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Hardy Hardy

Thomas Hardy After Fifty Years

edited by Lance St John Butler
Rowman and Littlefield, 192 pp., $13.75

Thomas Hardy’s Later Years

by Robert Gittings
Atlantic/Little Brown, 244 pp., $12.50

Young Thomas Hardy

by Robert Gittings
Atlantic/Little Brown, 259 pp., $10.95

An Essay on Hardy

by John Bayley
Cambridge University Press, 237 pp., $14.95

The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy: Volume I, 1840-1892

edited by Richard Little Purdy, edited by Michael Millgate
Oxford University Press, 293 pp., $28.75

Thomas Hardy and the British Tradition

by Donald Davie
Oxford University Press, 202 pp., $8.95

The Complete Poems of Thomas Hardy

edited by James Gibson
Macmillan, 1,002 pp., $20.95

When I was a boy, all modernists were considered lunatics within the professional middle-class circle of my family. Yet the complete Wessex edition of Thomas Hardy’s novels and poems was on our bookshelves, and we read them. Tess of the d’Urbervilles was considered dangerous but dealing with A Serious Subject, and Jude the Obscure morbid, but not, like the works of the modernists, wild and immoral. I knew that Hardy had always wished to write poetry more than to write novels.

I mention these facts because some of the writers contributing to Lance St John Butler’s collection of essays on Hardy* appear to think that he has been forgotten or neglected until recently. Michael Alexander, in his piece on “Hardy Among the Poets,” produces the odd, and oddly expressed, opinion that today “while his name is held in affectionate respect, it does not raise the critical wind that has blown those of Yeats and Eliot into modern esteem.” Yet since the 1920s “critical esteem” has been blown on him by F.R. Leavis, I.A. Richards, D.H. Lawrence, John Crowe Ransom, W.H. Auden, Geoffrey Grigson, Philip Larkin, Donald Davie—just to mention a few names that leap to mind. Perhaps Mr. Alexander would protest that most of these are poets. He makes an exception of poets, who, he says, have never neglected Hardy. And a further point he makes is that Hardy is regarded as an Old Master. He is not among the moderns. Certainly in later life Hardy had the status almost of unofficial poet laureate of England (and he undoubtedly wrote more good poems celebrating public events than any other English poet I can think of). To mark the end of the nineteenth century, The Times published on December 31, 1899, the much anthologized “The Darkling Thrush.” When I was seventeen, I remember reading the poem beginning with the lines: “Yes; yes; I am old. In me appears / The history of a hundred years,” published in The Observer on March 14, 1926, for the centenary of that newspaper.

Hardy exercised a profound influence on the work of the most important poets of World War I: Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Thomas, Edmund Blunden, and also Wilfred Owen (despite a derogatory remark about him quoted by Robert Gittings from a letter of Owen). When the sixteen-year-old Auden one day, on a walk with a friend, made the rather arbitrary decision that he would write poetry, the extraordinarily competent first attempts he made were imitations of Thomas Hardy.

An important point made by Mark Alexander, which is also one made by John Bayley in his subtly argued An Essay on Hardy (of which more later), is that Hardy is both modern and traditional. Mark Alexander suggests that Hardy lost out on the aforementioned “critical wind” because “in the wake of Eliot’s impersonal strategy for poetry, with its associated irony, ambiguity and symbolic complexity, modern critics have found little to say about poetry which is not complex in this way. As Pound noted, when a writer’s matter is stated with such entirety and such clarity there is no place left for the explaining critics.” At the same time, Mr. Alexander notes, Hardy fulfills one of the criteria required by Pound for modern poetry: ” ‘direct treatment of the object’—the ‘natural object’ which, in Pound’s view, was ‘the proper and perfect symbol.’ “

Mr. Butler’s choice of authors perhaps illustrates the non-new-critical direction which English Hardy criticism will take. To me, the most illuminating essay in the volume is that by T.R.M. Creighton on Hardy’s religion in which the author argues that Hardy was a churchman who had lost his belief (Dr. Creighton distinguishes sharply between “belief” and “faith”) in religion, while retaining his love for the church. Nothing could be more wrong than T.S. Eliot’s judgment of him as “a powerful personality uncurbed by any institutional attachment or by submission to any objective beliefs.” Hardy lost his belief, but his attachment to the institutions of the Church remained the central spiritual passion of his life. And if this dilemma drove him onto the existentialism of the absurd, which links him with Samuel Beckett—for that is the view of Lance St John Butler in his essay “How it is for Thomas Hardy”—it saved him, as Dr. Creighton points out, from “entertaining any freer, looser expression of his religious impulses” and kept him “wandering in the deserts between Darwin and Jehovah instead of exploring their oases.”

Dr. Creighton also argues very effectively that Hardy’s view of human love is essentially prelapsarian. “The prelapsarian vision of sexual love is evident in all the poems of recollection of the St. Juliot idyll. It is no derogation from the greatness of the poems to say that they are not about real people at all but about Adam and Eve in the garden.” This is, of course, an extreme view but it goes to the heart of one of the most puzzling things about Hardy’s poetry: the combination in it of what is often drab, journalier, everyday reality—reminding one of the aspidistra-in-the-parlor settings in the fiction of George Orwell—with a piercing and poignant nostalgia for a past of picnics and junketings at the edge of cliffs, by the sea.

There are other interesting and controversial things in this collection: John Fowles’s identification of Hardy the Novelist trapped for the purposes of his creativity in a phase of babyhood when the child seems inseparable from the mother—again the prelapsarian vision—with John Fowles the Novelist in the same situation; and Professor Kinkhead-Weekes’s lucid exposition of D.H. Lawrence’s view of Hardy’s characters.

