Thomas Hardy

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Mary Moss (review date September 1906)

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SOURCE: Moss, Mary. “The Novels of Thomas Hardy.” Atlantic Monthly 98 (September 1906): 354-67.

[In the following review of Hardy's novels, Moss urges that Hardy be treated as a universalist and not just a regionalist.]

In a certain book on Japan the traveler asks his guide why all the little Japanese birds on a telegraph wire face the same way. He even noted it as a characteristic national trait. On learning that they were more comfortable beak to the wind, the author artlessly observes that American birds probably follow the same custom, for the dignity of their tail feathers, only at home such trifles escaped his notice. That man was an accomplished art critic, and to such small purpose had he learned to use his eyes!

Now Thomas Hardy, on the contrary, has so seen and felt the world about him that whether his particular country be as unfamiliar as the mountains of the moon, whether your range of vision be as urban as my Japanese traveler's, you nevertheless recognize and ratify the truth of every word that Hardy utters. Grass grows on the same impulse, birds mate and nest, cattle ruminate under shade trees, sap rises in the spring, women are of two minds, men act under strange promptings, the mills of the gods grind inscrutably, whether the scene be laid in “Wessex,” Asia, or central Pennsylvania. For this reason, interesting as it may be to investigate Hardy's country as a matter of sentiment and amiable gossip, to the real student of Hardy the facts that Casterbridge is Dorchester, that Loveday's mill can still be pointed out to pilgrims, that Eustacia waited on that barrow, that Bathsheba sold corn in this market-place, should be of the most superficial consequence. Indeed, this local aspect of his work has been dwelt on rather to the damage of larger and deeper appreciation. The quite external fact that his books cover a small geographical field, that he is a trustworthy antiquarian, historian, and naturalist, has somewhat obscured the greater field illumined by his genius. Thus, whimsically, the most universal English writer since Shakespeare is often treated as a limited specialist, because every one of his rare and delightful products comes from the tender, sympathetic cultivation of one small garden plot.

Although he may leave whole sides of life untouched, this in no way detracts from his universal quality, since his appeal is never made to any special class. Superficial people read him for the story, lovers of beauty for delight of the eye and ear, humorists for the quaintness of his comedy; while no thoughtful human being can fail to gain from him flashes of self-knowledge and understanding of the world at large. Not that he, at his best, explains; but when, in descriptions of another's emotions, sensations are found that each of us has tingled with, our own understanding and sympathy are at once enlarged, and we have momentarily responded, be it ever so little, to that universal vibration of life, to know and feel which is the only true knowledge.


In Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) the progressive movement is toward a larger scale [than in his earlier novels]. It is solider, more robust; that word applies alike to characters, situation, and treatment.

Gabriel Oak, a young yeoman, sees a handsome girl sitting on top of a cartload of household goods, disputing her toll with the gatekeeper. He pays her toll. Vexed at losing her point with the gatekeeper, she barely thanks him. This gives the broad rusticity of the pair. Gabriel makes her acquaintance through the...

(This entire section contains 5435 words.)

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agency of a milch cow which she visits daily. “By making inquiries he found that the girl's name was Bathsheba Everdene, and that the cow would go dry in seven days. He dreaded the eighth day.” The development of the story simply is that Bathsheba fails to appreciate Oak, experiments with a rich neighbor, Farmer Boldwood, to her own sorrow, and marries for love a faithless Sergeant Troy. She grows more and more to rely upon Oak's disinterested help in all matters of farming; but on her husband's supposed death, half unwillingly commits herself to Boldwood. Troy reappears on the eve of her marriage, and Boldwood, in a fit of madness, shoots him dead. Stripped of its clothing, this sounds like rank melodrama; but after all, since life may at any moment furnish melodrama, there seems no reason why the serious novelist need boycott that field, if only he has the power to avoid cheapness.

And throughout this story there is such a marvel of lyrical prose, expressing such tender and perfect vision, that not Maeterlinck himself has cast more beauty upon simple and common things. Not a leaf falls, not a bird chirps, but Hardy's word recalls your own closest and happiest observation; through his magic you realize for the first time the meaning of many an unconsciously stored impression of life and nature. Nor is he merely the accomplished paysagiste. Character never ceases to be as important as visions of sky and pasture. The lives of his people are never a mere vehicle for poetized bits of natural history. You see Bathsheba in the foreground, with fields and sheep in perspective,—a rustic Diana, full of unspent sex, a queer blending of unbridled impulse and middle-class decorum. Her physical beauty stands proved, also an honesty which is quite compatible with wavering. “A censor's opinion on seeing an actual flirt would have a feeling of surprise that Bathsheba could be so different from such a one, yet so like what a flirt is supposed to be.”

If Thackeray had been minded to make an attractive man of Major Dobbin, or to show George Osborne as a beguiling specimen of his class, the results would not have been unlike Gabriel Oak and Sergeant Troy. Of the latter, Mr. Barrie goes so far as to say: “Never till Troy was shown at work, had we learned from fiction how such a being may mesmerize a bewitching and clever woman into his arms. Many writers say their Troys did it, but Mr. Hardy shows it being done.” Tito Melema is of Troy's family, except that the ethical George Eliot, by compelling the reader to dislike Tito, at once diminishes the sense of his charm. In Troy's case, while cherishing no illusions, you never outgrow a wholly indefensible liking for this agreeable scamp, who “never passed the line which divides the spruce vices from the ugly; and hence, though his morals had never been applauded, disapproval of them had frequently been tempered with a smile.”

And here, in this, is another trait of Hardy's genius. He can put man or woman in difficult situations without deflecting what theatre people call “the sympathy.” The wife abandoned by a young and gallant husband usually appears unattractive; it is almost inherent in her position. Not so Bathsheba; you see exactly how it came about, without immediately losing the sense of her dash and beauty.

Specialists in “local color” should make a profound study of this book. Although Gabriel's sheep form the picturesque motif of the whole, and seldom are more than a field or so away, they never steal the curtain. You never suspect that Bathsheba is wooed and won for the sake of an eclogue upon shearing. The most celebrated passages are known to all students of English literature; yet every rereading will discover new bits illustrating not only Hardy's lyric beauty, but the piercing truth of expression which makes for brevity and humor. There are marvelous analogies, unstrained but original, and true as proverbs: “He would as soon have thought of carrying an odor in a net, as of attempting to convey the intangibility of his feelings in the coarse meshes of language.” Or take the old master who “seemed to approach the grave as a hyperbolic curve approaches a line,—sheering off as he got nearer, till it was doubtful if he ever got there at all.” Whether it be heat, cold, a sweep of the heavens, an ingle-nook, the regular change of seasons, or a storm, through this same direct method Hardy reaches his highest effects; and here his storms are no longer gentle disturbances of Constable or Gainsborough, but, like Turner's, they breathe excitement. More sinister than those showers which merely threaten the wayfarer's comfort, these menace life and happiness. You feel danger in their approach. “The same evening the sheep had trailed home, head to tail, the behavior of rooks had been confused, and the horses had moved with timidity and caution … time went on and the moon vanished not to reappear. It was the farewell of the ambassador previous to war.”

In another season: “It was a time in cottages when the breath of sleepers freezes to the sheets, when round the drawing-room fire of a thick-walled mansion the sitters' backs are cold even while their faces are all aglow. Many a small bird went to bed supperless that night among the bare boughs.” A passage as perfect in its way as the opening lines of “The Eve of St. Agnes.” And yet another mood of nature, when “to persons standing alone on a hill during a clear midnight such as this, the roll of the world eastward is almost a palpable movement.”

As for his chorus of rustics, one critic cries to Heaven to witness their travesty of daily speech, another finds pure Thomas Hardy the only current tongue in “Wessex.” Who can tell? The point is that you believe the mental attitude of his boors to be spirit perfect. Perhaps they do talk too much like Launcelot Gobbo for Victorian England. Granted! But does this matter, since they give you a complete sense of country life, since they are amusing, and adequately fill their space? If their tongues be too archaic (and many visitors to Wessex declare them to be literally true), the medium, right or wrong, never clogs the workings of their minds. There is an atmosphere of such just values that even when Farmer Boldwood talks suspiciously like Hamlet his flights never seem far-fetched.

Hardy changes the angle of his narrative to please himself. He avoids explanation. He expects you to take mere detail for granted. No preparatory chapter exhausts Bathsheba's past life. You are vaguely told that she studied to be a governess, but was too wild. Only Parson Adams would feel bound to ask—what her parents did—if she were an only child. Toward the end, the whole movement visibly slackens,—not weakly, but suitably, as in the last pages of a Beethoven finale. It is the slow resolution of dominant into tonic, soothing to mind and spirit, so that you reach the end with a great sense of completion, of Hardy's power to evoke the beauty of homely things. Take the whole question of breeding, lambing, shearing, and—indigestion! Remember the distended bellies of the “blasted” sheep, how he treats this episode! Your sympathy is wrought on for the animals' pain, the farmer's loss; but the unpleasant side, though never shirked, is given no undue prominence. The entire passage might be quoted as one more proof how little beauty or refinement depends upon theme. When Ferdinand hears of his father's death, when Ariel sings the changes taking place in a submerged and decomposing body, how is it told? “Full fathom five thy father lies,” and so forth,—the most poetic lyric human fancy ever produced! Yet think of that same morbid process even touched upon by the hands of Caliban! So Hardy gives a clear picture of the lambs' gas-tormented bellies; but he also never loses sight of blue sky, kindly sunshine, fresh brooks, and fecund meadows.


The Return of the Native (1878) caused indignant outcry. What business had [Hardy] with sheer pagan tragedy? Sir David Wilkie putting on the airs of Æschylus or Euripides! Yet no genuine element of tragedy is lacking.

Eustacia Vye and Clym Yeobright meet by chance on Egdon Heath at the moment of his having attained “that stage in a young man's life when the grimness of the general human situation first becomes clear to him, and the realization of this causes ambition to halt awhile.” Eustacia was merely lonely, unoccupied, and had reached a point when her former sweetheart, Wildeve, had faded to “the rayless outline of the sun through smoked glass.” Clym was a dreamer, philosopher, and lover of mankind; the eternal visionary, with obstinacy for passion, reason for impulse, resignation in place of ambition. This luckless man casts his lot with Eustacia, and tries to instill the domestic virtues into a creature who is the incarnation of all that men rhapsodize in women. She is the eternal, triumphant mistress, yet the type which invariably ends by losing, always going down at last before such women as Thomasin, the eternal mother.

Nowhere in English prose is there such inexpressible beauty of description. Ever modulating and changing as the theme grows gay or sad, it plays over the whole like music. Song and accompaniment are not more closely welded. And with this sense of sound, you never lose a sense of acute vision. You see not only the great moor through recurrent seasons, but cottages, thresholds, angles of chimneys, the pools, those bonfires illumining many hilltops above the dark basin of heath, till the heathmen seem to be standing “in some radiant upper story of the world.” And the heath at night! “Then it became the home of strange phantoms; and was found to be the hitherto unrecognized original of those wild regions of obscurity which are vaguely felt to be compassing us about in midnight dreams of flights and disaster, and are never thought of after the dream, till revived by scenes like this.” The whole first chapter is like the opening adagio of a great symphony. Read this passage at midday in a landscape of vernal efflorescence, and the still relentless gloom of Egdon will darken your very soul. How to accomplish this is Mr. Hardy's secret. The Return of the Native is too close-knit for the stitch to reveal itself. Read and re-read it; each time you are so swept along that you fail to pause and scrutinize the method. You are possessed by its beauty and sadness; you lose all wish to know through what mechanism such effects are produced. You see that he is steeped with classic drama. Long before he refers to Hauff, or drops a quotation from Börne, you realize that he has been through his German philosophers and poets; only, unlike Carlyle, he has not stayed with them, but has come out on the far side,—enriched with all they could give, developed, but not changed.

Although many younger writers, quite fairly and without plagiarism, suggest Hardy, he never by any chance reminds you of any one else,—always, and with due reverence, excepting Shakespeare. In the deepest sense he is original, not by eccentricity, not by revolt. If he revolts, it is only by noting the irony of life. He is so far from seeking novelty that at times he seems reverently and sadly to end a chapter of the world's history, as if he stood among the departing good things of past time, as if roadside wanderings with Lavengro, the tender observation of Richard Jefferies, the whole rural life of ancient England, here had its beautiful and mournful valedictory. Then suddenly a word, a phrase, and he binds you to the future. You remember that the moon waxes and wanes, even over smoke-enshrouded cities; that flood tides still lap even the esplanades of vulgar watering places; that the seasons march on, heedless of human artifice. In fact, he leaves you comforted with a sense of the abiding strength of nature.


In The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) Hardy marks another stage. It is the drama of middle life. Strange to say, austerity is the note of this book, which opens with a drunken laborer's selling his young wife and child to a wandering sailor. This austerity, moreover, deepens, though wives prove not to be wives, or maids to be maids, and children have unexpected fathers. Yet the whole is steeped in puritanical, middle-class morality. The tragic figure of Michael Henchard, a rebellious, inarticulate Job, stands out from a sober, unemotional background. Restraint prevails, though, here as elsewhere, Hardy delights in “nature's jaunty readiness to support unorthodox social principles.” He revels in showing the accepted conventions of morality in contrast with actual human passion. Not Mr. Bernard Shaw himself was ever more edified by the truly British point of view that certain things are not, at war with the actual fact that they are. Indeed, many people have hailed Shaw as the exponent of doctrines which are to be found full grown in the pages of Hardy, with three differences. Hardy loves his people, he clothes his theories in quivering flesh and blood,—they are never disembodied intellects,—and he, so far, is guiltless of propaganda.

In The Mayor of Casterbridge he obtains a great effect by using so humdrum a background that every flicker of passion flames out like a bonfire. Apart from Michael Henchard, the characters are only saved from commonplace by the sheer charm of narrative; and in this book the mere craft has made strides. There are no slipshod sentences, no lapses into wordiness, and this without loss of wit or beauty. The description of a country town is as fresh as if he never before had taken his readers to Casterbridge.

The Woodlanders (1887) is a grave study of purely rustic character. Little Hintock suffers from over-shading by many trees. Trees cast gloom and sombreness upon the lives of its inhabitants. There is base intrigue, weakness, and failure. But the point brought out by this book, in spite of the sacrifice of Giles Winterbourne, opens your eyes to an unsuspected quality in Hardy's philosophy. Whether externally beaten by Fate, or successful, the solid characters invariably have the reward of winning affection; while inferiority, one way or another, is always worsted. This seems invariable, and, underlying Hardy's fatalism, it prevents his ever degenerating into bitter pessimism. It is his point of reconciliation with the cruelties and injustices of life, the spring of his steadfast endurance. Under all his observation of Fate's ironies, he is convinced that character tells. Perhaps not at a glance, but somewhere, somehow, it does meet with a reward, usually intangible, satisfying only to your soul; and with this, even in the sombreness of The Woodlanders, his tenderness never fails; and, as Brandes says of Goethe:—

His love for every living thing, his feeling of kinship with animals and plants, his persuasion that the human being is one with all other beings, his intuition of the unity that underlies perpetual change of form,—this power of resolving all nature into feeling, was his earliest gift.

Of the three volumes of short stories, Wessex Tales (1888), A Group of Noble Dames (1891), and Life's Little Ironies (1894), there is only space to say that they show still further gain in purity and condensation of style. Each story ends with a queer turn, leaving you half laughing, half gasping. The humor is whimsical, a consciously artificial atmosphere pervades these curious scenes. You imagine careful parents hurrying them from drawing-room tables, serious, middle-aged spinsters protesting at them as libels upon their sex. What do they represent? Possibly the moment in his life when the irony of things became too oppressive, when he at last fell into the throes of belated revolt, and was spurred on, by cumulative indignation, to an attempt at bettering matters.

In Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891), Hardy for the first time has a thesis to maintain, a text,—no less a one than that opposed by Richardson in Clarissa, and preached by Gissing in The Unclassed, and by Eugène Sue. But, unlike Tess, Fleur-de-Marie herself is hopeless of reinstatement. The thing has happened. Had she lost an eye or an arm through no fault of her own, she would still be blemished. That is Eugène Sue's view of it.

Aiming at quite an opposite conclusion, Hardy seems constantly thwarted by forces beyond his control. He contends that, but for society's prejudice, as expressed in Angel Clare, Tess's purity would be uncontested. The trouble is that, by taking a text, the novelist stands bound to prove it. A less candid man than Hardy would suppress enough of the truth to leave his teaching consistent. But, while Hardy the moralist lays disaster to unnatural human laws, Hardy the incorruptible observer constantly remembers the cruelty of Nature herself. Consequently his record is the perfection of beauty and truth; but his comments, with their visible effort to wrest logic from an insoluble problem, merely hamper him. He is too unpartisan for the problem novel, in contrast to those writers who can only get up steam with the irritation of a question to argue; he who sails by tides, breezes, and tempests is merely thwarted by a determination to instruct. Consequently the warring elements in Tess [Tess of the d'Urbervilles] place it on a lower plane than The Return of the Native, in spite of a faultlessly told story, moving through absorbing beauty to an inevitable tragedy. That the very end falls below the level of the whole, that it verges perilously upon cheapness, is a small matter, since the larger logic of events is never tampered with to the extent of shirking an unavoidable catastrophe. The real flaw lies in our pagan chronicler's effort to suggest remedies for what he with the same breath proves irremediable. At the time of its publication,—problems held full sway over fiction in the early nineties,—this very element introduced Hardy to the large general public which had hitherto paid him comparatively slight attention. By a queer paradox, its weakness gave it tremendous vogue, but no one could ever imagine Tess as a conscious bid for popular favor. Rather it seems that Hardy's extraordinary impressionability suddenly laid him open to a contemporary influence, and that, too, at an age when men usually become slower in response to outward conditions, less sympathetically alive to the world about them; when the conservative “Better not try” of middle age is wont to check the generous iconoclasm of youth.

His mental attitude is much the same in Jude the Obscure (1895). It is as if the spectacle of the world's injustice had so wrought upon him that he was finally trying to hammer some sense out of it. The gropings for a path which usually mark early works, the violence of contrast which generally belongs to hot young blood, have come to him now,—the desire to reconcile actual conditions with some respectable fundamental scheme of the universe. If the beauty of vision is of necessity less,—since he never lugs in irrelevant ornament,—the style itself is of measured perfection. But—he preaches, and without absolute conviction. At times he seems to be pointing out that those who even appear to infringe upon established social order shall be ground small and cast to the winds. He, in fact, insists upon this. But, having arraigned society as guilty, he also proves that Jude and Sue were temperamentally unfit for existence; and by way of further confusion, he gives Jude a complete inability to resist the—flesh! He depicts two natures so warring that under any conditions they must have suffered; and then blames their troubles upon an uncharitable world.

Jude is the poor boy aspiring to high scholarship, baffled quite as much by his own baser appetites as by outward obstacles. Sue is a sprite of a creature, clever, speculative, granting nothing to the flesh, yet tender-hearted,—one of those abnormal women who appear sexless to themselves, and fill men with baffled desire; an independent little pagan of quick moods, warm affection, no overmastering passions.

An unjust, pursuing fate is the genuine note of the book. Here again Hardy's conscious attempt to put his hand to the rudder and steer a course is perpetually thwarted by his invincible truthfulness. Jude is another variation of the irresolute Hardy man, with taste, feeling, strong but spasmodic will. Whereas Christopher Julian, Clym Yeobright, and Angel Clare are purely intellectual (radiance without warmth is the wonderful description of Angel's love for Tess), Jude, for every day in the year but one, is a creature of intellect, and just for a day falls victim to his senses, never his passions. He is eternally governed by a woman, betrayed into coarse excess by Arabella, cribbed and confined into abnormal restraint by Sue. These three stand out in high relief. There is no middle distance, only shadowy figures in remote perspective. The achievement here is that, at his age, Hardy should have added a new type to his collection of women. Sue is the modern girl, self-tormenting, frankly one of those unhappy halfway creatures who lose their hearts but never their heads; women whose actions often seem dictated by sheer caprice, because the voice of Nature calls them in uncertain tones, and they have the will to let that summons pass unheeded. Such women suffer most, accomplish least. They are elements of disturbance, because they arouse feelings which they can never satisfy. They subdue men without giving a fair equivalent; yet they are entirely without calculation, recklessly disinterested. They should never be confounded with the French heroine who suffers from sêcheresse de cœur, and experiments to ease her consuming curiosity of life. If in Tess, without losing his romantic manner, Hardy shows sympathy with ultra-modern views, in Jude [Jude the Obscure] he creates the absolutely modern woman, a creature as distinctively the manifestation of her own day as Pamela, Dorothea Brooke, or Mrs. Ward's Marcella. Hardy, in fact, has kept in touch. Like Verdi, he has lived along with his time. Some of us may prefer Trovatore and Aïda to Otello, but no people in their senses could fail even to prefer Falstaff to what Verdi would have produced had his development stopped at Trovatore, making all subsequent work the mere remodeling of early thoughts and impressions.


Although we stand perilously near for an attempt at placing this great novelist, it is safe even now to suggest that his chief original service to English fiction has been the same as Tennyson's to English verse. He bridges over the gulf between poetry and science. He holds fast to romance without slurring or ignoring the facts of actual life.

If art be the conscious power of using the raw material of genius, the power not only of bringing down fire from heaven but of curbing and directing it, then as an artist Hardy, in many places, falls short. Nor is his genius at its best when he attempts subjecting it to guidance; but the genius itself—except in A Laodicean—never flags in quality and abundance. Had his craft been equal to his inspiration, then Shakespeare would have come to life in our midst. It is such genius as at times to give the effect of highest art, as opposed to Thackeray, whose art is so unapproachable as to be at times quite indistinguishable from genius. Hardy more nearly resembles Dickens, in this unstudied quality; but Dickens never shows his ravishing sense of loveliness. Hardy can see beauty anywhere. He can love anything, a sty-fed pig! And make you love it, and as a pig, too, not idealizing it, never forgetting that it is merely the winter's store of lard, sausage, and blood-pudding. Where M. René Bazin polishes his tales of peasant life till their smooth surfaces present never a flaw or inequality, careless of means as Nature herself, Hardy is busy only with his matter. He is forever occupied with his idea, yet at times his intensity burns away all dross, purifies and refines, leaving only an incomparable beauty. The unfretted energy, never consumed in mere attention to craft, in its finest outbursts achieves results undreamed of by more accomplished artisans. This method, or lack of it, however unsafe for smaller men, is obviously the only possible one for Hardy.

For all his melancholy, he is far kinder to man and beast than Mr. Phillpotts. His sun shines oftener: there are more genial draughts of mead and metheglin, his beer is a generous fluid, his cider has mellowed in the cask. Thirsty lips are not always sodden ones. I have purposely omitted his rustics, as the aspect of him least needing emphasis. Their humor and quaintness have been so insisted upon that there is danger of his being classed as a “clever” portrayer of dialect and quaint corners. When, as a fact, if he be happiest in Wessex, if he create his neighborhood till it is more familiar to eyes which have never seen it than the country at their doors,—if this be true, we may also be very sure that, had Hardy been born at Whitechapel, India, or Iowa, he would still have written imperishable records of men and women.

Although Hardy's very latest work is of an importance to demand separate and lengthy appreciation,—as well sum up in a paragraph the second part of Faust and a few Greek tragedies,—no study of his novels is complete without at least a reference to The Dynasts (Part One, 1904, Part Two, 1906).

This inchoate and disturbing production contains his garnered observation upon the whole of life, no less! It is his final comment, recorded with a scrupulous love of truth which rejects anything so empirical as a conclusion.

In fact, so far from arriving anywhere, The Dynasts gains its chief interest from unraveling the strands which go to make up the dual nature of Thomas Hardy. Aiming at complete freedom from the restrictions of form, he casts it in the shape of a huge panoramic drama of Europe under Napoleon. This immense field is commented upon from middle air by a spirit chorus, each member of which personifies an unchanging point of view. Whatever the practical defects of this form, or lack of form, it at least has the merit of giving elbow room. The author swings individuals, armies, nations, with complete disregard of any limit. His saturation with his period, in feeling and detail, is so thorough as to give The Dynasts weight as a mere historical summary, a tracing of motive and design by a hand strong enough to grasp the situation at its largest.

Beyond this, his spirit chorus continues an ever baffled attempt “to prove there is any rhyme or reason in the Universe.” At times the lines are full of a sonorous beauty, with a sweep which makes the same demand upon the attention as the long phrasing of modern music. The Spirit of the Pities forever deplores the cruelty and sadness of life. The Spirit Sinister frankly exults in mischief. The Spirit of Irony impersonally comments; the Spirit of Years counsels tolerance.

Indeed, if these debates fail to contain a satisfactory theory of the universe, they do afford a key to the apparent inconsistencies of Thomas Hardy. While all his reasonings sooner or later abut upon an “unmaliced unimpassioned, nescient Will,” something deeper than reason forever denies so chill and meaningless a law of existence. He is like those biologists who, having pushed research to the remotest forms, are still bound to confess that just beyond there lies something which they can neither explain nor ignore.

Re-read in the light of The Dynasts, every one of Hardy's novels represents a phase of mental struggle. Hardy has the mind of an ironic pessimist. Taken from this angle, almost every book is an invective against the wanton cruelty of “The Immanent Will.” If this were all, we should merely have an arraignment of the entire scheme of creation. But in this lifelong debate, the intellect is constantly opposed by an instinct which steadily rejects a philosophy of logical despair.

As was wisely said of Anatole France, his intellectual irony would finally grow unbearable, if it were not for his sentient, human heart. Different as they are in every other respect, Hardy and Anatole France have this in common. Each in his way views the spectacle with an inward vibration which irrationally persists, and in consequence of which each is saddened but unembittered by the worst that life can show.

And in the end, as emotion must always prevail over reason, as love is eternally constructive, to the great gain of Hardy's readers, the discouragement wrought by his pitiless logic is forever canceled by his indestructible human sympathy.


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Thomas Hardy 1840-1928

English novelist, poet, playwright, short story writer, and essayist.

The following entry provides criticism on Hardy's works from 1906 through 2002. See also Thomas Hardy Short Story Criticism, Far from the Madding Crowd Criticism, and Jude the Obscure Criticism.

Hardy is considered one of England's greatest novelists. His work resembles that of earlier Victorian novelists in technique, while in subject matter it daringly violated literary traditions of the age. In contrast to the Victorian ideal of progress, Hardy depicted human existence as a tragedy determined by powers beyond the individual's command, in particular the external pressures of society and the internal compulsions of character. His desire to reveal the underlying forces directing the lives of his characters led him to realistically examine love and sexuality in his fiction, a practice that often offended his readers and endangered his literary reputation.

Biographical Information

Hardy was born on June 2, 1840, in High Bockhampton, Dorsetshire. Finishing his formal education at the age of sixteen and then apprenticing with his father as a stonemason, he worked at first on the restoration of churches and from 1862 to 1867 practiced architecture in London. Plagued by ill health most of his life, he returned to Dorset, where he continued to work in architecture until he started writing poetry, with limited success. He began to publish novels in the 1870s. Hardy married Emma Gifford in 1874, and the two embarked on a series of tours to the Continent. They resided in several rural locations in England, finally building a permanent home called Max Gate in Dorchester. By the 1890s Hardy had achieved considerable success with his novels and again began to write poetry. As his fame increased, Hardy was awarded a number of honors, including the Order of Merit, the Gold Medal of the Royal Society of Literature, and honorary degrees from the University of Aberdeen and Oxford University. Mrs. Hardy, now mentally ill, died suddenly on November 27, 1912. In 1914 Hardy married Florence Dugdale. He died of heart disease on January 11, 1928, at Max Gate. After his death it was decided that his heart should be buried near the grave of his first wife, while his cremated remains should be placed in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey.

Major Works

Although Hardy wrote prolifically in several genres, his novels have achieved the most lasting recognition. Two early novels, Desperate Remedies (1871) and Under the Greenwood Tree (1872), were published anonymously. He used his own name on the next two, A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) and Far from the Madding Crowd (1874). The latter, less pessimistic in tone than his later work, was the first of his so-called Wessex novels, in which he used a fictitious English county based on his native Dorsetshire. The Return of the Native (1878), a story of the strange and beautiful Eustacia Vye, continues in the sequence of novels which portray the fading rural society of Wessex. In The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), Hardy's hapless protagonist Michael Henchard pays for the mistakes of his youth in bitter disappointment. Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891) tells the story of a girl whose unfortunate circumstances lead her to a tragic end. The final major Wessex novel was Jude the Obscure (1895), another story of an individual caught in the web of a rigid, conservative social system. Minor works published during this period include the novel The Woodlanders (1887) and the short story collections Wessex Tales (1888) and Life's Little Ironies (1894). At the age of fifty-five Hardy returned to writing poetry, a vocation he had abandoned for a number of years. Although his literary reputation has been primarily established through his novels, Hardy took this work seriously. Among his considerable poetic works during this period were Wessex Poems and Other Verses (1898), Poems of the Past and Present (1901), and a multi-volume verse drama, The Dynasts (1904-1908), which deals with England's role during the Napoleonic wars. Short poems were published as Time's Laughingstocks and Other Verses (1909), Satires of Circumstance (1914), Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (1917), Late Lyrics and Earlier (1922), Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs and Trifles (1925), and Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres (1928). Several collections of his fiction, poetry, letters, and notebooks were published posthumously.

Critical Reception

Early Hardy criticism was mixed, especially following the controversy surrounding the publication of both Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. Debates over the morality of Hardy's fiction and the quality of his poetry waned with the New Criticism beginning in the 1940s, when an entire issue of Southern Review was devoted to Hardy on the centenary of his birth. Several important books on Hardy ensued, as well as a growing number of journal articles, and by the 1960s Hardy scholarship was a vital part of the academic literary establishment. Most Hardy criticism during this period focused on the best-known novels. In the 1970s Hardy studies progressed to structuralist and poststructuralist thinking, the latter including feminist, deconstructive, and Marxist interpretations. Traditional, non-theory-based criticism, however, continues to coexist with poststructural approaches, on such topics as Hardy's regionalism, his “philosophy,” and the correlation between his life and his work. Hardy scholars in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have begun to dwell on his poetry, a genre neglected for several decades by critics, and his minor works of fiction. Criticism of his work continues to burgeon, with several academic journals dedicated solely to Hardy scholarship and many articles and books on Hardy appearing each year.

