Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy; drawing by David Levine

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.

Rereading the poems in the new edition of The Complete Poems, which has made their entirety so beautifully readable, I found myself first of all making a private selection of what I considered the greatest poems, then discovering many other poems seemingly worthy of such a selection which I had overlooked, then deciding that although there were certainly individual poems far superior to the rest, finally I had to accept the collected poems as a single poem or a work of poetic fiction. (I except a few negligible “previously uncollected” poems appearing at the end of the volume.) However having decided to accept the whole oeuvre as a unity one needs some approach to these near-thousand pages. One approach would be to consider the poems Hardy wrote about other poets and their poetry: for example, “Shelley’s Skylark,” “At the Pyramid of Cestius near the Graves of Shelley and Keats,” “At Lulworth Cove a Century Back,” and “An Ancient to Ancients.” In all these poems, Hardy assumes the role of mortal worshiper of immortals, never the Dantesque one of exalted colleague among exalted colleagues or even that of T.S. Eliot in “Little Gidding” addressing a “familiar compound ghost.” Shelley is, to Hardy, the immortal spirit which the skylark was to Shelley in his Ode:

For it inspired a bard to win
Ecstatic heights in thought and rhyme.

The graves of Shelley and Keats are places where “those matchless singers”…”two immortal Shades” abide. Lulworth Cove is immortalized because “a commonplace youth” “of an idling town-sort”—namely Keats—departed thence for “death, despair” in Rome. Hardy in his poetry seemed star-struck by the romantic poets and to have very little sense that he was one of their galaxy. With all his irony he is not ironic, or, seemingly, even critical of the Great Victorians, Tennyson, Browning, Swinburne.

He does not appear to see what John Bayley very clearly sees—that it is he who is “making it new,” inventing a language and forms which, as Donald Davie puts it, fuse the traditional English landscape with the technological one within the imagination. He can make ingenious pleas based on his considerable knowledge of prosody in defense of his own poetry against critics who scornfully assert that “such lines do not make for immortality,” but he does not make claims for his poetry as an alternate poetic system to that of his contemporaries, an idiom responsive to the mechanization of modern life. There is none of that analysis of the failure of the Great Victorians indirectly justifying modern poetry which we find in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s letters to Robert Bridges.

His irony is not of the modern kind analyzed by the “new critics” in the poetry which they approved because it lent itself to such analysis. It is, rather, a discovered irony—Life’s Little Ironies—which Hardy reads into things from his observations of the human condition. Like Prometheus in Goethe’s poem of that name, he is ironic in describing the cruel indifference to creation of the Creator, not about heroic or piteous mankind. In “An Ancient to Ancients” he is ironic about the effects of historic time, changes of fashion, the new generation’s facile assumption of its superiority to the survivors from an earlier age. The stanzas about Tennyson evoke that poet’s Mariana, in the moated grange, “with blackest moss the flower-pots / Were thickly crusted,” with the same awed reverence as he evoked Shelley’s skylark:

The bower we shrined to Tennyson,


Is roof-wrecked; damps there drip upon
Sagged seats, the creeper-nails are rust,
The spider is sole denizen.

Hardy does not set himself against the Great Victorians, only among the old, in his old age, with the plea that Sophocles, Plato, Socrates, and the rest of them “burnt brightlier towards their setting-day.”

Hardy’s poetry is, of course, as Robert Gittings and other biographers show, in great part concealed and jumbled fragments of autobiography. I am concerned here though not with his personae as lover, mourner, philosopher, etc., in his poetry, but simply with his personal poetic sensibility. And this seems to me an extremely humble one, almost like some weak defenseless creature or spirit of nature in a Blake poem, a worm, or a clod ground down by the plough, which gleams metallic in the sun and sings its song of the earth from which it has been upturned.

