In trying to situate Thomas Hardy in the history of English poetry, it is useful to compare and contrast him with two very different poets – Gerard Manley Hopkins and A. E. Housman. When compared with these two writers, Hardy obviously has far more in common with Housman than with Hopkins. Partly their resemblances are stylistic, but partly their resemblances also involve their basic outlooks on the world. Comparisons and contrasts among the three writers include the following:
- Hopkins was deeply religious; Hardy and Housman were both far more skeptical about religion.
- Hopkins writes in a style that is deliberately unusual and even difficult. It is, in some ways, a conscious imitation of the kind of “metaphysical” writing employed by such earlier authors as the seventeenth-century “metaphysical” poet John Donne. Hopkins was trying to create a poetic language that would seem highly distinctive and that would arrest the attention of readers. It is hard to catch the full meaning – or sometimes even the precise meaning – of a Hopkins poem on first reading. His works almost demand several re-readings. This is a process that some readers find deeply satisfying but that other readers sometimes consider frustrating and tiresome. Hardy and Housman, on the other hand, wrote in styles that were intentionally plain and highly accessible. Partly for this reason, they were far more popular poets than Hopkins ever became. Their poetry is often rich in implication and resonance (this is especially true of Hardy’s verse), and in that sense their poetry often rewards re-reading (again, this is especially true of Hardy). Nevertheless, the poetry of Hardy and Housman presents few immediate or obvious obstacles to any reasonably literate reader. The same cannot be said of the poetry of Hopkins, which often presents real challenges even to readers who are very widely and deeply read.
- Hopkins often uses rhythms that are highly unusual. He also uses language that often seems clotted with heavy alliteration and assonance and other devices that force readers to pause and struggle to grasp his meaning. Here is a good example (the opening lines of his famous poem “The Windhover”):
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon . . . (1-2)
Here, in contrast, are the opening lines of Hardy’s famous poem titled “Neutral Tones”:
We stood by a pond that winter day,
And the sun was white, as though chidden of God . . . (1-2)
And here are the opening two lines of Housman’s often-anthologized poem “Loveliest of Trees”:
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough . . . .
All three poems feature speakers commenting on nature, but whereas Hopkins’ poem is ecstatic, excited, and intensely religious, the poems by Hardy and Hopkins are simpler, clearer, and (in Hardy’s case) typically pessimistic. Hardy is a poet who seems to feel heavily the loss of religious faith; Housman is a poet who seems far less troubled by such loss. Hopkins remains committed to belief in the traditional Christian god.