Samuel C. Chew (essay date 2 June 1920)

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SOURCE: Chew, Samuel C. “Homage to Thomas Hardy.” New Republic 23 (2 June 1920): 22-6.

[In the following essay, Chew presents a brief biography and a tribute on the occasion of Hardy's eightieth birthday.]

Thomas Hardy, the foremost living English poet and novelist, attains the age of eighty years on the second of June. A birthday tribute to the man whose achievement in prose has deepened the thought, widened the horizon and rectified the structure of the novel, and whose verse has appealed profoundly to many minds in these later years, may well take the form of a survey of the many-sided excellencies that make it appropriate to observe the occasion publicly.

Born in a remote humble Dorsetshire cottage, of a family formerly of importance, but (like the D'Urbervilles) fallen in fortune, Thomas Hardy received the first impressions upon a mind unusually sensitive to surroundings from nature and from the past. Upon the heath before the cottage door and in the woodlands behind, beside the Froom and the Stour, among the apple-orchards and corn-fields, he observed not only the silence and the calm but the rivalry and struggle of animal and vegetable life. All about him were memorials of the past: venerable tracts of forest-land like the Chase in Tess [Tess of the d'Urbervilles], amphitheatre and round, tumulus and fortress, Druidstones and strange rude monoliths whose origins were shrouded in mystery and encumbered with folk-tradition. As a youth he must have often climbed about the gigantic grass-grown ruins of Mai Dun; and, like the inhabitants of Casterbridge of whom he has written, he, too, may have seen upon the slopes of the Roman amphitheatre “a gazing legion of Hadrian's soldiery as if watching a gladiatorial combat,” a momentary vision evoked by intensity of imagination. Like his own Clym Yeobright, he picked up flint tools and arrow-heads in the course of his wanderings over the heaths. When later in life he built himself Max Gate, the house in which he still lives, the excavation for the foundations laid bare pottery and jewelry of times long past, and in preparing a drive-way there were exhumed the skeletons of five Roman legionaries. The peasantry of his youth-time had not yet learned to despise old ways and words, though the year of the great exhibition, 1851, was, as Hardy has remarked, “an extraordinary chronological frontier” between the old manner of life and the new.

Many of the Southern folk then saw the outer world for the first time. From that date old habits began to disappear and new ways, the ways of the drab undifferentiated English laborer everywhere, began to creep in. The phenomenon of the levelling of dialectical peculiarities commenced and many fine old local words are now obsolete. The older people who use them are snubbed by the younger generation educated at the National Schools. Tess and her mother represent the contrast between the younger people whose beliefs have been undermined by education and the older with their “fast-perishing lumber of superstition, folk-lore, dialect, and orally transmuted ballads.”

Fortunately for those who reverence such memorials of the past Hardy's young manhood came at a time when there was still ample opportunity to observe for future chronicling many folk-survivals that are now being obliterated by sophisticating influences. For what “progress” had not entirely accomplished by 1914 the ruthlessness of military necessity has of late, it would seem, thoroughly performed, if we may judge by the fact that a recent pilgrim to Wessex found one of the heaths that served as a model for Egdon torn and scarred, the ancient ways defiled, the furze-bushes uprooted, and the barrows desecrated by multitudes of “tanks.”

Around the young Hardy were reminders of a more recent past. Then Waterloo veterans were still to be met with. There were vivid recollections of the stirring days when “there were two arch-enemies of mankind—Satan as usual, and Buonaparte, who had sprung up and eclipsed his elder rivals altogether.” The threat of Napoleon's invasion left an impression upon the Channel counties in a way to which the Midlands and the North afford no parallel. Ruined huts on high points of land still marked the places where dwelt the beacon-keepers who should signal the expected landing of the French. The seeds that began to germinate in the eighteen-seventies and that in the first years of this century brought forth the magnificent literary fruitage of The Dynasts were sown in Hardy's mind in his childhood.

Other vestiges of the comparatively recent past—Georgian residences, fragments of Elizabethan manor-houses, old inns, barns that had once been portions of ancient conventual groups, ruined abbeys, and a multitude of churches that were soon to undergo “the tremendous practical joke of restoration”—helped turn his mind towards the profession that he adopted at the age of sixteen and that left so marked an impression upon his books. He entered the office of an architect in Dorchester. Under the direction of his master Hardy was sent to sketch and measure many churches about to be reconstructed, and these frequent journeys helped to familiarize him with the country-side. The study and practice of architecture during ten formative years gave to the future author of the Wessex Novels, it is not fanciful to say, his evident grasp of the essentials of proportion, design, finish and exactitude. The structural excellence of the plays of Sir John Vanbrugh affords a like instance of the influence of strict training in design upon a literary artist.

In 1861 Hardy came to London where, presently, having won prizes in architectural theory and design, he could look forward to a promising career in his chosen profession. But already he was hesitating, uncertain as to the wisdom of his choice. Beyond doubt he puts his own experiences into the mouth of one of the architects in Desperate Remedies, who declares that it is not skill as artists that architects need in order to succeed, but “an earnestness in making acquaintances, and a love for using them.” With an inability to stoop to meretricious means of gaining patrons went the distractions of literary pursuits (for he was already writing poetry) and a profound interest in the new forces of thought which in the sixties were changing the face of things, extending the history of mankind into “the dark backward and abysm of time,” and peering out beyond what had once been the flaming ramparts of the world. The stronghold of orthodoxy was being assailed without and within. The Oxford meeting of the British Association and the publication of Essays and Reviews were events of the immediate past. The poetic atmosphere, among those who could not find a refuge in a resurgent Cyrenaicism, became charged with pessimism, at times melancholy, at times in despairing revolt. Arnold voiced such feelings in “Dover Beach”; and men found spectres of their own thoughts, cloaked in gorgeous Eastern drapery, in Fitzgerald's translation of Omar. Of such spiritual experiences Clifford wrote a little later: “We have seen the spring sun shine out of an empty heaven, to light up a soulless earth; we have felt with utter loneliness that the Great Companion is dead.” The despair of one such spirit is recorded in the majestic rhetoric of “The City of Dreadful Night.” In this welter of conflicting purposes and ruined symbols some voices were urging that for duty to a dimly described or altogether unknown God there be substituted the Religion of Humanity, the Charity that “seeketh not her own.” It was amid these shaping influences that Hardy began to write.

In his early poems a preoccupation with the mystery of the world is seen shadowing his thought with what Meredith later called his “twilight view of life.” He voices his failure to find a hint of orderliness in the universe; no sign of direction is apparent, no evidence of plan. Many of these pieces are studies in the freaks and pranks of “the purblind Doomsters” who mismanage human fate. In many there is a sense of le grand sommeil noir that enwraps the little waking moment of life, and in certain poems Hardy, conscious of the sea of oblivion around this fleeting moment, seems to cry with Leopardi: E il naufragar m'è dolce in questo mare! Everywhere there is a refusal, characteristic of all Hardy's writings, of false consolation and empty hope: a determination to look “at the worst contingencies as well as the best in the human condition”; a deliberate and courageous posing of difficult questions. At that time he had not realized the truth of “B. V.'s” admission that “the truths of midnight do not necessarily exclude the truths of noon-day,” though at the end of his life he has declared that his is a nature that has become vocal at tragedy rather than at comedy and that though undemonstrative before a contrasting side of things he has not remained unperceiving.

For this verse he could find no publisher and was “compelled” (the word is his own) to turn to prose. After an unsuccessful attempt, rejected, as has been often told, on the advice of George Meredith, the publishers' reader, he issued his first novel, Desperate Remedies, in 1871, at his own financial risk. The statement often made that this was a revision of the earlier abortive effort is untrue; The Poor Man and the Lady was an entirely independent work. The limits of this brief survey do not admit of a chronological account of the Wessex Novels. The facts are well known or easily accessible. For our purposes it is sufficient to say that after three tentative efforts along contrasting lines Hardy won his first popular success with Far from the Madding Crowd in 1874; that his mature power is first apparent in The Return of the Native (1876); that in The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) there appears a change in technique, interest being no longer divided between four or five characters all drawn with about the same degree of detail, but concentrated upon a single individual; and that the outcry occasioned by Jude the Obscure in 1895 “cured him,” as Hardy has recorded, “of any further interest in novel-writing.” Comment has been frequently made upon the fluctuations in Hardy's genius, which instead of developing steadily has produced between novels of great strength other stories that already the world would be forgetting but for their connection with the five or six books of acknowledged excellence. This ebb and flow is due to the need of replenishment and refreshment after the severe intellectual strain demanded by the major novels, between each of which (save between one pair) several years intervene. The phenomenon is similar to that observed in the career of Joseph Conrad. To regain strength by turning to other and lighter themes is a wiser course than almost to exhaust fecundity in the first rush of genius as Dickens so nearly did.

It is possible, however, to trace out several lines of development. For the use of entanglement, mystery and tragic suspense, inherited from Wilkie Collins and the other “sensation novelists,” Hardy gradually substituted the instrument of tragic anticipation seen at its profoundest in almost the opening words of Jude [Jude the Obscure] which describe Fawley as “the sort of man who was born to ache a good deal before the fall of the curtain upon his unnecessary life should signify that all was well with him again.” The rustic humor, which covers the whole canvas of Under the Greenwood Tree and which appears as a series of exquisite interludes in Far from the Madding Crowd, gradually becomes scantier and more acrid; and from Jude this element has disappeared altogether. The interest in natural phenomena, which produced such memorable scenes as the storm and the shearing-supper in Far from the Madding Crowd, the marvellous mid-summer night episode in The Woodlanders, the gaunt landscape of The Return of the Native, and the sensuous charm of the dairy-scenes in Tess, has never failed Hardy, but this element, too, is removed to the far background of Jude. In thought the development is from a malign fatalism, akin to the passage of flaming indignation against the gods which Swinburne inserted amid the perfervid erotics of “Anactoria,” to a strict determinism which is suggested in The Return of the Native and first definitely stated in Jude. Noteworthy, too, is the gradual change from an implicit to an explicit statement of his view of life. In one paragraph of Jude the “tentative metaphysic” of The Dynasts is succinctly enunciated.

Structurally, notwithstanding certain severe strictures upon the excessive use of coincidence in them, the Wessex Novels offer opportunities for ample comment, for Hardy is a great artist. Here there is room only for a few remarks. In projecting a series of novels the action of which takes place within a narrow stretch of country, there must have been some temptation to connect the several novels together as did Zola in the Rougon-Macquart series and as did Balzac to an extent that makes a sort of guidebook necessary if we are properly to follow the fortunes of the principal characters in the Comédie humaine. Hardy, depending upon unity of background to link the tales together, has avoided this mode of procedure save when some person is introduced as a minor character, to reinforce the impression of time and place, as part of the locality (as it were), in one story who in another story is of psychological importance. Thus, Conjuror Trendle, a principle [sic] character in the short story of “The Withered Arm,” is just mentioned in Tess, the time and general locality of the two tales being thus fixed as about the same. Again, the appearance of “a silent reserved young man named Boldwood” among Henchard's creditors fixes the date of The Mayor of Casterbridge as some fifteen or twenty years earlier than that of Far from the Madding Crowd. There are similar links between the novels and the poems and The Dynasts. One must leave it to the happy reader to trace out all these connections by which, with faint fine infrequent touches, Hardy holds together the persons of his imagination without ever approaching the point where such links become confusing entanglements.

In his excellent and little-known essay on “The Profitable Reading of Fiction” Hardy remarks that “to a masterpiece in story there appertains a beauty of shape, no less than to a masterpiece in pictorial or plastic art.” Such formal beauty is a preeminent characteristic of his own work. In a score of instances the story begins on a road or path along which some person is moving; and the reader seems, if it may be so expressed, to be moving with the protagonists, or with those connected with their fortunes, into the theatre of action. The scene whereon the tragedy or tragi-comedy is to be enacted is thus gradually unfolded, the outer country is left behind, the unity of action is strengthened by an approximation to the unity of place. In similar fashion does he reveal the appearance and traits of his personages. There are no long prolegomenous set descriptions such as occur so often in other novelists, notably in Balzac. He avoids the error of describing at once and in great detail persons in whom the reader is not yet interested. Very often the opening scene is at night or in some place where shadows veil details. Thus, Eustacia first appears outlined against the sky on Rainbarrow, a slim romantic figure only. Presently the light of the November bonfire reveals her features fitfully. Her appearance is more fully described in the light of her grandfather's house on her return home. But it is only the next day, by which time the reader's interest is fully aroused, that the morning light enables one to discern clearly her form and face and to read thereon the characteristics of her nature.

Hardy's sense of proportion and feeling for relative values are shown in the comparative amounts of detail which he expends upon his character-drawing. In all the greater novels the full light is thrown upon a few central figures, and even within that narrow circle there are different degrees of illumination. Similarly, there is a like subordination of details to the total effects in the matter of incidents and episodes. And in many of the novels care is taken to harmonize the setting with the event that takes place therein. Contrast, for example, Bathsheba's first meeting with each of her three lovers; or trace out the beautiful adjustments of place and season to the events in Tess. Moreover, the natural background of woodland and meadow and heath, and the pictures of the trades and recreations of the peasantry impress one not as extraneous formal descriptions but as part of the warp and woof of the tales. Hardy's disciples, copying his obvious “regionalism,” have not grasped the secret of this close interthreading of nature with our kind.

Of his rustics Hardy remarks that they possess “an almost exhaustless biographical or historical acquaintance with every object, animate and inanimate, within the observer's horizon.” This is true of the novelist himself; and his horizon is all Wessex. He watches the march of the constellations and records the progress of the storm, the contrasting and increasing brilliance of the lightning, the various rollings of the thunder. He contrasts the sound of rain-drops as they fall on different kinds of ground; and of the wind as it blows through trees of different species. From their dissimilar flames he can distinguish the sorts of wood used in the November bonfires. Night in all her moods is familiar to him; and dawn no less than evening. One of the most beautiful passages in the novels is the description in Tess of dawn on the Froom meadows; another is the picture of the forest at dusk in The Woodlanders. No event is too small for his sympathy. He notes the “musical breathings” of the pine which begin as soon as the young tree is set in the ground. The toad seeking shelter, and the spiders that drop from the ceiling are signs of the coming rain. The indifference of the birds to a wetting is a token that spring is on the way. He understands the mentality alike of Oak's impetuous misguided young sheep-dog and of John Durbeyfield's poor decrepit horse. The urge and stir of returning life in spring is a rapturous and ever-new experience to him which he delights to picture. In a recent poem he expresses his hope that if, when he is gone, men remember him at all, it will be as one who noticed the beauty of the spring, to whom the hawk and the thorn were familiar sights, who strove to protect the little creatures of the country-side from harm, and who had an eye for the mysteries of the full-starred heavens.

The novels are redolent of the customs and superstitions of the peasantry. Folk-survivals appear like the “club-walking” at the opening of Tess (which is a degenerate form of the old May Day “garlands”), the Christmastide wakes and mummers' play, the skimmity-ridings, the pretty custom of the wedding march around the village, and such grimmer relics of the olden time as the selling of a wife and the burial of a suicide at the cross-roads. “Smouldering village beliefs” which “lurk like moles underneath the visible surface manners” play their part in creating the atmosphere of the tales. The old superstition of blasting an enemy's life by melting a wax figure, shaped in his likeness, before the fire—a belief that, as Frazer shows, is current throughout the world and that has been turned to literary use time and again since Theocritus—is employed with dramatic effect in The Return of the Native. Witches and devils are the familiar neighbors of the peasantry; the beautiful Vale of Blackmore teems with beliefs in “green-spangled fairies that wickered at you as you passed.” Bodements and omens are looked for on all occasions; the breaking of a key or a looking-glass, a ringing in the left ear or the prick of a thorn or the sight of a magpie or the crowing of a cock in the afternoon—all are dreadful signs. Divination is expertly practised. In The Woodlanders there is a scene of wonderful charm in which the young girls of the hamlet go to the forest on Old Mid-Summer Eve in quest of a vision of their future partners for life. Elsewhere the future is divined by looking into the cloudy white of an egg. There are various superstitions connected with death and others of a less sombre sort. A pleasant interlude in Tess is the story of William Dewy who in his youth charmed a bull by playing on his fiddle as he ran away from it, but could not manage to climb the fence, because to do so he had to stop playing, until he hit on the plan of playing the Nativity Hymn, when the bull, thinking it must be Christmas-Eve, knelt down and before it realized that it had been fooled Dick was safely over the fence. The same bit of folk-belief is employed for a very different purpose in Hardy's recent poem “The Oxen.” But to set down in proper order all the folk-elements of the novels and poems would be a fascinating task, too long for this survey.

It surprised many people when Hardy, a novelist of established reputation, branched out into a field of work that, so far as the public knew, was almost untried. But he had in fact at no time in his career wholly given over the writing of verse. What is extraordinary is that in the volumes of miscellaneous verse that have succeeded the Wessex Poems of 1898 there has been no falling off in power, but that on the contrary in his latest volume, published at the age of seventy-seven, are to be found some of his poems in technique most excellent and in thought most appealing. The gnomic utterance, the compressed expression of a definite thought, the intensity of feeling, the wistful melancholy alternating with harsh irony, the sympathy beneath the cynicism, the quiet melody underlying the ruggedness—these qualities of the earlier poems are apparent in the most recent. The metaphysic that he offers is confessedly tentative; he puts forward a series of personal impressions, set down in different moods, under different circumstances, at different times. Time will do its customary winnowing among its mass of work; but the permanent value for humanity of a large portion of it lies in this: that Hardy's poetry moots questions too often put beyond the pale of discussion, that it stimulates to a new estimation of old standards and symbols and formulas. And it has merits of another order, for it stirs the emotions as well as it quickens the intellect, else it would not be great verse. This poetry is impersonal in the sense that the issues involved are larger than personality; it is intensely personal in the impression that it makes of deep emotion behind it. The sorrow, the despair, the anger, the cynicism, the faint flickering hope are Hardy's own; but they are more. Humanity itself is heard piping in fields and groves its solitary anguish. Reading these voicings of the pathos of unbelief, or of the lost enthusiasms of youth, or of the irony of the contrast between purposes and results, we mourn, not for the poet only who has experienced them, but for ourselves. Each experience is part of a larger one, in broadening circles till it embraces the infinite. The Self—and this is the more remarkable because of the passionate practical individualism of the novels—is made subordinate to the Whole; the particular parcels of the Will are seen as portions of Its Immanence.

Man, in Hardy's writings, becomes only one of the many phenomena of interest to the imaginative interpreter of life. The old anthropocentricity is gone. In his pictures of Egdon Heath and in his sonnet on the Matterhorn he muses upon the defiance with which these grim impersonalities have withstood the onset of centuries while events of tremendous import for poor humanity have had their day and ceased to be.

Yet ages ere men topped thee, late and soon
Thou didst behold the planets lift and lower;
Saw'st, maybe, Joshua's pausing sun and moon,
And the betokening sky when Caesar's power
Approached its bloody end; yea, even that Noon
When darkness filled the earth till the ninth hour.

So also in the otherwise nearly negligible novel Two on a Tower the feverishness of human passion is set against a background of starry distances; and a meditation upon a lunar eclipse takes the form of contrasting the petty pretentiousness of our concerns with the imperturbable serenity of the segment of shadow cast upon the moon, that sole stellar gauge of the real worth of “Heaven's high human scheme.” In that scale the Napoleonic Wars dwindle to microscopic insignificance; in the after-scene of The Dynasts the Spirit of the Years utters the essential comment:

Yet but one flimsy riband of Its web
Have we here watched in weaving—web Enorme,
Whose furthest hem and selvage may extend
To where the roars and plashings of the flames
Of earth-invisible suns swell noisily,
And onwards into ghastly gulfs of sky,
Where hideous presences churn through the dark—
Monsters of magnitude without a shape,
Hanging amid deep wells of nothingness.

Men—whole nations—are moved like figures on a lantern-slide, are drawn to and fro by the halyards of the all-pervading Will, the intertwisted strands of which are revealed in certain scenes of the epic-drama to the onlooking Intelligences. This Principle that moves the universe is shadowed forth under a variety of august names. The High Influence, the Eternal Urger, the Rapt Determinator, the Imminent Unreckoning, the Great Foresightless, the Unconscious. A sentence towards the close of Jude sums up the philosophy of The Dynasts:

Vague and quaint imaginings had haunted Sue … that the world resembled a stanza or melody composed in a dream; it was wonderfully excellent to the half-aroused intelligence, but hopelessly absurd at the full waking; that the First Cause worked automatically like a somnambulist, and not reflectively like a sage; that at the framing of the terrestrial conditions there seemed never to have been contemplated such a development of emotional perceptiveness among the creatures subject to those conditions as that reached by thinking and educated humanity.

A number of the shorter poems are concerned with this problem. Perhaps some primeval disaster cleft the original scheme of things apart. Perhaps the Will's “mindlessness of earthly woes” may be due to Its interest in other worlds. Perhaps the Godhead is dying downward, heart and brain all gone save for the last flicker of consciousness that still abides in man. Or maybe man's consciousness is a foretoken of coming consciousness directing all things. Through some accident that rests unexplained mankind, “emerging with blind gropes from inpercepience by listless sequence,” has achieved consciousness and a moral sense. Hardy is not unaware (as some critics have accused him of being) of the inconsistency of thus ascribing to a purposeless and conscienceless Will the creation of beings in whom consciousness and […] have been evolved. On the contrary he returns again and again to “the intolerable antilogy of making figments feel.” Henceforth, though the origin of human reason remains inexplicable, two natures contend in man. There is a struggle between intuition, the Will-to-Live, which is in accord with the blind Immanence that exists only for the sake of existing, and intelligence, the Will-Not-to-Live, which knows that existence is not worth prolonging. This doctrine is expressed in almost allegorical form beneath the harsh realism of Jude the Obscure. Indeed all the later novels are founded upon a recognition, not incompatible with minute realism, of the applicability of a deterministic system of philosophy to the facts of life. The connection with von Hartmann's Philosophy of the Unconscious is obvious. In the rivalry between Being and Not-Being the Will is still in control, but the power of Reason is growing and will one day prevail. Then the wound of living will be healed by a voluntary lapse into unconsciousness.

Were this Hardy's final word his would indeed be a “twilight view of life.” But he introduces among the crashing chords of his pessimism a note of hope. The song of the thrush in December suggests the existence in the bird's heart of some blessed Hope of which man is as yet unaware. Elsewhere the poet expresses his awareness of

That enkindling ardency from whose maturer glows
The world's amendment flows;

and elsewhere still, in one of his grandest poems, he who had long shaped weak phantasies of the blind and dumb Willer raises his voice in song because here and there he sees old wrongs dying out. No concession to the novel-reading public, such as compelled the “happy ending” of The Return of the Native, forced Hardy to close The Dynasts as he did. It is therefore of the utmost significance that in his epic-drama the last word is given, not to the Spirit Sinister (the exponent of a cynical pessimism) nor to the Spirit of the Years (who interprets events in accordance with a strict determinism), but to the Spirit of the Pities, the symbol of human sympathy, of the Undying Fire, the unconquerable hope of humanity.

The events of the World War might have been employed by this great and sombre thinker as unqualified illustrations of the truth of a deterministic philosophy; and indeed he attaches the blame to no man but to “the Immanent Doer That does not know.” Again the final word has hope in it, for the Thing responsible for the dire crash,

          … in some age unguessed of us
May lift Its blinding incubus,
          And see and own:
“It grieves me I did thus and thus.”

And the “Men who march away” are upheld by the faith and fire within them that “victory crowns the just.” Hardy's grandest gift is that “double vision” of which one of his best critics has spoken, whereby, while seeing life as trivial and futile, he can also see it as heroically sublime. The universe is not hopeless of betterment that has produced the sort of men to whom Hardy gives his meed of praise—Giles Winterborne, Gabriel Oak, John Loveday—and that has produced the sympathy and tenderness with which he cries, not to Tess only but to all humanity. “Poor wounded name, my bosom as a bed shall lodge thee!”

Principal Works

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Desperate Remedies (novel) 1871

Under the Greenwood Tree (novel) 1872

A Pair of Blue Eyes (novel) 1873

Far from the Madding Crowd (novel) 1874

The Hand of Ethelberta (novel) 1876

The Return of the Native (novel) 1878

The Trumpet-Major (novel) 1880

A Laodicean (novel) 1881

Two on a Tower (novel) 1882

The Mayor of Casterbridge (novel) 1886

The Woodlanders (novel) 1887

Wessex Tales (short stories) 1888

A Group of Noble Dames (short stories) 1891

Tess of the d'Urbervilles (novel) 1891

Life's Little Ironies (short stories) 1894

Jude the Obscure (novel) 1895

The Wessex Novels (novels) 1895-1913

The Well-Beloved (novel) 1897

Wessex Poems and Other Verses (poetry) 1898

Poems of the Past and Present (poetry) 1901

The Dynasts. 3 vols. (verse drama) 1904-1908

Time's Laughingstocks and Other Verses (poetry) 1909

The Works of Thomas Hardy in Prose and Verse, with Prefaces and Notes. 24 vols. (novels, short stories, and poetry) 1912-1931

A Changed Man, The Waiting Supper, and Other Tales (short stories) 1913

Satires of Circumstance (poetry) 1914

Selected Poems (poetry) 1916

Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (poetry) 1917

Collected Poems (poetry) 1919

Late Lyrics and Earlier with Many Other Verses (poetry) 1922

The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall (play) 1923

Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs and Trifles (poetry) 1925

*The Early Years of Thomas Hardy, 1840-1891 (autobiography) 1928

Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres (poetry) 1928

Chosen Poems (poetry) 1929

*The Later Years of Thomas Hardy, 1892-1928 (autobiography) 1930

Thomas Hardy's Personal Writings: Prefaces, Literary Opinions, Reminiscences (essays) 1966

The Literary Notes of Thomas Hardy (essays) 1974

New Wessex Edition (novels, short stories, and plays) 1974-79

The Complete Poems (poetry) 1976

The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy. 3 vols. (letters) 1978-1982

The Personal Notebooks of Thomas Hardy (notebooks) 1978

The Variorum Edition of the Complete Poems of Thomas Hardy (poetry) 1979

The Complete Poetical Works of Thomas Hardy. 2 vols. (poetry) 1982-1984

Thomas Hardy: Selected Letters (letters) 1990

Thomas Hardy: The Excluded and Collaborative Stories (short stories) 1992

Thomas Hardy: Selected Poetry and Non-fictional Prose (poetry and prose) 1997

*These works were republished in one volume as The Life of Thomas Hardy, 1840-1928 (1962).

Carl J. Weber (essay date 6 January 1951)

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SOURCE: Weber, Carl J. “Hardy: A Wessex Seesaw.” Saturday Review of Literature 34 (6 January 1951): 24-5.

[In the following essay, published during a period of decline in Hardy criticism, Weber urges a reconsideration of Hardy's literary contributions.]

Thomas Hardy's first novel appeared in 1871, and those few persons who bought it had to pay only $7.50 for a set of three volumes. In 1926 when George Barr McCutcheon's copy of the same novel was sold at auction in New York it brought $2,100. Only three years later when Jerome Kern's copy of this same work was auctioned off its purchaser paid $4,800. But when Paul Lemperly's copy was sold at auction in 1940 the novel brought only $27.50.

These figures are quoted, not with the misguided idea that a revaluation of Hardy's books is a matter of dollars and cents, but because the figures tell more than a commercial story. For the rise from $7.50 up to $4,800 and the fall from that giddy height to $27.50 are indicative of something more than the fluctuations in the market for rare books. Public interest in Hardy has experienced a similar rise and fall, and since his death in 1928 his reputation has in some quarters suffered a marked decline.

Throughout the first quarter of the present century many critics voiced the opinion that Hardy's most nearly perfect work of art was The Return of the Native and that in this novel his most profound study of human nature was to be seen. But in a new edition published last year its editor spoke of the “manifest and manifold crudities” of this novel and found it full of “gross faults.” This shift in opinion illustrates the marked change in the literary climate in which Hardy's works now live. Since there is not time here to let everyone talk we may nominate two spokesmen. Let Professor Samuel C. Chew of Bryn Mawr speak for the older generation of critics, and let Professor A. J. Guerard of Harvard speak for the younger men. Twenty-five years ago Professor Chew declared that “the famous prelude-like opening” of The Return of the Native—the chapter about Egdon Heath—“is one of the most magnificent pieces of modern prose,” but Professor Guerard now remarks that “the pages of Egdon Heath are not as good as earlier critics thought.” Chew believed that “in Hardy's greater works he has realized his own ideal of imparting to masterpieces of story a beauty of shape” and that in the “large matters of structure and design Hardy's art … is almost impeccable.” Guerard confesses that The Return of the Native holds him “with no fascinated curiosity” and that its “mechanically constructed and obvious plot” proves that Hardy is no “master of the novel form.” Instead of finding a “profound study of human nature” in The Return of the Native Guerard maintains that “Hardy did not understand Clym dramatically.” In fact—“did he even understand Clym rationally?”

