Thomas Hardy is best known for his fiction. He was the author of fourteen novels, four collections of short stories containing more than forty tales, and several volumes of poetry containing some nine hundred poems, as well as a large assortment of nonfiction prose, prefaces, and essays. His letters, diaries, notebooks, and private papers have survived, despite Hardy’s intention that this material be destroyed. Several volumes of his correspondence have been published. In addition, there are two books of autobiography, The Early Life of Thomas Hardy (1928) and The Later Years of Thomas Hardy (1930), which Hardy dictated to his wife.
Although Thomas Hardy’s achievements as a novelist and poet are widely recognized, his achievements as a playwright are less well-known. Hardy’s training as an architect has been taken to explain his intricately plotted novels, and it might also be seen as the reason Hardy liked the conventions of dramatic structure. Hardy had a lifelong interest in drama and the theater, and it was his original literary ambition to be a playwright, although he did not produce any plays until near the end of his career and then wrote only two. Although he was sometimes tempted by London theatrical agents and friends to turn his talents to the stage, he largely resisted the lure of stagelights, being unwilling to compromise with the demands of actors and directors in the commercial theater, a position he explains in an essay, “Why I Don’t Write Plays” (1892). Alternately fearful of the limitations and fascinated by the possibilities of drama, Hardy finally wrote his first “play,” The Dynasts, which is something of a composite literary form. Intended for a mental rather than a real stage, it is epic in size and scope. This immense verse play, about which one might remark, as Samuel Johnson did of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674), “none would wish it longer,” has attracted some critical attention, but it has never drawn many readers from the general public. As a closet drama, it is a major artistic accomplishment, and it rivals Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1865, 1869) as a work that most vividly chronicles the defeat of Napoleon’s dynastic ambitions. Hardy’s hope of reviving interest in the verse drama, however, was not fulfilled with The Dynasts or with his second verse play, The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall, which was conceived for actual stage production. The one-act The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall was a coda to Hardy’s brief career as a playwright; an extremely different type of poetic drama from The Dynasts, it shows what Hardy might have been able to do with stage conventions had he kept to his early ambition “to write a few fine plays.”
In addition to his short stories, Thomas Hardy is best known for two distinct literary careers: first as a novelist, author of such classic works as Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) and Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891); then, following the hostile reaction to Jude the Obscure in 1895, as a poet, especially for his epic verse drama about the Napoleonic Wars, The Dynasts: A Drama of the Napoleonic Wars (pb. 1903, 1906, 1908, 1910, verse drama; pr. 1914; abridged by Harley Granville-Barker).
Thomas Hardy is widely regarded as both a major Victorian novelist and a major modern poet. With little formal education, Hardy, who trained and worked as an architect before becoming a professional writer, was largely self-taught and eminently well read, particularly in the philosophical and theological exchange of ideas in the late nineteenth century. In addition to reflecting the intellectual climate stimulated by such thinkers as Charles Darwin, John Stuart Mill, and Herbert Spencer, Hardy’s fiction also is recognized for its portrayal of rural southwestern England, vividly and lovingly represented in his fictional region called “Wessex.” Many of his tales are based on local folklore, thus preserving this tradition while also recording the historical effects of mid-nineteenth century industrial changes on the agrarian community. Hardy fought critical and popular disapproval for his frank treatment of then taboo subjects and for what was deemed his inordinately hard pessimism. Hardy was awarded honorary degrees from Oxford, Cambridge, St. Andrews, Bristol, and Aberdeen universities, a medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects, a royal Order of Merit, and a gold medal of the Royal Society of Literature. He was offered, but declined, a knighthood. His burial in Westminster Abbey is a further testament to his status among the great English authors.
