It is frequently said of Thomas Hardy that he turned to the writing of poetry as a result of his anger and disappointment at the shortsighted and discouraging critical response to his last novel, Jude the Obscure, which appeared in 1895. The truth of the matter appears to be that he had always preferred writing poetry to writing novels, and that he had written poetry before he presented himself to the reading public as a novelist and short story writer. He returned to his first love and decided to publish his poems only after he had established for himself a firm reputation as a novelist. Some of the verses which he included in his first volume of poems, Wessex Poems, had been composed more than thirty years before. He was then fifty-eight years old, and for the next thirty years he devoted himself exclusively to writing or rewriting his poems until his death in 1928.
His Collected Poems, retains almost a thousand poems which had appeared in eight preceding volumes of verse. This number testifies to his affection for and dedication to poetry, but it is too large an output to allow him to maintain consistent excellence. A few, relative to the large total, must be deemed outright failures, deficient either because of metrical inconsistency or inappropriateness, eccentric, excessive inversion, awkward diction, or an imagery and idea of embarrassing sentimentality. At the other end of the spectrum of his achievement, however, there are a few poems, again relatively speaking, which are extremely successful and claim the right to a permanent place in the ideal anthology of great and memorable poems in the English language. These poems, together with the large number which are at least interesting and competent, constitute a respectable body of work worthy of attention and high regard.
As might be expected, Hardy’s poetry complements and intensifies the unhappy vision of life depicted in most of his novels. Hardy protested in an introductory note to his final volume of poems, Winter Words, that he had not attempted to present a “harmonious philosophy” in that book or in any of his earlier poetic work. Despite these protestations, however, there can be no question that an easily discernible, special “Hardyesque” vision of life emerges from his poetry as well as from his prose. Cast in the form of imaginative art, it may not have the rigidity or discipline of what we call philosophy, but it offers, nevertheless, a very consistent, even relentless view of life as a series of adventures in frustration and defeat. Man as an individual, man as a creature of society and the cosmos, is simply acting out the whims and dictates of an inexorable life force, a blind, indifferent, neutral Immanent Will. Though the Will (variously called Fate, Chance, Hap, Destiny, and Necessity) is ostensibly neutral about man’s fate, the general reality is that man usually becomes “time’s laughstock,” his efforts to achieve love and dignity and significance simply create “satires of circumstance.” These concepts emerge so clearly and triumphantly from his novels and poems because, while they may be few and schematic, they were for him matters of fundamental, abiding concern, and he used them constantly as the basis and the framework of his vision.
The themes and the vision which emerge from the poetry is almost wholly clouded and pessimistic. This was the way Hardy himself summed up the consensus of many reviews of his poetical work (“Apology,” Late Lyrics and Earlier) a judgment which he deemed “odd.” But the real oddity is that he should think this judgment strange because there can be little question that the corpus of his work is in general and quite consistently dark and sad and pessimistic. Hardy contended that the alleged pessimism was in truth a way of questioning and exploring the nature of reality, a first step, as he called it, toward the betterment of man’s soul and body. To this end he quoted in his defense a line from an earlier poem, “In Tenebris”:If a way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst:
a perspective which he labeled, perhaps in desperation, “evolutionary meliorism.”
To point a way to the Better may have been his intention, but the fact is that he succeeded all too well in giving us a full look at the Worst; in his poetry there is very little, indeed only the barest hint scattered here and there, about the way to the Better. What little there is stresses the conjectural “if” in his poetical statements and the many qualifications which abound in his...
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