Well, I for one would answer: Yes, he did. I think Chew right and Guerard wrong; but in a comparison of critical opinions there is little profit in a mere statement of preference. Instead of merely adding one more critical rock to the mountain of personal opinion about Hardy I should prefer to try to find out why we find ourselves differing so. Many considerations are involved here—normal changes in taste, boredom with the old and the familiar, postwar “sophistication” of moral outlook—considerations which demand more time and space than are now available. But one inviting question can be asked: Is it possible that we have to a large degree disqualified ourselves as critics of a rural writer like Hardy by our modern urbanization? We are city bred. Our outlook on life is no longer that of the superstitious agricultural workers among whom Hardy grew up, and what seemed natural and real to him is likely to seem formed and unconvincing to us. This makes all the difference in the world in one's judgment of Hardy's work. To illustrate:

Far from the Madding Crowd is a great novel,” declared James M. Barrie, whose vivid memories of an unurbanized life fitted him for reading Hardy's novel sympathetically. But when Henry James, of New York, Boston, Paris, and London, came to review this same book (as he did anonymously in The Nation), he was unable to conceal his basic lack of sympathy with Hardy's country point of view. “Hardy describes nature with a great deal of felicity,” so James grudgingly admitted, “and is evidently very much at home among rural phenomena. The most genuine thing in this book is a certain aroma of the meadows and lanes.” If Henry James had, like Hardy, walked those lanes as a boy, he might have found Gabriel Oak just as “genuine” as anything else in Hardy's book.

Curiously enough, at the very time that there has been a growing tendency to depreciate Hardy's novels, there has been an increasing readiness to appreciate Hardy's poetry. This is curious, because the novelist and the poet have the same thoughts, interests, tastes, and outlook on life. Fortunately this Wessex literary seesaw has a fixed pivot, solidly based in Hardy's genius and personality; and the rise in the repute of the poetry, accompanying the fall in the esteem in which the novels are held, has only served to bring into clearer focus the stature of the man himself.

The quickened interest in Hardy's poetry has had at least one easily marked result. During the last thirty years of his life, when he wrote nothing but verse, he was often called a pessimist. He undoubtedly had his gloomy moments. But he also had moments of joy and happiness, and readers of the poems have gradually come to appreciate this fact. They have found it easier to single out an individual poem than to spot a cheerful page in a gloomy novel. In one of the most significant of his personal lyrics, one of his “Country Songs,” Hardy exclaims:

Let me enjoy the earth no less
          Because the all-enacting might
That fashioned forth its loveliness
          Had other aims than my delight.

In any New Year's revaluation of Hardy's work, whether in verse or in prose, his enthusiastic appreciation of earth's loveliness must receive emphasis.

About one other aspect of Hardy's work there can also be no doubt. Critics may come and critics may go, but the verdict of Henry W. Nevinson will not soon be reversed. He declared: “No Englishman since Wordsworth has heard the still, sad music of humanity with so fine an ear, and none has regarded … men and women … with a compassion so profound and yet so stern, as they pass with tears and laughter between the grave and the stars.” Even the harshest of Hardy's modern critics agrees with this view—that Hardy's judgment of mankind is charitable and compassionate and that, however drab and beclouded he found our world, Hardy believed every man deserves more sunshine and happiness than he gets.

Hardy's experience of life was not a short one: he was almost eighty-eight when he died. An author who after so long a life can convince readers that the earth is lovely and mankind basically good and deserving has certainly earned the place he occupies in Westminster Abbey among England's literary giants.

Richard Carpenter (essay date 1964)

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SOURCE: Carpenter, Richard. “Tess of the d'Urbervilles.” In Thomas Hardy, pp. 124-38. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1964.

[In the following essay, Carpenter offers an overview of Tess of the d'Urbervilles, calling it a story of a peasant girl transformed into universal tragedy.]

The basic myth of The Woodlanders is reiterated, with some differences, in Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891), which was published four years later: an essentially good and natural character is destroyed by the combined powers of society and circumstance. The differences are that the primitivistic, anthropological ambience of Tess is more concentrated on the protagonist and is made more a matter of analogy than allusion. Giles Winterborne is only one of the principal figures in The Woodlanders, whereas Tess Durbeyfield is undeniably the central character in the novel named after her. We are saddened when Giles dies, but there are others to carry on; when Tess is executed, we are desolated and left only with the unsatisfactory solace of a possible rebirth of her love in the persons of her sister and Angel Clare. By focusing all our sympathies on his heroine, Hardy redoubles the emphasis of his scapegoat myth.

Tess is, however, less obviously an anthropological figure than Giles. The archetypal nature of her situation lies in its pattern and process rather than in its allusions. Hardy does, to be sure, equate Tess with Eve, as we shall see later; but, in general, it is what happens to her that brings out the basic mythic significance. Nearly as much a child of the soil as Giles or Marty, Tess is more complex, more human, and no Demeter to Giles' Dionysus. Yet she is more powerfully symbolic in her femininity than either Giles or Marty are as wood god or wood nymph. Her unconscious sexual attractiveness—her lush figure and “peony mouth”—relates her to the archetypal fertility principle symbolized by the goddesses of myth from Ishtar to Venus. In addition, her story is an archetypal folk tale of the wronged maiden who cannot escape from her past, who finally turns on her seducer to destroy him, and who loses her own life as a result. Together, these qualities of the elemental feminine character and the paradigmatic folk tale serve to make Tess of the d'Urbervilles one of Hardy's most forceful novels.

Tess Durbeyfield's story begins with the notion of her poor, foolish father that he is a descendant of one of the ancient Norman families of Wessex, and his drunken celebration of this apocryphal situation, which prevents him from carrying to market the beehives on which the family depends for its living. Tess takes the job, falls asleep on the way, and their horse is killed, impaled by the shaft of a speeding mailcart. As a consequence of this irreparable loss, Tess seeks the assistance of the d'Urbervilles, her supposed kin, and a wealthy family. In due time she is seduced by Alec d'Urberville, and bears a child, which dies in infancy. After this she leaves the vicinity of her home to work as a dairymaid in the rich farming section of Talbothays. There she meets Angel Clare, son of a clergyman, and a gentleman who is learning the dairy business; eventually they fall in love and get married, Tess never having been able to muster up the courage or find the opportunity to tell Angel about her past life. She confesses to him on their wedding night; despite the fact that he has been guilty of a brief affair himself, his concept of Tess's maiden innocence is utterly shattered, and blind to her real innocence and purity of spirit he insists on a separation. He goes abroad; Tess, not realizing that he does not mean really to abandon her, becomes an itinerant farm laborer.

At the “starve-acre” place where she works Tess is harried and overburdened by the owner and almost distracted with her sense of being abandoned by Angel. At this crucial juncture Alec d'Urberville reappears, this time apparently converted into a fanatical evangelist. His new personality is not, however, firmly enough established for him to resist his worse side when he once again encounters Tess. His pursuit of her, combined with her desperation, finally brings her back into his power. But when she discovers that Angel had never intended to abandon her and that her letters had not reached him until too late, she murders Alec in a frenzy of grief and torment. She flees with Angel, but is eventually apprehended and executed. As Hardy says in a much-deplored final sentence, “the President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess.”

This grandiloquent metaphysical implication is not the primary reason that Tess [Tess of the d'Urbervilles] raised such a storm at its publication. More important in this respect was its social criticism. Although in The Woodlanders Hardy attacked the stupidity of a marriage law that tied Grace to Fitzpiers despite his infidelity, the novel did not really get at the social prejudices that gave sanction to such laws. In Tess, however, basic moral assumptions of the Victorian age come in for barbed criticism: the cruelty of a “moral” code which condemns the innocent victim of a seducer (perhaps a rapist) to ostracism while he goes scot free; the double standard that enabled Angel to palliate his own sins while condemning Tess. Although its “message” is comprised in dramatic situations rather than in tractarian statement, Tess of the d'Urbervilles is a frontal attack on some of the bastions of Victorian mores, and was recognized as such. In addition, Hardy emphasized his point by subtitling his novel A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented, thus virtually guaranteeing a storm of protest. For Tess is not only once but twice fallen from the point of view of Victorian respectabilities. No matter that she is subjected to intolerable pressure: she has been seduced; she has borne an illegitimate child; she has married, been deserted by her husband, and lived with her seducer. Even Henry James thought that such a novel was “vile.” Hardy drew blood when he tried to write a serious story about a basic moral issue.

Hardy did not intend his novel to be a social tract, but he did want to treat social problems in a mature way. In doing so, he did not confine himself only to the question of moral standards but also considered the effect on ordinary people of economic instability and social climbing. Tess's father initiates the tragic course his daughter pursues by his illusion that he is a somebody because his ancestors were noble Normans. A chain of circumstance is linked together from this notion, the most important link being Tess's going to her “kinfolk,” the d'Urbervilles (who are actually nouveaux riches) for help. The constant need for steady income to support the family later takes Tess far away from home, and turns her into an itinerant farm laborer, thus setting the stage for the reappearance of Alec. Part of Hardy's social criticism is thus aimed at the agricultural situation in which poor people lacked even a modicum of security and were subject to any chill economic wind that might blow along. Moreover, the pernicious idea that the members of the “better classes” were really better than the simple country folk is subjected to sharp analysis. Tess is by far the most admirable person in the novel, and the two men in her life—both presumably above her in the social scale—are shown as the victims of false ideas of human interrelationships coming from their background. Not only Tess's father labors under the illusion that social classes have some intrinsic value in them (like Mr. Melbury), but Alec thinks he can play the seigneur to the peasant girl and Angel believes that there is some mystic purity native to the maid of lower classes, necessary to her desirability. Both of these are destructive notions because they replace individual human values with false concepts about society. As Hardy had done in such widely differing novels as The Hand of Ethelberta and The Woodlanders, he demonstrated in Tess the problems that arise from social prejudices and illusions.

Hardy also includes in his social critique his usual theme of the invasion of the pastoral world by alien forces, here symbolized by the threshing machine, that “buzzing red glutton” with its tender “a creature from Tophet, who had strayed into the pellucid smokelessness of this region of yellow grain and pale soil,” a throbbing mechanical monster on which Tess works her heart out. But more pervasive, and evidently more striking because so many readers have been impressed by it, is the metaphysical theme which is, in Tess of the d'Urbervilles, more patent than in any previous novel. Hardy shows Tess the helpless victim not only of society but also of principalities and powers for which no human agency can be held responsible. We saw in The Mayor of Casterbridge and in The Return of the Native that these powers might provide situations which character could then exploit, but in Tess they operate without regard to character. Hardy unwisely puts into Tess's mouth early in the novel the portentous remark that we live in a “blighted world,” and throughout his novel he seems determined to prove the point. When the rats are slaughtered at the base of the grain rick or when Tess puts the wounded pheasants out of their misery, it is pretty clear what Hardy is about. The final deplored comment that “‘Justice' was done,” rounds out this philosophical aspect of the novel, emphasizing the idea that Tess was not only beset by society but also by the very nature of the universe.

When all is said and done, however, the quality of the novel comes from its characters and setting rather than its more conspicuous themes. Tess is outstanding among Hardy's heroines because she is the only good woman who has the role of a protagonist. She has none of the caprice and egotism of a Eustacia or a Sue Bridehead; she is instead the ideal ingenue—Tamsin Yeobright, Marty South—brought centerstage. Unlike these others, however, she is more vitally alive; specifically, she is more female, more sexual, more passionate. In combination with her innocence, her gentleness, and her worshipful loyalty, this sexuality makes her indeed a memorable character. It is as if the voluptuousness of the luxurious Felice had been purified and combined with the virtue of the guileless Tamsin. Tess is also better educated and more intelligent than the ingenues of the earlier novels; and she has greater moral and physical endurance than any of Hardy's other heroines. Most notable of all is what we might somewhat lamely call her genuineness. She has the straightforward sincerity, the natural simplicity of those who live close to nature. No tiresome paragon of virtue, she also has a dash of recklessness in her character (coming, Hardy implies, from her knightly Norman ancestors) that enables her at long last to turn on her tormentor and slay him. Like the peasantry from which she comes, Tess knows nothing of deceit; like Billy Budd, she can only strike out when its evil is fully revealed to her. Beautiful with a full-bodied femininity, staunch in character, passionate in emotion, Tess is Hardy's vision of an ideal woman.

In contrast to her are the two men in her life, who lack not only her genuineness but also her simplicity and passion. Alec d'Urberville is the less interesting of these men, but he has unexpected qualities which come out in the course of the novel. In the beginning he is the typical seducer of melodrama, with his flashy clothes, high-stepping horses, his bold and roving eye, and his “badly moulded” mouth. Only a bit less theatrical than Manston of Desperate Remedies or William Dare of A Laodicean, Alec acts his stereotyped role so mechanically that we almost feel like hissing him when he strokes his mustache and calls Tess, “My Beauty.” Later, in response to an ill-defined motive, he becomes an evangelist, and then gives this up for a new pursuit of Tess, the first shift being less believable than the second. Yet there is something in Alec which goes beyond the mere stock seducer, for he does seem torn between his better and his worser selves, and his yielding to the latter indicates the strength of Tess's appeal. Despite his careless immorality and his habit of exaggeration, Alec speaks at least part of truth when he says, “And why have you tempted me? I was as firm as a man could be till I saw those eyes and that mouth again—surely there never was such a maddening mouth since Eve's!” (411) [all page references from The Works of Thomas Hardy in Prose and Verse. The Wessex Edition (London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1912-31)]. Firm is something Alec never was, but his fall from precarious grace is brought about by Tess; he is a weak man who might have been good enough but for the presence of her innocent allurement.

Angel Clare is similarly a man who is pulled in different directions by conflicting motives, and he is in some ways the most interesting character in the novel—not the most imaginative creation nor yet the most profound personality, but the most intriguing because of his problems. Angel is as obsessed with the idea of “feminine purity” as any of his namesakes might be, but he is at the same time a rationalistic skeptic lacking in compassion and tolerance. This ambivalence is compounded by his desire to break free of his social and religious background, to strike out on his own intellectually and economically. This desire is not, however, strong enough to withstand his early conditioning. When Tess confesses her past to him, he is too blinded by his prejudices to see the reality before him—her fundamental purity and innocence; instead he allows himself to be controlled by his barren notions.

Yet Angel has a genuine love for Tess which lies beneath his conscious self. In one of Hardy's most bizarre scenes Angel walks in his sleep a few nights after the confession and carries Tess across the Froom River to place her in a stone coffin, obviously the act of love and despair. Although contrived (and often censured), this scene is powerfully imaginative in its grotesque distortion of the ordinary, and prepares the reader for Angel's eventual realization of his true feeling for Tess. Like his successor, Jude, Angel is a more “modern” character than other Hardy men; for he has ambiguous and contradictory motives—some overt, others so hidden under layers of ideas that they can come out only at night. His waverings, his rationalizations, his sophistries, his naïve self-deceptions, and his neurotic self-torments ally him to such figures as Stephen Dedalus and Quentin Compson rather than to the typical Victorian hero. Both the sleepwalking and the intensity with which he reacts to Tess's confession may well indicate a hidden sense of sexual guilt, as the emphasis on feminine “purity” usually indicates an obsession with sexuality as something to be feared.

Angel is notably inconsistent, too. He is later tempted to take Liz Huett with him to Brazil as his mistress because he feels cynical about women and would be “revenged on society.” The irony of such a double standard, as well as its patent falsity, Angel cannot perceive. He complains about the social ordinances of marriage as restrictive, when his own concept of “purity” in his wife binds him more securely than the law. Not self-destructive like Henchard, Angel is similarly self-alienated; in this respect he is also like Clym and Jude. Except for Jude he is the most complex and contradictory of Hardy's men.

Angel and Tess first meet at Talbothays Dairy, where she has gone to work after the death of Sorrow, her baby. Talbothays is certainly one of Hardy's supreme accomplishments in setting, a superbly realized place and a rich, complex symbol at the same time. It is of the essence pastoral, with its red and white cows, its verdant “water-meads,” and its immemorial rhythms of milking, skimming, and churning. Hardy shows it to us through its most fertile seasons of spring and summer, establishing an equation between its serenity and the restoration to Tess of an interest in life after her harrowing experiences. For Talbothays is a means of stressing the integral relationship between man and nature which Hardy so often presents. This setting is, within the properly respectable limits of Victorian fiction, about as much a Dionysia as one could expect. The passions of men and women are not only stimulated by the burgeoning fecundity of nature but are a reflection of it: “Amid the oozing fatness and warm ferments of the Var Vale,” says Hardy, “at a season when the rush of juices could almost be heard below the hiss of fertilization, it was impossible that the most fanciful love should not grow passionate” (190). To mix a figure, it is a pagan paradise where Angel, for instance, experiences an “aesthetic, sensuous, pagan pleasure in natural life and lush womanhood,” a land so fecund that it is described in an erotic imagery which should have outraged Hardy's audience if it had been alert to the implications of such comparisons: “The season developed and matured. … Rays from the sunrise drew forth the buds and stretched them into long stalks, lifted up sap in noiseless streams, opened petals, and sucked out scents in invisible jets and breathings” (203, 165). If the reader of today did not know that this was Hardy, he might momentarily think it was D. H. Lawrence; for it celebrates the life-giving powers of sex in a similar fashion.

The Talbothays setting, as Hardy indicates, is both mirror and lamp, for it brings about a corresponding sexuality in the characters. Angel, returning to the farm after a journey to his home, finds Tess just awakened from an afternoon nap, “the brim-fulness of her nature breath[ing] from her.” When she stretches her arm above her head, he can see “its satin delicacy above the sunburn. … It was a moment when a woman's soul is more incarnate than at any other time; when the most spiritual beauty bespeaks itself flesh; and sex takes the outside place in the presentation” (217). The sun shines in the window “upon her inclining face, upon the blue veins of her temple, upon her naked arm, and her neck, and into the depths of her hair.” Angel clasps her close to him; and, while she will not at first look up, “her eyes soon lifted, and his plumbed the deepness of the ever-varying pupils, with their radiating fibrils of blue, and black, and gray, and violet, while she regarded him as Eve at her second waking might have regarded Adam” (218). While Tess's love for Angel is of utmost purity, a worshipful devotion, it still is rooted in her vibrant sexual nature, the corollary to the rich fertility of the land of the “great dairies.”

A paradise like Talbothays might reasonably be expected to have within it an Adam and Eve, as Hardy implies in the above episode, and perhaps a Satan lurking in the outer darkness.1 Indeed it is so, although Hardy gives us less an allegory than a complex of symbolic suggestions. Tess is more clearly a kind of Eve than Angel is an Adam. In her innocence and simplicity, as well as in her worship of him as a “godlike” being; in her naturalness and passion; and in her fall from innocence into the knowledge of good and evil, she is closer to the primordial mother of men than Angel is to the first man. Angel is too much the intellectual and skeptic to fulfill the role of Adam, although Hardy twice refers to him in this way. His name indicates better the ambiguities of his position, for it is partly fitting and partly ironic. He is a rather saintly man who knows little of the real world, but he is also rather inhuman. If angels are not only better than men morally but also superior in their understanding and compassion for erring humanity, Angel is somewhat wide of the mark. It takes much suffering to humanize his “angelic” character and to bring him back to Tess to share in the last unhappy days. Prior to this conversion, his role in paradise, while not overtly destructive like Alec's at Flintcomb-Ash, is damaging enough. A splendid scene in which Angel strums a secondhand harp in the weedy garden at Talbothays most effectively symbolizes the part he is to play in this paradise. As Tess listens to the “thin notes,” she is fascinated and draws near to him through the fringe of the garden, which “uncultivated for some years … was now damp and rank with juicy grass which sent up mists of pollen at a touch; and with tall blooming weeds emitting offensive smells.” Stealthily approaching, Tess gathers “cuckoospittle on her skirts,” steps on snails, and gets stains on her arms and hands from “thistle-milk and slug-slime” and from the “sticky blights” of trees. Quite plainly these images imply the corrupting influence on Tess's life of this angel in an unweeded Eden; the physical stains and blights are symbolic of the spiritual stains and blights which will eventuate from her contact with him. It certainly was a bold imaginative stroke on Hardy's part to convey his meaning by having a man named “Angel” play a harp in a garden.

The Devil does not appear in the paradisal Talbothays, but he certainly shows up later on. After the marriage of Tess and Angel, the confession, and the desertion, Tess goes to Flintcomb-Ash, the “starve-acre” farm where she labors like a serf. When Alec appears, she is at the end of her strength and hope, so that his temptation effectively takes advantage of her woman's weakness. Significantly enough, Alec is in the guise of an evangelist, for who can quote Scripture better for his own ends than the Devil? Later, Hardy makes the allusion more specific, having Alec pop up out of an atmosphere of smoke and fire, disguised as a laborer, when Tess is burning grass at Marlott. Alec's joke—“a jester might say that this is just like Paradise. You are Eve and I am the old Other One, come to tempt you in the disguise of an inferior animal”—is perfectly apropos, despite Tess's protestation that she does not think of him in that way at all. His relentless pursuit, his ability to take advantage of every circumstance which brings her more within his power, and his sinister appearance all conduce to making him more than the stock melodramatic villain as the novel proceeds—as well as making him something less, because he becomes less human as he becomes more symbolic. His actions stamp him ever more clearly as a “Mephistophelean visitant,”2 as he poses as an effigy atop a tomb, frightening Tess, or as he tells her the story of the phantom d'Urberville coach. When his blood seeps with preternatural facility through mattress, floor, and ceiling, we should be less astonished than many critics have been; for Alec's blood is no ordinary fluid, but an ichor suited to his symbolic role of Satan.

Not only is Alec's pursuit of Tess symbolic of the temptation of Eve but it also is more broadly related to the entire complex of scapegoat myths in which an innocent victim becomes the sacrifice for the sins of society. At Talbothays Hardy shows his heroine as sometimes much more impressive than a simple country lass ought by rights to be:

At this dim inceptive stage of the day Tess seemed to Clare to exhibit a dignified largeness both of disposition and physique, an almost regnant power, possibly because he knew that at that preternatural time hardly any woman so well endowed in person as she was likely to be walking in the open air within the boundaries of the horizon; very few in all England. … It was then … that she impressed him most deeply. She was no longer the milkmaid but a visionary essence of woman—a whole sex condensed into one typical form. He called her Artemis, Demeter, and other fanciful names half teasingly.


In her naturalness, in her unsophisticated simplicity, and in her innocence, as well as in her deep-bosomed figure, the peasant girl is at this point as complete an image of the archetypal earth goddess as modern literature can show. True it is that Hardy does not permit her to remain such for long. “‘Call me Tess,’ she would say askance,” when Angel used the names of goddesses for her. “Then it would grow lighter, and her features would become simply feminine; they had changed from those of a divinity who could confer bliss to those of a being who craved it” (168). Hardy does not want to allegorize, but he does wish to gain the advantage of mythical overtones to lend significance to his folktale.

These overtones are given strength by the movement of the latter part of the novel. When Tess goes from Talbothays to Flintcomb-Ash, with its sterile name and its winter weather, she journeys not only across the landscape but also moves in the direction of her fated sacrifice. The triumph of winter over the fecundity of Talbothays is the prophetic triumph of death over Tess's life; the dominance of the threshing machine is the triumph of mechanism over the vital qualities represented by life close to nature. We hear no more references to Tess as a goddess, but she becomes ever more clearly the victim of the world's inexorable vengeance, the archetypal scapegoat. Like other gods and goddesses, she is made to suffer for the mistakes and misdeeds of her world.

When she and Angel finally leave their temporary hiding place at Bramshurst, after she kills Alec, they proceed aimlessly across the countryside in a naïve attempt to escape, and come at night to Stonehenge, which at first they do not recognize. Hardy derives full advantage from this magnificent setting for the climax of his tragedy: the wind playing upon the huge pillars, “like the notes of some gigantic one-stringed harp”; the look and feel of the great stones against the night sky; the associations with the immense past, for as Angel says, it is a heathen temple, “older than the centuries; older than the d'Urbervilles.” Tess asks him if the heathens sacrificed to God in this place, and he replies that he thinks they sacrificed to the sun. But that they did sacrifice and that Tess is the modern equivalent of those barbaric ceremonial victims are only too clear. She sleeps on one of the stones; and, when morning comes, so do the police:

In a minute or two her breathing became more regular, her clasp of his hand relaxed, and she fell asleep. The band of silver paleness along the eastern horizon made even the distant parts of the Great Plain appear dark and near; and the whole enormous landscape bore that impress of reserve, taciturnity, and hesitation which is usual just before day. The eastward pillars and their architraves stood up blackly against the light, and the great flame-shaped Sun-stone beyond them; and the Stone of Sacrifice midway. Presently the night wind died out, and the quivering little pools in the cup-like hollows of the stones lay still. At the same time something seemed to move on the verge of the dip eastward—a mere dot. It was the head of a man approaching them from the hollow beyond the Sun-Stone.


Tess is allowed to wake naturally; seeing the police she says, “‘It is almost as it should be’,” because the happiness of the last few days with Angel could not have lasted. “She stood up, shook herself, and went forward, neither of the men having moved. ‘I am ready,’ she said quietly” (505).

Without a doubt this is one of the most moving scenes Hardy ever wrote, and it shows him at the peak of his talent. The blending of symbol and reality, the mythic meaning combined with the human meaning, the superbly realized description of action and setting match anything in the English novel. Here the folktale of the ruined maid takes on the aspect of universal tragedy. Whatever faults Tess of the d'Urbervilles may have—and they are no doubt many—they are redeemed in this scene at Stonehenge.

The novel is, however, not entirely done with myth at this point, for the painful scene at the denouement when Angel and Tess's sister Liza-Lu leave the prison just before Tess's execution brings to our attention a theme of rebirth. It would be too grim, even for Hardy, to have his beautiful heroine sacrificed entirely in vain. We are thus allowed to feel that through her husband and her sister, who is significantly described as a “spiritualized image of Tess,” there will eventually come about a new order of life. As the two leave Wintoncester, “the drooping of their heads is that of Giotto's ‘Two Apostles’”; and, with this plain implication of their task, Hardy tells us that Tess will, in a way, live on.

Myth is, of course, not the rich body of the tale, but rather its soul or spirit. Tess of the d'Urbervilles is a fine novel from the realistic point of view as well as from the symbolic (although too narrow a construction of that realism has often left critics unable to cope with its symbolism). There is more than a little humor in the illusions of Tess's drunken father with his notions about his social status; in the breathless infatuation of the dairymaids for Angel (rather reminiscent of the love of the dairymaids in the Bhagavad Gita for Krishna, the divine cowherd)3; and in the character of Angel's brothers. A subordinate theme of much interest is involved in the question of inheritance in all three of the major characters, especially as it affects Tess through the “decay” of ancient families. Hardy even implies some warped kind of retribution when Alec seduces, or rapes, Tess as her “mailed ancestors rollicking home from a fray” may have “dealt the same measure even more ruthlessly towards peasant girls of their time” (91). He does qualify this idea with some objections to its validity as a principle, but throughout the novel he harps on the idea of heredity and its influence on Tess's life. The novel also emphasizes the effect of abstract concepts on conduct, both with Angel and his family, basically good and tolerant people whose natural feelings are overlaid with the incrustations of a narrow theology. Mr. Clare is a character who demonstrates clearly Hardy's idea that life-denying ideas, no matter how ethical, are destructive.


Social realism of this sort is not, however, what gives the novel its power. The myth does that. When the letter which Tess has written telling Angel about her past slips under the carpet so that he does not see it before the marriage, we know that Chance has made its mystic and malign influence felt once again. We feel, as Frederick Karl puts it, that Hardy is using Chance as his “weapon to strike through surface reality to areas where the poetry of man offers resistance to the drab starkness of a malevolent universe.”4 When the shaft of the mailcart runs poor old Prince through the breast and his life spills out through the hole in his chest, and when the blood-red motif haunts us through the rest of the novel, from the thorns scratching Tess's chin from Alec's roses, to the texts in vermilion letters that tell Tess her “damnation slumbereth not,” to the scarlet of the threshing machine, to Alec's blood on the ceiling—when Hardy so boldly uses this symbolism, we know that we are reading a great mythopoeic writer. The ineluctable sense of the earth over which men move and on which they act out their fates is ever before us, from the pearly moonlight of The Chase where Tess becomes a symbol of fallen humanity, to lush Talbothays and stony Flintcomb-Ash, and finally to Stonehenge itself. Hardy wrote in Tess of the d'Urbervilles one of the finest novels of the nineteenth century because he lifted the story of a wronged peasant girl into the realm of tragedy through his use of these universal qualities; it became not only the tale of Tess Durbeyfield but also the story of wronged and suffering humanity. The Mayor of Casterbridge is more austere, The Return of the Native more passionate, but Tess remains Hardy's most moving dramatization of a pure soul struggling with the inscrutable evils of existence.


  1. This interpretation of Talbothays and of the Adam and Eve myth was written before I had the opportunity of reading Allan Brick's more detailed and ingenious analysis of this pattern (see bibliography). Mr. Brick and I do not exactly see eye to eye on the role of Angel as Adam and the extensiveness of the parallels to Paradise Lost, but he makes abundantly clear that the Paradise paradigm is of great importance in the novel.

  2. See J. O. Bailey, “Hardy's ‘Mephistophelean Visitants’,” Publications of the Modern Language Association, LXI (December, 1946), 1146-84.

  3. I am indebted for this idea to Professor Frank Baldanza of Bowling Green State University.

  4. Karl, p. 202.

Further Reading

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Draper, Ronald P. and Martin S. Ray. An Annotated Critical Bibliography of Thomas Hardy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989, 227 p.

A selective, annotated list of all genres of Hardy criticism and a guide to recent editions of his work.

Gerber, Helmut E. and W. Eugene Davis, editors. Thomas Hardy: An Annotated Bibliography of Writings About Him. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1974, 841 p.

Extensive, annotated list of secondary works covering the period of 1871-1969.

Sherrick, Julie. Thomas Hardy's Major Novels: An Annotated Bibliography. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1998, 195 p.

Comprehensive, annotated list of critical works about six Hardy novels.

Weber, Carl Jefferson. The First Hundred Years of Thomas Hardy, 1840-1940: A Centenary Bibliography of Hardiana. Waterville, Maine: Colby College Library, 1942, 276 p.

Early bibliography with extensive references to 1940.


Hands, Timothy. Thomas Hardy (Writers in Their Time). Hampshire, United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan, 1995, 209 p.

Biographical-critical work which traces Hardy's life and work in relation to his times.

Millgate, Michael. Thomas Hardy: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1982, 637 p.

Comprehensive biography, which at the time of its publication, was considered to be the definitive Hardy biographical source.

