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...
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