In addition to his novels, Thomas Hardy published four collections of short stories, Wessex Tales (1888), A Group of Noble Dames (1891), Life’s Little Ironies (1894), and A Changed Man, The Waiting Supper, and Other Tales (1913). In the latter part of his life, after he had stopped writing novels altogether, he published approximately one thousand poems in eight separate volumes, which have since been collected in one volume by his publisher, Macmillan and Company. In addition to this staggering body of work, Hardy also published an epic drama of the Napoleonic wars in three parts between 1903 and 1908 titled The Dynasts, a one-act play titled The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall (pr., pb. 1923), and a series of essays on fiction and other topics that have been collected in individual volumes. All the novels and stories are available in a uniform library edition in eighteen volumes published in the early 1960’s by Macmillan. The Early Life of Thomas Hardy (1928) and The Later Years of Thomas Hardy (1930), although ostensibly a two-volume biography of Hardy by his second wife, Florence Hardy, is generally recognized to be Hardy’s own autobiography compiled from his notes in his last few years.
Thomas Hardy is second only to Charles Dickens as the most written-about and discussed writer of the Victorian era. Certainly in terms of volume and diversity alone, Hardy is a towering literary figure with two admirable careers—one as novelist and one as poet—to justify his position.
Interest in Hardy’s work has followed two basic patterns. The first was philosophical, with many critics discussing metaphysical structures that supposedly underlay his fiction. In the late twentieth century, however, interest shifted to that aspect of Hardy’s work most scorned before—his technical facility and generic experimentation. One hundred years after his heyday, what once was termed fictional clumsiness was reevaluated in terms of poetic technique.
Furthermore, Hardy’s career as a poet, which has always been under the shadow of his fiction, has been reevaluated. Hardy was a curious blend of the old-fashioned and the modern. With a career that began in the Victorian era and did not end until after World War I, Hardy was contemporary with both Matthew Arnold and T. S. Eliot. Critics, including Babette Deutsch and Vivian de Sola Pinto, have asserted that Hardy bridged the gulf between the Victorian sensibility and the modern era. In his unflinching confrontation with meaninglessness in the universe, Hardy embodied Albert Camus’s description of the absurd creator in Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942; The Myth of Sisyphus, 1955); he rebelled against the chaos of the world by asserting his own freedom to persist in spite of that meaninglessness.
Hardy was a great existential humanist. His hope for humanity was that people would realize that creeds and conventions that presuppose a god-oriented center of value are baseless. He hoped that humans would loosen themselves from those foolish hopes and creeds and become aware of their freedom to create their own value. If human beings would only realize that all people are equally alone and without hope for divine help, then perhaps they would realize also that it is the height of absurdity for such lost and isolated creatures to fight among themselves.
Besides his eight substantial volumes of poetry, Thomas Hardy published fourteen novels, four collections of short stories, two long verse plays, and a variety of essays, prefaces, and nonfiction prose. Although Hardy directed before his death that his letters, notebooks, and private papers be burned, much interesting material has survived in addition to that preserved in The Early Life of Thomas Hardy (1928) and The Later Years of Thomas Hardy (1930), both of which were dictated by Hardy himself to his wife, Florence Hardy. A definitive seven-volume edition of Hardy’s letters (1978-1988) was edited by Richard Little Purdy and Michael Millgate. In addition, Ernest Brennecke has edited Life and Art (1925). An Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress appeared serially in 1878 and as a book in 1934; it is a story based on scenes from Hardy’s rejected first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, which he later destroyed.
Although Thomas Hardy’s poetic reputation has grown steadily since his death, critics seem unable to agree on the exact nature of his poetic achievement or even on a list of his best poems. Aside from a small group of frequently anthologized pieces, the bulk of Hardy’s poetry goes unread. Part of the problem is the immense amount of his verse—nearly a thousand poems in eight substantial volumes. The other problem is the inevitable comparison between his poetry and his fiction and the tendency to prefer one or the other, instead of seeking continuities in his work. This is an unavoidable problem with a poet-novelist, particularly with a novelist as accomplished as Hardy, whose fiction is better known than his poetry.
Hardy began his career as a novelist rather than as a poet. He turned to poetry later in life, publishing little before 1898. Here, however, chronology can be misleading. Hardy began composing verse early in life and continued to write poetry throughout the years when he was publishing his Wessex novels and tales. To a certain extent, economic pressures early led him to relegate poetry to a secondary place in his career. Once he had abandoned architecture, he turned to fiction to earn a livelihood. Had the means been available to him, he might have remained primarily a poet.
