Best and Worst Poems of Thomas Hardy
By Thomas Tyrrell
The collected poems of Thomas Hardy is a brick, even by the standards of collected works. An average edition runs to 947 separate poems across 1002 pages, counting the index and the notes. It’s an incredible body of work from a Victorian author far more renown for his novels, even if he did devote the later part of his career exclusively to writing and publishing poetry.
Most readers of poetry have never gone further than the handful of poems that have become anthology favourites, but over four months last year I worked through the whole book from cover to cover, at the rate of ten poems a day. What I discovered is firstly, that Hardy’s poetry is remarkably consistent, and secondly, that he returns repeatedly to the same themes. This consistency means that while deciding which is the best Thomas Hardy poem is almost impossible, the absolute worst poem, Genoa and the Mediterranean, is easy to spot, and plumbs a depth of pompous silliness never thereafter attainted. The repeated themes mean that many poems that rarely see the light of day are as good or better than usual representative pieces that get printed over and over again. Anthologies of Hardy’s love poems used to be popular, but it would be just as easy to make up anthologies on the subject of War, Nature, Ghosts, or Religious Doubt. By limiting our reading to a trimmed slimmed selection we do the poet wrong, for it is his enthusiasm to engage with the big themes and explore them from many angles that forms Hardy’s greatest achievement. Here below are a few of the lesser known poems exploring these themes.
Living an age when Victorian science was beginning to dismantle many of the key props of the Christian worldview, much of Hardy’s poetry wrestles with the dismaying Victorian experience of losing one’s faith. The most famous examples are The Oxen, a touching elegy for an earlier era of belief, and God’s Funeral, a formal mourning procession for the deceased deity. A Drizzling Easter Morning and the late bitter epigram Christmas 1924 make great, neglected companions for The Oxen. God’s Funeral is best followed by one of Hardy's favourite subgenres, the many poems where the narrator harangues God, and/or God harangues humanity (one might call them deitribes). Examples include Doom and She, A Plaint to Man, By the Earth’s Corpse and (perhaps the best of them) God-Forgotten. A late discovery in my reading was the innocuously named Drinking Song, printed in Hardy’s last collection of poetry, a poem which narrates the triumph of science all the way from Copernicus to Darwin… and beyond.
And now comes Einstein with a notion—
Not yet quite clear
To many here—
That’s there’s no time, no space, no motion,
Nor rathe nor late,
Nor square nor straight,
But just a sort of bending-ocean.
I had no idea Hardy and Einstein overlapped, and the idea of the ninety-year old poet sitting up late at nights puzzling over the theory of relativity delights me.
I love a good Edwardian ghost story, and some of Hardy’s chillers are as good as anything by M.R. James. Something Tapped, a title well worth stealing, distils the shudders down into three verses of four lines each.
Something tapped on the pane of my room
When there was never a trace
Of wind or rain, and I saw in the gloom
My weary Beloved's face.
"O I am tired of waiting," she said,
"Night, morn, noon, afternoon;
So cold it is in my lonely bed,
And I thought you would join me soon!”
I rose and neared the window-glass,
But vanished thence had she:
Only a pallid moth, alas,
Tapped at the pane for me.
The Glimpse and The Second Night are eerie tales of men haunted by their dead lovers, while The Dead Quire, The Choirmaster’s Burial, No Bell Ringing and The Paphian Ball are no less effective because they use the supernatural to point a Christian moral, despite the author's own religious disbelief.
Hardy’s best love poems are in the elegiac mood, and for once here I have to agree with the anthology wisdom; he wrote a whole suite of poems following the death of his first wife, but nothing can touch The Voice for sheer musicality and depth of emotion. Triple rhymes, usually employed for comic effect, serve to give the poem a haunting, diminishing rhythm that perfectly suits the poem’s tone.
Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Telling me you are not now as you were
When you had changed from the one that was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.
Perhaps less satisfying is another fixation of Hardy’s: the story of a young man journeying to visit an sweetheart he remembers from the halcyon days of his youth, only to find she is old, ugly, or—horror of horrors—a barmaid. Like it or loathe it (and I don’t like it much) they’re a fixture of the works, from Amabel in his first collection to The Woman Who Went East in the last.