All this encourages one to look forward to the time when the “critical winds” become a gale blowing Hardy “into modern esteem.” The sense of pleasant anticipation is dashed a little, however, by remarks scattered throughout the book suggesting that there is a growing movement in England to heap up Hardy’s poems and fiction as barricades in a defensive battle of Britain against America. Mr. Alexander’s essay ends on what seems to me a rather ominous note: Hardy

is the last English poet that English poets have felt able to look back to with confidence…. Many active English poets apart from Larkin have rejected the experimental and intellectual poetry that now seems historically associated with international modernism and are no happier with the extremism of the confessional, surreal or expressionist schools.

There you have it, in a rather capacious nutshell. The words “international,” “experimental,” “extremism,” and “modernism” used as terms of condemnation in forbidding English mouths have been making me feel foreign, it seems to me, ever since I learned to read. We are reminded here that there is unprecedentedly great representation of Hardy in the new Oxford Book of English Verse and Oxford Book of Modern English Verse, edited by Dame Helen Gardner and Philip Larkin respectively. I am all for this but feel unhappy when Hardy is dubbed Fortress England of non-modernist modern English literature. Hardy himself was by no means a nationalist or Little Englander. At the end of his life he read Proust.

This selection suggests further topics that might be discussed. One is Hardy’s taste in literature, music, art, and architecture, touched on here and in Robert Gittings’s biography, but not fully put together. The first volume of his letters contains very little of Hardy’s personality—except that he was peasant-like in his shrewdness in dealing with publishers and agents, and that he suffered greatly from the attacks on him made by critics. There is a letter (February 2, 1880) from Hardy to Frederick Locker which expresses Hardy’s liking for minor Victorian poetry: Hardy complains that Locker has “altered two of my favourite lines which I have been in the habit of muttering to myself for some time past. I mean

They never do so now, because
I’m not so handsome as I was.

Gittings tells us that Isaac Watts’s hymns “provided him with one of the verse-forms he used till the end of his life” and that he learned much from the great variety of forms used by John Keble. We know Hardy very much admired the poetry of William Barnes which seems to derive from a tradition of regional poetry of the West country, he was obviously influenced by ballads, and also perhaps by music hall songs which he heard when he was a young man in London.

I must set against my early impressions of Hardy’s work being met with universal acclaim a remark I have recorded elsewhere made to me by T.S. Eliot on the first occasion on which I lunched with him. In answer to a question from Eliot about my literary vocation, I told him that I would like to write fiction as well as poetry. Eliot replied that to write poetry required a lifetime of effort which left no room for anything else. “What about Hardy?” I asked. He said that Hardy was a novelist who was only an amateur as a poet.

Eliot’s public strictures on Hardy are made much of by Mr. Butler’s essayists. And beyond the figure of Eliot lurk the shades of Henry James (“the good little Thomas Hardy”) and the meretricious George Moore. Why, if Hardy is the great poet and novelist he is now saluted as being, should we bother what Tom Eliot and company thought about Tom Hardy any more than we care what Tolstoy thought about Shakespeare? One reason is that Hardy cared so much about the critics himself. He was vulnerable and perhaps the vulnerability had an effect on his work, as it certainly influenced the long introductions he wrote to volumes of his poems, defending them from adverse criticisms, and perhaps also influenced his abandonment of fiction after the hostility with which Jude the Obscure was received. The vulnerability affects also the favorable criticism even of his strongest admirers, Donald Davie and John Bayley. While stating that Hardy is “in a sense the most aesthetic of all English novelists,” Bayley also writes Hardyesque apologetics, making a most subtle and intelligent speech for the defense. With all his achievement, Hardy seems a great writer in whom the attacks of the critics seem to have sunk into his soul, leaving dark stains there. His letters and biography confirm this impression. Gittings gives a description of Hardy’s death in which the underdog Hardy seems to have surfaced:

…when his brain for the first time had begun to cloud, an incident had demonstrated his strange division of nature. Beckoning to Florence, in the stillness of his last days, he had dictated two virulent, inept, and unworthy satirical jingles on two most hated critics, George Moore and G.K. Chesterton. Such were the great author’s very last literary works, justifying the genial Clodd’s reluctant verdict, “There was no largeness of soul.”

One may not agree with the “genial Clodd’s verdict in the least and one may feel that Mr. Gittings’s approval of it is over-solemn. I can imagine few more charming ways of wiling away one’s deathbed hours than writing inept lampoons about one’s critics. But that, of course, is to net down one’s own biographer, as Hardy, despite his attempts to ward off this evil eye by writing his own ghosted biography, should have anticipated. Nevertheless Hardy’s biography and some of his writing seem to show that some part of him accepted the judgment of his attackers. The defense he put up for himself was in the autobiography disguised as biography by Florence, his second wife, which he in fact dictated to her. It was a defense of the autodidact against those with a superior education, of the social inferior who sought to conceal his humble origins from those of higher birth, of the peasant against the town dweller. It is significant that two great American writers—James and Eliot—whose own weakness was social and also what might be termed “traditionalist” snobbery, put their fingers on precisely these weaknesses—the “homemadeness” of Hardy’s supposed philosophy, his sense of social inferiority, and the clumsiness of some of his writing.

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    Mr. Butler has also written Thomas Hardy (Cambridge University Press, 1978), an excellent and up-to-date exposition of the novels which will be invaluable to students subject to the Hardy boom at their universities.

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