Thomas Hardy Poetry: British Analysis
More than one critic has called the lyrics in Satires of Circumstance Thomas Hardy’s finest achievement, although his most notable poems are probably distributed evenly among his eight volumes. Since there was no period of peak creative achievement for him—rather, a steady accumulation of poems over a long and productive career—the reader must search among the collected verse for those poems in which Hardy’s style, vision, and subject matter coincide in a memorable work. Given the strength and originality of his vision, it is difficult to speak of influences on Hardy’s poetry, although in many respects he carries forward the Romantic tradition of William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley and the homey realism of George Crabbe. An obscure Dorset poet, William Barnes, whose poetry Hardy edited in 1908, may have first introduced him to the possibilities of writing regional poetry. Barnes was a clergyman and philologist with a keen interest in local dialects who introduced vivid scenes of Wessex life into his verse. Hardy read and admired Algernon Charles Swinburne and paid tribute to him on numerous occasions, notably in “A Singer Asleep,” although his influence on Hardy appears to have been slight. Hardy’s poetry is perhaps most akin in tone and spirit to Wordsworth’s pastoral lyrics and odes, particularly “Michael,” although Hardy’s characters often lack the simple heroism and nobility of spirit of Wordsworth’s protagonists.
Wessex Poems, and Other Verses
The appearance of Hardy’s first volume of poetry, Wessex Poems, and Other Verses, was greeted by the critics with scarcely more understanding than that which had been accorded to Jude the Obscure. The fifty-one selections are a mixture of lyrics, sonnets, and ballads illustrated by the poet with thirty-one “Sketches of Their Scenes,” designed to accompany the poems. The volume includes five historical poems in a ballad sequence about the Napoleonic Wars that anticipate The Dynasts; a series of four “She, To Him” love sonnets written in the Shakespearean manner; a number of lyrics on disillusioned love, of which “Neutral Tones” is probably the best; and a set of meditative nature poems, including the sonnet “Hap” and “Nature’s Questioning.” An additional group of lyrics enlarges on scenes from the novels, including the lovely “In a Wood,” which echoes a nature description from The Woodlanders, and “The Ivy Wife,” a figurative portrait of a possessive wife that borrows its metaphor from a description in that same novel.
“Neutral Tones” is the most frequently anthologized of Hardy’s Wessex Poems, and Other Verses, and deservedly so. This four-quatrain lyric, rhyming abba, employs a series of muted winter images and a pond-side meeting to describe the death of a love affair. The implied confession by the beloved that she is no longer in love creates the dramatic occasion, and although the pronoun employed is “we,” the point of view is clearly that of the forsaken lover. The poem possesses that haunting quality of a painful moment forever etched on one’s memory: The colorless imagery of the setting suggests an impressionistic painting of two lovers meeting against a dreary December landscape in which nature’s barrenness (“starving sod,” “greyish leaves”) serves as a counterpoint to the death of love. Even the negations of Hardy’s poetic syntax combine with the winter imagery and the bitter dramatic occasion to sustain the mood of “Neutral Tones.” This poignant lyric about the failure of a love relationship was written, interestingly enough, just before Hardy’s engagement to his cousin Tryphena Sparks was broken, perhaps because he discovered her infatuation with his friend Horace Maule. This theme of love’s betrayal is of course also found often in Hardy’s novels, although it achieves greater intensity and concentration in poems such as “Neutral Tones.”
“Hap,” a sonnet about the forces that shape events unpredictably, records Hardy’s troubled response to evolutionary theory, with its view of natural selection operating impartially, without purpose or direction. The speaker would prefer a personalized universe, even with “some Vengeful god,” who wills and controls the course of events, rather than “Crass Casualty,” “dicing Time,” and “These purblind doomsters” who mete out bliss and pain alike without reason. “Hap” is thematically related to “Nature’s Questioning,” which implies that the author of the universe is “some Vast Imbecility” unconscious of human pains. This poem was so often quoted against him as evidence of his alleged atheism and hostility to religion that Hardy finally decided to write a preface for his second volume explaining that his poems taken individually did not necessarily reflect his personal philosophy. He later restated this disavowal in the preface to Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres; still, many of his poems did seem to invite speculation about his personal views. “Heiress and Architect,” for example, is a philosophical allegory cast in terms of a dialogue between two speakers representing romantic and realistic views of life. The heiress finds her elaborate plans diminished in each succeeding stanza as she submits them to the cold scrutiny of the architect. Her house designs progressively shrink in this allegory of human dreams crushed by realities, a theme familiar to Hardy’s novels.