Yet even during his most productive years as a novelist, Hardy was putting aside verse that he would later publish. Sometimes these poems develop a lyrical twist to a scene or episode given fuller treatment in his novels, as in the case of “Tess’s Lament,” “In a Wood,” or “At Casterbridge Fair.” Moreover, Hardy was a lyrical prose stylist as well as a contemplative or meditative poet. The genres were fluid to him, and he moved easily from one to the other. Florence Hardy wrote in The Later Years of Thomas Hardy that “he had mostly aimed at keeping his narratives close to natural life and as near to poetry in their subjects as the conditions would allow, and had often regretted that these conditions would not let him keep them nearer still.” Indeed, the same themes often appear in both the poems and the fiction: the capriciousness of fate, the cruelty of missed opportunities, and the large role of chance, accident, and contingency in human affairs.
Nor does chronology help much in understanding Hardy’s development as a poet, since his verse shows only subtle variations in theme, subject matter, style, or treatment over more than six decades. There is a timeless quality in his verse, both early and late, with no discernible falling off in his creative power even in the late poems. Between 1898 and 1928, Hardy published eight volumes of lyrical poetry and two lengthy verse plays, which—even without the prior achievement of his fiction—would have made for an impressive literary career. That his poetry appeared after midcareer is a tribute to Hardy’s undiminished creative imagination, especially when one remembers that the bulk of his poetry was published after he was sixty, with more than half of his lyrical poetry appearing after he turned seventy-four. The Dynasts: A Drama of the Napoleonic Wars (pb. 1903, 1906, 1908, 1910) alone would have been a major accomplishment for a writer of his age. For his last volume, Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres, published posthumously, he wrote an unused preface in which he boasted that he was the only English poet to bring out a new volume of verse on a birthday so late in life. His ambition was “to have some poem or poems in a good anthology like the Golden Treasury.” Thus the poems, though they are the work of a lifetime, are in their final form the product of Hardy’s late career.
Yet these poems are not the serene and mellow harvest of a successful literary career. Hardy turned to poetry in mid-career after the hostile critical reception of Jude the Obscure (1895); after that, he resolved to write no more novels. Instead, his poems extend and concentrate the often bitter and fatalistic tone and mood of his fiction. His verse reflects the weariness and discouragement of his Wessex characters, who have faced the worst that life can offer and cherish no illusions about what the future may bring. Many deal with love entanglements and marital difficulties. Others are cynical poems about human failings or brooding meditations on aging, loss, and death. Even his nature poems are elegiac in tone, presenting a Darwinian view of harsh competition for survival in a brutal and indifferent world. One critic has remarked that Hardy’s vision reflects “his sense of the irreconcilable disparity between the way things ought to be and the way they are: the failure of the universe to answer man’s need for order.”
Although Hardy may have lacked the buoyant optimism of Robert Browning or the sturdy faith of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, there is no lack of emotional depth in his poems. Hardy had an instinctive sense of the emotional basis of all good poetry. Temperamentally, he found the Wordsworthian formula of “emotion recollected in tranquillity” a continual source of creative inspiration. He had a keen emotional memory, and even late in life, he could recall the poignancy of incidents that had occurred a half century earlier. His range of topics may have been limited to a purview of Wessex, but he selected his poetic incidents or anecdotes on the basis of their emotional appeal and concentrated on evoking the essence of a mood or feeling. His wife recalled his remark that “poetry is emotion put into measure. The emotion must come by nature, but the measure can be acquired by art.”
Hardy served his apprenticeship in Gothic architecture, and the same careful attention to detail that marked his church designs is evident in his subtle metrical variations. Although he experimented with a variety of stanzaic forms—thevillanelle, triolet, and sapphic—he was partial to the ballad form and the common measure of hymn stanzas. He affected simplicity in his verse, favoring a subtle irregularity and practicing “the art of concealing art.” Florence Hardy wrote:He knew that in architecture cunning irregularity is of enormous worth, and it is obvious that he carried on into his verse, perhaps in part unconsciously, the gothic art-principle in which he had been trained—the principle of spontaneity, found in mouldings, tracery, and such like—resulting in the “unforseen” . . . character of his metres and stanzas, that of stress rather than of syllable, poetic texture rather than poetic veneer.