Pinion, F. B. Thomas Hardy: His Life and Friends. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996, 438 p.

Unique biographical work by a longtime Hardy scholar which seeks to show how Hardy was influenced by his associates.

Seymour-Smith, Martin. Hardy: A Biography. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994, 886 p.

Lengthy, chronological biography which often challenges the views of earlier biographers.

Turner, Paul. The Life of Thomas Hardy: A Critical Biography. Oxford, United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishers, 1998, 326 p.

Critical biography which emphasizes biographical sources for Hardy's writings, especially Hardy's affinity for classical literature.

Widdowson, Peter. Hardy in History: A Study in Literary Sociology. New York: Routledge, 1989, 260 p.

A study of Hardy as cultural icon which reveals the process of critical canonization.

Wright, Sarah Bird. Thomas Hardy: A to Z. New York: Checkmark Books, 2002, 430 p.

Comprehensive guide to Hardy's life and work in dictionary form with helpful appendices.


Armstrong, Tim. Haunted Hardy: Poetry, History, Memory. Hampshire, United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001, 208 p.

A deconstructionist look at Hardy's poetry and the way it “haunts” various historical contexts.

Bouhelma, Penny. Thomas Hardy and Women: Sexual Ideology and Narrative Form. Sussex, United Kingdom: Harvester Press, 1982, 178 p.

A feminist interpretation of Hardy's fiction, focusing on the novels written between 1871 and 1886.

Butler, Lance St. John. “Register and Dialect: Thomas Hardy's Voices.” In Registering the Difference: Reading Literature Through Register, pp. 170-189. Manchester, United Kingdom: Manchester University Press, 1999.

Chapter emphasizing the dialects Hardy uses to change and layer meanings.

Davie, Donald. With the Grain: Essays on Thomas Hardy and Modern British Poetry, edited by Clive Wilmer. Manchester, United Kingdom: Carcanet, 1998, 346 p.

Essays on Hardy and other modern poets by a prominent Hardy scholar.

Devereux, Joanna. Patriarchy and Its Discontents: Sexual Politics in Selected Novels and Stories of Thomas Hardy. New York: Routledge, 2003 192 p.

Study written by a student of Michael Millgate which examines the construction of the idea of masculinity in Hardy's fiction.

Dutta, Shanta. Ambivalence in Hardy: A Study of His Attitude to Women. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000, 256 p.

A study of dual attitudes in Hardy: his sympathies for the downtrodden and his fears of limitations on the patriarchy.

Ebbatson, Roger. Hardy: The Margin of the Unexpressed. Sheffield, United Kingdom: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993, 160 p.

A partially deconstructive work which deals extensively with the minor Hardy novels.

Gatrell, Simon. Thomas Hardy and the Proper Study of Mankind. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993, 195 p.

A study of Hardy's characters and their responses to the environment and to the ideas of fate and destiny.

Gibson, James. Thomas Hardy: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996, 206 p.

A study of the ways in which Hardy used, and sometimes changed, his own experience in writing, especially in poetry.

Ingham, Patricia. Thomas Hardy. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, 1990, 124 p.

Part of the Feminist Readings series, a work which argues that there are fewer sexual divisions in Hardy than previous critics had asserted.

Irwin, Michael. Reading Hardy's Landscapes. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000, 171 p.

Discusses how Hardy creates the illusion of the physical world through his enumeration of small things and his creation of meaning through landscape.

Langbaum, Robert. Thomas Hardy in Our Time. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995, 173 p.

Critical study of a number of aspects of Hardy's work, including his poetry, a discussion of The Mayor of Casterbridge and The Well-Beloved, and a discussion of his influence on D. H. Lawrence.

Mallett, Phillip, editor. The Achievement of Thomas Hardy. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000, 192 p.

Compilation of recent critical essays on Hardy.

Miller, J. Hillis. Thomas Hardy: Distance and Desire. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970, 282 p.

An important structuralist study which outlines the use of two contradictory themes of detachment and involvement in Hardy's work.

Mitchell, Judith. The Stone and the Scorpion: The Female Subject of Desire in the Novels of Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994, 228 p.

A study of women and desire in three Victorian authors, covering four of Hardy's most read novels.

Morgan, Rosemarie. Women and Sexuality in the Novels of Thomas Hardy. New York: Routledge, 1988, 205 p.

A feminist look at the political aspects of women's sexuality in the Hardy novels.

Nathan, Barbara Hardy. Imagining Imagination: Hardy's Poetry and Fiction. Somerset, N.J.: Athlone Press, 2000, 224 p.

A study which stresses Hardy's roots in the romantic tradition and his interest in creativity.

Neill, Edward. “Back to the Future: Hardy, Poetry, Theory, Aporia.” Victorian Poetry 36, no. 1 (spring 1998): 75-95.

Essay which argues that Hardy's theoretical, “political” reasons for writing poetry are much more prevalent than most critics have recognized.

Page, Norman. Thomas Hardy. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977, 195 p.

Comprehensive look at Hardy's whole literary output.

Persoon, James. Hardy's Early Poetry: Romanticism Through a “dark bilberry eye”. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2000, 111 p.

Study focusing on Hardy's “vision”—both realistic and romantic.

Pettit, Charles P. C., editor. Celebrating Thomas Hardy. Hampshire, United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan, 1996, 200 p.

Principal lectures by well-known Hardy scholars given at the International Thomas Hardy Conference in Dorchester, England.

Rabbetts, John. From Hardy to Faulkner, Wessex to Yoknapatawpha. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989, 268 p.

Discussion of the oft-noted similarities in Hardy and William Faulkner.

Ray, Martin. Thomas Hardy: A Textual Study of the Short Stories. Hants, United Kingdom: Aldershot, 1997, 357 p.

Close textual reading of Hardy's short stories.

Springer, Marlene. Hardy's Use of Allusion. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1983, 207 p.

Study of Hardy's style and the use of allusion in specific works.

Sumner, Rosemary. A Route to Modernism: Hardy, Lawrence, Woolf. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000, 208 p.

Several perspectives on the ways Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf exhibit aspects of modernism.

Thomas, Jane. Thomas Hardy, Femininity and Dissent: Reassessing the ‘Minor’ Novels. Hampshire, United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999, 184 p.

A post-structuralist view of the women characters in Hardy's lesser-read novels, emphasizing manifestations of resistance to the existing order rather than pessimistic determinism.

Widdowson, Peter. On Thomas Hardy: Late Essays and Earlier. London: Macmillan, 1998, 217 p.

Compilation of essays by a prominent Hardy specialist.

———. Thomas Hardy. Plymouth, United Kingdom: Northcote House, 1996, 113 p.

A discussion of the significance of Hardy in light of past and present-day criticism.

Wotton, George. Thomas Hardy: Toward a Materialist Criticism. Totowa, N.J.: Gill & Macmillan, 1985, 233 p.

A Marxist, deconstructive approach to Hardy which defines his writing as a social product and emphasizes economic forces at work in “Wessex.”

Additional coverage of Hardy's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: British Writers, Vol. 6; British Writers: The Classics, Vol. 1; British Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1890-1914; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 123; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 18, 19, 135, 284; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Novelists, and Poets; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Novels; Exploring Poetry; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vols. 3, 11, 15; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 8; Poetry for Students, Vols. 3, 4; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 2, 60; Twayne's English Authors; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 4, 10, 18, 32, 48, 53, 72; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; and World Literature Criticism.

Perry Meisel (essay date 1972)

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SOURCE: Meisel, Perry. “The Mayor of Casterbridge.” In Thomas Hardy: The Return of the Repressed, pp. 90-108. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1972.

[In the following essay, Meisel assumes a Freudian orientation in his analysis of Michael Henchard's self-alienation.]

With The Mayor of Casterbridge, we arrive at a full statement of Hardy's universe. “The story is more particularly a study of one man's deeds and character than, perhaps, any other of those included in my Exhibition of Wessex life” (author's preface). The definitive statement of Hardy's achievement in The Mayor [The Mayor of Casterbridge], a pronouncement of central importance to the body of his fiction, occurs directly after Donald Farfrae's crucial dismissal by Henchard and the Scotsman's establishment of his own business:

But most probably luck had little to do with it. Character is Fate, said Novalis, and Farfrae's character was just the reverse of Henchard's, who might not inaptly be described as Faust has been described—as a vehement gloomy being who had quitted the ways of vulgar men without light to guide him on a better way.

[p. 131] [all page references from The Writings of Thomas Hardy (NY: Harper & Bros.), 1940]

That the dialectic of complementary characters would be the logic of Hardy's mature poetics was decided by The Return of the Native. In The Mayor, that discovery is recognized by the artist to the point of explicit statement and, as a result, directs the movement of the entire work. The passage develops the rich metaphor of the bonfires on the heath and its modern translation as the “electric light” of reason in its direct relation to the structure of the novel. We suggested in the last chapter that “modern” consciousness in Hardy begins with the suspended moment between the individual's extinguishing of the self-blinding communal fires and his ensuing need, or willingness, to find his way in the darkness. It was here, too, that Hardy betrayed his true sympathy—that of the artist, not the thinker.

The Return of the Native showed that the old order is helpless before the new because of an inner defect, not simply because of external interference. The narrative of The Mayor is “the steadily developed decline of a protagonist who incarnates the older order, and whose decline is linked, more and more clearly, with an inner misdirection, an inner weakness.”1 Hardy's advance in his tale of Casterbridge lies in the recognition that the energy diffused in The Return [The Return of the Native] because of the artist's residual hesitations now becomes concentrated in the person of Michael Henchard. The impulses of the earlier book that found expression in the psychological, symbolic landscape of the heath are now contained within a single individual. The backdrop of the psyche represented by the heath was the rugged canvas of the mind upon which the two conflicting, yet inexorably linked, instincts in the artist's imagination were expressed: first, in the oppressive love of inseparable counterparts; and then, in the mortal combat of that “mutually destructive interdependence.” After his exploration of the individual in The Mayor, Hardy will proceed to examine the isolated ego (the self-alienation discovered in Henchard) and its origins in an investigation of the individual and society in Tess [Tess of the d'Urbervilles] and Jude [Jude the Obscure].

Hardy's diary entry for April 1878, which helped to define the view that determinism exists within the world of character rather than as a force external to man, revealed the deepest contours of The Return; it may also serve to clarify the universe of The Mayor: “A Plot, or Tragedy, should arise from the gradual closing in of a situation that comes of ordinary human passions, prejudices, and ambitions, and by reason of the characters taking no trouble to ward off the disastrous events [so] produced.” With Henchard, the case is intensified, and the idea of “taking no trouble” becomes itself the issue of an internal struggle within the individual. The working-out of “Character is Fate” provides a detailed view of the inner determinants as they express themselves in events. But of course the novel is not an illustration of that concept. In fact, the power of Hardy's dramatic impulses is so overwhelming here that even his present ability to use symbolic landscape breaks down before the bare emotion of character itself, as we shall see late in the book: “To this he had come after a time of emotional darkness of which the adjoining woodland shade afforded inadequate illustration” (p. 330). The primacy of plot, the dialectic of character (now both between men and within the individual alone) and the events this dialectic produces, return with full force after the artist's modal explorations in The Return. The year after the publication of The Mayor, Hardy wrote: “July 14. It is the on-going—i.e., the ‘becoming’—of the world that produces its sadness. If the world stood still at a felicitous moment there would be no sadness in it” (Life [The Early Life of Thomas Hardy,] p. 202). The movement of character through narrative produces events at the same time that it reveals the meaning of Hardy's method. The narrative trajectory2 brings us, time and again, to the suspended moment between the extinction of illusory guiding fires and the wandering in the darkness.3 Those moments of darkness occur when the artist, and, progressively, Henchard, recognize that

The unconscious is the true psychic reality; in its inner nature it is just as much unknown to us as the reality of the external world, and it is just as imperfectly communicated to us by the data of consciousness as is the external world by the reports of our sense-organs.4

The forces in Henchard's own nature drive him to action. Robert Heilman observes that the “shock of realization that he has actually sold his wife to another man—the basic wrongdoing which not only works against him but which many of his later actions parallel astonishingly—makes possible an extraordinary period of self-discipline.”5 Thus, “he had [been able to use] his one talent of energy to create a position of affluence out of absolutely nothing” (p. 254). Similarly, Henchard's symptomatic outbursts, first evidenced by the sale of his wife, occur when life becomes too difficult for him to control by the efforts of his will alone. His “downfall is essentially the product of his own emotional and moral nature.”6

It would seem, then, that the possibility of tragedy in the conventional sense, the tragic figure's choosing and taking responsibility for his actions, is precluded. Yet Hardy reads “Plot, or Tragedy” as “the gradual closing in of a situation that comes of ordinary human passions,” where even the ability to choose is foreclosed as a possibility, given the internal dialectic of character itself; his view of tragedy lies, instead, in his implied view of consciousness. In addition to the remorse that comes from the realization of actual deeds, the wish, too, becomes the deed in terms of the reality of recognition. Henchard is unable, finally, to carry out his destructive wishes; in his realization of that inability, he turns those urges upon himself. The Greek stage is transformed into the arena of consciousness, that twilight region in which gradations of vision and blindness alternate in each suspended moment. The imagery of light and darkness, and especially of twilight sequences that bear clear resemblances to the descriptions of Egdon Heath, directs our awareness of the movement of Henchard's consciousness within the narrative. While at first his realizations occur after his actions, he later comes to perceive desires in himself that he cannot act upon. Hardy's recasting of ancient tragedy lies in the fact that the protagonist recognizes his responsibility for his own destiny, not by seeing himself as a victim of external fate, but by viewing his consciousness as an instrument of his unknown, unconscious self.

This universe is defined as early as the scene following Henchard's sale of his wife. While at first there are signs that man's alienation from nature is a fact inherent in the state of things, we come to see a ground level where man and nature are one. Still, it is the consciousness of a present alienation that will be the final and distinctly modern tragic realization, because it reveals man as “self-alienated” (p. 380). The dynamics of that problem are to be the subject of Tess and Jude. Note, too, that the following scene occurs exactly at twilight:

He rose and walked to the entrance with the careful tread of one conscious of his alcoholic load. Some others followed, and they stood looking into the twilight. The difference between the peacefulness of inferior nature and the wilful hostilities of mankind was very apparent at this place. In contrast with the harshness of the act just ended within the tent was the sight of several horses crossing their necks and rubbing each other lovingly as they waited in patience to be harnessed for the homeward journey. Outside the fair, in the valleys and woods, all was quiet. The sun had recently set, and the west heaven was hung with rosy cloud, which seemed permanent, yet slowly changed. To watch it was like looking at some grand feat of stagery from a darkened auditorium. In presence of this scene after the other there was a natural instinct to abjure man as the blot on an otherwise kindly universe; till it was remembered that all terrestrial conditions were intermittent, and that mankind might some night be innocently sleeping when these quiet objects were raging loud.

[p. 13]

Henchard has immediately resolved that his crime “was of his own making, and he ought to bear it” (p. 17). When his wife and Elizabeth-Jane enter Casterbridge in search of him nearly twenty years later, they feel that, “recent as [the time] was, [Casterbridge seemed] untouched by the faintest sprinkle of modernism” (p. 30). But this is apparently the same judgment passed on Egdon Heath in The Return, before its “inner defect” was laid bare through the dynamics of the characters' consciousness (“The poetry of a scene varies with the minds of the perceivers”). Mother and daughter happen, also, to approach the town at the hour of twilight; yet the “dense trees … rendered the road dark as a tunnel, though the open land on each side was still under a faint daylight; in other words, they passed down a midnight between two gloamings” (p. 31). The “pillar” of this community “untouched by … modernism” is Michael Henchard—the shock to Susan and Elizabeth-Jane that he is now mayor of the town immediately suggests a possible defect in the present order because of the person who symbolizes it.

Had not Donald Farfrae's “advent coincided with the discussion on corn and bread” outside the King's Arms Hotel, “this history [would have] never been enacted” (p. 42). Henchard's characteristic “oppressive generosity” (p. 37) toward the Scotsman is not unlike the love “to oppressiveness” between Clym and Eustacia.7 The logic of the relationship between Henchard and Farfrae is similar, if not in many respects identical, to that between the lovers in The Return. The inhabitants of Casterbridge begin to view the newly arrived Scot “through a golden haze”: “he was to them like the poet of a new school who takes his contemporaries by storm; who is not really new, but is the first to articulate what all his listeners have felt, though but dumbly till then” (p. 61). He plays Stephen Smith to Henchard's Henry Knight, the concept of Clym, (caricatured as propagandist in his parallel to Farfrae, see The Return, p. 204) to the drama of Eustacia. Farfrae is “of the age” like Stephen—the scientific, advanced businessman, the material representative of a new order that destroys the symbol of the old, Henchard. But Henchard is also Eustacia on the heath—with the difference that he will respond to his own inner defect and will gradually recognize “the central valley” in himself. The realization that occurs in a social metaphor through his combat with Farfrae is but one version of his tragic awareness to come. Henchard asks Farfrae to stay in Casterbridge less for business reasons than because he is “so lonely” (p. 64, one of at least three times he makes the statement) and finds a friend in the Scot. His “tigerish affection” (p. 104) for Farfrae, like his late, dependent love for Elizabeth-Jane, is really an expression of that same energy betrayed in his moments of fury. The nature of this energy is fully described later, after his unknowingly false revelation to the girl that she is his daughter:

He was the kind of man to whom some human object for pouring out his heat upon—were it emotive or were it choleric—was almost a necessity. The craving of his heart for the re-establishment of this tenderest human tie had been great during his wife's lifetime, and now he had submitted to its mastery without reluctance and without fear.

[p. 142]

The “strange warring” that existed in Eustacia's mind has become central in Henchard now that Hardy has conquered his past desire to retreat from such a character. The mayor's feeling for Farfrae is “half-admiring, and yet … was not without a dash of pity for the tastes of any one who could care to give his mind to such finnikin details” (p. 87) of business matters. He is compelled to confess his mind, including the two great secrets of his past, to the one man he can consider a friend; Farfrae's response, of course, is indicative of their differences:

“… I sank into one of those gloomy fits I sometimes suffer from, on account of the loneliness of my domestic life, when the world seems to have the blackness of hell, and, like Job, I curse the day that gave me birth.”

“Ah, now, I never feel like it,” said Farfrae.

[p. 90]

The contraries of Henchard's nature begin to emerge; they are not so much the contraries of Hardy's own imagination that we have seen in the juxtaposition of the mayor and Farfrae, Clym and Eustacia, or Smith and Knight. Rather, he is the product of Hardy's full investigation, at long last, of the darkest and most determining layer of the psyche. His “ambiguous gaze” seems at one moment “to mean satisfaction, and at another fiery disdain” (p. 97). He seeks to punish himself for the past in his dutiful love and care for Susan and Elizabeth-Jane (“to castigate himself with the thorns which these restitutory acts brought in their train,” p. 95). Here, his acts stem directly from his conscious intentions because his design is within the control of his willful energy: “He was as kind to her [Susan] as a man, mayor, and churchwarden [all his roles in harmony in this realm] could possibly be” (p. 99).

Henchard's amazement that things are working out well, however, is accompanied by trepidation. Twilight begins in this symbolic statement of the relationship between Henchard and Farfrae:

Friendship between man and man; what a rugged strength there was in it, as evinced by these two. And yet the seed that was to lift the foundation of this friendship was at that moment taking root in a chink of its structure.

[p. 110]

The fateful logic of Henchard's character pervades the world of the novel. Abel Whittle, who returns at the end of the book, tries to explain to Farfrae that his being late for work is beyond his control (“Ye see it can't be helped,” p. 113), just as Henchard himself described the supposed impossibility of turning bad wheat into wholesome wheat by declaring “it can't be done” (p. 41; the ramifications of even these incidents reveal the incredibly complex and interrelated aspects of every level of the book). When Farfrae criticizes Henchard for his outrageous treatment of Abel, he is “bitterly hurt” (p. 114). It is on the level of his needs that Henchard responds most deeply, for it is there that the true drama takes place. He now regrets having told his secrets to the Scotsman and begins to think of him with “a dim dread” (p. 116): once the giver feels rejected, the energy first directed as affection (really “emotive”) is transformed into its opposite, a burgeoning hostility (“choleric”). The translation of Clym's loves into hates that described Eustacia is not inapplicable here; the settings are similar too—the backdrop for Henchard is his own threatening mind; for Eustacia, the heath. Just as Henchard did penance for his first crime through an energy that created affluence out of nothing, he is “courteous—too courteous” to Farfrae after the Whittle incident, thus displaying a “good breeding which now for the first time showed itself among the qualities of a man he had hitherto thought undisciplined” (p. 117). When inner circumstances permit, Henchard is in full control. But the flaw exists within the very structure of the foundation; twilight comes slowly, but with a relentless inner logic.

Henchard's firing of Farfrae is determined by an internal impulse that acts upon him, and thus differs from those events he has been able to fashion to his liking through conscious energy. His remorseful awareness that his action is irreversible foreshadows the events to come:

Henchard went home, apparently satisfied. But in the morning, when his jealous temper had passed away, his heart sank within him at what he had said and done. He was the more disturbed when he found that this time Farfrae was determined to take him at his word.

[p. 124]

Hardy soon describes the underlayer of unconscious consistency that has occasioned the breach:

Those tones showed that, though under a long reign of self-control he had become Mayor and churchwarden and what not, there was still the same unruly volcanic stuff beneath the rind of Michael Henchard as when he had sold his wife at Weydon Fair.

[p. 129]

When Farfrae establishes his own business, the two become outright competitors, which was the secret desire of Henchard's “volcanic” core. Our growing awareness of the decrees of the interior allows the artist to introduce the definitive statement cited at the beginning of the chapter:

Character is Fate, said Novalis, and Farfrae's character was just the reverse of Henchard's, who might not inaptly be described as Faust has been described—as a vehement gloomy being who had quitted the ways of vulgar men without light to guide him on a better way.

[p. 131]

The consequence of Henchard's uncontrolled action is the narrative recognition of tragedy as Hardy conceives it. Immediately following the pronouncement, Henchard receives a letter from Lucetta and his fall becomes imminent. Again, the quality of Henchard's character permeates the fictional world: we are told, for example, of Elizabeth-Jane's “chaos called consciousness” (pp. 135-36) as she cares for her dying mother.

That the logic of the plot is a dramatization of the logic of Henchard's character becomes clear. His loneliness is now mirrored in the world of fact about him: “Henchard's wife was dissevered from him by death; his friend and helper Farfrae by estrangement; Elizabeth-Jane by ignorance” (p. 139). The next blow occurs when he illicitly reads Susan's note disclosing Elizabeth-Jane's true parentage: he “regarded the paper as if it were a window-pane through which he saw for miles” (p. 143). And he begins, too, to accept responsibility rather than to rely upon his usual moody attitude, “‘I am to suffer, I perceive’”: “through his passionate head there stormed this thought—that the blasting disclosure was what he had deserved” (pp. 143-44). But his “headstrong faculties” (p. 130) continue to dominate his conscious perception, while the artist reminds us again of the true nature of things:

Misery taught him nothing more than defiant endurance of it. His wife was dead, and the first impulse for revenge died with the thought that she was beyond him. He looked out at the night as at a fiend. Henchard, like all his kind, was superstitious, and he could not help thinking that the concatenation of events this evening had produced was the scheme of some sinister intelligence bent on punishing him. Yet they had developed naturally. If he had not revealed his past history to Elizabeth he would not have searched the drawer for papers, and so on.

[p. 144; my italics]

The narrative trajectory moves from the artist's revelation of Henchard's character to Henchard's own recognition of facts in the external sphere that reflect his still unknown inner nature. As the world of events closes upon him, he enters a tragic universe of his own making. As twilight begins, the landscape reflects his mood; yet his perception remains partial, as the tragic universe still lacks one element, the protagonist's recognition of his own position:

Above the cliff, and behind the river, rose a pile of buildings, and in front of the pile a square mass cut into the sky. It was like a pedestal lacking a statue. This missing figure, without which the design remained incomplete, was, in truth, the corpse of a man; for the square mass formed the base of the gallows, the extensive buildings at the back being the county gaol.

Another feature of the full tragedy to come, recognition by the community, is suggested, too, as the passage continues:

In the meadow where Henchard now walked the mob were wont to gather whenever an execution took place, and there to the tune of the roaring weir they stood and watched the spectacle.

The exaggeration which darkness imparted to the glooms of this region impressed Henchard more than he had expected. The lugubrious harmony of the spot with his domestic situation was too perfect for him, impatient of effects, scenes, and adumbrations. It reduced his heartburning to melancholy, and he exclaimed, “Why the deuce did I come here!”

Then, the invocation of the suspended moment, as the fires die out and the gloom sets in:

He was like one who had half fainted, and could neither recover nor complete the swoon. In words he could blame his wife, but not in his heart; and had he obeyed the wise directions outside her letter this pain would have been spared him for long—possibly for ever.

[pp. 145-46]

But to be “spared … for ever” by one less act is, of course, an impossibility in this universe. “The return of the repressed” has many pathways by which it may reach Henchard's consciousness; in this case, Newson's inevitable return is the result of an act of twenty years past, despite the mayor's present remorse.

The consequences of Farfrae's dismissal have shown that act to be of the “same unruly volcanic stuff” as Henchard's original crime of selling his wife. It is as though the results of the first act twenty years before remain latent while the ramifications of his second irreversible action take their toll. “His bitter disappointment at finding Elizabeth-Jane to be none of his, and himself a childless man, had left an emotional void in Henchard which he unconsciously craved to fill” (p. 169). Lucetta's return seems to provide him again with the opportunity he lost in the consequences of firing Farfrae, but he loses her to his former friend as well.

Farfrae's prosperity as a merchant in his own right signifies the advent of the new order in its material form, the result of the decline of the old community as embodied in Henchard's fall. “The character of the town's trading had changed from bulk to multiplicity” (p. 195), indicating an ominous fragmentation of the bonds of society. The original agricultural community in the novel was altruistic rather than competitive, where even “over-clothes [in the market-place] were worn as if they were an inconvenience, a hampering necessity” (p. 175). But the “multiplicity” of the new commercial order, symbolized, too, in Farfrae's introduction of a new agricultural machine (pp. 191-92), is a sign of the surfacing of an inner defect. The changes wrought in the harmonious, almost noncompetitive, old order emerge in a description of Farfrae's revealing his own self-alienation. However, because he encounters no setback in terms of the mediocre demands of his own nature (remember Henchard's “dash of pity” for him earlier), he remains unconscious of his inner fragmentation as well as of the one without: “the curious double strands in Farfrae's thread of life—the commercial and the romantic—were very distinct at times. Like the colors in a variegated cord, those contrasts could be seen intertwisted, yet not mingling” (p. 183).

Consciousness of the inadequacy of the old order is “modern” consciousness; but the facts of the transition from old to new are material changes—externalizations of the inner defect which impress none but those characters capable of tragic possibilities. The bonfires on the heath have symbolized the fact that community is a matter of interdependence; for example:

Nearly the whole town had gone into the fields. The Casterbridge populace still retained the primitive habit of helping one another in time of need; and thus, though the corn belonged to the farming section of the little community—that inhabiting the Durnover quarter—the remainder was no less interested in the labor of getting it home.

[p. 223]

When the fires change from group centers to multitudes of individual locations (from “bulk” to “multiplicity”), collective altruism (which we see now not as altruism at all, but as a dependent love whose real roots come to light in the disclosure of Henchard's volcanic layers) becomes a vicious, egoistic struggle among divided men, fragmented as a society and fragmented within themselves. A true dialectic of need was operative in the old community:

The farmer's income was ruled by the wheat-crop within his own horizon, and the wheat-crop by the weather. Thus, in person, he became a sort of flesh-barometer, with feelers always directed to the sky and wind around him. The local atmosphere was everything to him; the atmosphere of other countries a matter of indifference. The people, too, who were not farmers, the rural multitude, saw in the god of the weather a more important personage than they do now. Indeed, the feeling of the peasantry in this matter was so intense as to be almost unrealizable in these equable days. Their impulse was well-nigh to prostrate themselves in lamentation before untimely rains and tempests, which came as the Alastor of those households whose crime it was to be poor.

[pp. 211-12]

But the flaw in the structure, if not recognizable already, may become apparent—an ostensible altruism, is, in reality, an expression of egoistic concerns: “The townsfolk understood every fluctuation in the rustic's condition, for it affected their receipts as much as the laborer's” (p. 70). Thus, we see the irony of the “Royal Personage” passing through Casterbridge on his way “to inaugurate an immense engineering work out that way” (p. 302): the highest representative of the old order is engaged in the “zealous promotion of designs for placing the art of farming on a more scientific footing” (p. 302). The inner defect works from within the contradictions of its old shell to transform itself dialectically into the new order, whose self-immolation is laid bare.

The modern tragic figure, of course, finally recognizes the falseness of any fires, whether collective illusions or fragmented, egocentric palliatives. The struggle between Henchard and Farfrae “constitutes the narrative and the unity of the book, and … predominantly defines its significance.”8 Yet the struggle becomes Henchard's struggle with himself—Farfrae is the externalization of the mayor's, and the community's, inner defect, its “central valley.” Once it enters the realm of consciousness, it shows itself to be the same “hitherto unrecognized original” of which we had glimpses in The Return of the Native, and which is now revealed in a concentrated vision. The Scotsman functions in a manner which externalizes the development of Henchard's own contradictions. The mayor's gradual awareness of his inner self is the organizational and perceptive center of the novel. The prophet Fall's remark to Henchard lends traditional mythic significance to this distinctly modern tragedy: “'Twill be more like living in Revelations this autumn than in England” (p. 215). The November aspect of Egdon Heath broods behind the entire narrative.

