Each serious Reader -- you know, the sort wha' spells i' with the ostentatious capital "R" -- must admit at some stage that there will be gaps in his or her reading, authors or works the Reader knows surely ought to be read, that the Reader wants to read really, but with which and whom he or she will never actually settle in. One of my own Writers in the Gap is Thomas Hardy. I confess it. I have never read any of his novels: not Tess, not Jude, not any of them. The nearest I have come was the long-ago BBC/Masterpiece Theater dramatization of The Mayor of Casterbridge, with Alan Bates, which was very good but did not send me running to the library.
I did, however, finally make a venture to the library in the last few weeks to look in to the later stage of Hardy's long career -- Hardy the poet, rather than Hardy the novelist.
The trigger was the first few paragraphs of Jonathan Bate's paired review of two new Hardy biographies in the Times Literary Supplement. Bate begins with a little "how-to" for biographers before pointing to the poems that I knew I had to read:
* * * The [biographer's] first decision is therefore the choice of vignette for your prologue. Ralph Pite and Claire Tomalin begin as follows: 'You have to leave your car in the car park and walk up the lane' and 'In November of 1912 an ageing writer lost his wife'. Admirers of Tomalin’s work will have no difficulty in assigning these openings to their respective authors, not least because she is too elegant and economic a writer ever to use the word 'car' twice in any sentence, let alone the all-important first one. Her best books are about marriages or quasi-marital relationships: Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, above all Dora Jordan and the future King William IV. Her prologue accordingly turns Emma, the first Mrs Hardy, into a version of the madwoman in the attic, sleeping alone on the top floor of Max Gate, reading and writing all day in a second attic room, having her breakfast and lunch brought up by her maid. The writerly decision to take the trouble to record the latter’s name (Dolly) is the authentic Tomalin touch.
Emma dies and the second paragraph begins with a bold claim: 'This is the moment when Thomas Hardy became a great poet'. The remainder of the prologue is devoted to a highly sensitive account of the 'Poems of 1912–13', those extraordinary elegies of tender, guilty, evanescent remembrance in which Hardy recaptured his Cornish courtship of 1870. Tomalin is right: they are without question among the greatest poems of the twentieth century – and among the most influential, for they laid the ground for the reaction against high modernism . . . .
Beyond that stimulus, there has been a bit of a webstorm of Hardy material in the past few weeks:
- In the New Yorker, Adam Kirsch disagreed somewhat with Tomalin's "misleading argument" in her prologue. ("Not only is this not true on the merits . . . but it is also a simplistic account of the way life is transmuted into art.")
- Meghan O'Rourke in Slate, for her part, posts a very nice piece emphasizing the "Poems 1912-1913," while making no particular reference to either of the new biographies.
- Meanwhile, the Kirsch and O'Rourke pieces are cited in a pair of cogent Hardy-related posts -- here, and here -- on Ben Kilpela's Yvor Winters blog.
So then: I have been reading Hardy's poems, sifting through a harrowingly vast body of work -- the Complete Poems run to 1040 pages in the current paperbound edition, and that does not include Hardy's vast three-part verse dramatization (!) of the Napoleonic Wars, The Dynasts -- and finding that one could really make a career of it if one were so inclined. I feel the need to spend much more time on it all, but for now I want to post just one, early poem.
This comes very near the beginning of Hardy's first published collection, the Wessex Poems of 1898, and pinpoints a theme remarked on or disputed at varying length in all of the posts cited above: the notion that the universe, with or without a personalizable deity behind it, presents itself as a context in which to live that may not be malevolent, but that ultimately does what it will without much caring or acknowledging the consequences to its individual human targets. In some sense, this is the poetic expression of the line William Goldman gave to the returning hero Westley in The Princess Bride: "Life is pain, highness: anyone who tells you different is selling something." Hardy, of course, is a bit less flippant on the subject:
If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: 'Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love's loss is my hate's profiting!'
Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.
But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
--Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. . . .
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.
Even More Hardy:
- Also in the TLS, "retired medical practitioner" Robert Alan Frizzell engages in a bit of lurid forensic speculation on the source of Emma Hardy's ailments and death. I link, you decide.
- For the initial link to Bate's TLS piece, thanks to Morgan Meis at 3quarksdaily.
- One can never be sure whether Hardy himself subscribes to any point of view expressed in his poems. His prefaces tend to include disclaimers, such as the one that accompanies the Wessex Poems, that "[t]he pieces are in a large degree dramatic or personative in conception; and this even where they are not obviously so."
- "Crass Casualty" should not be your first choice when purchasing a homeowners policy.
- Illustration of the poet found at The Thomas Hardy Society.