Poems of the Past and Present
Hardy’s second volume, Poems of the Past and Present, comprising a hundred poems, is nearly twice as long as Wessex Poems, and Other Verses. Two major sections include “War Poems,” dealing with the Boer War, and “Poems of Pilgrimage,” about notable historical and literary shrines in Italy and Switzerland, where the Hardys had traveled in the spring of 1882; a third section was composed of “Miscellaneous Poems.” The “War Poems” record Hardy’s deep reservations about British imperialism and the cost of war to ordinary men; “Drummer Hodge” is about a boy drafted from Dorset and fated to lie after his death under southern constellations. Among the “Miscellaneous Poems,” “The Last Chrysanthemum” and “The Darkling Thrush” are incomparably the best. The first describes a perennial blooming out of season, into the winter, past the time when it should have flowered. This curious natural event becomes the occasion for a lyrical meditation on the mysteries of growth and change that regulate the life of each organism. Hardy continues the English tradition of the nature lyric, although in a much more subdued form than, for example, Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” Instead of drawing inspiration from a simple vernal scene, Hardy records a more complex response to a post-Darwinian natural world that can no longer be identified with a beneficent Creator. In the final stanza of “The Last Chrysanthemum,” however, he seems unwilling to discard entirely the notion of a deliberate, shaping purpose, even though the poem’s affirmation is tentative at best.
This metaphor of unseasonableness is carried forward in “The Darkling Thrush,” perhaps Hardy’s finest lyric. Here tone, mood, theme, subject, and setting coincide to shape a nearly flawless meditation on the dawning of a new century. Hardy’s thrush is his solitary singer, the projection of the speaker’s hopes and the spirit of his age, which in the midst of a bleak winter landscape, an image of the times, finds reason to fling his song against the gathering darkness of the coming age. Hardy employs the traditional formula of the romantic inspirational lyric: the speaker’s despondency, the corresponding gloom of the natural landscape, then the sudden change of mood within the lyric, in this case in the third octave, after the glimpse of a seemingly trivial natural event, the sight of a single thrush singing in a copse against the winter twilight. Yet this poem does not achieve the triumphant resolution of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “To a Sky-lark” or John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”; instead, the concluding octave is curiously equivocal, even subversive of traditional consolations. The speaker still finds little cause for rejoicing; he simply pauses to marvel at the anomaly of the thrush’s song against so bleak a setting. There is something so casual and disarming about the country setting, with the speaker leaning musingly on a “coppice gate” and quietly reflecting on the starkness of the December landscape, that readers may at first miss the implicit irony in his response to the thrush’s “caroling.” Was it merely an illusion to find cause for hope in the bird’s song? The poem’s deliberate ambiguity resists any easy interpretation, but it would be unlike Hardy to offer glib reassurances.
Time’s Laughingstocks, and Other Verses
Time’s Laughingstocks, and Other Verses includes ninety-four poems in four groupings: “Time’s Laughingstocks,” “More Love Lyrics,” “A Set of Country Songs,” and “Pieces Occasional and Various.” Most of the selections are rustic character sketches and ballads of uneven quality, although Hardy considered one of the ballads, “A Trampwoman’s Tragedy,” to be perhaps “his most successful poem.” It is a country tale of jealousy, murder, and a hanging that leaves the speaker alone in the world, without her “fancy-man,” to haunt the hills and moors in which the deeds took place.
Satires of Circumstance
Satires of Circumstance continues the pattern of Hardy’s earlier volumes of poetry, with 106 poems in four sections: “Lyrics and Reveries,” comprising religious and philosophic meditations; “Poems of 1912-13,” recollections of his courtship of Emma Gifford; “Miscellaneous Pieces”; and “Satires of Circumstance in Fifteen Glimpses.” Two of the poems in the first section, “Channel Firing” and “The Convergence of the Twain,” are among his most popular poems. Written three months before the outbreak of World War I, “Channel Firing” contains an ironic premonition of the impending conflict. The poem is narrated from the point of view of the dead in their coffins in a country churchyard, suddenly awakened by the “great guns” at sea. The nine stanzas in common measure present an ironic view of the futility and inevitability of war, with even God unable to prevent the ensuing bloodshed. All he can do is to reassure the frightened souls that “judgment-hour” is not at hand; the noise comes only from the naval guns practicing in the English Channel off the Dorset Coast.