Hardy is thus paradoxically the last of the great Victorians and the first of the moderns—at once traditional in style and modern in thought, attitude, and feeling. He laments the passing of the timeless relation of the countryman to the soil in his native Wessex and anticipates the confusion and bewilderment of the characters in his poems, who think in new ways but continue to feel in the old ways. Like Robert Frost, he writes of a diminished world, in which science has undercut traditional ways of thinking and believing. He shares much with the Georgian poets, who were younger than himself; their subdued lyricism, their dread of the Great War, their nostalgic pastoralism, and their sense of undefined loss and privation. What is unique in his vision is the compassion that he expresses for the victims of this changed world: his deep sense of their human plight and their loss of traditional sources of consolation. Hardy described himself once as less of a doubter or agnostic than “churchy” in an old-fashioned way: a person for whom the traditional sources of faith had disappeared yet who dreamed of “giving liturgical form to modern ideas.” It is ironic that, when asked late in life whether he would have chosen the same career again, Hardy replied that he would rather have been “a small architect in a country town,” so deep was his love of church architecture and the grace and ornateness of the gothic style.
How does Thomas Hardy respond to the Victorian culture’s pervasive belief in human—and especially British—progress?
What are Hardy’s attitudes toward social class and class conflict?
Are Hardy’s views of romantic love clear? Are they consistent in his work?
How does Hardy depict southwestern England—the Wessex of his fiction and poetry?
Compare the themes, forms, and diction of some of Hardy’s poetry to those of another poet, such as his predecessor Alfred, Lord Tennyson (perhaps the quintessential Victorian poet), Gerard Manley Hopkins (a near-contemporary, displaying both striking similarities and striking differences with Hardy), or Robert Frost (a younger American regionalist who also had a dark side).
Armstrong, Tim. Haunted Hardy: Poetry, History, Memory. New York: Palgrave, 2000. An attempt to elevate Hardy as poet within the Western tradition.
Carpenter, Richard C. Thomas Hardy. Boston: Twayne, 1964. Carpenter argues that Hardy is a “gloomy philosopher,” though he maintains that label is too restricting. In addition to the usual characterization, descriptions, plots, and social themes, Carpenter also looks at elements of symbolism, myth, impressionism, and drama in Hardy’s fiction and poetry. Contains a chronology, a bibliography, and an index.
Chew, Samuel C. Thomas Hardy: Poet and Novelist. 1928. Reprint. New York: Russell and Russell, 1964. Although it does not lack sentiment, this volume is still one of the most respected of the traditional analyses of Hardy’s work. Chew examines Hardy’s pessimism, his use of coincidence, his conflict of intellect and intuition, and the structural excellence of his Wessex novels, which Chew considers to be a clarification of Victorian technique. Includes a bibliography and an index.
Daleski, H. M. Thomas Hardy and Paradoxes of Love. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997. Argues that Hardy is the premodern precursor of sexual failures and catastrophic ends.
Gatrell, Simon. Hardy the Creator: A Textual Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Gatrell, Simon. Thomas Hardy and the Proper Study of Mankind. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993. A study of Hardy’s technique of presenting character in relationship to society. In addition to chapters on individual novels, Gatrell devotes chapters to Hardy’s use of the dance as a folk ritual and to the imperial theme in his fiction.
Gibson, James. Thomas Hardy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. An introductory guide to Hardy’s art, focusing on how Hardy used his own experience in his writing and tracing his development from fiction back to his first love, poetry.
Guerard, Albert J. Thomas Hardy: The Novels and Stories. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1949. One of the classic critical works on Hardy, examining his poetry and fiction in Victorian and modern contexts. In relation to Joseph Conrad and André Gide, Hardy is an old-fashioned storyteller, but he anticipates modern elements of antirealism in his conflicting impulses, his symbolic use of coincidence, and his artful technique.