You could probably assemble from the works a collection of sunny poems for besotted lovers to read to one another whilst punting, poems like I sometimes think or To a lady playing and singing in the morning, but most of them are like a pailful of cold water in the face. In Hardy, the course of true love never does run smooth.
As a novelist, Thomas Hardy put his characters through the wringer with a willingness that rivals George R.R. Martin. Neither are his poems rosy tinted: some of my content notes read ‘Dog drowns’, ‘Woman goes mad’, ‘Dark as all hell’ and ‘Crabs on his face’. For tragic endings, there’s little to beat A Sunday Morning Tragedy, a tale of botched abortion, or San Sebastian, a character study of a rapist’s remorse. Both guaranteed to make the reader shudder.
Others poems lay the blame more squarely at society’s door, such as The Vampirine Fair, in which a scheming woman steals her lover’s estate out from under him, and which has some fine passages of brutal irony.
And while I searched his cabinet
For letters, keys, or will,
'Twas touching that his gaze was set
With love upon me still.
And when I burnt each document
Before his dying eyes,
'Twas sweet that he did not resent
My fear of compromise.
The steeple-cock gleamed golden when
I watched his spirit go:
And I became repentant then
That I had wrecked him so.
Meanwhile, The Ruined Maid is reminiscent of George Bernard Shaw in its send-up of Victorian attitudes to prostitution. Hardy’s earlier career as a novelist is perhaps most evident in these novels in miniature, each presenting in a few dozen lines the kind of scenario that could easily fill a three-volume novel.
Hardy is fascinated with the Battle of the Waterloo in the same way we’re fascinated with 9/11. It changed the course of whole nations, and yet, had any of the circumstances been different, the whole outcome might have altered. His obsession with the Napoleonic Wars would eventually develop into the unperformable 131-scene verse drama, The Dynasts, but a brief song from that play, The Eve of Waterloo, coupled with The Peasant’s Confession from Hardy’s first collection will probably suffice for all but die-hard Hardy enthusiasts.
The Boer War broke out during Hardy’s emergence as a public poet, but his war poems are equivocal in the extreme. He comes closest to exhortation in the likeable bluff officer presented in The Colonel’s Soliloquy, but dwells most often on the fears of the women left behind. Drummer Hodge, the most famous poem of the sequence, anticipates Rupert Brooke’s famous lines about there being ‘some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England’, but the transformation Hardy describes is much richer, stranger and more Shakespearean.
Young Hodge the Drummer never knew—
Fresh from his Wessex home—
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
The Bush, the dusty loam,
And why uprose to nightly view
Strange stars amid the gloam.
Yet portion of that unknown plain
Will Hodge for ever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
His stars eternally.
World War One found him officially called upon to join the patriotic poetry movement urging men to join up and do their bit. The poems from that era are an odd mixture of on-message propaganda, such Men Who March Away and A Call To National Service, and moments where the pity of it seems to catch hold of him, such as the (still relevant) His Country and the bitterly self-accusatory I Looked Up From My Writing. Unlike Wilfrid Owen or Siegfried Sasson, he never fought in the army, and his disillusionment is not equal to theirs. He sees the War not as a crisis point where the horror of modern mechanised warfare became apparent, but as the continuation of old foolish habits of struggle, a worldview best expressed in Channel Firing, where the guns are heard roaring ‘As far inland as Stourton Tower, / And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.’
Hardy’s verse flowed best at midwinter, peaking around new year, and accordingly there’s a pronounced winteriness to his best nature verses. Though Hardy may occasionally venture as far as The Later Autumn, most of his poems are as the title of his last collection would have it, Winter Words. Snow in the Suburbs, A Light Snow-Fall after Frost and Winter Night in Woodland are perfect verses of their kind, poems that keep the narrator, the moral and the self as far out of it as possible and aim entirely at description. The poems that dare to poach on Wordsworth’s grounds and present the poet in his relationship to nature are rarer and more celebrated: we have to turn to The Darkling Thrush or Hardy's delicate elegy on himself, Afterwards.
When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say,
"He was a man who used to notice such things"?
If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid’s soundless blink,
The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn, a gazer may think,
"To him this must have been a familiar sight.”
The poem’s season may be May, but the mood throughout is autumnal, its subject being the autumn of Hardy’s own life. He may not be a poet for the whole year, but as a poet for the darker seasons he has rarely been surpassed.
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