When I was an undergraduate and read Hardy’s poetry I was also reading Yeats’s The Tower. Believing this to be “the greatest,” I sought in Hardy’s poetry the rhetorical excitement that I found in Yeats. I sought this particularly in the poems of passionate nostalgia written after the death of his first wife, lines such as

I found her out there
On a slope few see,
That falls westwardly
To the salt-edged air,
Where the ocean breaks
On the purple strand,
And the hurricane shakes
The solid land.

If one tries to measure Hardy being heartbroken about his first wife after her death against Yeats being embitteredly, forgivingly, nostalgic about Maud Gonne, one finds that the two poets move in completely opposite directions, Hardy from the generalized to the particular, unique remembered event, Yeats from the remembered to the generalized. Both poets make a mythology of the woman lost, the catastrophic failure of the relationship with the loved one, but Yeats will move from some example of her behavior remembered to an image, say, of Helen of Troy, Hardy will move from some memory of an occasion in which the reader’s imagination can share—a walk, a picnic, an excursion—to the unique particular image sharpened rather than blurred by memory, though it happened forty years ago, “a wind-tugged tress / Flapped her cheek like a flail.”

So Hardy brings us back to the past image of a dead woman at a particular moment which we cannot share since it is private to him—like a snapshot in an album which he shows to us—but which moves us just the same, because there are similar unique snapshots photographed by memory in our own lives. Yeats by an opposite process creates the impressionistic haze, like lamps seen at dusk under green boughs, which awakes instances in our own minds, and evokes particulars:

The death of friends, or death
Of every brilliant eye
That made a catch in the breath.

We fill this in for ourselves with our own memories of such poignant loss.

In his scrupulous, detailed, not very enthralling biography of Hardy, Robert Gittings throws light on the reason why one tends to think of Hardy’s poems in two ways: first, as the selection of those one considers the greatest, the other as the sum of all the poetry, which would be diminished by the omission of a single poem. It is because one reads them partly as pure poetry and partly as poetic autobiography. The pure poems float off from the rest, though they still seem anchored to them by a thin thread of autobiography. One is grateful to have this made clear, though I myself find that having been told that a poem is about Hardy’s cousin Tryphena Sparks by whom two sleuths say (and others, the literary critics, indignantly and rightly deny) that Hardy had a child, I forget the facts or non-facts. I merely accept that there is a biographical element in certain poems which turns them into Hardy’s concealed fiction. I become fascinated by Gittings when he describes Hardy’s relationship with Emma, his first wife, (which establishes a pattern pretty well repeated in that with Florence, his second) because it shows that Hardy was one of those men—mostly, I suspect, artists—who destroy the person they love by transfixing her presence with past moments of remembered happiness with her enforced by their powers of total recall. As the original first loved image becomes removed in process of time they stick through her the daggers of these memories.

When, as happened with Emma, the unloved once-loved person dies, her spirit becomes in the mind of the artist-demon-lover pure memory, which he evokes again and again in his art. Hence all those marvelous poems which Hardy wrote about the wife with whom, toward the end of her life, he was scarcely on speaking terms. There is an illuminating moment described by Mr. Gittings in which Emma, the first Mrs. Hardy, shows Florence (then Hardy’s secretary, who was to become the second Mrs. Hardy) a photograph of the notorious murderer Crippen, who killed his wife in order to marry his mistress, and points out how extremely like Crippen Hardy was in personal appearance. This conversation took place in the grisly coffin-like house Max Gate which Hardy the architect had designed for himself and his first bride. I cannot help feeling that Hardy would have relished this interchange and that his physical resemblance to Crippen was something which had struck himself.

The “greatness” of Hardy resides in those poems which make up our private anthology of the best; but that which today gives him in our eyes the advantage over his contemporaries is the accumulation of littlenesses, the multiplicity of minute particulars of observation, the visionary gleams in his poems, and their structure of stanzas put together out of small runs like the bricks of a wall. Browning, Tennyson, and the other Victorians, with their vision of poetry as the common denominator of the greatest and highest moments (as they judged them) of the greatest masters throughout the centuries, had too wide a mesh in their vocabulary, technique, and choice of subject matter to catch the materialistic dust and fragments of an age in which the great spiritual beliefs and temporal claims of the past had been broken down by the collapse of those beliefs.