Event upon event builds up the dramatization of “the momentum of his character [which] knew no patience. At this turn of the scales [Henchard's financial ruin] he remained silent” (p. 219). The artist emphasizes the difference between his perception of events and that of the still unconscious Henchard: “The movements of his mind seemed to tend to the thought that some power was working against him” (p. 219). With the inevitable return of the repressed original crime in public, the furmity-woman's indictment of Henchard the judge, both past and present begin to enfold him:

Small as the police-court incident had been in itself, it formed the edge or turn in the incline of Henchard's fortunes. On that day—almost at that minute—he passed the ridge of prosperity and honor, and began to descend rapidly on the other side. It was strange how soon he sank in esteem. Socially he had received a startling fillip downwards; and, having already lost commercial buoyancy from rash transactions, the velocity of his descent in both aspects became accelerated every hour.

[p. 251]

Thus the tragedy, before recognition by the protagonist, displays a dual aspect: the personal and the historical, the private and the public. A discrepancy now exists between Henchard's individual life and his public identity, roles which were apparently in harmony when his drive alone was able to control his actions. The narrative begins to recognize the hitherto undiscovered original in the identity of Henchard's deepest impulses and the latent egoism of the ostensibly altruistic traditional community. The case is not unlike the one described by Conrad in The Nigger of the Narcissus, when he reveals the true bonds of the crew's community in relation to Wait: “The latent egoism of tenderness to suffering appeared in the developing anxiety not to see him die.”9 In The Mayor, landscape again takes on symbolic twilight significance: “The low land grew blacker, and the sky a deeper grey” (p. 260).

While, for a moment, the possibility of equilibrium appears in Henchard's working for Farfrae, it is as deceptive as Clym's supposed reharmonization with the heath in his furze-cutting. Both are aborted by the force of a necessary “mutually destructive interdependence”: for Clym, Eustacia; for Henchard, his deeper self. Even the parallel of Clym's blindness with Farfrae's unconsciousness becomes clear: “Henchard, a poor man in [Farfrae's] employ, was not to Farfrae's view the Henchard who had ruled him. Yet he was not only the same man, but that man with his sinister qualities, formerly latent, quickened into life by his buffetings” (p. 276). The full concentration of the tragedy occurs within Henchard's sphere alone: the entire world of the novel is but an external counterpart, a mirror, to the organizing perception of his mind. While he suggests he may act out his wishes by declaring that, if he meets Farfrae, “I won't answer for my deeds!” (p. 270),

… again he stopped short. The truth was that, as may be divined, he had quite intended to effect a grand catastrophe at the end of this drama [of his reading to Farfrae Lucetta's early love letters to himself] by reading out the name; he had come to the house with no other thought. But sitting here in cold blood he could not do it. Such a wrecking of hearts appalled even him. His quality was such that he could have annihilated them both in the heat of action; but to accomplish the deed by oral poison was beyond the nerve of his enmity.

[p. 284]

In fact, later, “Henchard had been as good as his word” (p. 292) in his promise to restore the letters to Lucetta. Henchard's conscious acts, when they prove devastating, are the work of inner powers beyond the control of his willful drive. And, almost as proof of his intention to be responsible to others, the damage that results from actions beyond his conscious control is pain to himself alone. Again, the laws of Henchard's nature work in the book as a whole: in the incident of the love letters, “though [Lucetta's] had been rather the laxity of inadvertence than of intention, that episode, if known, was not the less likely to operate fatally between herself and her husband [Farfrae]” (p. 301); in the form of a public act, too, the skimmington (paralleling in preparation and occurrence the arrival of the royal visitor).

After a physical struggle with Farfrae—supposedly to the death—the contradictions in Henchard's nature are glaring, as he crouches in “self-reproach” (p. 316) on the sacks in the barn: “Its womanliness sat tragically on the figure of so stern a piece of virility” (p. 316). At still another moment of possible equilibrium, when Henchard has reestablished affectionate ties with Elizabeth-Jane, Newson's appearance seems to set things off once more. But Henchard, of course, responds from the “volcanic” layer by misinforming the sailor that his daughter is dead. Even as soon as the mariner leaves, he knows that his new sin will come back to destroy him. The fact of recrimination becomes less and less necessary for the true nature of the process to be revealed: “Then Henchard, scarcely believing the evidence of his senses, rose from his seat amazed at what he had done. It had been the impulse of a moment” (p. 338), as “his jealous soul” viciously “[buries] his grief in his own heart” (p. 339).

Twilight has become night: “The whole land ahead of him was as darkness itself” (p. 341); there must he wander now that his deepest nature, in conflict with his one-sided conscious desires, has extinguished all light. The appearance of his own reflection in the river he intends to be his grave is an external statement of the self-recognition to come. His egoism, his love, and his hate battle within, as there “came to the surface that idiosyncrasy of [his] which had ruled his courses from the beginning and had mainly made him what he was. … Time had been when such instinctive opposition [to the marriage of Elizabeth-Jane and Farfrae] would have taken shape in action. But he was not now the Henchard of former days” (pp. 350-51).

Henchard is finally becoming aware of his dual nature, and Hardy assigns to the recognition the qualities of universality, in his conceptual prelude:

There is an outer chamber of the brain in which thoughts unowned, unsolicited, and of noxious kind, are sometimes allowed to wander for a moment prior to being sent off whence they came. One of these thoughts sailed into Henchard's ken now. … [He] shuddered, and exclaimed, “God forbid such a thing! Why should I still be subject to these visitations of the devil when I try so hard to keep him away?”

[p. 354]

Here lies the core of Henchard's nature: it defines man's area of responsibility within this universe. Tragedy consists of the consciousness of these limitations and man's ability to make his way through its chaotic darkness, the fate dictated by his own unconscious. “I—Cain—go alone as I deserve—an outcast and a vagabond. But my punishment is not greater than I can bear” (p. 361). Yet the prospect of death also intrudes upon Henchard's mind: “Part of his wish to wash his hands of life arose from his perception of its contrarious inconsistencies—of Nature's jaunty readiness to support unorthodox social principles” (p. 368). Elizabeth-Jane's burial of the dead bird that was Henchard's “hitherto undiscovered” wedding-gift occasions further symbolic statement: “She went out, looked at the cage, buried the starved little singer, and from that hour her heart softened towards the self-alienated man” (p. 380).

Henchard's modern tragic stance is his final recognition that he is trapped within the prison of his ego, subject to the unknown forces of unconscious instinctual underpinnings whose inconsistencies are mirrored in an equally dark and unknown external nature. But Hardy does not imply that this condition is in itself a law of existence. The cell of the self is the result of a process within history, a dialectic of man and nature in the form of society. We have seen that Henchard is representative of a broader process: the dynamics of his nature are reflected in the movement of the community he once symbolized.

With the establishment of his notion of “modern” consciousness, Hardy will move to an examination of the workings of those processes themselves. The Mayor of Casterbridge is a study, finally, in the discovery of self-alienation. It was necessary to emphasize the social processes involved in that discovery because the recognition itself is the product of an inescapable dialectic of community—a dialectic between man and nature. “Nature's jaunty readiness to support unorthodox social principles,” given the revelation of Henchard's inner self, suggested a host of problems to be investigated, a new direction issuing from past and present discoveries.


  1. John Holloway, “Hardy's Major Fiction,” in The Charted Mirror, pp. 99-100.

  2. The term is Holloway's.

  3. That The Mayor of Casterbridge is at least one hundred pages too long has been noted by many critics; the unnecessary overabundance of these “suspended moments” testifies to the validity of that criticism.

  4. Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, 5: 613.

  5. See Heilman's introduction to The Mayor of Casterbridge (Boston: Riverside, 1962), p. v.

  6. Heilman, pp. v-vi.

  7. The problem of sex itself does not fully arise until Tess,Jude, and to some extent The Woodlanders. The similarity between the strong affection of Henchard for Farfrae and the love of Clym and Eustacia is borne out by the many parallels between the pairs.

  8. Holloway, The Charted Mirror, p. 103.

  9. Joseph Conrad, The Nigger of the Narcissus (New York, 1926), p. 138.

Dale Kramer (essay date 1975)

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SOURCE: Kramer, Dale. “The Return of the Native: Opposites in Tragic Context.” In Thomas Hardy: The Forms of Tragedy, pp. 48-68. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1975.

[In the following essay, Kramer examines Hardy's experiments in tragic form in The Return of the Native.]

The Return of the Native is Hardy's most imitative, most self-conscious, and generally least successful effort at high tragedy. In many ways an impressive novel—in concept of personality, in awareness of the symbolic value of setting—it is probably most accurately thought of as the kind of novel that a determined and self-taught writer had to get out of his system before he could go on to find his own manner. This is not to say that The Return of the Native is a “sport” in Hardy's oeuvre—far from it—or that Hardy did not repeat in later works many of the false notes in this novel, but that its distinctive qualities were blended in subsequent books with techniques and concepts of aesthetic form that were more of Hardy's own devising.

The Return of the Native is the first of Hardy's sustained efforts at tragedy; its uncertainty may stem partly from Hardy's puzzlement as to how tragedy in fiction should be handled and partly from his lack of confidence that he could succeed. It is not surprising that Hardy looked to traditional concepts of the tragic in casting about for a method, even though his rustic scene and characters might have seemed of questionable promise when viewed in the perspective of the masterpieces of the past for which he had never lost his schoolboy's awe. That he imitated the pattern of classical tragedy is obvious in his use of the unities of time and place.1 He also had originally planned the main action to take place in five books, to parallel the five acts of Elizabethan drama; and both Clym and Eustacia are fond of giving speeches that make their dilemmas external and theatrical. An allusiveness richer and more varied than customary in Hardy's novels elevates Egdon Heath into a setting appropriate for a drama of the widest significance. Indeed, Hardy's allusions draw upon the epic and heroic modes as well as the tragic, and encompass Norse and Indian as well as Greek, Roman, and Christian legend.2 Hardy, then, encourages the reader to furnish literary recollection of tragic impact that amplifies the actions he presents. With the exception of The Mayor of Casterbridge, in which he borrowed another feature of traditional tragedy—the dominating hero whose very character expands the stage—Hardy never again relied so extensively upon his literary predecessors for examples of tragedy or for artificial extensions of plot and characters and situations.

Still, if Hardy had limited his efforts to classical patterns, it is not likely that The Return of the Native would have called forth the variety and quality of responses that it has. There is a basic difference between The Return of the Native and the more conservative imitation of classical forms, The Mayor of Casterbridge. Although interpretations of Henchard's story vary, the developments of dilemma and disaster are straightforward and unparadoxical. Attempts to define the emotional and fictive and aesthetic directions of The Return of the Native by any encompassing theory, on the other hand, constantly run up against complications and ambiguities within the text of the novel.3 Hardy is attempting a fresh expression of tragic form, although one which incorporates the old patterns. His originality lies in his efforts to enlarge upon classical precept and to transpose the artificiality and rigidity of dramatic structure into the requisite freedom and tentativeness of fiction. Such elements as the unities of time and place are, naturally, only contributory to the novel's total effect. More important are Hardy's conception of tragic characterization and of the relationship between character and setting. In both Hardy is resourceful and suggestive, although his handling of them can be contradictory in the destructive sense of confusion or of being at cross-purposes as well as in the enriching sense of ambiguity.


The uniqueness of The Return of the Native among Hardy's experiments in tragic form is that its two tragic protagonists—Clym and Eustacia—inhabit different psychic worlds and evoke from us different tragic reactions.4 They resemble Antigone and Creon in that as tragic figures they draw upon different sources of vitality. They are distinguished from Sophocles' protagonists because they represent moral positions in a less rigid fashion. Rather than opposing social authority with the individual right to interpret moral necessity like Sophocles, Hardy constructs less absolute contrasts. Briefly, if abstractly, Eustacia's world is one of stature and ego, while Clym's is one of intention and society.5 Each world possesses the conflicting qualities of stasis (stature and society, both established and accepted) and action (ego and intention, both striving to become recognized or fulfilled). The internal tension between stasis and energy in each character, as well as in the contrasts the characters represent, creates the sense of involvement and conflict which dominates their portrayal.

The distinctiveness of the values of Clym and Eustacia repeats, but in quite different terms, the contrast between the values of Sergeant Troy and those of the society personified by Gabriel Oak. Hardy uses the theme of cultural and psychic conflict in each of his great novels, but with differing devices. In Far from the Madding Crowd, Oak is so much more the man of attractive strength than Troy that aesthetic tension never rises to the pitch of tragedy where Oak is concerned. In a third context, Giles Winterborne in The Woodlanders is ethically superior to Fitzpiers, but is ineffectual against him, and again the effect is not similar to that in The Return of the Native. Clym and Eustacia represent Hardy's projection of the conflict of cultures into characters of equal attractiveness, who exert their appeals upon the reader by different means.

The stature of Eustacia is emphasized by Hardy in one of the famous chapters of purple writing in the novel. The “Queen of Night” chapter begins by asserting that “Eustacia Vye was the raw material of a divinity”; and Hardy goes on to develop this statement with a potpourri of allusions. He places Eustacia alongside goddesses (Artemis, Athena, Hera) and historical and mythological personages (Alcinous, De Vere, William the Conqueror, Saul, Napoleon). He emphasizes her unconventionalism by calling her “pagan” and by pointing out that she had a youthful sympathy for Pontius Pilate's frankness and fairness. In all, Hardy describes her dignity, the grandeur of her black hair, her exaggerated expectations from life, and her refusal to compromise. She has, appropriately, a ruling passion, “to be loved to madness,” which is raised to the level of a principle by being a longing “for the abstraction called passionate love more than for any particular lover” (p. 79) [all page references from The Works of Thomas Hardy in Prose and Verse. The Wessex Edition (London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1912-31)].

The egoistic nature of Eustacia's existence, made evident by her disdain for a Wildeve rejected by Thomasin and by her wish to live an active social life in a resort town, is especially manifested by her attitude toward the heath. Although willing to grant that it has beauty, she is quite unable to accept its visual attractiveness as ameliorating its unpleasantness (p. 220). More tellingly, Eustacia sees the heath as directly opposed to her as an individual (p. 405). The heath, as the immediate object of Eustacia's paranoid hatred, becomes an image for Destiny, God, the colossal Prince of the World that she constantly blames for her unhappiness, which is clear from her final outcry, “O, how hard it is of Heaven to devise such tortures for me, who have done no harm to Heaven at all!” (p. 422). A mark of Wildeve's command over Eustacia's inner nature is when he reinforces this concept by reassuring her that “Fate has treated you cruelly” (p. 311; see also pp. 334, 404, 405) and that he, not she, is to blame for her predicament after Mrs. Yeobright's death and the consequent estrangement from Clym (pp. 372, 405).

The perspective of Clym's psychic world differs from Eustacia's from the outset. His characterization is based on idealistic intentions of speeding up social change, but he lacks the connotations of mystery and slumbering power of Eustacia that are developed through “Queen of Night.” Disillusioned with the effeminacy and vanity of his Parisian vocation as a diamond merchant, Clym has decided to sublimate his worldly ambitions to higher aims. He intends to raise the intellectual quality of life among the heath dwellers without forcing them to pass through the intermediate stage of social ambition and worldly advance (pp. 203-04). This challenge to the established sequence of change and evolution makes him a figure comparable to Prometheus, who, thinking that mankind deserved some of the comforts of the gods, rebelled against the existing system even though it had placed him in high station. This similarity may be what Clym has in mind when he declares to Eustacia that he can “rebel, in high Promethean fashion, against the gods and fate as well as you” (p. 302), though by the time he says this he has become a furze cutter and seems not at all concerned that the opening of his school is being delayed.

The social reverberations which Clym's character causes depend upon his representativeness as well as upon his intentions. He represents two coexisting but separate societies, the heath and the outer intellectual world, which he had learned about in Paris and which had provided part of the rationale for his rejection of the life of business. The philosophies that those two societies impress upon Clym are not identical, but they are similar enough to separate further Clym's psychic state from Eustacia's. The two societies jostle for influence in Clym, but their impacts on his character are complementary. The basic point they have in common is the advocacy of self-abnegation, of submission to extra-personal forces: to principles, and to the overweening authority of the heath. The crucial differences in effect which the two systems have upon Clym are that as a neo-Parisian intellectual he optimistically intends to contribute to the spread of his principles, and that as a heath man he becomes a non-thinking passive exister. The effect of his early contact with the heath has been undermined by his adoption of the Parisian intellectualization of life, even though the concepts that follow his “rational” meditation upon existence are quite similar to those which he had absorbed from his years on Egdon. The healthy frankness of a philosophy of life based on direct experience with nature has been replaced by the murky generalizations and fears born of introspection in a closeted city life.

Clym's face, Hardy tells us, is typical of those modern men whose age is measured by experience and intensity of life (p. 161); his face reflects the effect of thought upon flesh as the mind is made to be aware of the “coil of things” (p. 162). The impetus for his return to Egdon has been his acquaintance “with ethical systems popular at the time” in Paris (p. 203). These systems are not identified, but if we can venture a guess about them from Clym's behavior, they are probably Fourieristic socialist schemes, St. Simonianism, and Comte's Positivism—all of which made the individual aware of his social role as his brother's keeper. On the other hand, Clym's intention to teach the heath folk how to skip a stage in their social evolution goes against a basic feature of these creeds—that the stages in the growth of a society are both observable and dependent on a necessary sequence—and therefore Hardy may have in mind other, less well-known philosophic creeds. (That there may be something superficial and faddish in being affected by “popular” systems of thought is largely beside the point in considering the qualities that make Clym's stance, or value-system, distinct from Eustacia's.) Because he is a man of the heath, he is as much its product as he is a product of Paris: his early society had been the human inhabitants of the heath, and “his estimate of life had been coloured by it” (p. 205). Indeed, his relationship with the heath itself had once been so close that Hardy makes a point of asserting that in the past one could not look at the heath without thinking of Clym (p. 198), a perspective that marks the intense interaction between man and environment. That the emphasis is upon thinking of Clym when seeing the heath rather than thinking of the heath when seeing Clym (a more natural and limited sort of associated thought) points up a symbiotic relationship that heightens the alliance between the man and his milieu, just as Oedipus' status in Thebes makes his guilt a condition for which the city is punished, that makes the city's “body” his body.

As the novel progresses, Clym loses some of his identity with the outer world: his face alters, losing its look of intellectuality as his “healthful and energetic sturdiness which was his by nature” begins to reacquire “its original proportions” (p. 243). By violating his civilized awareness of man's limitations—or, rather, by pursuing one society's concept of fit action in the environment of the other—he strains his eyes and can no longer read. When he goes to work cutting furze, he approximates his original status of co-identity with the heath (p. 298), so that not even his mother can readily recognize him as an individual (p. 328). The identification of Clym's specific “society,” then, shifts; but there never is doubt that Clym, sensitive to the ideas around him, represents a societal orientation toward experience and knowledge; his intention is to bring together what he considers the most truthful and permanent features of his two societies.

The story of Clym and Eustacia has a powerful quality not only because they are at cross purposes with each other but also because neither one can achieve selfhood in the psychic world of the other. But not all is negative. The dramas of their separate existences are possible because the physical world of the heath, of indeterminate character itself, can contain both, and provide the necessary testing of both. It is ironical that the discontent of Eustacia on the heath and the moral evolution of Clym during his acquaintance with Eustacia provide the emotional peaks and ethical significances of their lives. Hardy points out that if it were not for the isolating and purifying features of the heath, Eustacia would be vulgar and petty (pp. 78-79); if she and Wildeve had not died when they did, their lives would have been attenuated “to an uninteresting meagreness, through long years of wrinkles, neglect, and decay” (p. 453). We cannot know what Clym might have accomplished with Eustacia alive; but with her absent from his life he falls into pathetic ineffectuality, preaching religious cliches and commonplaces to an audience who come to hear him out of pity for his life rather than for the message he gives, for which there is not a word of approbation (p. 485). In the absence of conflicting and irreconcilable forces, life has become mediocre rather than noble and perpetually refreshed.6


The interrelationships of the heath and the major characters of The Return of the Native bear directly on tragic characterization. The indomitableness and stupendous impassivity of the heath constitute a benchmark helping to establish the moral position of the characters; the heath's permanence, representing elemental powers of the universe, is a stark reminder of the futility of human endeavor to alter one's lot. That it is the humble characters who are content to find small consolations in individual and social intercourse, and who abide on the heath in unquestioning resignation, enjoying the “triumph” in The Return of the Native, is Hardy's way of underlining the simplicity of the heath's relationship to the action of the novel.

On closer examination, however, it becomes clear that the heath is as much a cohesive force among characters as it is either a divisive agent or a sounding board that enables the gods or the reader to categorize the characters. Eustacia is as frequently identified with the heath through imagery, and with as much significance, as Clym is through authorial statement. Amid an evocative description of the winds on Rainbarrow and Egdon Heath, which bear “a great resemblance to the ruins of human song” (p. 60) and enable the spirit of the heath to speak through the heath-bells “each at once” (p. 61), Eustacia makes her first appearance and sighs. Although she is thinking of Wildeve, and thus of the sort of seized happiness usually considered antithetical to the heath's passive way, Hardy says that her mood is identical to that of the heath:

Suddenly, on the barrow, there mingled with all this wild rhetoric of night a sound which modulated so naturally into the rest that its beginning and ending were hardly to be distinguished. The bluffs, and the bushes, and the heather-bells had broken silence: at last, so did the woman; and her articulation was but as another phrase of the same discourse as theirs.

[p. 61]

Like the heath, she can be “passively still” while yielding herself to the pull of a bramble (pp. 63-64). Her manner of dress in the wintertime obscures her beauty like that of a tiger-beetle, “which, when observed in dull situations, seems to be of the quietest neutral colour, but under a full illumination blazes with dazzling splendour” (p. 104). She thinks the influence of Yeobright is like that of “summer sun” (p. 146). These last-mentioned images are inconclusive, but Hardy takes special pains, even using repetition, to indicate the relationship between Eustacia and the heath in the scene that is the emotional climax of Eustacia's life. During her miserable uncertainty on her way to elope with Wildeve, her inner state and the state of the heath are peculiarly united by the storm. “Never was harmony more perfect than that between the chaos of her mind and the chaos of the world without” (p. 421); and “between the drippings of the rain from her umbrella to her mantle, from her mantle to the heather, from the heather to the earth, very similar sounds could be heard coming from her lips; and the tearfulness of the outer scene was repeated upon her face” (p. 421). Though it is given from Eustacia's point of view, the sentence immediately following the latter quotation has misled many readers of the novel: “The wings of her soul were broken by the cruel obstructiveness of all about her.” But that which is “about” her is not only the material heath in itself. It is also her pride, her lack of money, her being trapped between choosing an unworthy Wildeve and a humiliating residence at her grandfather's house while waiting for Clym to reclaim her. (She is unaware that he has already written an apology.) The heath may in a large sense serve as a symbol of the circumstances of life which destroy the rebel; but it is simultaneously a manifestation of universal nature with which Eustacia is capable of being in full accord.

With a combination of instinct and culture that can manifest itself only in brooding or violence, Eustacia is an inverse parallel to Clym, whose countenance reflects both the heath and the modern ideas of Paris. The contrasting pattern between Clym and Eustacia has another ramification here. Eustacia, possessing qualities identical with those of the heath, expresses them in rebellion against her situation rather than in acceptance. Clym, possessing intellectual training, lets slip from him the social sophistication that made the mental training possible, in order to realign himself with natural forces. Although each is partly endowed with one of the qualities that would help to counteract the other's weakness, they can find no more common ground in their stances toward the universe than in their personal relationship, their stances toward each other.

Eustacia's rebellion is internal, even petty, for large sections of the novel, but rebel she does: in her affair with Wildeve (p. 79); obviously in her final decision to flee Egdon; more subtly in her refusal to tell the truth to Clym about the male visitor she had entertained on the day of Mrs. Yeobright's death. Her refusal to justify her actions may be passive, but it is hardly acceptance of her lot in the same sense in which Clym's exploitation of his blindness suggests the eagerness with which he postpones the sterner struggle of opening a school. Eustacia's adamant refusal to make the best of a bad situation is different only in degree from the attempt to destroy or escape from the situation. Her evident suicide is a further, and final, rejection of the circumstances that to her mind have conspired to keep her from the life she desires:7 “[Wildeve is] not great enough for me to give myself to—he does not suffice for my desire! … If he had been a Saul or a Bonaparte—ah! But to break my marriage vow for him—it is too poor a luxury!” (p. 422).

The physical locations of Clym's and Eustacia's homes helped to form their characters even more markedly than is customary in Hardy's works. The lack of modulation or shading in Eustacia's perspective is predictable, for she has gone from fashionable Budmouth to the center of the heath (p. 143). That is, she develops her attitudes from the center of both of her worlds; she is given little freedom to observe modulations of life-styles. “There was no middle distance in her perspective: … Every bizarre effect that could result from the random intertwining of watering-place glitter with the grand solemnity of a heath, was to be found in her” (p. 78). Clym, on the other hand, was brought up on the periphery of two worlds, the heath and the meadow. The Yeobright home, Blooms-End, is on the edge of the heath, on the border of the cultivated land and the unclaimable land of Egdon (pp. 127-28). The meadow's softness, relative ease of life, and beauty give a different emphasis to the meaning of life and effort than that of lowering Egdon. Clym's borderland upbringing is reflected in the indecisiveness he manifests throughout the novel. In his youth he chose the bleak heath for an arena in which to act, a move which was not fated, for his father was a farmer; indeed, Hardy suggests that the choice was something of a perverse assault on the heath's impenetrableness. That in the heath's eyes the human Clym is a biological aberration is indicated by indirect parallelism. Clym's unnatural position in his adopted heath is matched by that of the “fir and beech plantation that had been enclosed from heath land in the year of his birth” (p. 246; my italics) and suffers “amputations, bruises, cripplings, and harsh lacerations” from a wind which on the open heath can merely wave “the furze and heather in a light caress” (p. 247). Like the plantation, Clym is “enclosed” from the heath's chastening and subduing power by his Paris experiences and by his advantageous living site at Blooms-End; like the trees, Clym is buffeted more by sufferings than are the native heath dwellers, who have neither expectations nor serious disappointments. Even Christian Cantle, who as his name suggests has been proselyted from the frank paganism of his peers, bears up tolerably well under the knowledge that women think him a “slack-twisted, slim-looking maphrotight fool” (p. 27).

The heath, then, has a much more complex function than is usually recognized. It is both a moral absolute and a universal solvent. Eustacia is not entirely an intrusion upon it, nor is Clym an utter familiar; indeed, to the heath indifferent to humanity, they possess equal value and meaning. The heath absorbs the Budmouth tastes of Eustacia and the Paris learning of Clym, and proves itself superior to both Budmouth and Paris as the inducer of a state of mind. It is a microcosm of the world or universe, but it is more inclusive than exclusive. The heath is not a detachable symbol, although Hardy's employment of the unity of place may create the effect that the heath is cut off from the real world by its isolated position and by the purity of its quality (its unique “heathness,” as it were) as well as by an excessive harshness and indifference toward its inhabitants who possess consciousness. But it is not—or at least no more so than the settings for human effort in Hardy's other novels. The “testing” of Clym and Eustacia by their environment is little different from that of Tess by hers or of Jude or the Mayor by theirs. Indeed, Clym—the person most aware of the state of man's life—sees that the heath projects the same significance as crowded Paris. “There was something in its oppressive horizontality which too much reminded him of the arena of life; it gave him a sense of bare equality with, and no superiority to, a single living thing under the sun” (p. 245). “The arena of life” may not be a precise reference to Paris, but the tacit meaning of “reminded” underlines the point that the heath is an expansive setting, not an artificial limiting one.


There is, obviously, more to Hardy's method of presenting characters of tragic import in fiction than has generally been conceded. The dramatist has certain advantages because he can expect the actor to provide some of the impetus to involvement, even though dialogue and conflict are what prove the ultimate worth of a tragic play. The novelist, on the other hand, finds he has a difficult choice to make when he purports to write a tragedy. If he emphasizes the expansiveness of the characters' actions by description and allusion, he runs the risk of being bombastic and sentimental; if he understates the complexity of his characters' behavior, assuming that the reader will be able to supply the requisite connotations, he runs the risk of being merely bathetic and of appearing lazy and indifferent to concrete expression. Hardy's overall tactic in The Return of the Native in the face of this dilemma is to create appropriate concepts of key characters in chapters of set description and evocation, and thereafter to allow the characters essential freedom with occasional allusion to their grander status or with a brief restatement of their symbolic values. This tactic is at least partly ironic, for the protagonists' actions do not consistently justify the stature Hardy has attributed to them in “Queen of Night” and “‘My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is,’” and sometimes Hardy, apparently unintentionally, allows the characters' acts to contradict their abstract values.

It is difficult to maintain balance in the pattern of alternating sections of tragic connotations and character manifestation because the two methods do not mix. When Hardy attempts to use both methods at once in an effort to heighten his characterizations by particularizing Clym's or Eustacia's traits at a moment of intense feeling, he risks producing flaws in the novel. Eustacia's dream after she sees Clym for the first time provides an instructive example of Hardy attempting an ironic variation upon the pattern. He stresses the uniqueness of Eustacia's dream for a girl of her station, using a flurry of mythological, classical, and contemporary allusions, with the evident purpose of suggesting Eustacia's felt superiority to her unheroic surroundings:

That night was an eventful one to Eustacia's brain, and one which she hardly ever forgot. She dreamt a dream; and few human beings, from Nebuchadnezzar to the Swaffham tinker, ever dreamt a more remarkable one. Such an elaborately developed, perplexing, exciting dream was certainly never dreamed by a girl in Eustacia's situation before. It had as many ramifications as the Cretan labyrinth, as many fluctuations as the Northern Lights, as much colour as a parterre in June, and was as crowded with figures as a coronation. To Queen Scheherazade the dream might have seemed not far removed from commonplace; and to a girl just returned from all the courts of Europe it might have seemed not more than interesting. But amid the circumstances of Eustacia's life it was as wonderful as a dream could be.

