Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Hardy's poetry: downbeat but great

Thomas Hardy's novels have such high profile via the many film and TV adaptations that it's easy to forget that Hardy was a prolific poet. He's buried 1 in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey; he called poetry his "first love", and he especially focused on it in later life, after the negative reviews of Jude the Obscure soured the experience of novel-writing, and after the death of his first wife in 1912. Not only was he prolific; nowadays he is critically viewed as a great, and groundbreaking, poet. The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Literature in English says of him:

He ... anticipated Modernism in breaking with the conventions of literary usage which usage which increasingly constrained Victorian poetry ... His poetry's fidelity to ordinary patterns of speech is matched by the realism and accessibility with which he treats a remarkable range of subjects; he may be approached as a nature poet, a topographical poet, a poet of London, of rural custom, of love, and of grief. His achievement as a poet was not fully recognized until after his death

I probably made a mistake some years back in first trying to read his Napoleonic War epic The Dynasts (Gutenberg EText-No. 4043), which although in verse is more of a "closet drama" - something like a movie screenplay - and considerably experimental. However, his works in conventional poetry - Wessex Poems and Other Verses onward - are far more accessible, and I think he's extremely good, as long as you don't mind him being extremely downbeat.

Many of the themes in his poetry are recognisable as those of the novels. Rural scenery, especially Dorset, features often, as do wry situations and black humour. I'll single out Satires of Circumstance as a current favourite for its dark and unsettling vignettes about human character. In "In Church", a Bible class student idolises the vicar for his emotional sermons, until she peeks into the vestry and sees him rehearsing the choreography. In "In the Cemetery", the sexton watches mothers squabbling over their children's graves, he knowing that he has moved all them all to a common grave to make room for a drain. In "Outside the Window", an accidentally eavesdropping young man catches a glimpse of his girlfriend's foul temper, and decides it's better to walk away. In "At the Draper's", a man discovers his wife shopping for a widow's dress. "On the Death-Bed" concerns a man's confession of using wartime as an opportunity to murder a rival.

This general fatalism pervades Hardy's poems, and a great many combine nostalgia with regret over lost loved ones and lost opportunities. It's hard not to relate this to Hardy's life and his childless and unhappy marriage to Emma Gifford, when there had been other women in his life who made an impression, notably Tryphena Sparks, memorialised in "Thoughts of Phena at the News of Her Death", and Florence Henniker, the probable model for the free-spirited Sue Bridehead in Jude the Obscure. And yet the second half of Satires of Circumstance is a series of love poems to his long-estranged wife; as discussed in A Pessimist in Flower, The love songs of Thomas Hardy (Meghan O'Rourke, Slate, Jan. 18, 2007), his motivation is complex, if not unfathomable.

There's a selection of Hardy's poetry in convenient format at Thomas Hardy and his Wessex. Elsewhere, the majority of his works are online at Project Gutenberg: Wessex Poems and Other Verses (1898), Poems of the Past and the Present (1901), Time's Laughingstocks, and Other Verses (1909), Satires of Circumstance (1914), Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (1917) and Late Lyrics and Earlier, With Many Other Verses (1922). Although I'm pretty sure they're out of copyright - 70 years after Hardy's death has elapsed - I can't find online his last two collections, Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs and Trifles (1925) and Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres (1928).

A look at the reviews and separate poems online suggest the last two are more of the same; Rosemarie Morgan's Student Companion to Thomas Hardy says of Human Shows:

Human Shows is filled with loneliness, what one American contemporary, Isabelle Wentworth Lawrence, described as the "essential but terrible loneliness of the individual human soul" (Boston Evening Transcript, January 1926). The loneliness lingers at familiar thresholds, spiritually silenced: "And mute by the gate I stand again alone, /And nobody pulls up there" ("Nobody Comes")

Winter Words, summarised as a "superb volume" in Harold Bloom's A Map of Misreading (see page 23 and thereabouts) is more or less Hardy's elegy to himself. It contains his chosen final poem "He Resolves To Say No More" and what Bloom describes as it as what "may be the bleakest sonnet in the language", "We are Getting to the End":

We are getting to the end of visioning
The impossible within this universe,
Such as that better whiles may follow worse,
Or that our race may mend by reasoning.

We know that even as larks in cages sing
Unthoughtful of deliverance from the curse
That holds them lifelong in a latticed hearse,
We ply spasmodically our pleasuring.

And that when nations set them to lay waste
Their neighbours' heritage by foot and horse,
And hack their pleasant plains in festering seams,
They may again,—not warely, or from taste,
But tickled mad by some demonic force.—
Yes. We are getting to the end of dreams!

