Thomas Hardy Poetry: British Analysis
More than one critic has called the lyrics in Satires of Circumstance Thomas Hardy’s finest achievement, although his most notable poems are probably distributed evenly among his eight volumes. Since there was no period of peak creative achievement for him—rather, a steady accumulation of poems over a long and productive career—the reader must search among the collected verse for those poems in which Hardy’s style, vision, and subject matter coincide in a memorable work. Given the strength and originality of his vision, it is difficult to speak of influences on Hardy’s poetry, although in many respects he carries forward the Romantic tradition of William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley and the homey realism of George Crabbe. An obscure Dorset poet, William Barnes, whose poetry Hardy edited in 1908, may have first introduced him to the possibilities of writing regional poetry. Barnes was a clergyman and philologist with a keen interest in local dialects who introduced vivid scenes of Wessex life into his verse. Hardy read and admired Algernon Charles Swinburne and paid tribute to him on numerous occasions, notably in “A Singer Asleep,” although his influence on Hardy appears to have been slight. Hardy’s poetry is perhaps most akin in tone and spirit to Wordsworth’s pastoral lyrics and odes, particularly “Michael,” although Hardy’s characters often lack the simple heroism and nobility of spirit of Wordsworth’s protagonists.
Wessex Poems, and Other Verses
The appearance of Hardy’s first volume of poetry, Wessex Poems, and Other Verses, was greeted by the critics with scarcely more understanding than that which had been accorded to Jude the Obscure. The fifty-one selections are a mixture of lyrics, sonnets, and ballads illustrated by the poet with thirty-one “Sketches of Their Scenes,” designed to accompany the poems. The volume includes five historical poems in a ballad sequence about the Napoleonic Wars that anticipate The Dynasts; a series of four “She, To Him” love sonnets written in the Shakespearean manner; a number of lyrics on disillusioned love, of which “Neutral Tones” is probably the best; and a set of meditative nature poems, including the sonnet “Hap” and “Nature’s Questioning.” An additional group of lyrics enlarges on scenes from the novels, including the lovely “In a Wood,” which echoes a nature description from The Woodlanders, and “The Ivy Wife,” a figurative portrait of a possessive wife that borrows its metaphor from a description in that same novel.
“Neutral Tones” is the most frequently anthologized of Hardy’s Wessex Poems, and Other Verses, and deservedly so. This four-quatrain lyric, rhyming abba, employs a series of muted winter images and a pond-side meeting to describe the death of a love affair. The implied confession by the beloved that she is no longer in love creates the dramatic occasion, and although the pronoun employed is “we,” the point of view is clearly that of the forsaken lover. The poem possesses that haunting quality of a painful moment forever etched on one’s memory: The colorless imagery of the setting suggests an impressionistic painting of two lovers meeting against a dreary December landscape in which nature’s barrenness (“starving sod,” “greyish leaves”) serves as a counterpoint to the death of love. Even the negations of Hardy’s poetic syntax combine with the winter imagery and the bitter dramatic occasion to sustain the mood of “Neutral Tones.” This poignant lyric about the failure of a love relationship was written, interestingly enough, just before Hardy’s engagement to his cousin Tryphena Sparks was broken, perhaps because he discovered her infatuation with his friend Horace Maule. This theme of love’s betrayal is of course also found often in Hardy’s novels, although it achieves greater intensity and concentration in poems such as “Neutral Tones.”
“Hap,” a sonnet about the forces that shape events unpredictably, records Hardy’s troubled response to evolutionary theory, with its view of natural selection operating impartially, without purpose or direction. The speaker would prefer a personalized universe, even with “some Vengeful god,” who wills and controls the course of events, rather than “Crass Casualty,” “dicing Time,” and “These purblind doomsters” who mete out bliss and pain alike without reason. “Hap” is thematically related to “Nature’s Questioning,” which implies that the author of the universe is “some Vast Imbecility” unconscious of human pains. This poem was so often quoted against him as evidence of his alleged atheism and hostility to religion that Hardy finally decided to write a preface for his second volume explaining that his poems taken individually did not necessarily reflect his personal philosophy. He later restated this disavowal in the preface to Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres; still, many of his poems did seem to invite speculation about his personal views. “Heiress and Architect,” for example, is a philosophical allegory cast in terms of a dialogue between two speakers representing romantic and realistic views of life. The heiress finds her elaborate plans diminished in each succeeding stanza as she submits them to the cold scrutiny of the architect. Her house designs progressively shrink in this allegory of human dreams crushed by realities, a theme familiar to Hardy’s novels.
Poems of the Past and Present
Hardy’s second volume, Poems of the Past and Present, comprising a hundred poems, is nearly twice as long as Wessex Poems, and Other Verses. Two major sections include “War Poems,” dealing with the Boer War, and “Poems of Pilgrimage,” about notable historical and literary shrines in Italy and Switzerland, where the Hardys had traveled in the spring of 1882; a third section was composed of “Miscellaneous Poems.” The “War Poems” record Hardy’s deep reservations about British imperialism and the cost of war to ordinary men; “Drummer Hodge” is about a boy drafted from Dorset and fated to lie after his death under southern constellations. Among the “Miscellaneous Poems,” “The Last Chrysanthemum” and “The Darkling Thrush” are incomparably the best. The first describes a perennial blooming out of season, into the winter, past the time when it should have flowered. This curious natural event becomes the occasion for a lyrical meditation on the mysteries of growth and change that regulate the life of...
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