[pp. 137-38]

Despite this preparation, all we learn of Eustacia's exciting dream is that it involved “transformation scenes.” Hardy actually relates to us only the dream that immediately follows the remarkable one. This second dream is a “less extravagant episode” involving a knight in silver armor on the heath, clearly a projection of Eustacia's waking expectations of Clym. This second, conventional manifestation of fantasy, rather than supporting the grandioseness of Eustacia's character merely reinforces its mundaneness and substantiates the impression that she lacks a vital imagination. Still, it is quickly followed by the comment that “the fantastic nature of her passion, which lowered her as an intellect, raised her as a soul” (p. 139); and it is, after all, Eustacia's soul, not her intellect, that makes her tragic. But in referring to the dream, that which elevates her soul, Hardy does not give the unique dream but only the ordinary one. The larger question, then, seems to be whether Hardy can comprehend what kind of dream Queen Scheherazade might have or whether he thinks that to give the individualizing and aggrandizing dream in detail would have the unintended effect of limiting the tragic boundaries of Eustacia's character.

A clearer indication of how this description of Eustacia goes wrong can be found in a later, somewhat similar portrayal of Clym intended to reveal the superior qualities that make him a potential tragic hero. The portrayal of Clym, however, is more successful. When he first tells his mother that he is not going to return to Paris, he has no hope of having his motivations understood. He is “constitutionally beyond the reach of a logic that, even under favouring conditions, is almost too coarse a vehicle for the subtlety of the argument” (p. 207). A later discussion with his mother reveals to Clym that “he could reach her by a magnetism which was as superior to words as words are to yells” (p. 223). These passages about Clym, like those about Eustacia's dream, are based on the idea of a sensitivity so beyond the ordinary that its very possession sets one apart. Hardy, however, realizes that Clym's quality is beyond rhetoric, and he does not strain after expression to communicate Clym's specialness: he merely asserts, and relies upon the reader to supply the recognition. With Eustacia he promises, or seems to promise, the presentation of the mental process that demarcates her subconscious mind, but does not, in fact, present it. In the one case, then, he accepts the necessary limitations of his form for delineating the uniqueness of a tragic character; in the other, he seems to try to circumvent the limitations by implying that he is revealing more than he actually does. Whether Hardy's handling of Eustacia's dream is artistic charlatanry, magnificent failure, or diffusing irony is an issue that cannot be finally resolved. That Hardy is aware, at any rate, of the normal limitations of the form of fiction to express the verbally inexpressible is made clear in his comment on Clym's and Eustacia's emotional silence during a rendezvous: “No language could reach the level of their condition: words were as the rusty implements of a bygone barbarous epoch, and only to be occasionally tolerated” (p. 231). The mildly ironic tone of “to be occasionally tolerated” does not obscure the fact that Hardy is deliberately avoiding here the danger of using language to define a non-linguistic experience.

Although Hardy fails once with Eustacia, elsewhere powerful emotions appropriately go undefined. Dancing with Wildeve, Eustacia becomes rapt, evidently if not clearly with “rank” passion; her soul had passed away from and forgotten her features, which were left empty and quiescent, as they always are when feeling goes beyond their register” (p. 310). Oddly, Hardy makes little of Eustacia's emotions in this scene other than to suggest indirectly that she possesses greater receptivity than the other female dancers because she experiences the “symptoms” of passion more powerfully than they do. In the ensuing conversation with Wildeve she is the circumspect—if proud and self-pitying—wife of a furze cutter. The principal value of the dancing scene is to substantiate the tragic potentiality of Eustacia.

When Hardy responds to the dilemma of tragic characterization by trying too hard to improve upon orthodox techniques of the realistic novelist, that is, when he experiments, we have seen that much can go awry. He also occasionally accepts too readily and too thoroughly the limitations to tragedy in fiction, that is, he fails to characterize as fully as necessary for basic acceptance in terms of verisimilitude. Such under-characterization is nearly a signature of Hardy's art. More than any other important novelist of his time, he encourages the reader to supply motivations and explanations for his characters' acts. This habit can be functional at times. The evil of Alec d'Urberville becomes part of the threatening universe; Sue Bridehead becomes the final bane of Jude because he cannot, any more than can the reader, comprehend the vagaries of her tortured consciousness. Even the “Inconsequence” that Felice Charmond personifies does not fully account for her self-sacrificial and impassioned behavior in The Woodlanders, and she thus is elevated beyond the stereotype of a femme fatale to a character capable of being destroyed in the same manner that Giles is, the unintended victim of the love of her life. But under-characterization can also harm a fiction.

An example of unsatisfactory truncated characterization in The Return of the Native is found in the skein of Clym's early actions. The early stages of his growing love for Eustacia are too scantily traced for the reader to understand the point Hardy is making about the novel's title character. From the time of his suspicion that the Saracen Knight is a woman (p. 170) to his telling his mother that he has given up his plan of offering “with my own mouth rudimentary education to the lowest class” (p. 227), there is but one hint of the nature of Eustacia's attraction to Clym—the trite, unexceptional attraction of beauty (p. 220). The flaw I am suggesting is not in the nature of the attraction itself, for Hardy emphasizes the unusual beauty of his heroine, but in that Hardy has not given us a clear enough look at his hero for us to know the nature of the effect that an emotion like sensual attraction can have upon him. Hardy has told us that Clym in his returned state represents modern thinking man. Does he then mean to imply that modern man's efforts to think are inevitably futile because he is still prey both to animalistic drives and to man's tendency to idealize his drives? Or is he implying that Clym's posture as a conquering hero over ignorance and oppression is essentially but a pose, and that Clym's pretensions to selfless nobility are as hollow as Eustacia's claims to temporal social superiority? Hardy's “characterization” of Clym over the course of his courtship of Eustacia can be taken to “mean” any of these things, and other things as well, simply because Hardy has given no indication what Clym's immediate capitulation to beauty represents, either universally or individually. Nor is it clear whether this barrenness of motivation is intended to elevate Clym to a tragic level through simplicity or whether the barrenness is intended ironically to disrupt Hardy's pretensions that his novel is a tragedy by suggesting an incoherence in Clym's psyche.


Many readers feel that Hardy is playing a massive joke on them in suggesting that an ill-starred love affair between a petulant girl of nineteen and an indecisive philosopher and social reformer can convey a meaningful comment on man's situation in the universe.8 And it is true that apart from the introductory chapter on Egdon Heath, “Queen of Night,” and “‘My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is,’” the narrator explores only briefly the two characters' exceptional natures. Richard Carpenter remarks, with “Queen of Night” in mind, that “Hardy appears for long stretches to forget that his heroine is anything more dignified and grand than a passionate woman caught in a web spun by circumstances and her own emotions.”9 Carpenter's following remark—“as the story unfolds, the tone shifts from tragic elevation to ironic pathos”—is a concise statement of a skeptical reader's opinion of the success of Hardy's method of characterization in this novel.10 Carpenter in effect overlooks the possibility of Hardy's use of the fairly standard technique of fiction to establish a characterization early in the narrative and permit the character to act freely in the later parts without authorial manipulation. Hardy clearly has intended to demonstrate initially the quality of Eustacia's rebellious nature through classical allusions, and then through more dramatic and objective methods to show her making choices that substantiate the authorial presentation. Some choices are deliberate and conscious (such as her lighting the bonfire on the first anniversary of her affair with Wildeve), some mainly unconscious (such as her rejecting Wildeve when she learns that Thomasin may prefer another lover to him); but all of them are consistent with the overriding static portrayal of her as an imperious woman of passion and impulse, and consistent with her active state as a woman struggling to achieve the sort of recognition her ego demands of life. Moreover, as I have observed, tragic expression in The Return of the Native arises only in part from classical allusions and the actions and motivations of the principal actors; more complex feelings are created through the conflict of irreconcilable modes of psychic existence.

Nevertheless, Carpenter and other readers are certainly correct in pointing to a level of mundaneness in Eustacia. Her attitudes are intensely social in the sense that she desires parties, fashionable clothes, and friends of similar tastes, not in the sense that Clym's ideas are societally significant, dealing as they do with justice and the organization of a citizenry toward cultural goals. Eustacia's rebellion against the higher powers rests upon a subjective claim to special consideration because of her beauty: “She had cogent reasons for asking the Supreme Power by what right a being of such exquisite finish had been placed in circumstances calculated to make of her charms a curse rather than a blessing” (p. 305). The context suggests irony: “To an onlooker her beauty would have made her feelings almost seem reasonable” (my italics). In her last, great speech she says that destiny has prevented her from being a “splendid” woman (p. 422); this may have connotations of grandeur, but she means only that as the runaway paramour of Wildeve, who is no Napoleon or Saul beyond the reach of social law, she cannot hope to glitter in a Continental social scene. In all, then, Eustacia's tragic authority is limited exactly because her own perspective is so myopic. The dignity implicit in enunciating an attack upon Heaven in her last speech does not survive unscathed a cool appraisal of the puniness of her goal. Perhaps none of these or other undercuttings by Hardy prove conclusively that Eustacia is less than tragic, but they keep her from being tragic in the grand manner, as Hardy's explicit characterization of her gives us good reason to expect her to be.

Nor is Clym free from ironic diminishment, primarily because his allegiances are so varied—to a Paris-founded modern system of idealism, to the heath's absorptive power, to his mother, to his final guilt-ridden missionary vocation. Easily diverted from his selfless plan to educate the heath people, vacillating among various plans of action—none of which he ever decisively chooses—Clym's intention to correct the world's ills is flexible to the point of self-parody. His failure to understand that his pursuit of private happiness with Eustacia goes against his self-conceived societal role forestalls his intentions before he can even decide upon the most basic implementation for them. He thus presents a character less unified than Eustacia's, whose only disputed allegiance is between that part of her which is a complement of the heath and that part which vehemently loathes the heath for its lack of superficial society.

The uncertainty of the source of tragic authority in the novel is partly the result of the ambiguities in Hardy's structural scheme of two psychic worlds. Clym's instability of interests weakens both his individuality and his representativeness, further dissipating the possibilities for tragic resonance in his sufferings. The problem of locating a center for the awareness of truth frequently present in tragedy is also complicated by these factors—that is, by the structural scheme and by the evidences of inadequate purpose in the protagonists. But, of equal significance, awareness of truth is hindered because Eustacia and Clym come to individual awareness of man's role in his own fate which are exactly inverse to the conclusions that are appropriate for them. Clym is weak and easily frustrated; nevertheless, difficulty in his relations with his mother and Eustacia has been mainly their fault rather than his. To blame himself for their deaths, which he does, means he misses part of the truth of his experience. He thinks that he “must have been horribly perverted by some fiend” not to have gone to make up the argument with his mother (p. 367), but he blames himself, not the “fiend.” It is clearly for the wrong reason (in Hardy's presentation) that Clym denies that malignity in the supernatural has brought about his ultimate sorrows:

He did sometimes think he had been ill-used by fortune, so far as to say that to be born is a palpable dilemma, and that instead of men aiming to advance in life with glory they should calculate how to retreat out of it without shame. But that he and his had been sarcastically and pitilessly handled in having such irons thrust into their souls he did not maintain long. It is usually so, except with the sternest of men. Human beings, in their generous endeavour to construct a hypothesis that shall not degrade a First Cause, have always hesitated to conceive a dominant power of lower moral quality than their own; and, even while they sit down and weep by the waters of Babylon, invent excuses for the oppression which prompts their tears.

[p. 455; my italics]

Eustacia, at the opposite extreme, pities herself as unfairly manipulated by adverse forces, though she has made all the decisions that in her final scene eventually place her on the heath with no choice but death or dishonor. The manner of portraying her lamentations and diatribes against Fate suggests that she has inadequate insight into her own blameworthiness. Hardy says that she hates the “disagreeable” as much as the “dreadful” (p. 353), and strongly hints that the blame she levies at the “indistinct, colossal Prince of the World” would be directed more accurately toward herself:

She had certainly believed that Clym was awake [when his mother had come to call], and the excuse would be an honest one as far as it went; but nothing could save her from censure in refusing to answer at the first knock. Yet, instead of blaming herself for the issue she laid the fault upon the shoulders of some indistinct, colossal Prince of the World, who had framed her situation and ruled her lot.

[p. 353]11

This fairly late reference to Eustacia's self-delusion reinforces the impression given in an early description of her that she suffers from paranoia. “She could show a most reproachful look at times, but it was directed less against human beings than against certain creatures of her mind, the chief of these being Destiny” (p. 79; my italics). Thus, one of the bases of Eustacia's tragic stature—her consciousness of being a sufferer—can reasonably be interpreted as meretricious.12

Clym's potentiality as a tragic hero is revived briefly toward the end of the fifth book, but then is adversely affected by the sixth, which was added at the request of Hardy's magazine editor. At the end of book 5, on the morning after the deaths of Eustacia and Wildeve, Clym comes to a recognition of a basic feature of the tragic universe—the realization that there are offenses beyond law's power or prerogative to punish:

“I am getting used to the horror of my existence. They say that a time comes when men laugh at misery through long acquaintance with it. Surely that time will soon come to me!”

“Your aim has always been good,” said Venn. “Why should you say such desperate things?”

“No, they are not desperate. They are only hopeless; and my great regret is that for what I have done no man or law can punish me!”

[p. 449]

The implied question—what to do with one who is immune from man's law—has answers applicable to The Return of the Native. One is that justice rather than law might be applied in this instance. (Perhaps this justice would implement such human supra-legal agents as Hardy refers to earlier in the novel. Commenting on Venn's firing shotguns to keep Wildeve away from Eustacia and thus keep him faithful to Thomasin, Hardy writes, “The doubtful legitimacy of such rough coercion did not disturb the mind of Venn. It troubles few such minds in such cases, and sometimes this is not to be regretted. From the impeachment of Strafford to Farmer Lynch's short way with the scamps of Virginia there have been many triumphs of justice which are mockeries of law” [p. 321].) Another answer to the implied question is that the guilty person can punish himself. Neither answer is by itself perfectly satisfactory, because each implies an epistemological limitation upon experience, a limitation based on the idea that there is an ultimately right fate assignable according to identifiable grounds. This sort of rationally assignable fate works against the sense of ineffable unease at the “due” fate suffered by the protagonist in tragedy, an unease prompted by the inextricableness of individual responsibility and the responsibility of forces beyond the individual, the effects of which within his own life he is nonetheless accountable for.

Had Hardy not tried to take Clym beyond his expression of despair and guilt at the end of book 5, there would be some justification in putting Clym forward as the principal tragic hero of the novel. At this point there is a powerful measure of mystery to Clym's condition and his likely fate. Clym is caught up in the awareness of his blame in Eustacia's death, while the reader has just been made deeply conscious through observation of Wildeve's and Eustacia's last thoughts that Clym is not alone to blame. Had the last stage in the reader's consciousness of the story been this, there would be at least the possibility of an unease similar to that produced by the conclusions of Oedipus Rex and of Shakespeare's plays. But to carry the story past this point raises the expectation that some further aspect of the inextricableness of responsibilities will be developed through action. Such a development does not occur, the purpose of book 6 being to satisfy an editor's sense of simplistic poetic justice (moreover, a poetic justice that does not include the novel's major sufferers) rather than to round out Hardy's tragic vision of life.13 (The marriage and happy life of Thomasin and Venn in book 6 also disrupt what seems to have been Hardy's original scheme—to have their relationship parallel the Clym-Eustacia relationship of irreconcilable worlds. As Hardy writes in the 1912 footnote to the third chapter of book 6, Venn “was to have retained his isolated and weird character to the last, and to have disappeared mysteriously from the heath, nobody knowing whither—Thomasin remaining a widow.” That a parallel had been intended by Hardy is impossible to confirm; but it fits into Hardy's mechanistic early concepts of plotting and of contrasting sets of characters.)

To carry on the narrative after the principal action has ended is in itself enough to curtail much of the tragic effect. The adequacy of Clym for the role of tragic hero further depends upon the nature and scope of what he has learned; that is, whether his knowledge evokes an expanse of meaning beyond the applicability of the knowledge to his own individual condition. Such an expanse of meaning is not even remotely presented in book 6. Clym's realization and his subsequent actions, though full of psychological relevance in emphasizing his death wish and cementing his dedication to his mother, have only a deflating effect upon his tragic potential. In accepting guilt and in large part putting aside the justice/law dilemma, Clym makes a far from adequate response to the question of his undeserved immunity from legal punishment. Clym's half-insane guilt is already implicit in the last pages of book 5, but if Hardy had left the matter open by not dwelling in book 6 upon this sense of guilt, Clym might have retained some of the rich complexity essential for tragic characterization. Of course, that Clym mistakenly emphasizes his guilt instead of the guilt of the universe does not improve his tragic standing merely because the ambiguity of justice and law remains unresolved. That justice is not further explored by Clym in book 6 is important because it shows that he has been beaten down by his suffering rather than made aware by it.


  1. In later life he was proud of having adhered to these unities in The Return of the Native: see Early Life, p. 160; Later Years, p. 235. See also my “Unity of Time in The Return of the Native,N & Q, n.s. 12 (1965): 304-5.

  2. For a comprehensive study of the traditional qualities and allusions in The Return of the Native, see Paterson, “The ‘Poetics’ of The Return of the Native.

  3. John Paterson's exploration of revisions in the manuscript, esp. those affecting the characterizations of Clym, Eustacia, and Diggory Venn, shows that Hardy had too many, conflicting notions and, because he had not resolved them before he began to write, he had a hard time doing so during the writing itself. The Making of “The Return of the Native” (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1960).

  4. Previous readers have also defined their sense of conflicting sympathies and idea-systems in the novel. See esp. Paterson, “The ‘Poetics’ of The Return of the Native,” p. 215; Schweik, “Theme, Character, and Perspective in Hardy's The Return of the Native”; Robert W. Stallman, “Hardy's Hour-Glass Novel,” Sewanee Review 55 (1947): 283-96; and Beach, The Technique of Thomas Hardy, p. 80.

  5. An objection to my distinctions might be that Clym is as egoistic as Eustacia in his refusal to accede to her wishes to leave the heath. But the egoism and petty vanity of Eustacia's motivations do not correlate with the obstinacy and self-righteousness of Clym's. The very fact that they are unable to communicate to each other the simplest grounds for their individual determinations on this issue is an indication that they live and think on separate levels. An interesting essay whose insights are not fully developed, Richard Benvenuto's “Another Look at the Other Eustacia,” Novel 4 (1970): 77-79, argues that Eustacia's only morality is individualism.

  6. Whether Eustacia commits suicide or falls accidentally into the weir-pool is a perplexing issue for readers of Hardy. My assertion that she was a suicide is based on Hardy's “Sketch Map of the Scene of the Story,” facing the title page of vol. 1 (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1878), and upon a map plotting out the movements in the novel that I made before I saw Hardy's sketch. The most pertinent detail of the physical scene is that Eustacia's path from Mistover to the weir on the night of her death takes her across one road (and perhaps two; the road forks near the weir) just before she reaches the weir. Wildeve's coachlights should have been visible to her from this point in the road, and if she had been looking for Wildeve's coach she would have proceeded along the road instead of across it onto the meadow. Coupled with her last speeches of despair and her previous attempt to kill herself with her grandfather's pistols, these facts of the physical scene strike me as persuasive indications of suicide, though it is possible that in her distracted state of mind she did not notice the marked change in footing from the heath that a road would present. For a still more positive assertion that Eustacia was a suicide, see Ken Zellefrow, “The Return of the Native: Hardy's Map and Eustacia's Suicide,” NCF 28 (1973): 214-20. Bruce K. Martin, “Whatever Happened to Eustacia Vye?” Studies in the Novel 4 (1972): 619-27, summarizes other reasons to believe Eustacia was a suicide.

  7. John Holloway, The Victorian Sage: Studies in Argument (London: Macmillan, 1953), p. 6, correlates these passages with Clym's finding a higher wisdom.

  8. The best analysis of this general feeling is by Irving Howe, Thomas Hardy (New York: Macmillan, 1967), pp. 60-65. Howe accommodates the multiplicity of perspectives in the novel, acknowledging for example that Eustacia is “like a young goddess of sensuality” as well as a “young girl of petulant vanity” (p. 65), and that the original conception of Clym as “dominated by modern deracination and a hunger for some nameless purpose” is a “triumph,” but that Clym's actual presentation is “far too dim and recessive for the role Hardy assigns him” (p. 63). Robert Evans, “The Other Eustacia,” Novel 1 (1968): 251-59, follows essentially Howe's criticism of Eustacia. A different stand is taken by David Eggenschwiler, “Eustacia Vye, Queen of Night and Courtly Pretender,” NCF 25 (1971): 444-54; he believes that the split in the presentation of Eustacia is intentional, and that Eustacia is “both a genuinely tragic figure and a parody upon literary romanticism.”

  9. Thomas Hardy, p. 97.

  10. See also Leonard Deen, “Heroism and Pathos in Hardy's Return of the Native,NCF 15 (1960): 207-19.

  11. In context it is clear that Hardy is criticizing Eustacia's self-delusion; see M. A. Goldberg, “Hardy's Double-Visioned Universe,” EIC 7 (1957): 378-82. Yet Hardy's own view as a young man was not too distant from Eustacia's: “October 30th [1870]. Mother's notion (and also mine)—that a figure stands in our van with arm uplifted, to knock us back from any pleasant prospect we indulge in as probable.” Thomas Hardy's Notebooks, ed. Evelyn Hardy (London: Hogarth, 1955), p. 32.

  12. An opposing viewpoint is that of J. Hillis Miller, who in The Form of Victorian Fiction: Thackeray, Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot, Meredith, and Hardy (Notre Dame, Ind.; Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1968), rates Eustacia as the novel's only tragic actor because she gains “the detached vision of the futility of life which the narrator has had all along” (p. 117). Miller's point is appealing, since it implies that the novel finishes what it purportedly set out to do, and one would like to give in to one's own infatuation with and sympathy for Eustacia. But to make this point, Miller has to overlook the import of the frequent irony directed at Eustacia. Nor does he explain in what way Eustacia's ultimate “detached” vision, which allows her to “think what a sport for Heaven this woman Eustacia was,” differs from her earlier anticipation that “Fate” will play a “cruel satire” upon her (The Return of the Native, pp. 403, 243). It is Miller's view that Hardy's characters lack effective free will and thus are not to blame for their fates; see his review of Roy Morrell, Thomas Hardy: The Will and the Way, in VS 10 (1967): 280-82, and Morrell's rejoinder in VS 11 (1967): 119-21. Taken together, of course, Miller's views are consistent: if mankind lacks free will except as “part of the irresistible movement of matter in its purposeless changes through time” (VS 10: 281), Eustacia's obsession with hostile chimeras (“creatures of her mind”) is a justifiable response to her helplessness.

  13. For a discussion of the request by the editor of Belgravia that Hardy alter the ending of The Return of the Native, see Weber, Hardy of Wessex (1965), pp. 106-7.

Desmond Hawkins (review date 1978)

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SOURCE: Hawkins, Desmond. “‘By Truth Made Free’: A Reassessment of Thomas Hardy.” Contemporary Review 232 (1978): 209-12.

[In the following review, Hawkins comments on a biography of Hardy and new editions of his prose drama and collected letters.]

Fifty years ago Thomas Hardy died—a fact of which ignorance is barely excusable in view of the flood of books, articles and programmes on television and radio that commemorate the occasion. So firmly is he now established among the great masters of our literature that even his extreme sensitivity to criticism would surely be disarmed by the general acclaim. Nor has his reputation had to pass through that trough of neglect and indifference which sometimes marks the first decades after death and before a later discovery. In the years since 1928 he has been extensively read and closely studied. To speak of him as a figure of worldwide significance is no exaggeration: a recent tour of universities in America, Japan, Singapore and India left me in no doubt of that. Wherever English is understood the conversation turns easily enough to the topics of Tess and Jude, of the Immanent Will and the spellbinding poems, the many ironies and the sheer magic of this man who might have seemed so narrowly provincial in his Wessex fastness.

The sheer weight and diversity of his achievement are not the least of his qualities. Other poets have written novels, other novelists have written poems, but very few are they who could claim an equal eminence for either side of their talent. One thinks of D. H. Lawrence, George Meredith perhaps—and who else? Moreover, to Hardy's prose fiction and his poetry must be added that formidable nonesuch, The Dynasts. Perhaps the secret of the steady esteem that he has enjoyed lies in the fact that it can accommodate, at different times, a shifting of emphasis from one genre to another; so that it is his novels which are most prized for a while until critical interest begins to transfer itself to his poetry, or vice versa. In his admirable introduction to The Dynasts, in the final volume of the New Wessex edition, Harold Orel claims that this epic drama has been praised and appreciated more generously ‘in recent years, and particularly since the Second World War’. It is a claim which suggests the interesting possibility of a divergence between American and British readers: the preponderantly American interest reflected in Professor Orel's bibliography lends colour to that. In Britain, The Dynasts has certainly not retained the pre-eminence it enjoyed during and immediately after the First World War in the minds of the young writers of that time. In more recent years English criticism has tended to confine itself to a respectful nod before turning to more engrossing examples of Hardy's genius.

An anniversary is an occasion for reassessment, partly to make the essential adjustments to the needs of a new generation of readers and partly to incorporate the new knowledge and fresh material that scholars and editors are able to contribute. With the New Wessex Edition, Hardy's publishers have aimed to supply the prime requirement—a definitive text in a uniform format worthy of the subject. To this enterprise Professor Orel's scholarly volume comes as a fitting conclusion. Two other recent publications promise to fill what might be considered surprising gaps after fifty years of academic endeavour. Although Hardy is a highly personal writer, and a most enigmatic character, the elementary tools of critical analysis have come to hand only in a tardy, fragmentary and sometime bizarre way. One looked in vain for the comprehensive factual reassurance of a collected correspondence and a definitive biography. In their place was principally the weird, fascinating and partial record of the third-person autobiography that Hardy prepared to usurp the role of the traditional ‘Life & Letters’. Its authorship ascribed to his widow, The Life of Thomas Hardy is indeed an invaluable source of biographical information, but its ambiguous aim is to combine revelation and concealment, to illuminate and to obscure impartially in the pursuit of a plausible but misleading impression.

There will therefore be a more than normally cordial welcome for the first volume of a projected seven volume set of Hardy's collected letters: and for the second and concluding volume of Robert Gittings's remarkably penetrating biography. These are works which offer the solid documentary validity that so much writing about Hardy hitherto has lacked, or has achieved only fitfully and in part. There have been exceptions of course—most notably perhaps the bibliographical study originally published in 1954 by R. L. Purdy—but in general it is the case that a dependable body of knowledge has had to be assembled piecemeal, from many sources, and often by trial and error.

Professor Purdy now increases our debt to him immeasurably by the first fruits of what he must regard as his life work. In partnership with Michael Millgate he has launched the long awaited Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, covering the first 52 years of Hardy's life in the opening volume. The text is prepared with immaculate scholarship, the explanatory notes are cogent and concise, and it is no fault of the editors that the initial response to these letters may be tinged with disappointment. The period of his early manhood up to his thirtieth year, when he met his first wife, is one to which readers will turn with particular eagerness: they will find that ten pages cover the decade of the 1860s and yield letters only to his sister Mary and to publishers. In subsequent years it is again the automatic preservation in publishers' files that yields the major bulk of Hardy's letter-writing. The years of increasing fame bring a greater variety to the correspondence, but it is still very much Hardy the busy author who presents himself. When he wrote letters he assumed his self-protective public persona, in which there was no place for any affectionate impulsiveness or unchecked warmth of feeling. Even his banalities affect a sort of olympian detachment.

What this correspondence will provide is a firmly constructed context for all future biographers, and a store of unconsciously self-revealing touches—minute in themselves, but in aggregate a real compensation for the absence of more spectacular novelties. Rightly the editors point out that ‘Hardy's profound reserve—rooted in his personality, his upbringing, his class consciousness, his sense of professional decorum—made him, and makes him still, one of the most elusive of literary figures’. In these letters we see him as the indefatigable author claiming ‘I never forget an editor's offer’; as the pretender to social grandeur referring to Max Gate, the house he designed for himself, as ‘only a cottage in the country which I use for writing in’; and as the returned native who found life in Dorchester to be ‘lonely and cottage-like’ and who had no sooner returned from a visit to Italy than he was ‘quite frantic to go off again’.

In pursuit of the elusive, Robert Gittings has already demonstrated his pertinacity. In Young Thomas Hardy he scraped away many of the lichens and mosses of false legend and added an illumination derived from his own thorough research. Now The Older Hardy completes what must be hailed as one of the finest biographies of recent years. Three features in particular lend it distinction. The first and most apparent is that Mr. Gittings is himself a poet and writer of quality: where so much academic writing about Hardy seems to have been committed to paper with an inky broomstick, it is a delight to read such a poised and supple narrative. Secondly he has assembled so much relevant material that has either lain undiscovered or has been disregarded or imperfectly interpreted. And then above all he has drawn his principal portraits with humanity and compassion, so that we find ourselves in the company not of historical waxworks or portentous monsters but of human beings whose virtues and failings are alike within our personal gamut of recognition.

Of Hardy himself, Mr. Gittings says that he ‘seems to have spent scarcely a single day when he did not have a pen in hand’. If this obsessive devotion to his chosen craft accounts for the scale of his success it must also have had a corrosive effect on his two marriages, although both Emma and Florence accepted readily enough the thankless role of literary assistant. To hold the balance fairly in this triangular relationship has never been easy. Over the years it is Emma who has tended to be the loser: happily Mr. Gittings has the delicacy of judgment to do justice to her without feeling obliged to balance the account by denigrating Florence. When Hardy eventually paid his tribute to these ‘two bright-souled women’ it was no more than their due.

The further requirement of a biography of this kind is that it should direct itself to the links that connect the personal life with the works which alone justify our prying into that personal life. Here Mr. Gittings is at his best, particularly in his conviction that Hardy's ‘greatest inspiration came from his family and the dark rural history of his race’. It is in this area that his research makes its most striking contribution, in the gallery of miniature portraits of grandparents, uncles, cousins, aunts—the tribal ancestry that fused its individual details in the broader stream of folk balladry and legend that gives to so much of Hardy's writing its specific tone.