The very fine mesh of Hardy’s sensibility—that of a poet who had lost belief while maintaining many local pieties connected with the church—could catch the smallest observed details of modern life and turn them into poetry. He was under no compulsion in his mind to aim at the highest effects of past or present poetry. What is modern in him is that he wrote a poetry of observed details which nets in any subject which serves his purpose. He neither had to be on the heights of Tennyson and Shelley, whom he regarded as out-soaring him, nor did he, with those examples still in mind, have to invent a modern idiom committed to create modern poetry equally great as the greatest masterpieces of the tradition. (In aiming at superlative greatness, Yeats, Eliot, and Pound are twentieth-century Victorians in a way that Hardy was neither Victorian nor twentieth-century.) But Hardy did what he did because he was Hardy, and the English poets today are wrong if they deduce from his work that it was unnecessary to invent modern poetry and that, from the English point of view, the poetry of Pound and Eliot was a kind of aberration. Hardy found confirmation for ideas he had about time and memory—his deepest source of inspiration—in Proust, who was so much despised by the late F.R. Leavis. Perhaps he would have found confirmation for the elements of gritty realism in his poetry in Eliot’s “Preludes.”

So a paradox in Hardy as a poet is that he accepted so completely the idea of the greatness of Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, and Swinburne that in his own poetry he did not have to be like them. John Bayley analyzes in the novels a similar paradox: Hardy’s complete acceptance of what Bayley calls the social “rigidities” of his time gave him a freedom of invention within those rigidities that contemporaries like George Eliot, Thackeray, and Meredith lacked. Hardy, he argues, took advantage of the tight conventions to discover spaces within them, in which his characters develop freely. Thus Hardy’s attitude to society is conventional, whereas “his attitude to consciousness is totally, even disconcertingly, modern.” Thus, accepting the rigidities, Hardy can allow his novels to imitate the moods of his characters: “When his characters bumble, his text bumbles too; he does not in the least mind falling flat.”

Bayley finds merit in the quality of disappointment we sometimes experience when reading Hardy’s fiction, because this is characteristic of life itself. It is only when Hardy, at the end of his life as a novelist, in Tess and Jude, expresses revolt against the Victorian social conventions that there is less freedom of movement of consciousness, because his characters are used to illustrate the novels’ social themes of revolt.

John Bayley is the subtlest of Hardy’s critics here under review. He has a kind of sinuosity of critical understanding which enables him to enter into the very nature of the subject which he is discussing. He describes Hardy largely by negation. Hardy is not like the nineteenth-century poets and novelists, and his freedom consists of inventing the fluid movement of life within spaces which they have left between their positive assertions. Similarly Bayley finds that Hardy is also unlike the twentieth-century novelists:

Hardy’s fiction has no way of life, because it has no home to lead it in, and no consistent idiom to keep it before the reader and attach him to it. “A quality of seriousness” (the phrase is used by Frederic Raphael of novelists like David Storey and Margaret Drabble) is found today in the pre-stressed and pre-formed fictional structure from which the novelist, as spokesman of femininity or celebrant of sterling realities, looks smugly out.

Several of the critics in Mr. Butler’s selection of essays also define Hardy by negation. He is modern because he does not set up rules and structures of a modernist idiom like Pound and Eliot. He is seen as the embodiment of English qualities finding themselves in the circumstances of modern technological society. His greatness seems proved, and it seems evident that T.S. Eliot in attacking him, as in his criticism of Blake, had a blind eye to literature which was not at the center of what he regarded as the mainstream of the European tradition. What seems less clear is whether for English writing Hardy offers any future except his evocation, in a modern world already passing away from us in the new cosmopolitan England, of the very English past.

This Issue

June 15, 1978