Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 781

In The Dynasts, Thomas Hardy realized his lifelong ambition to dramatize the events of the Napoleonic period. He already touched on the subject in his novel The Trumpet-Major (1880), and he noted in his journal plans to execute a “Homeric ballad, in which Napoleon is a kind of Achilles.” Hardy was an anxious witness to the cultural changes brought about by so-called progress. However, while he regretted such changes as the dissolution of traditions and of folk beliefs, he was at the same time suspicious of conventional religious and social institutions. In The Dynasts, he tries, in effect, to “rescue” history by giving comparatively recent human events epic stature.

Much of The Dynasts is written in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter), but the work also includes prose passages, lyrics, rhymed couplets, and various other stanza forms. Some critics suggested that Hardy may have chosen verse because a great novel on the subject already existed in Leo Tolstoy’s Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886). More probably, Hardy chose an “antique” form to achieve the all-inclusiveness of epic and to claim association with classical epics, such as Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611), which contain all verse forms and represent all levels of human society. Hardy, too, designs his epic to chronicle “the dull peoples and the Dynasts both,” seeking to recover the heroic dimension of the human experience.

The greatest obstacle to this goal is what Hardy calls the Immanent Will. In Hardy’s cosmology, worldly destiny and ambition are driven by an unconscious, motiveless force rather than by personal initiative or by a watchful, just God. Even the great powers appearing in the drama—Napoleon, Nelson, Wellington—are subject to this force, which works “like a knitter drowsed.” Although Hardy denied that it represented a systematic philosophy, The Dynasts seems to reinforce the determinism or fatalism prevailing in such earlier novels as Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891). All the characters of the verse drama, whether high-born or humble, are caught in what Hardy calls “satires of circumstance”; whether king, commander, or whore, none seems capable of expressing individual purpose or intention.

To illustrate these satires, Hardy uses a chorus of Spirits or Intelligences. From various perspectives, they comment on the role of the Immanent Will in worldly experience. Themselves subject to the Will, they are free to meddle only superficially in human affairs. They may spread unreliable gossip, as does the Spirit of Rumour, or speak a word or two to an individual in a crisis (for example, to Villeneuve as he considers suicide or to the defeated Napoleon after Waterloo). Only the Spirit of the Pities has any compassion for human misery; the others stand as indifferent, sometimes amused, witnesses to history.

A multitude of human actors crowds the drama. In addition to the key historical figures, Hardy includes many nonspeaking characters whose presence in these events the reader is merely intended to register. (This may be one of the reasons why Hardy stipulated that The Dynasts is intended “for mental performance alone.”) Some of the more eminent characters serve principally to advance the action. Even Napoleon seems opaque when he makes rhetorical pronouncements; he is most sharply characterized as a victim of the Will: “a solitary figure on a jaded horse.” As to the anonymous figures with whom Hardy peoples history, they, too, are caught in the Will’s “knitting,” as when a group of English deserters cheerfully drink themselves insensible in the ruins of a Spanish farmhouse, waking only when they are overtaken by Napoleon himself.

Hardy’s epic vision is panoramic, and his sweeping aerial views of countryside and battlefield are, as the critic John Wain observed, cinematic achievements. Hardy also captures grotesque, anecdotal moments. For example, after Nelson’s death at Trafalgar, his body is transported back to England preserved in a keg of rum, which his loyal but thirsty sailors drain before arriving in port. For chronicling such extremes, Hardy develops a curious, even stilted vocabulary that is native neither to poetry nor to prose. At times, he uses the speech of Wessex rustics that is familiar to readers of his novels; panicked at the rumor of Napoleon’s approach, English country folk assert that he “lives upon human flesh, and has rashers o’ baby every morning for breakfast.” The poet invokes a completely different language when his Intelligences speak of the Immanent Will: “These are the Prime Volitions,” they explain, “Their sum is like the lobule of a Brain/ Evolving always that it wots not of.” In this twentieth century epic, Hardy proves himself to be a virtuoso of metrical form and a keen, if eccentric, observer of historical detail.

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