Howe, Irving. Thomas Hardy. New York: Macmillan, 1967. One of the earliest book-length studies of Hardy’s short fiction as well as his poetry and novels, tracing the development of Hardy as a writer and the influences of his background and intellectual environment. The chapter “Let the Day Perish” focuses on Hardy’s women characters, especially Tess, who illustrates the transformation and ennobling of a cultural stereotype. Complemented by a primary bibliography and an index.
Kramer, Dale, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Hardy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. An essential introduction and general overview of all Hardy’s work and specific demonstrations of Hardy’s ideas and literary skills. Individual essays explore Hardy’s biography, aesthetics, and the impact on his work of developments in science, religion, and philosophy in the late nineteenth century. The volume also contains a detailed chronology of Hardy’s life.
Lanzano, Ellen Anne. Hardy: The Temporal Poetics. New York: P. Lang, 1999. An examination of Hardy’s poetics in the light of the temporal context out of which he wrote more than nine hundred poems. To a large extent, Hardy’s struggle with the forms of time is a record of the nineteenth century engagement with the relationship of consciousness to the new science and the loss of traditional beliefs.
Mallett, Phillip, ed. The Achievement of Thomas Hardy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. A study of the literary achievements of Hardy that also examines his depiction of Wessex. Bibliography and index.
Maynard, Katherine Kearney. Thomas Hardy’s Tragic Poetry: The Lyrics and “The Dynasts.” Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991. This study examines the question of tragic literature’s vitality in a secular age and explores the philosophical underpinnings of Hardy’s tragic vision in his lyric poetry and in The Dynasts. It also examines Hardy’s efforts within the context of nineteenth century poetry.
Millgate, Michael. Thomas Hardy: A Biography Revisited. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. This biography enhances and replaces Millgate’s 1982 biography, considered to be one of the best and most scholarly Hardy biographies available.
Page, Norman, ed. Oxford Reader’s Companion to Hardy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. An encyclopedia devoted to the life and literary works of Hardy. Bibliography.
Pinion, F. B. A Hardy Companion. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1968. A helpful, comprehensive guide to Hardy’s writing, political and philosophical background and biographical influences. Includes maps, illustrations, and a select bibliography. Also contains a handy dictionary of people and places in Hardy’s fiction and the locations of Hardy manuscripts.
Pite, Ralph. Thomas Hardy: The Guarded Life. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007. A scholarly reexamination of Hardy’s life.
Plotz, John. “Motion Slickness: Spectacle and Circulation in Thomas Hardy’s ‘On the Western Circuit.’” Studies in Short Fiction 33 (Summer, 1996): 369-386. Claims that Hardy’s story reflects his criticism of modernity in relationship to Britain’s imperialism; the steam roundabout in the text becomes visible in its full, complicated relationship to other roundabout systems of the modern age.
Ray, Martin, ed. Thomas Hardy Remembered. London: Ashgate, 2007. A collection of interviews with Hardy and recollections of him by his friends and acquaintances offer readers a fresh perspective on the writer. Also contains observations by Hardy on his writing and his contemporaries’ opinions about his life.
Seymour-Smith, Martin. Hardy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994. In this literary biography, Seymour-Smith not only provides a detailed biography of Hardy’s life but also summarizes and critiques previous criticism of Hardy and discusses in a straightforward, nontheoretical way, Hardy’s most important works; analyzes critical reception to Hardy’s work and critiques critical controversies over his fiction and thought.
Tomalin, Claire. Thomas Hardy. New York: Penguin, 2007. This thorough and finely written biography by a respected Hardy scholar illuminates the novelist’s drive to indict the malice, neglect, and ignorance of his fellow human creatures. Tomalin nicely brings Hardy’s poetry to the fore in discussing aspects of his life that are apparent in his literary works.
Webster, Harvey Curtis. On a Darkling Plain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1947. An extended, in-depth consideration of Hardy’s fiction and poetry in the light of his pessimism, considering how personal experiences and intellectual trends contributed to the development of his melancholy view. Webster discerns a natural “paradisaic tendency” that periodically surfaces in Hardy’s work, but he maintains that the world destroyed this “happy outlook.”