Thomas Hardy loved his life and home in Dorset County, England where he grew to be the literary giant of his time both as a novelist and a poet. His prolific works span both the romantic and Victorian periods of literature. Writing was Hardy’s passion.
After the death of his first wife Emma, Hardy wrote many of his most famous poems. His poetry spoke of disappointment in life and rueful expressions about the estrangement from his one true love. His poetry often dealt with memories of time spent with her in their courtship and the realization that he spent much of his life without her. His “Poems of 1912-13” express his regret on losing his ex-wife both in life and in death. These elegies are often acclaimed as some of Hardy’s best poetic work.
The poem “Castle Boterel” describes a time in his memory of their courtship---then, suddenly returning to his present understanding that time has taken any chance of the renewal of their love.
And to me, though Time's unflinching rigour,
In mindless rote, has ruled from sight
The substance now, one phantom figure…
I look and see it there, shrinking, shrinking,
I look back at it amid the rain For the very last time; for my sand is sinking,
And I shall traverse old love's domain
Hardy’s poetry is both conventional and experimental. By observing many of the folksongs in his area, his poems were lyrical and followed some traditional standards. Often called a formalist, Hardy employed the forms of the ballad, the sonnet, and the elegy. Yet, he searched for new stanza forms and meter. He kept his poetry new by using old balladic rhythms and borrowing colloquial phrases from his beloved Dorset County neighbors.
Still, Hardy’s poetry is filled with wonderful onomatopoeic sounds and metaphors that are tantalizing to the ear. Straying from the typical summer or spring settings of other poets, his poem “A Darkling Thrush,” a beautiful lyrical poem, recognizes the beauty of a single thrush crying out on a wintry night. His metaphor of the bird creates the perfect illustration of not only the beginning of a new year but the dawning of a new century. Every aspect of his poem reports as a perfect platform for Hardy’s cynical yet hopeful spirit.
So little cause for carollings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessèd Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
Interested in all of life’s subjects, Hardy wrote most often of the world’s problems. He was the foremost war poet of his time, writing about the horrific impact on the soldiers who were often forced to fight for something that they did not understand. His approach was to write from the point of view of the soldier using his colloquialisms.
Using irony to point the mistakes of mankind, his poetry questions the oddity of man loving his fellow man and yet using poisonous gas to kill him. Railing against the mistreatment of animals, Hardy uses biblical references to project his disdain for anyone who dares to hurt innocent creatures. In the poem “The Blinded Bird,” Hardy uses 1st Corinthians to condemn the sport of vinkenzetting, which included the blinding of male finches to increase their singing ability.
Who suffered long and is kind,
Is not provoked, though blind
And alive ensepulchred?
Who hopeth, endureth all things?
Who thinketh no evil, but sings?
Who is divine? This bird
'The Darkling Thrush', one of Hardy’s best-known poems, epitomizes several features that are common to his vast body of poetry.
The first generalization that we can make about Hardy’s poetry, based on 'The Darkling Thrush', is the use of the lyric form. The lyric is a short poetic form that dates back to Ancient Greece, which is used to express the feelings and emotions of the poet/speaker. The lyric form tends to follow a regular metrical pattern which makes it flow smoothly. It can also use a regular rhyme. These structural features are all present in 'The Darkling Thrush', as in many other of Hardy’s poems.
Another generalization is the use of a nature scene which is used to develop an important theme or emotion. Nature figures largely in Hardy’s writing career, both in his novels and poetry, which is not surprising given that he came from a rural background (and depictions of nature have of course been used by innumerable other poets throughout the centuries). Many of his best-known lyric poems use nature as a theme, such as 'Neutral Tones' and 'During Wind and Rain'.
Perhaps the single most important generalization we can make about Hardy’s poetry is his pervasively pessimistic tone. This is abundantly evident in 'The Darkling Thrush', where the speaker stands and stares at a bleak landscape, reflecting on the end of the year and the lack of hope for the future, the 'bright Hope' which the thrush appears aware of, but which is withheld from himself and also the rest of nature, as the grim scene all around him seems to resemble a 'corpse’.
Such pessimism was a part of Hardy’s temperament which informed the bulk of his writings, both novels and poems. Decay, death, loss, failure in human relationships and in society - these are all are recurring themes in his work. Perhaps most importantly of all, there is no sense in his work of any religious or spiritual consolation, the belief that there is a benevolent God or heaven to compensate for the trials of earthly life. He does not pin his faith in nature either, or in any kind of larger force working for the ultimate good in the universe. He is not as grim as some of the writers that followed him, but the sense of melancholy that underpins ‘The Darkling Thrush’ is undoubtedly a major characteristic of his poems and writings in general.