finally changed him from novelist to poet. In Jude he had tried to deal in a serious way with the agony of a man torn between two women – one promiscuous and the other an intellectual. Hardy’s frank treatment of the subject was condemned by some of the most powerful Victorian critics and he was viciously and unfairly attacked as an immoral writer and an opponent of marriage. Anonymous and libellous letters were sent to him at his home at Max Gate, and he even received a letter containing a packet of ashes which were said to be those of his wicked book! Always a sensitive man, he was very hurt by these scurrilous attacks and he turned to poetry in the hope that as he wrote in his journal:
I can express more fully in verse ideas and emotions which run counter to the inert crystallized opinion – hard as a rock – which the vast body of men have vested interests in supporting … If Galileo had said in verse that the world moved, the Inquisition might have left him alone.
+ Hardy's life a poet
He had always loved poetry and he believed, as he once wrote, that ‘in verse is concentrated the essence of all imaginative and emotional literature’. His first poem known to have survived, ‘Domicilium’, is a description of his cottage home at Higher Bockhampton and was written when he was about eighteen. His ambition was to be a writer and while in London in the 1860s practising as an architect he had often written poems, which he tells us he had failed to get them published. Always a careful and methodical man, he kept some of these poems by him and many years later they were to appear, sometimes in a revised form, in the books published as his fame as a poet grew. It is not easy to arrange Hardy’s poems in a strict chronological order because of his habit of unearthing poems written many years earlier and publishing them sometimes, but not always, with the date on which they were originally written.
There can be few poets who have published their first book of verse when they were nearly sixty, but for Hardy this was just the beginning. When he died in 1928 he had published a further six books of verse, and a last book, Winter Words, was published shortly after his death. He had hoped that he might live to be the only English poet ever to publish a book of poems on his ninetieth birthday. Most of these eight books of verse contain at least one hundred poems, and in his Collected Poems, published in 1930 there were nearly a thousand poems – a remarkable testimony to the creativity of this remarkable man. Quantity is not a virtue, but it is of interest that as distinguished a poet and critic as Philip Larkin has said of the Collected Poems:
I love the great Collected Hardy which runs for something like 800 pages. One can read him for years and years and still be surprised, and I think that’s a marvellous thing to find in any poet.
No selection of Hardy’s verse can do justice to this creative miracle, and it is to the Collected Poems (now entitled The Complete Poems), which have been continuously in print for eighty years, that the real lover of the poetry must eventually go.
+ The greatness of Hardy's poetry
What do we mean by ‘greatness’ in poetry and what possible relevance can Hardy’s poetry have for us today? In an important sense these two questions are connected because it is a feature of all truly great writing that it transcends its own time and remains relevant for future generations. This doesn’t mean that the poet sets out to write about vague immortal subjects in a remote and artificial language. He doesn’t. Nobody could have his feet more firmly on the ground than Hardy. What it means is that whatever subject he is dealing with he is able through the strength of his own feelings and his powers of expression to make us – far away from him in time and space – share his feelings. This is what we mean when we talk about the ‘universality’ of a great writer’s work. Shakespeare and Wordsworth and Hardy may have lived in worlds very different from ours today, but what we have in common with them is far more important than what is different. The internal is what matters finally – not the external. Whether we are old or young, black or white, rich or poor, live in the sixteenth century or the twenty-first, we all have certain feelings that we share. Most of us fall in love, have (most of the time!) love for our parents and children, are capable of feeling sympathy, of experiencing happiness and sadness, and, in fact, feeling in many vital ways much as the great writers of the past convince us they felt. The future for mankind depends upon our realising how much we all have in common, and great writers like Hardy saw this and help us to see it. When he talks about religion and poetry touching each other, as he does in the introduction to one of his books of verse, this is what he means. In the middle of the bloodiest war of all time, Hardy was able to write:
Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by:
War’s annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die
We feel with Hardy the inescapable truth of this. We are separated by war but joined by our ability to feel love. War is destructive but love is creative, and in spite of wars men and women will continue to fall in love.
+ Hardy's Universality
If you read the poem, ‘In Time of the “Breaking of Nations”’, from which that stanza comes, you will see how simply and yet powerfully, in a bare twelve lines, Hardy has said something which is of a universal nature, as true now as when it was written, as true in Africa as in Europe. The tractor has taken the place of the horse, but our deeper needs still require us to be creative, to produce food, to fall in love, to have children. Life seems to become ever more complex, but Hardy’s poem by its very simplicity says to us that it is the simple, lasting things which really matter.