Hardy wrote “The Convergence of the Twain” to commemorate the sinking of the luxury liner Titanic on April 14-15, 1912, after the ship collided with an iceberg on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic. He uses eleven stanzas of triplet rhyme with an extended third line to develop the theme and counterpoint of the human vanity (“Pride of Life”) that boasted of building an unsinkable ship and “The Immanent Will” that prepared an iceberg to meet it by “paths coincident” on the night they were fated to collide. A retrospective narration in the first five stanzas pictures the sunken ship with its jewels and elegant furnishings now the home of grotesque sea-worms and “moon-eyed fishes.” The final six stanzas recount the inevitable steps toward the final encounter as the two “mates”—ship and iceberg—move inexorably toward each other. A grim determinism seems to stalk this symbol of human arrogance and pride as the ship that even God “could not sink” goes down on its first voyage.
After the death of his first wife, Hardy wrote a series of elegies to Emma Gifford in his “Poems of 1912-13.” The best of these may be “Voices,” with its poignant recall of his first impressions of her as a young woman in Cornwall, its haunting dactylic tetrameters, and its lovely refrain. Here also Hardy projects much of his sadness and regret for their embittered relationship later in their marriage and for the series of misunderstandings that drove them apart. In “The Voice,” he tries to recapture the joy of his earliest memories of his wife as she was during their courtship.
Perhaps the harshest portrait in Satires of Circumstance is Hardy’s depiction of the hypocritical clergyman, who, “In Church,” is discovered after the service by one of his Bible students, practicing before a mirror the flourishes and gestures that “had moved the congregation so.”
Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses
Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses, with 159 poems, is Hardy’s largest volume, including a substantial body of reflective personal poems and an additional seventeen selections about World War I titled “Poems of War and Patriotism.” Several of these lyrics are worth mentioning: “Heredity,” with its glimpse of family traits that leap from generation to generation; “The Oxen,” a frequently anthologized poem narrating a common folk legend about how the barnyard animals were said to kneel in adoration of the nativity on Christmas Eve; “For Life I Had Never Cared Greatly,” a confession of Hardy’s personal disillusionment; and “In Time of ’The Breaking of Nations,’” about how life, work, and love continue despite the ravages of war.
Two more volumes were yet to appear during Hardy’s lifetime. Now in his eighties, he published Late Lyrics and Earlier, a collection of 151 lyrical incidents and impressions; three years later Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs, and Trifles appeared, with 152 poems. His last volume, Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres, was published posthumously by Florence Hardy. There is a sameness about these late poems that makes it difficult to select particular ones for discussion. A few show sparks of creative novelty, but many are recapitulations of earlier themes or material gleaned from notebooks or recollections during the time that Hardy was dictating his two-volume biography to his wife.
In Late Lyrics and Earlier, “A Drizzling Easter Morning” records a skeptic’s response to the Easter resurrection on a day when rain falls and rural life continues unabated. “Christmas: 1924” from Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres draws a stark contrast between humankind’s perennial hopes for peace on Earth and its use of poison gas in modern warfare; “He Never Expected Much” sums up the poet’s personal philosophy; and “He Resolves to Say No More” expresses a tired old man’s farewell to life, in which he refuses to offer any last words of insight. Perhaps this mood simply reflected his age and illness, but Hardy’s last poem lacks the resoluteness of, for example, William Butler Yeats’s “Under Ben Bulben.”
At one time, The Dynasts was hailed as Hardy’s major achievement, although critics have since revised their judgment of this massive verse drama, “in three parts, nineteen acts, and one hundred and thirty scenes,” of the Napoleonic Wars. Hardy subtitled his work “A Drama of the Napoleonic Wars,” although he meant to glorify the British role in checking the French emperor’s dynastic ambitions. In the play, he presents an allegorical view of history as a relentless, deterministic pageant in which human beings, mere automatons, enact the designs of the Immanent Will. Ever since his youth, Hardy had been planning a literary project involving the Napoleonic Wars, although he was unsure what form the work would eventually take. The final epic-drama, which he undertook in his sixties, is conceived on the grand scale of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound: A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts (pb. 1820), with the historical sweep of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1865-1869), and though the work is unevenly executed, in places flawed by excessive allegory, and perhaps even inaccessible to the modern reader, it contains many impressive scenes.
From his early plans for an “Iliad of Europe from 1789 to 1815,” Hardy evolved a dramatic form flexible enough to allow rapid panoramic shifts in scene that traced the paths of marching armies across the map of Europe and recorded the plots and intrigues of Napoleon as he schemed to strengthen his military domination. A chorus of Spirits or Phantom Intelligences introduce and conclude the scenes and interweave their comments with the human action below. What is most impressive, however, is Hardy’s historical knowledge of the Napoleonic period, combined with his innate repugnance for war and his deep compassion for the victims of the clash of nations. His controlling vision, here and throughout his poetry, was of the continuity and sameness of the human spirit everywhere. As he observed about The Dynasts: “The human race [is] to be shown as one great network or tissue which quivers in every part when one point is shaken, like a spider’s web if touched.”