With the suggestion, for example, that the character of Tess derives from the experience of Hardy's grandmother, Mary Head, Mr. Gittings then discusses the transmutation of the bare, grim facts into what he describes as ‘an epic in seven books, an Odyssey or an Aeneid, with Tess's journeys to each part of Hardy's Wessex forming a new emotional stage. The outward scenes are linked with Tess's inward development in a way which is more poetry than prose. … Every part is planned as a poem’.

This accords strikingly with the general picture of Hardy that seems to emerge as we look back from our vantage point, fifty years after his death, to recognise with increasing clarity that the two great transitional figures straddling the turn of the century—Hardy and Yeats—both come, in their very different ways, at the end of a powerful folk tradition and make it articulate. Certainly in Hardy one is conscious of the rhythmic storytelling, the traditional blending of music and poetry, the high solemnity of omens and rituals, the love of supernatural and outlandish events, and the broad coarse-grained humour that characterised the old balladry and hearthside storytelling of the Wessex villages. In reminiscent mood he once recalled one of the old Mellstock fiddlers ‘who speaks neither truth nor lies, but a sort of Not Proven compound which is very relishable’: it is in that tradition that Hardy has similarly come to be regarded as very relishable. The implausible and clumsy moments in the novels are less obtrusive, seen in this light. The doggerel put into the mouth of, for example, the Duke of Wellington in The Dynasts becomes acceptable if we relate it to the language of the Christmas mummers and imagine his speech prefaced with the hallowed words ‘Here come I, the English Knight’.

The Older Hardy shows us, more clearly perhaps than ever before, the importance of this tap-root in his work. It in no way lessens his achievement to record that his raw material was ordinary enough. His was the unique metabolism that transformed it. His was the vision that turned what he called ‘these imperfect little dramas of country life and passions’ into a great theatre of the imagination.


The Dynasts. Thomas Hardy, edited by Harold Orel. Macmillan (New Wessex Edition).

The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, Volume 1 (1840-1892), edited by Richard Little Purdy and Michael Millgate. Oxford, Clarendon Press.

The Older Hardy. Robert Gittings. Heinemann.

Norman Page (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: Page, Norman. “Hardy and the ‘world of little things.’” Thomas Hardy Annual 5 (1987): 119-36.

[In the following essay, Page discusses several ways in which Hardy uses everyday objects to create meaning in his fiction.]

Comfort, in the sense of physical well-being that it now normally carries, as when we speak of the comfort offered by an armchair, is a relatively modern usage. For Jane Austen, for example, who tends to be conservative and backward-looking in matters of semantics, the word often carries emotional and moral rather than physical associations: in Mansfield Park she can speak of ‘comfortable hopes’ and make Lady Bertram say that she will be ‘comfortable’ now that Fanny has returned to give her support and consolation. The shift of emphasis from the mental to the physical reminds us that the material circumstances of daily existence in the western world have improved immeasurably in the last two or three centuries, and, conversely, that the lives of our more remote ancestors were passed in domestic surroundings which, except for the very wealthy, were of an austerity we should now find barely tolerable. To quote the historian J. H. Plumb, ‘the growing wealth and security of the gentry and pseudo gentry after 1700 led them to indulge a passion for things …’;1 the bareness of earlier interiors gave way to homes and rooms filled with material evidence of the affluence and stability of the better times that had come.

It can hardly be a coincidence that the same period saw the rise in England of the novel, that literary form which most fully and circumstantially presents man in his social and domestic context; and the heyday of the novel of high realism in the Victorian age corresponds to a period of unprecedented lavishness in the stocking of the bourgeois home and the surrounding of daily experience with objects. The fully-furnished fiction of that period reflects a ‘passion for things’ that was also indulged, as the new art of photography duly recorded, in thousands of parlours and bedrooms.

In this, as in so many respects, Dickens wrote (in Bagehot's splendid phrase) like a ‘special correspondent for posterity’; and one of Dickens's favourite descriptive devices is the inventory, the cataloguing of items of the kind that Wemmick in Great Expectations designates ‘portable property’. In Bleak House, a ‘best parlour’, glimpsed once and once only, is seen with the comprehensive auctioneer's eye (the actor Macready once called it a ‘clutching eye’) that Dickens is apt to bring to any interior:

a neat carpeted room, with more plants in it than were quite convenient, a coloured print of Queen Caroline, several shells, a good many tea-trays, two stuffed and dried fish in glass cases, and either a curious egg or a curious pumpkin … hanging from the ceiling.

(ch. 37)

In the disorderly Jellyby ménage in the same novel, Dickens's passion for itemizing runs rampant: when the cupboards are opened, there tumbles out a phantasmagoria of objects, including bottles, caps, letters, forks, firewood, saucepan-lids, footstools, bonnets, books, dinner-mats, gloves and umbrellas (ch. 30). Such abundance of detail may sometimes be given to the reader out of Dickens's creative hyperactivity, but there is also a sense in which he placed faithfully on record an aspect of his age. Thanks to new methods of production, there were more objects in the settings of daily life than ever before, and no Dickensian description is more cluttered than some of the interiors that dazzle our eyes and confuse our minds as we examine Victorian photographs.

To turn from Dickens back to Jane Austen is to see that detail of this kind can be used very much more sparingly in the nineteenth-century novel, and, when it is used, can serve highly significant purposes. The pianoforte that arrives for Jane Fairfax in Emma, and the cross and chain that cause Fanny such heartsearching in Mansfield Park, are instances of objects introduced not merely in order to imitate the density of a mode of civilized existence in which the human body found innumerable extensions of itself in material objects. When Jane Austen invokes an object she has something more than mimetic ends in view. (Compare Fanny's cross and chain with the lockets worn by Miss Tox in Dombey and Son—objects that are gratuitous rather than functional.) And this difference between two novelists is not produced simply by the less cluttered tastes of the Georgian and Regency periods: it proceeds from a different conception of the role that objects can be called upon to play in the world created by a work of fiction.

These familiar examples suggest that different novelists make very varied use—varied in frequency and in kind—of references to material objects. Where does Hardy stand in this matter? He writes, of course, not of a single social class but of a society that in the entire range of his fiction includes rural labourers and their employers, professional men and the leisured classes; so it will not be surprising, insofar as his descriptions reflect the real world, to find some variation in practice. But there is, I think, a marked idiosyncrasy in his use of material objects, and in this respect he can be distinguished from other Victorian novelists who were his contemporaries or immediate predecessors. I have cited Dickens and Jane Austen as conveniently exemplifying a wide spectrum of possibilities. The example relevant to Hardy, however, is that of George Eliot, especially in Adam Bede. The suspicion on the part of one reviewer that she might be the author of Far From the Madding Crowd was not entirely absurd, though that novel would surely have been a distinctly odd successor to Middlemarch; and one may stand the notion on its head and suggest that certain passages in Adam Bede might almost have been written by Hardy himself. I am thinking especially of the well-known ‘Dutch paintings’ analogy in Chapter 17, and of related passages elsewhere in the same novel.

George Eliot praises there the ‘faithful pictures of a monotonous homely existence’ provided by the Dutch artists—for instance, ‘an old woman bending over her flower-pot or eating her solitary dinner, while the noonday light … falls on her mob-cap, and just touches the rim of her spinning-wheel, and her stone jug, and all those cheap common things which are the precious necessaries of life to her’. George Eliot continues:

All honour and reverence to the divine beauty of form: Let us cultivate it to the utmost in men, women and children—in our gardens and in our houses. But let us love that other beauty too, which lies in no secret of proportion but in the secret of deep human sympathy.

Hardy was expressing a very similar idea when he wrote in his diary that ‘the beauty of association is entirely superior to the beauty of aspect, and a beloved relative's old battered tankard to the finest Greek vase’.2 Elsewhere in Adam Bede, George Eliot returns to the same theme: ‘The secret of our emotions’, she writes in Chapter 18, ‘never lies in the bare object, but in its subtle relations to our own past: no wonder the secret escapes the unsympathising observer, who might as well put on his spectacles to discern odours.’ Less abstractly, we are made to feel the difference between Adam's mother, who is preoccupied with ‘little things’ such as her ‘blue-edged platters’, and Hetty, who has ‘no feeling at all towards the old house’ (chs 20, 25). The old woman's world may be drastically circumscribed, and the Westminster Review is never likely to swim into her ken; but the quality of her feelings demands our admiration, as Hetty's detachment from and indifference to the past prompt our misgivings.

All of this Hardy would have heartily subscribed to, and did indeed subscribe to in his creative practice. His imagination works actively in the mental space between an abstraction and its everyday embodiment, moving freely in both directions; and this faculty enables him both to be on familiar terms with the past and to make it part of the living present. His interest in ghosts has often been noted; and a haunting is a simple if dramatic example of the past becoming vividly and concretely present. But he needs no ghost from the grave to set his imagination working: the most humdrum object will serve his purpose. In the ‘personal notebooks’ he records that his grandfather carried on smuggling in a small way in the opening years of the nineteenth century; wooden tubs were used to hold the spirits, and (he writes) ‘I remember one of them which had been turned into a bucket by knocking out one head, & putting a handle.’3 The same tubs turn up again in the preface to Wessex Tales, where he comments, in a manner that suggests the oral historian rather than the writer of fiction, ‘my informant often spoke … of the horribly suffocating sensation produced by the pair of spirit-tubs slung upon the chest and back, after stumbling with the burden of them for several miles inland over a rough country and in darkness’. Hardy is able not only to write but to relive family history, and by extension part of the history of an epoch, through the associative power of a wooden bucket.

It is possible, I think, to distinguish at least four ways in which he makes use in his writings of the daily world of solid objects. The first, and the closest to the mainstream of English fictional tradition, is mimetic in purpose: the novelist names, perhaps with a certain arbitrariness, items in the imagined surroundings inhabited by his characters, including the clothes they wear. In a famous passage in her essay ‘Modern Fiction’, Virginia Woolf attacked the kind of novel whose characters are dressed, down to the last button, according to the fashion of the day; but most Victorian novelists, and indeed their Edwardian successors, showed no lack of faith in the power of the button and spared no pains in depicting it. At the beginning of his career, Hardy conscientiously practised the art of enumerative description. Take, for example, the account of Grandfather James in Under the Greenwood Tree:

… his stooping figure formed a well-illuminated picture as he passed towards the fire-place. Being by trade a mason, he wore a long linen apron reaching almost to his toes, corduroy breeches and gaiters, which, together with his boots, graduated in tints of whitish-brown by constant friction against lime and stone. He also wore a very stiff fustian coat, having folds at the elbows and shoulders as unvarying in their arrangement as those in a pair of bellows; the ridges and the projecting parts of the coat collectively exhibiting a shade different from that of the hollows, which were lined with small ditch-like accumulations of stone and mortardust. The extremely large side-pockets, sheltered beneath wide flaps, bulged out convexly …

and so on (ch. 3). We learn that Grandfather James, who must take his meals where he may, carries sugar, tea, salt and pepper on his person, as well as stowing bread, cheese and meat among the hammers and chisels which are the tools of his trade. We seem to have here a less feverishly compulsive, more leisured and affectionate, but still recognizable version of the Dickensian catalogue: Grandfather James acquires solidity through the material objects that attach to his person, or such at least seems to be Hardy's aim. At the same time, the rendering of the topography of the old man's appearance—the description of his coat, for instance, as if it were a landscape scarred by time—is unmistakably Hardyan.

As his technique develops, however, Hardy comes to abandon the catalogue or inventory as a means of evoking the physical world. We find him very strikingly declining an obvious invitation of this kind, twenty years after Under the Greenwood Tree, in chapter 52 of Tess of the d'Urbervilles. When the Durbeyfield household goods are moved on Lady Day to Kingsbere, Hardy, as always, finds the imagined spectacle of uprooted household objects deeply touching; but so far from enumerating, as Dickens would surely have done, he singles out just one object for mention, ‘the cooking pot swinging from the axle of the waggon’. And even this is not an example of ‘pure’ description, for the cooking-pot, which belongs to the hearth and the very centre of settled family life, undergoes something especially grotesque and pathetic in its displacement. So far from giving us items from the material world with the appearance of randomness or gratuitousness, Hardy cinematically selects an image of special and even unique power, and allows no rival to diminish its effect. At such moments Hardy looks forward to twentieth-century fiction—to comparable passages in, for example, Sons and Lovers and Dubliners.

Elsewhere in Tess [Tess of the d'Urbervilles], other objects are mentioned not for themselves but for what may without undue pretentiousness be called their symbolic potency: Alec's cigar, Tess's boots, the strawberry Alec takes from a hot-house and forces between her lips, the bloodstain on the lodging-house ceiling, and many others. In Jude the Obscure, the world of objects plays a special role in relation to the theme of what Hardy in his preface calls ‘the war waged between flesh and spirit’. The pig's pizzle is the most celebrated, or notorious, instance: ‘it had been no vestal who chose that missile’, Hardy writes, and it was no merely realistic novelist who inaugurated a courtship with what he rather oddly calls ‘the characteristic part of a barrow-pig’. The pattern of subsequent references to black puddings, pork, chitterlings and sausages—a vegetarian's nightmare—serves to underline Arabella's carnality in contrast to elements in the natures of Jude and Sue; each allusion is justified in its context by the requirements of realism, but nevertheless there is an overriding pattern of recurrent images. Later in the novel, Jude makes and sells ‘Christminster cakes’, gingerbread models of the colleges; and even Arabella, whom one would not have suspected of having a quick eye for emblematic devices, does not fail to grasp that they are sad symbols of his baffled aspirations.

Hardy's last novel is full of objects, from the schoolmaster's piano and the village well that Jude looks down in the opening chapter to the shabby books that look down on him as he lies dead on the final page. But they are rarely if ever objects named simply for their own sake: it is their suggestive power that earns them a mention, and their purpose is not, or not mainly, local and specific but is usually related to the larger purposes of the novel. By this stage in his career Hardy seems almost incapable of seeing things in themselves and for themselves. To quote, in order to adapt, a famous comment by T. S. Eliot:

In consequence of his self-absorption, he makes a great deal of landscape; for landscape is a passive creature, which lends itself to an author's moods. Landscape is fitted, too, for the purposes of an author who is interested not at all in men's minds, but only in their emotions, and perhaps only in men as vehicles for emotion.

What Eliot says of landscape is worth pondering in relation to Hardy's use of material objects, passive creatures that lend themselves to the mood of author and character.

Necessarily, my remarks on this first category of fictional objects, those existing to furnish the world of the novel and to fill its empty spaces with the reassuringly familiar and the readily informative, have drifted into the discussion of a second category: since that is the way in which Hardy's own practice developed, it is not inappropriate that analysis should proceed in this way. That second category may be summed up in a phrase from one of Vladimir Nabokov's late novels: ‘transparent things, through which the past shines’. Hardy wrote in 1919 that ‘the characteristic of all great poetry [is] the general perfectly reduced to the particular’.4 In his novels he had long before implemented this aesthetic principle, using homely objects to suggest a whole mode of existence and the qualities associated with it. In the conditions of rural life, these objects acquire added force from their sparseness as well as from their permanence: things last longer than men, and speak from one generation to another; and if the objects in a Dickensian scene shout at us in an excited chorus, in Hardy they are more likely to speak singly in a quiet but unignorable voice. Even in the transient world of furnished lodgings encountered briefly in Tess and more extensively in Jude [Jude the Obscure,], where Hardy seems closer to Gissing than to George Eliot, an occasional object makes itself heard, like the dog-earned classical texts already mentioned: it was not only in a churchyard that Hardy could hear ‘voices’.

In the scenes of rural life, however, common objects take on a force that, again, reminds us of the seventeenth-century Dutch painters. In his own ‘Rural Painting of the Dutch School’ (the subtitle of Under the Greenwood Tree), Hardy identifies the ‘large nail, used solely and constantly as a peg for Geoffrey's hat’ in the course of his description of the gamekeeper's cottage. ‘Solely and constantly’ is a phrase that carries due weight: it is not for nothing that the phrase ‘to hang one's hat’ has acquired proverbial status, and Hardy is very good at evoking a way of life in which objects and routines trivial in themselves become endeared, and hence important, through long habit. As in the poems written after Emma's death, the trivial can in retrospect become of overwhelming importance. In this way man is able to escape the bondage of the present and to make the past part of his living experience. Dickens makes the same point towards the end of David Copperfield, which of all his novels is the one most deeply concerned with the past. Peggotty, the only surviving link with David's early childhood, is seen with ‘the old … workbox, yard-measure, and bit of wax-candle …, that had now outlived so much’ (ch. 56), and clearly for the hero-narrator these commonplace objects have a special potency and poignancy.

Moreover, the past can extend beyond the individual life to include dead users of an object who still seem to touch it with long-practised ghostly fingers, as in Hardy's fine poem ‘Old Furniture’:

I see the hands of the generations
          That owned each shiny familiar thing
In play on its knobs and indentations,
          And with its ancient fashioning
                    Still dallying:
Hand behind hands, growing paler and paler …

In another poem, the odd and highly characteristic ‘On an Invitation to Visit the United States’, he states as a reason for wishing to stay in England (which, unlike America, is full of the dead—‘scored with prints of perished hands’) that he can there

Give past exemplars present room,
And their experience count as mine.

Hardy longed to see a ghost and did not leave it entirely to chance: he was addicted to revisiting, most famously in the Cornish pilgrimage after Emma's death, and as late as 1924, in his mid-eighties, he went (as he recorded in his notebook) ‘In car with F[lorence] to the barn at the back of Kingston Maurward old manor house, where as a child I heard the village young women sing the ballads.’5

But one of the main uses of ‘little things’ in Hardy's fiction is to show not continuity but disruption. Long before his time, agrarian and economic upheaval had established this as a notable poetic theme. Wordsworth's Michael offers a well-known instance and in its earlier portions evokes a way of life in which a few familiar objects endow life with a comforting sense of permanence, while its closing lines record unsentimentally their vanishing. John Clare spoke for the uprooted in more personal accents:

Dear native spot: which length of time endears …
Nay, e'en a post, old standard, or a stone
Moss'd o'er by age, and branded as her own
Would in my mind a strong attachment gain,
A fond desire that they might there remain;
And all old favourites, fond taste approves,
Griev'd me at heart to witness their removes.(6)

The ‘strong attachment’ to common objects imposed by ‘length of years’ is a favourite Hardyan theme, and he finds a source of powerful feelings in witnessing their ‘removes’. The felling of a tree which brings about a man's death in The Woodlanders aptly dramatizes the spiritual effects of such ruptures of memory and association. In this and other respects, Jude the Obscure represents an extreme development of a motif that recurs almost throughout Hardy's work. Its wistful opening chapter is a record of change in the village and the destruction of a historical past that is also the personal past of its inhabitants—demolished houses, felled trees (again), ‘obliterated graves’ now ‘commemorated by eighteenpenny cast-iron crosses warranted to last five years’.

Sometimes, however, the force of change—what Hardy in The Return of the Native calls ‘the irrepressible New’—works the other way round: people change, objects remain unchanged, and the collision of the two is pathetic or ironic. In The Woodlanders (ch. 6), Grace Melbury returns from boarding school to find her old home the same and yet irretrievably different:

When dinner was over Grace took a candle and began to ramble pleasurably through the rooms of her old home, from which she had latterly become well-nigh an alien. Each nook and each object revived a memory, and simultaneously modified it. The chambers seemed lower than they had appeared on any previous occasion of her return, the surfaces of both walls and ceilings standing in such near relations to the eye that it could not avoid taking microscopic note of their irregularities and old fashion. Her own bedroom wore at once a look more familiar than when she had left it, and yet a face estranged. The world of little things therein gazed at her in helpless stationariness, as though they had tried and been unable to make any progress without her presence. Over the place where her candle had been accustomed to stand, when she had used to read in bed till the midnight hour, there was still the brown spot of smoke. She did not know that her father had taken especial care to keep it from being cleaned off.

In this passage Hardy seems to be exposing some of his own most intimate feelings; and, as if to confirm this, the next paragraph makes an abrupt movement of withdrawal: the quiet, unaffected voice of feeling in the passage I have quoted is replaced by one that is stiffly formal and continues, absurdly, ‘having concluded her perambulation of this now uselessly commodious edifice …’. Grace sees things not for themselves, as a stranger might, but for their place in her life; and there is a subtle complexity in the interplay between observation and memory: ‘Each nook and each object revived a memory, and simultaneously modified it.’ The pathetic fallacy is characteristic: ‘the world of little things’ gazing ‘in helpless stationariness’ is echoed in ‘After the Last Breath’, the touching poem Hardy wrote just after his mother had died, where he writes that in the uncleared sickroom

The lettered vessels of medicaments
Seem asking wherefore we have set them here;
Each palliative its silly face presents
          As useless gear.

And there is, of course, irony in Mr Melbury's well-meant effort to preserve the past unchanged: the change is in Grace herself, the past (as Hardy says elsewhere) ‘past recall’. The ‘brown spot of smoke’ and other familiar signs belong to a way of life she has already lost or renounced.

This example from The Woodlanders, somewhat akin perhaps to a Joycean epiphany, has something in common with the next category I want to propose, in which an object is associated with a moment of intense feeling or a state of mind abnormally heightened. This category of fictional moment can be illustrated by quitting Hardy for long enough to recall a fine passage in Conrad's ‘Typhoon’. Captain MacWhirr, we have learned in the story's opening sentence, is an unremarkable man, ‘ordinary, irresponsive, and unruffled’. But fate subjects him to experiences that make unprecedented demands upon his undeveloped imagination, and Conrad shows that it is, paradoxically, only through the familiar ‘world of little things’ that a realization of the immense power of the typhoon comes home to him. When he returns to the chart-room, he finds it in disorder and notices that

his water-bottle and the two tumblers had been flung out of their stand. It seemed to give him a more intimate knowledge of the tossing the ship had gone through. … And his table had been cleared, too: his rulers, his pencils, the inkstand—all the things that had their safe appointed places—they were gone, as if a mischievous hand had plucked them out one by one and flung them on the wet floor. The hurricane had broken in upon the orderly arrangements of his privacy. This had never happened before, and the feeling of dismay reached the very seat of his composure.

A moment later, it is a box of matches that enables MacWhirr to apprehend the possibility of his own death: by (literally) grasping the matches in order to replace them on their appointed shelf he grasps an idea hitherto beyond his speculative powers:

… before he removed his hand it occurred to him that perhaps he would never have occasion to use that box any more. The vividness of the thought checked him and for an infinitesimal fraction of a second his fingers closed again on the small object as though it had been the symbol of all these little habits that chain us to the weary round of life.

‘Little things’ and ‘little habits’ that in normal circumstances provide the reassuring sense of an orderly world subject to human control: these are the instruments by which is brought home to MacWhirr an awareness of calamity beyond imagination. Hardy's characters encounter no typhoons: their ordeals are on a more intimate, local and domestic scale. But he was no less aware than Conrad of the importance of ‘all these little habits that chain us to the … round of life’, as well as of the way in which common objects can assume roles of great potency when the mind and feelings are assailed by exceptional experiences.

There is a good example of the latter when Gabriel Oak awaits Bathsheba's reply to his proposal of marriage: during the long moment that will determine the course of his future life, ‘he regarded the red berries between them over and over again, to such an extent that holly seemed in his after life to be a cypher signifying a proposal of marriage’ (Far From the Madding Crowd, ch. 4). Hardy here goes beyond the simple notion that the common holly berries acquired for Gabriel an almost hallucinatory power during that brief momentous passage of experience: he shows that the association, the chance yoking of two unrelated areas of experience, became a permanent part of Gabriel's mental world. Hardy's term ‘cypher’, less familiar than Conrad's ‘symbol’ (the matchbox is a ‘symbol of all these little habits’), seems to be used in the sense of ‘symbolic character’ or ‘hieroglyph’ (though the OED gives no instance of the word in this sense later than the seventeenth century), or perhaps in the sense of ‘secret code’. There are also more profound differences between the two passages: the Hardyan principle is metaphoric, the Conradian metonymic; and while for Captain MacWhirr the matchbox represents a homely summation of the long process of living, for Gabriel the holly berries stand not at the end but at the beginning of a sequence of experience, and he sees them as if seeing them for the first time.

Far From the Madding Crowd is a novel exceptionally rich in simple objects that take on a hightened significance: Bathsheba's Valentine, Troy's sword, the ‘gurgoyle’ that pours its stream on Fanny's grave, the women's clothes found, disturbingly, in Boldwood's cupboards, are some of the most memorable examples. I would like, however, to spend a little longer on Gabriel's holly berries, because they will serve to remind us of an aspect of Hardy's art highly relevant to the present topic but too large to receive more than a mention. I have in mind the relationship of his fiction, and indeed his whole characteristic mode of perception, to the visual arts and especially to certain schools of Victorian painting. Carol Christ has reminded us that the connection between sharply observed detail and abnormal states of consciousness is important in Victorian aesthetics. The minor Pre-Raphaelite painter James Smetham wrote that the stanzas about the shell in Tennyson's Maud depict faithfully ‘an unvarying condition of a mind in anguish, viz., to be riveted and fascinated by very little things’.7 Tennyson's exiled hero finds his attention distracted from his huge despair by a tiny object lying at his feet; the poet's own gloss on this passage explicates the symbolic function of ‘the shell undestroyed amid the storm’. Discussing Holman Hunt's ‘The Awakened Conscience’, Ruskin made a point very similar to Smetham's:

Nothing is more notable than the way in which even the most trivial objects force themselves upon the attention of a mind which has been fevered by violent or distressful excitement. They thrust themselves forward with a ghastly and unendurable distinctness, as if they would compel the sufferer to count, or measure, or learn them by heart.8

Victorian narrative paintings are full of common objects depicted with photographic exactness, and very frequently they are given poignancy by their presence at some event of crucial importance to human lives. One recalls the row of cabbages hung from the side of the boat in Ford Madox Brown's ‘The Last of England’, and Brown himself spoke of ‘the minuteness of detail’ in his painting as ‘bringing the pathos of the subject home to the beholder’.9 In his own strongly visual fiction—and not only in his fiction, for again such examples as the medicine bottles in ‘After the Last Breath’ come to mind—Hardy shows that he has absorbed the lessons of these Victorian painters and explored ways of transposing them into the sister art of literature. There is an interesting parallel to Gabriel Oak's holly-berries in a familiar Pre-Raphaelite poem, D. G. Rossetti's ‘The Woodspurge’:

From perfect grief there need not be
Wisdom or even memory;
One thing then learned remains to me—
The woodspurge has a cup of three.

The passage quoted earlier from Conrad's ‘Typhoon’ in fact illustrates not one but two uses of common objects, and it is worth distinguishing them carefully. In one case the object is associated with a moment of special intensity, in the other it is perceived differently as a result of powerful feelings unrelated to it but proceeding from some exterior cause. In both cases the presence of the object is in a sense random or accidental; and yet, as with Tennyson's shell, the mind has instinctively seized upon an object that possesses symbolic appropriateness. The second of these uses is powerfully exemplified by a passage in Tess of the d'Urbervilles. ‘Phase the Fifth—The Woman Pays’ opens with Tess having just concluded her confession to Angel. Hardy then turns from his heroine to her immediate surroundings, and shows how Tess's confession has transformed for her not only the human situation but the external world:

… the complexion even of external things seemed to suffer transmutation as her announcement progressed. The fire in the grate looked impish—demoniacally funny, as if it did not care in the least about her strait. The fender grinned idly, as if it too did not care. The light from the water-bottle was merely engaged in a chromatic problem. All material objects around announced their irresponsibility with terrible iteration. And yet nothing had changed since the moments when he had been kissing her; or rather, nothing in the substance of things. But the essence of things had changed.

Everything had changed, yet nothing had changed, says Hardy; but his resolution of this paradox seems only to make it more puzzling. ‘The substance of things’ was unchanged, and presumably this refers to the world of fenders, water-bottles, and other such objects; but the ‘essence of things’ has changed, and this must mean the consciousness of Tess and Angel, including their awareness of the world of objects. There is, it seems, a curious shift in this passage from verbs that concede that we modify the appearances of objects according to our own mental states (‘seemed’, ‘looked’) to verbs that imply at any rate figuratively that these objects possess some Dickensian autonomy (‘grinned’, ‘engaged’, ‘announced’). There is something puzzlingly tautological about Hardy's use of the pathetic fallacy: the fire looks ‘as if it did not care in the least about her strait’—but then whoever in his senses supposed that it did? Hardy feels constrained to tell us it might have cared in order to insist on its indifference, to indulge in the pathetic fallacy only in order to reject it in favour of the apathetic truism. The impish or demon-like quality is a projection of a human observer upon inanimate objects, though on the question whether that observer is Tess or Angel or the narrator Hardy does not unambiguously commit herself. Still, it is characteristic of his commitment to the potency of common objects that he should find it worth saying that the fender ‘did not care’ about Tess's plight; and one wonders whether there is any other Victorian novelist who could have written that startling sentence about the ‘light from the water-bottle … engaged in a chromatic problem’.

The passage from Tess is more briefly paralleled in Jude the Obscure: when Jude returns to his room, and his abandoned studies, after an outing with Arabella, ‘a general consciousness of his neglect seemed written on the face of all things confronting him’. There is also a striking passage in The Woodlanders (ch. 24), when Grace goes out of doors very early in the morning (as Tess was also later to do):

The tree-trunks, the road, the out-buildings, the garden, every object, wore that aspect of mesmeric passivity which the quietude of daybreak lends to such scenes. Helpless immobility seemed to be combined with intense consciousness; a meditative inertness possessed all things, oppressively contrasting with her own active emotions.

The commonplace world seems enchanted: again we notice that curious Hardyan registering of surprise at the ‘passivity’ and ‘immobility’ of the world of objects. In all three of these passages, that world is conveyed through the consciousness of a protagonist—Tess, Jude, Grace—at a moment of special significance.

