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 …

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