The dates of the poetry are a little surprising; Hardy (again perhaps because of the high profile of the novels) has the feel of a Victorian author, but most of his poetic work was early 20th century, notably the 1912 The Convergence of the Twain subtitled (Lines on the loss of the "Titanic") 2. It was controversial - see Human Fallibility in Thomas Hardy's "Convergence of the Twain" (April, 1912) at The Victorian Web - for its general lack of focus on the human tragedy; it strongly implies the Titanic 'had it coming' as an embodiment of human vanity, and that the final meeting of ship and iceberg was a mutual destiny:

Alien they seemed to be;
No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,

Or sign that they were bent
By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,

Till the Spinner of the Years
Said "Now!" And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

I find that last line quite chilling; a couple of decades later, that could easily have been an allusion to the detonation of the "Fat Man" nuclear bomb, whose core consisted of two plutonium hemispheres brought together to create a critical mass.

Before I depress readers to the point where they need to listen to some Leonard Cohen to cheer them up, I'll finish with Hardy's The Ruined Maid. and Great Things. While undoubtedly the first impinges on major social issues - see The Victorian Web again - and the second has a certain wistfulness, they shows Hardy was capable of lightening up on occasion.

The Ruined Maid

"O 'Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?"
"O didn't you know I'd been ruined?" said she.

"You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,
Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks;
And now you've gay bracelets and bright feathers three!"
"Yes: that's how we dress when we're ruined," said she.

-"At home in the barton you said 'thee' and 'thou,'
And 'thik oon,' and 'theƤs oon,' and 't'other'; but now
Your talking quite fits 'ee for high compa-ny!"
"Some polish is gained with one's ruin," said she.

"Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak
But now I'm bewitched by your delicate cheek,
And your little gloves fit as on any la-dy!"
"We never do work when we're ruined," said she.

"You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream,
And you'd sigh, and you'd sock; but at present you seem
To know not of megrims or melancho-ly!"
"True. One's pretty lively when ruined," said she.

"I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!"
"My dear a raw country girl, such as you be,
Cannot quite expect that. You ain't ruined," said she.

Great Things

Sweet cyder is a great thing,
A great thing to me,
Spinning down to Weymouth town
By Ridgway thirstily,
And maid and mistress summoning
Who tend the hostelry:
O cyder is a great thing,
A great thing to me!

The dance it is a great thing,
A great thing to me,
With candles lit and partners fit
For night-long revelry.
And going home when day-dawning
Peeps pale upon the lea:
O dancing is a great thing,
A great thing to me!

Love is, yea, a great thing,
A great thing to me,
When, having drawn across the lawn
In darkness silently,
A figure flits like one a-wing
Out from the nearest tree:
O love is, yes, a great thing,
Aye, greatest thing to me!

Will these be always great things
Greatest things to me? . . .
Let it befall that one will call
"Soul, I have need of thee":
What then? Joy-jaunts, impassioned flings,
Love, and its ecstasy
Will always have been great things,
Greatest things to me!

- Ray

1. Most of him, anyway. His heart is buried in his wife's grave in Stinsford, Dorset; though there's also a literary legend that when the heart was excised, it was left on the kitchen table and carried off by the surgeon's cat.
2. The one on which the Simon Armitage 9/11 poem of the same name was based.


  1. Hardy is much more readable as a poet than as a novelist, I think. Perhaps just because the poetry comes in smaller doses. And like Leonard Cohen, he has his moments of dark humour.

    I'm sure there is a similar story about the cat running off with Lord Byron's heart, but I can't find a reference for it.

  2. Oops! sorry, I meant Shelley - still can't find a source though.

  3. I like the Titanic poem but it is a bit beyond astonishing that, though there is personification, there are no people in the whole poem. The event is too specific to ignore the particular individual tragedy of the deaths of all those people -- which deaths are required/used to emotionally "load" Hardy's intent.

  4. cat running off with Lord Byron's heart

    I Googled this - cat heart Byron - before reading your correction. It produces some very peculiar results that aren't in the text: "But thou must cat thy heart away!" ... "Cat to his heart again" ... "warm and sublime in the cat Of an Irishman's heart" ... "General Lord Cat heart (1756-1843)"

  5. A million years ago, when I was "doing" A-level EngLit, I discovered Hardy's poetry as a guilty pleasure side dish from the novels I was supposed to be studying. The seemed much more human, to me.

    Then, for some reason, I forgot all about them for nearly four decades ... thank you for reminding me :-)