Thomas Hardy Thomas Hardy Poetry: British Analysis

Start Your Free Trial

Download Thomas Hardy Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Thomas Hardy Poetry: British Analysis

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 2,706 words.)