by Irving Howe
Macmillan (Masters of World Literature Series), 206 pp., $4.95
“A desolating wind wandered from the north over the hill…” “The sombre stretch of rounds and hollows seemed to rise and meet the evening gloom…” A solitary figure—or a van, a gig, a spring-cart, a wagon—appears upon the deserted highway, or “the pale thoroughfare,” or “the long laborious road, dry, empty and white.” We are in Wessex again, on the eternal vale, barrow, down, verge, upland, fallow, or “featureless convexity of chalk and soil.” “It was one of those sequestered spots outside the gates of the world where…dramas of a grandeur and unity truly Sophoclean are enacted in the real.” Or, “one of the spots which suggest to a passer-by that he is in the presence of a shape approaching the indestructible.” Or, “It had a lonely face, suggesting tragical possibilities.”
Thus the unchanging moonscape of Hardyland reaches out to engulf us at the outset of all the Wessex novels, a variety of which are represented by these quotations. The theatrical lighting, the arranged silhouettes, the mournful vocables, the rhetoric, the archaisms, and even the occasional pointers to classical authorities, all alert us to expect an encounter with destiny on the grand scale. Because of Hardy’s evident pretensions—because, as E. M. Forster puts it, his novels are designed “to give out the sound of hammerstrokes as they proceed”—the reader can hardly stand indifferent: he either plunges into Hardy’s world with glad anticipation of “tragical possibilities”—or runs as fast as exasperation will carry him, the other way. A middling response to Hardy has in fact been something of a rarity. In the century that has passed since Hardy first took to novel-writing, critical reaction to his work has careened from extreme to extreme, somewhat along the lines of Eliot’s remark at the expense of Hardy’s style. That is, his novels have been considered alternately vile or sublime, “without ever having passed through the stage of being good.”
Hardy is either a marvelous natural storyteller, or a terrible bore. He either raises melodrama to the level of myth, or uses it to pad out his serials. His Wessex is either one of the great imaginary geographies, or an implausible blur. In scenes of passion “Hardy can claim a place not much lower than that which the world has assigned to Shakespeare” (Carl Weber); or, “This extreme emotionalism seems to me a symptom of decadence” (T. S. Eliot). He is a shaper of the modern mind, or a shrewd appropriator of worn-out Victorian conventions. Either way, Hardy plainly knew what he was about. His crashing effects, rather like those in Wagner’s operas, may seem profundities or mere tricks. But Hardy’s conscious skill, like Wagner’s, is not in question.
The yea-sayers are still in the ascendancy. Hardy is perhaps the only English Victorian who has not been even temporarily dislodged from his place as classroom classic during the past half-century. It is now as one of the “Masters of World Literature …