+ Hardy's Craftmanship
But feelings alone do not make a great poem. There must also be a distinctive control of the techniques of writing verse. The good poet must not only be able to feel, he must be able to express what he feels in memorable language and a unique style.
His long period of novel writing had made him a craftsman in words. Hardy is a far more sensitive user of language than are some of the literary critics who call him awkward will allow. You will find, too, as you read through his poems that inspired descriptions like ‘time-torn man’, ‘mothy and warm’, ‘morning harden upon the wall’, ‘the hope-hour’, and ‘bulks old Beeny to the sky’ stay in the memory because of their rich suggestiveness and provide yet more evidence of Hardy’s claim to be a great poet.
His rhythms, too, are anything but awkward. He said himself that there was a natural music in the sincere language of the emotions and we hear this music throughout his verse. If you really look closely at a Hardy poem you will find that he is a very clever and careful craftsman. Just notice how many different stanza shapes he uses in this selection alone, and each shape is a piece of craftsmanship carefully designed for a particular purpose. He came from a long line of Dorset craftsmen – his father and grandfather were builders and stone-masons – who took pride in their work, and Hardy carried on in his writing their traditions of doing a job well. You will have to look closely because his is an art which conceals art. A great writer’s personality and style are always distinguishable from those of other writers.
+ Hardy's Range
There are other features of his poetry which deserve mention. There is the sheer range of subject matter. It has been said of Hardy that he is great only in respect of about a dozen poems written after the death of his first wife. These poems do, indeed, represent the summit of his poetry, but it would be stupid to regard everything else as second-class. Is it likely that a man who wrote twelve great poems should write nearly another thousand that were definitely not great? That it was not just the death of his wife which could inspire him to write great poetry is clear from any study of his verse. Where is there to be found a greater poem about the waste and sadness of war than ‘Drummer Hodge’ written, incidentally, years before Sassoon and Owen wrote their poems about the pity and horror of war? Is there a finer occasional poem – that is one written about a public event – than ‘The Convergence of the Twain’ about the sinking of the Titanic, or a greater poem about man’s need for something to believe in than ‘The Oxen’, or a more moving poem about the death of a pet than ‘Last Words to a Dumb Friend?
Where are there to be found better narrative poems than those you will find in his Complete Poems? Hardy loved strange and exciting stories and he had been brought up on the old ballads with their drama and sudden death, their strong rhythms and wistful refrains. An excellent example is ‘A Trampwoman’s Tragedy’. Hardy himself thought that this was one of his most successful poems. There are, too, the straightforward descriptive poems which he wrote so well about the country and the country life. He not only loved the country but he observed it most sensitively, and acute powers of observation are another gift of the great poet. Having been brought up in the country and knowing it in all its moods, he didn’t sentimentalise it as so many poets have done. He sees it in good weather and bad, he knows that the ‘merry month of May’ is not always merry and that the leaves tremble in October. His country people are real people, who, no matter what the weather, must go to market for provisions and count their sheep in the ‘sour spring wind’. Here in all these poems on all these different aspects of life is ‘God’s plenty’ and it is not surprising that a critic described this great span of poetry as an ‘imaginative record or commentary of life’. That describes it exactly. There is nothing narrow about Hardy. His canvas is the whole of life and there is no subject so small that he cannot make poetry out of it.
+ Personal Qualities
Yet though his range is so wide, most of Hardy’s poetry is very personal. Some of it is obviously about himself, about his parents, his childhood, his marriage, the death of his wife, and his growing old. And even when he is writing about the subjects which do not seem directly related to him personally, the reader senses that he is very much involved.
As we read his poetry we feel that we are listening to another human being very like ourselves in spite of his great gifts. He is so much one of the people, intensely interested in people, and we, as people ourselves, feel an interest in him. He himself in one of his notebooks quoted approvingly this belief of another Victorian writer:
The ultimate aim of the writer should be to touch our hearts by showing his own, and not to exhibit his learning or his fine taste.
When all is said, it remains for you to judge to what extent Hardy is successful in touching your heart.