A. J. Guerard has suggested that Hardy wanted to avoid ‘the banality of exact observation’,10 and nearly everything I have said on this subject bears out his suggestion. Hardy was a man ‘who used to notice’ things, but in the imaginative world of his fiction and poetry he is habitually engaged in something more idiosyncratic than a cataloguing of the multiplicity of the material world. In the ways I have sketched, and no doubt in others, he shows the intimate relationship existing between man and the objects that surround him: a relationship not fixed and stable but apt to be modified by present experience as surely as it involves a past that is also continuously present.

Hardy's mother, Jemima Hardy, we are told, was ‘a woman with an extraordinary store of local memories’.11 For all her son's ambitious efforts to desert the local for the metropolitan and to exchange a world of objects for a world of ideas, the ‘world of little things’ retained a permanent hold on his imagination; and it was one of the not-so-little ironies of his life that he wrote most movingly and memorably when he put aside his hard-won learning and uneasily-worn social savoir-faire and unashamedly indulged a sensibility that apprehended both present and past through common objects. He confesses their power in his preface to The Trumpet-Major, where he speaks of various ‘casual relics’ of the Napoleonic period: bullet-holes in an outhouse door, the ruins of a beacon-keeper's hut, the ‘lingering remains’ of weapons and uniforms. Such surviving fragments, he adds, ‘brought to my imagination in early childhood the state of affairs at the date of the war more vividly than volumes of history could have done’. One feels that the superiority of local objects to ‘volumes of history’ was not necessarily a conviction that the adult Hardy would have rejected as childish. Often, it is true, he associates attachment to the world of objects with the simple and the unlettered, as George Eliot did with Adam Bede's mother. In The Mayor of Casterbridge (ch. 18), Mrs Cuxsom reports the deathbed wishes of Susan Henchard:

‘Yes,’ she says, ‘when I'm gone, and my last breath's blowed, look in the top drawer o' the chest in the back room by the window, and you'll find all my coffin clothes: a piece of flannel—that's to put under me, and the little piece is to put under my head; and my new stockings for my feet—they are folded alongside, and all my other things. And there's four ounce pennies, the heaviest I could find, a-tied up in bits of linen, for weights—two for my right eye and two for my left,’ she said.

These practical arrangements have enabled the dying woman to come to terms with the idea of her own passing, and it is in similar terms that Mrs Cuxsom herself is enabled to grasp the termination of the individual life: “‘Well, poor soul; she's helpless to hinder that or anything now … and all her shining keys will be took from her, and her cupboards opened; and her little things a' didn't wish seen, anybody will see …’.”

But the most significant feature of the whole episode is that, when the narrative voice comes to pronounce an epitaph on Susan Henchard, it speaks in terms that, in spite of the slightly pedantic display of archaeological information, curiously resemble those of the untutored: ‘Mrs Henchard's dust mingled with the dust of women who lay ornamented with glass hairpins and amber necklaces, and men who held in their mouth coins of Hadrian, Posthumus, and the Constantines’ (ch. 20). Mrs Cuxsom and the narrator alike find an intimate association between mortality and what the former calls ‘little things’, and Hardy himself evidently finds it moving to contemplate the obstinate survival of these trinkets, the like of which are to be found in almost any local museum.


  1. New York Review of Books, 24 (24 Nov. 1977) p. 36.

  2. F. E. Hardy, The Life of Thomas Hardy (1962) pp. 120-1.

  3. Richard H. Taylor (ed.), The Personal Notebooks of Thomas Hardy (1978) pp. 8-9. Hardy records, characteristically, that the same grandfather used a joint stool to sit on when he played his cello at a Stinsford graveside (ibid., p. 4). One of Hardy's ideas for (presumably) an unwritten short story was ‘The Autobiography of a Card Table’ (ibid., p. 25).

  4. The Life of Thomas Hardy, p. 281.

  5. Personal Notebooks, p. 84.

  6. Quoted by Raymond Williams in The Country and the City (1973) p. 138.

  7. Quoted by Carol T. Christ in The Finer Optic (1975) p. 63.

  8. Ibid., p. 62.

  9. Ibid., p. 62.

  10. A. J. Guerard, Hardy: the Novels and Stories (1949) pp. 47-8.

  11. The Life of Thomas Hardy, p. 321.

Julie Grossman (essay date autumn 1989)

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SOURCE: Grossman, Julie. “Thomas Hardy and the Role of Observer.” ELH 56, no. 3 (autumn 1989): 619-38.

[In the following essay, Grossman examines the observers in Hardy's novels and notes that the observer role is the key link between Hardy's narrative technique and the stories that unfold.]

A seer's spirit took possession of Elizabeth, impelling her to sit down by the fire and divine events so surely from data already her own that they could be held as witnessed.

—Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge

In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Elizabeth-Jane's observations are an extended metaphor for divining the truth. This “discerning silent witch” is Hardy's most objective observer; she propels the narrative with her keen insight.1 Hardy likens her depth of vision to a diving power, suggesting that Elizabeth-Jane's peculiarity lies in her exemplary talent for observing things the way they really are. She is a perfect starting and ending point for a discussion of the importance in Hardy's characters observe other people tells us essential things about the way Hardy thinks that we operate in the world. The recurrence of the observer role, and its multiple versions, reveals not only how Hardy's characters act, but why they act. The implications of observation are psychological. Ultimately, the notion of observation is an integral part of Hardy's art, for, as the poet says of himself in a poem called “Afterward,” “He was one who had an eye for such mysteries.”2

It is at times difficult to understand the narrative technique in Hardy's novels. The point of view vacillates between his observers and an omniscient narrator. As I hope to show, there is an inextricable link between selective omniscience, where the voice enters into the minds of different characters, and what, unknown to them, these character's observations tells us about seeing and experience. It is my contention, indeed, that the observer role is the key link between Hardy's narrative technique and the stories that unfold.3 While critics have focused too much on inconsistencies in Hardy's use of point of view, it is nevertheless important to understand how Hardy incorporates the use of what we call Jamesian “reflectors” into a traditionally Victorian framework of narrative omniscience. Hardy's anticipation of a modern narrative technique goes along with a post-Victorian realism that, like James's, takes into account the psychological relationships between seeing and understanding, observation and meaning.

An examination of the observers in Hardy's novels will not only elucidate the link between observation and Hardy's realism but also help us to understand Elizabeth-Jane's critical role in The Mayor of Casterbridge. Because the distinction blurs between observer and observed, the landscape is not only colored by the consciousness of the observer, but the act of observation also invests a power in the looker to control, or alternatively, to explode the picture that he sees.4 The way the characters externalize this power separates the observer role into four categories: the objective observer, represented most appropriately by Elizabeth-Jane; “seeing” observers who profit from what they observe, represented by Gabriel Oak and Grace Melbury; voyeurs, represented by Boldwood, Giles, and perhaps Marty; and exploitative observers, represented by Troy, Fitzpiers, and Alec D'Urberville. Categories such as these are of course always in danger of collapse if they are applied too rigidly; their purpose here is to provide a framework for mapping out Hardy's exploration of observation as a paradigm for understanding.


With the curious exception of Elizabeth-Jane, whom I will return to later, there is usually some erotic content to scenes where Hardy's observers look at one another. Webster's defines a voyeur as “one whose sexual desire is concentrated upon seeing sex organs and sexual actsman unduly prying observer usually in search of sordid or scandalous sights.” This kind of sexual perversity in Far from the Madding Crowd and The Woodlanders seems to indicate sexual repression. Boldwood and Giles Winterborne do not entirely conform to the dictionary definition of a voyeur, but they do substitute observation for sexual activity. They cannot realize their sexual identities, and their own desires but those of Bathsheba and Grace as well. Neither Boldwood nor Giles really “sees” the woman he loves.

Troy and Fitzpiers represent another category of sexual aberration, the exploiters who not only look but successfully attain sexual gratification. Their observations are calculated toward the end of capturing their women, their prey. Gabriel Oak and Grace Melbury exemplify observers who really “see” and are also sexually aroused by what they see; Grace Melbury, however, lives in an ironic and antipastoral world (as compared with Gabriel's world) and thus the virtue of “seeing” in The Woodlanders is problematized. In Far from the Madding Crowd there is a clear difference between Gabriel's observation of Bathsheba on horseback and Troy's “peeping” at Bathsheba at the circus. The language describing Gabriel's vision of Bathsheba becomes alive with its “rays of male vision.”5 Gabriel pays homage to Bathsheba's beauty. His admiration is neither abnormal nor injurious; it merely expresses his attraction to her and foreshadows his patient waiting for her. His observations are thoughtful; what he sees represents a fair understanding of Bathsheba. He names her his “cold-hearted darling” (97), his objective acknowledgement of both her vanity and her allure placing him above Boldwood and Troy, the other male observers in the novel.

While Gabriel looks at Bathsheba's face and is “very regardful of its faintest changes” (173), Hardy tells us the following about Boldwood:

The farmer had never turned his head once, but with eyes fixed on the most advanced point along the road, passed as unconsciously and abstractedly as if Bathsheba and her charms were thin air.


Boldwood is by nature oblivious to the presence of women. When he does acknowledge Bathsheba's femininity, his perception of her is a striking contrast to Gabriel's perception of Bathsheba on horseback, which Hardy describes in sensuous language:

The girl, who wore no riding habit … dexterously dropped backward flat upon the pony's back, her head over its tail, her feet against its shoulders, and her eyes to the sky. The rapidity of her glide into this position was that of a kingfisher—its noiselessness that of a hawk.


Gabriel perceives her in evocative and poetic terms, which suggests not only his arousal but his awareness of his own desire. He is not a cooly “objective observer” like Elizabeth-Jane, whose observations as the controlling center of consciousness in The Mayor of Casterbridge do not generally have sexual implications. Gabriel's observations of Bathsheba suggest his sexual arousal; there is some sense of exploitative observation here, based on Bathsheba's “feel[ing] that Gabriel's espial had made her an indecorous woman without her own connivance” (69). But because Bathsheba is intuitively aware of her own attractiveness, her captivating performance on horseback is invitation to observe her. There is a psychological symbiosis between them rather than a purely sexual desire on Gabriel's part. Bathsheba feels violated, not sexually, but because, as J. Hillis Miller has noted, “Gabriel has been stealing from her that sovereignty over herself she has thought she has been enjoying in secrecy and security.”6 Only when Bathsheba is able to compromise her sovereignty will she and Gabriel be able to form a union based on love mutual respect.

Although Gabriel is aroused, it is important that he is also in this scene “amused” and “astonished.” This is one example of Gabriel's objective detachment, which enables him to enjoy fully and harmlessly Bathsheba's unconventional exhibition. His distance enables him to see Bathsheba clearly and consider his course based on what observation teaches him. In addition, his competence in assessing and dealing with natural disasters (the fire, the storm, the loss of his flock, the bloated sheep) represents the external complement to his competent insight into her nature.

If Gabriel's detached yet interested observation of Bathsheba reveals something of his moderation, Boldwood's detached observation represents his excessiveness. Boldwood's immediate obsession with Bathsheba indicates repressed emotions that explode at the slight provocation of a playful but misguided valentine. Boldwood's occasional observation of Bathsheba from a distance is awkward:

Boldwood looked at her—not slily, critically, or understandingly, but blankly at gaze, in the way a reaper looks up at a passing train—as something foreign to his element, and but dimly understood. He saw her black hair, her correct facial curves and profile, and the roundness of her chin and throat. He saw then the side of her eyelids, eyes and lashes, and the shape of her ear. Next he notices her figure, her skirt, and the very soles of her shoes.


Boldwood's repressed sexuality is manifest in the point of view that filters through the narration. He does not see Bathsheba as a whole. His vision is a striking contrast to Gabriel's vision of the gliding kingfisher. Here the object of vision is colored by Boldwood's unconscious. Confused, he grapples with what he observes. Boldwood catalogues her features and rejects her sexual allure by opting for a geometrical account of her femininity. In contrast to Gabriel's intuition and self-confidence, Boldwood doubts his own assessment: “Was she really beautiful?” he asks himself (168). Boldwood is a voyeur even though he becomes obsessed with Bathsheba from afar without ever really seeing her. “The great aids to idealization in love,” Hardy tells us, “were present here: occasional observation of her from a distance, and the absence of social intercourse with her—visual familiarity, oral strangeness” (175). Though Boldwood may not desire this, “visual familiarity” becomes the substitute for sexual fulfillment.

Boldwood's obsession with Bathsheba can be understood as a channel for his repressed sexuality. The danger of his repression is characterized by his dark abode: he lives in detached seclusion. Hardy gives a revealing account of how “the celibate would walk and meditate of an evening till the moon's rays streamed in through the cobwebbed windows, or total darkness enveloped the scene” (170). Boldwood's voyeurism symbolizes a substitution of perverse arousal characterized by obsession, distance, and darkness for natural sexual energy. In the chapter “Boldwood on Meditation—Regret,” Boldwood's voyeurism suggests again that his obsession with Bathsheba is an unconscious attempt to avoid his feared sexuality:

He was still in the road, and by moving on he hoped that neither would recognize that he had originally intended to enter the field. He passed by with an utter and overwhelming sensation of ignorance, shyness, and doubt. Perhaps in her manner there were signs that she wished to see him—perhaps not—he could not read a woman.


Boldwood's observations here suggest that his obsession precludes his having a relationship with Bathsheba. Though his actions and insistence imply that he wants her to accept his proposal, Boldwood's observations and the voyeur's distance he keeps from Bathsheba reveal an inability to confront Bathsheba's femininity and a repression of his desire for her. His exclusively voyeuristic relationship with Bathsheba reveals his inability to understand or to act upon his own desires, and because of this serious deficiency, Boldwood lacks the “seeing” power of Gabriel commands.

With Troy we get the first exploitative observer. Troy's “look” becomes symbolic of his real sexual power. Gabriel looks with goodhearted detachment; Boldwood looks with repressed curiosity; Troy looks with erotic mystery:

He looked hard into her eyes when she raised them for a moment; Bathsheba looked down again, for his gaze was too strong to be received point-blank with her own.


Troy, like Fitzpiers in The Woodlanders, can outstare anyone—a sign of his powerful desire to master the object he observes. Troy acts on his own deep sexual desire, and like Hardy's other sensualists (notably Alec D'Urberville and Fitzpiers), he fails to engage in a mutually giving loving relationship.7 By interpreting Bathsheba as an object, he invests himself with the power to exploit her. Gabriel's visions are realistic. Observation gives him a sober and positive education. Troy, as Hardy tells us, is impulsive and hedonistic. At the circus, the narrative describes Bathsheba through Troy's “peeping” eyes (403). Troy looks at this “Queen of the Tournament” (403) and is suddenly aroused by his own imaginative picture of her. “He had not expected her to exercise this power over him in the twinkling of an eye” (403). His erotic observation invests Bathsheba with an erotic power over him. She unconsciously manipulates Troy by her conversation with an unidentified man in the tent; she inspires in him a “sudden wish to go in, and claim her” (407). Bathsheba ostensibly charms Troy with her mysterious feminine allure, but his volatile sexuality absorbs this power so completely that he transforms her into an object for him to possess. At the circus, Troy's impulsiveness moves him to act on his sexual desires. He cuts the cloth of the tent to satisfy them, and what he sees arouses him further:

A warmth spread over his face … Troy took in the scene completely now … Troy found unexpected chords of feeling to be stirred again within him … She was handsome as ever and she was his.


Her power over him activates his imagined omnipotence. The language describing Boldwood's vision of Bathsheba is graphic in a geometrical sense, whereas Troy's vision is graphic as an expression of his lascivious fantasizing:

Troy scrutinized her cheek as lit by the candles, and watched each varying shade thereon, and the white shell-like sinuosities of her little ear … For yet another time he looked at the fair hand, and saw the pink finger-tips, and the blue veins of the wrist, encircled by a bracelet of coral chippings which she wore: how familiar it all was to him!


The attention to parts reminds us of Boldwood's fixation with Bathsheba's “correct facial curves.” But whereas Boldwood's attention to part is due to a repressed sexuality, Troy, the sensualist, is aroused by sensual details. His observation excites him enough to reclaim Bathsheba.

Troy treats Fanny and Bathsheba cruelly; in a Victorian moral context, he must be punished. Troy's death is followed by Boldwood's imprisonment; the exploitative sensualist and the repressed deviant are eliminated. Interestingly, Hardy symbolizes the final union of Bathsheba and Gabriel by giving Bathsheba the role of observer. Like Gabriel's, her looking is an affirmation that moves her destiny forward. She goes to Gabriel's house and observes him through the window. She sees him pray and, moved by his example, she goes to Fanny's coffin and emulates him:

The vision of Oak kneeling down that night recurred to her, and with the imitative instinct which animates women she seized upon the idea, resolved to kneel, and, if possible, pray. Gabriel had prayed; so would she.


“Seeing” engenders action and the “looks” motivated by goodness triumph.


In Far from the Madding Crowd, J. Hillis Miller's paradigm of the observer's “distance and desire” is resolved in the happy compromise between Bathsheba and Gabriel.8 In The Woodlanders, however, we get a different kind of compromise and pejorative variations on the role of observer. Edred Fitzpiers may be the most villainous of Hardy's characters, and Hardy subtly represents Fitzpiers' villainy through the doctor's deviant practice of secret observation. The most practiced of hidden observers, Fitzpiers is no more threatening than he is successful. This seems an appropriate evolution for the role of observer if we consider the sullen nature of the novel as a whole. In The Woodlander, the community bonds no longer vitalize; rather, Gabriel's world is a world where individuals are alienated from nature, and constrained and unconsoled by social conventions. Voyeurism becomes a way of representing a modern sense of detachment and unfulfilled desire. Moreover, in a world characterized by passive regard, langour, and paralysis, exploitative observation provides a model for success. Fitzpiers, though selfish, self-satisfied, and morally objectionable, becomes Hardy's hero.

In this late novel, the difference between active and passive observation becomes much more important. Fitzpiers acts on what he sees, but his incentive is instant gratification. Hardy acknowledges that this strong though reprehensible man is a survivor, complicating a simple, conventionally Victorian reading of supposedly unquestionable standards of moral conduct. There is a positive value in Fitzpiers's dogged determination to survive and to win back Grace, which he eventually does. Fitzpiers's perseverance wins out over Giles's well-intentioned paralysis. Giles's genuine love for Grace is not enough to bring on a happy resolution; he lacks the assertiveness to act on what he sees. Hardy's belief in Darwinian evolution, Daniel Schwarz persuasively claims, demand that “those with strong sexual desires and few scruples manipulate and prey upon the weak in the interests of their own emotional gratification,” although Hardy's manipulators, I would argue, are less available for judgment than Schwarz suggests.9 The happiness even of survivors is either impossible or seriously qualified. Indeed Fitzpiers's survival depends on his villainy. He is heroic by virtue of acting out his desire for self-gratification and sexual mastery. Grace survives, though her resignation to continuing her marriage with Fitzpiers is not quite consolatory, since she is aware that his infidelity will probably continue. The novel replaces the resolution and affirmation of Gabriel's world with the resignation and compromise of a Fitzpierian world where everybody is implicated in and affected by the secret observings of one another.

Grace's first look at a sleeping Fitzpiers, where silent watching gives way to an intensely climatic meeting of the eyes, adds a twist to the act of secret observation:

Approaching the chimney her back was to Fitzpiers, but she could see him in the glass. An indescribable thrill passed through her as she perceived that the eyes of the reflected image were open, gazing wonderingly at her. Under the curious unexpectedness of the sight she became as if spell-bound, almost powerless to turn her head and regard the original. However, by an effort she did turn, when there he lay asleep the same as before.10

The thrill Grace experiences as she watches the doctor is her imaginative exploration of the “specimen of creation altogether unusual in that locality” (175). She is at a safe enough distance to play with her own fantasies about the “mysterious influence of his state.” The mirror image of him accentuates the distance between them and the same time it displaces or distorts the original. Fitzpiers looks vulnerable in his sleep, but the illusion of his innocence is complicated by her sense that his eyes are open. This trick, this minor deception, foreshadows his gross deception of her later in the novel. Grace's sudden awareness that he is awake transforms the illusion of his harmlessness into the shocking sense of his power over her. Grace is now “spell-bound,” frozen by the play of Fitzpiers' eyes. She is, as Bethsheba was for Troy, the object of his desire and is fascinated by her own compulsion to remain still. Like Troy, Fitzpiers knows how to make good on his “looks.” Grace's innocent observation is overtaken by his mastery of the art. He quite insidiously pretends to be asleep, successfully acting out his role as the consummate exploitative observer.

Fitzpier's most characteristic scene of secret observation takes place in his room, as he watches passersby cross the swing gate. Fitzpiers plays the ironic observer, but his amused commentary on those who pass becomes lewd and viciously disengaged. He watches Suke Damson, the “hoydenish maiden of the hamlet” (198), “[rubbing] herself in the grass, cursing the while” (161), and ends his observation with a demonic “Ha! ha! ha!” He is able to translate his secret observations to action on “Old Midsummer Eve” when he amorously and successfully pursues Suke. That Fitzpiers is so excited by the act of pursuit is typical of the exploitative observer role: his fascination is in the distance between himself and his object; the power that propels him to act comes out of this distance. Not surprisingly, Fitzpiers loses interest in all three of his sexual objects (Felice, Suke, and Grace) once he has mastered them. Thus there is heavy irony in Grace's decision to take Fitzpiers back, effectively fueling his perverse cycle of seduction and abandonment.

Fitzpiers has a peculiar fixation with windows: “He walked from one window to another, and became aware that the most irksome of solitudes is not the solitude of remoteness, but that which is just outside desirable company” (174). It is this “just outside” position that satisfies Fitzpiers. When he watches Grace in the woods, it never occurs to him to identify himself: “The surgeon was quite shrouded from observation by the recessed shadow of the hurdle-screen, and there was no reason why he should move till the stranger had passed by” (189). Later in this scene, when Grace stirs up the embers of Fitzpiers's fire, a metaphor for his sexual arousal, he reveals himself: his “illumined face” (190) makes her scream just as his open eyes had immobilized her several scenes earlier. In both cases Fitzpiers's observations create the climate for Grace's submission through his having imagined mastering Grace as he lasciviously watcher her. Grace is overpowered: “He was actually supporting her with his arm as though under the impression that she was quite overcome and in danger of falling” (190). It is significant that here in the woods, in perfect contrast to Fitzpiers's powerfully erotic and inexorable stares, she tells him that “poor” Giles “had not much perseverance” (191).

Marty, another observer on the scene, watches two birds tumble into hot ashes beside her and sees an analog to Grace and Fitzpiers's disastrous relationship. She concludes ironically, “That's the end of what is called love” (192). But whereas her detached observation calls attention to her own sense of victimization, Giles's passive observation suggests his paralysis.11 Like Boldwood, Giles is out of touch with his sexual identity. Consequently, he can do no more with Grace than exercise voyeurism. Though both Boldwood and Giles are sexually repressed, their voyeurisms symbolize different responses to repression. Where Boldwood substitutes the energy of obsession for sexual impulses, Giles never allows himself to become stimulated. He denies his own energies and escapes from sexuality (and from Grace) into the anxiety of unconscious passivity. Even his devoted righthand man, Creedle, criticizes Giles' passivity: “all lost—through your letting slip she that was once your own!” (229). And as Giles watches Grace in Sherton Abbas, Hardy adds ironically, “Meanwhile the passive cause of all this loss still regarded the scene” (229). Giles watches Grace from afar, but when she is right up close, he doesn't see her; she has to call to him three times before he responds. In an earlier scene, Giles calls to Grace from a tree, “thinking that she might not see him” (140). At first, Grace does not respond to Giles's feeble exhortations because she means to break things off with him for good. When, however, she realizes that she really wants to answer Giles's call, it is too late. He has given up. She gazes “straight up” to him but he responds in a very curious way:

While she stood out of observation Giles seemed to recognize her meaning; with a sudden start he worked on, climbing higher into the sky and cutting himself off more and more from all intercourse with the sublunary world. At last he had worked himself so high up the elm, and the mist had so thickened, that he could only just be discerned as a dark grey spot on the light grey zenith.


Three times Graces calls to him, but Giles hasn't the will to answer her. His initial observation of her aborted, he escapes his sexuality and chooses solitude. Unlike Gabriel, he cannot learn from or act on what he sees; unlike Fitzpiers, he cannot be aroused by what he sees; he simply climbs a tree. Immersing himself in a fog safely detached from what really matters. And Grace is left “lingeringly [gazing] up at his unconscious figure” (140). Giles is unaware of Grace's real presence; he doesn't “see” Grace just as Boldwood didn't “see” Bathsheba. Neither Giles nor Boldwood wants the woman he claims to love.

Passivity in these male characters seems to indicate confused sexual identities, and Hardy clearly censures Giles's inaction toward Grace. In his novels, it is better to do anything that to do nothing. The author interrupts the action here with one of his rhetorical comments: “Had Giles, instead of remaining still, immediately come down from the tree to her, would she have continued in that filial, acquiescent frame of mind which she had announced to him as final?” (141). Hardy strongly suggests that Grace was really asking for Giles to assert himself; the novelist tell us that

the probabilities are that something might have been done by the appearance of [Giles] on the ground beside Grace. But he continued motionless and silent in that gloomy Niflheim or fogland which involved him, and she proceeded on her way.


Giles is unable to fulfill either of their desires. He, like one in “that gloomy Niflheim,” will die unfulfilled amidst the mist and darkness. Fog, darkness, sleep, blindness: these are the metaphors for characters who are not conscious enough of their desires to act on them.12 A man must work to find (to “see”) his path of destiny if he is ultimately to fulfill it.

Hardy makes a clear opposition between Fitzpiers's and Giles's fate, when together the men watch Grace draw her bedroom curtains. Though she simply draws the curtains, her action is labeled as “Grace's exhibition” (168). Like Bathsheba's exhibition on horseback, Grace's movement invites a response from each of her male observers. But while Fitzpiers recognizes the erotic possibilities of the scene (“She's charming, every inch of her!”), Giles represses his attraction and acquiesces passively, “So she is … But not for me” (167). Grace Melbury is caught between these two equally unsatisfactory lovers, as her observations of them indicate.

We have already seen how Fitzpiers's masterful lechery vitiates Grace's own observations. He renders her helpless. Late in the novel she again becomes a helpless observer, this time as a result of her desperate frustration with Giles. As Grace awaits word from her father on the possibility of a divorce from Fitzpiers, she observes, through the window, Giles working in the orchard fields. She is aware of his commitment to detachment: “she could see in his coming and going an air of determined abandonment of the whole prospect that lay in her direction” (351). Her distance from Giles then incites her desire. Giles unwittingly “could not have acted more seductively” (351). Grace is “tantalized” by watching Giles's physical competence as he works. Her imaginative impression of that competence obscures the fact of his deeper emotional incompetence. Grace loves Giles, but in her fruitless observation of him she is reduced to a curious combination of Giles's passivity and Fitzpiers's secret eroticism.

Grace's observation can also be seen as symbolic of the confusion between social propriety and individual desire. Grace is finally able to transcend the social boundaries when she exhorts Giles, “Come to me dearest! I don't mind what they say or what they think of us anymore” (375). Grace acknowledges her unconscious wishes, but Giles fails again to respond to Grace's call. Her observation is active but fruitless. In a deeply ironic world, we are all entangled by each other's “looks” and actions and “seeing” becomes, in a sense, irrelevant, or at least, unconnected to positive resolution. Her happy destiny has been forestalled by the perverse action and inaction of Fitzpiers and Giles respectively. Giles looks at Grace but cannot pursue her; his voyeurism deadens the plot. Fitzpiers looks at Grace and twice pursues her successfully; his observations insidiously further the plot. Neither technique of observation will affirmatively propel the lives of these characters.

In the final scene between Grace and Giles, her hidden observation of him is awkward; watching Giles through the window again, Grace sees him gazing vacantly at the revolving skinned carcass of rabbit, a fitting projection of his own destiny. Gabriel's observation acts as a positive fate-fulfilling homage to the woman he really “sees.” His union with Bathsheba is represented as one of mind and body. This kind of synthesis is unavailable in The Woodlanders. Gabriel's view is multifaceted, both desiring and objectively thoughtful, and it is sanctioned by Hardy. For Grace, positive, celebratory passion is deflated. Hardy's ironical postscript to failed love is to have Giles, formerly “Autumn's brother,” turned feeble and weary, tapping at his own window for morsels of food.

Fitzpiers and Grace's relationship survives, although their reunion is highly conditioned by everyone's conviction that he will continue to be unfaithful to her. Fitzpiers's secret leers suggest the darker side of the real world where exploitation works and “seeing” does not necessarily and aggressively fulfills it; this makes him a survivor. But if he uses Grace because of her sexual allure, he does not see her as a whole individual. Rather than recognizing the other in Grace, Fitzpiers treats her as an object, masterfully demonstrating the exploitative enterprise that will make him the model of success in a modern world.


In The Return of the Native, another novel indicative of the modern consciousness, observation is once more a key to understanding Hardy's characterization. In this novel, seeing represents again the power to understand and to create fruitful love relationships. Each character does his or her share of hidden observation, and the manner in which this is done (or how Hardy describes it) enables us to understand the psychology behind their destinies.

In the first scene, we see Eustacia Vye spying through a telescope. She is safely distanced from the object of her desire, creating a fertile ground for imagining a romance with Clym Yeobright: “She let her joyous eyes rest upon him without speaking, as some wondrous thing she had created out of chaos.”13 Eustacia's eyes represent her witch-like power to cast spells on what she observes. She imagines an enchanting picture of Clym and as the “sparks … [rise] into her dark pupils” (53), Hardy suggests the threat of uncontrolled passion in Eustacia's supernatural seeing power. While Eustacia envisions escape from the dreary heath through the worldly eyes of Clym, he proceeds as a man blind to the desires of the woman he claims to love. Clym's blindness to Eustacia's misery, once she learns that he has no plans to leave Egdon Heath, is foreshadowed by his mother's criticism that he must be “blind” to marry the volatile Eustacia. Blindness is finally actualized; he develops a “morbid sensibility to light” (194).

Clym is like Boldwood in his desire to live in a dark place. Like Boldwood, he lives in seclusion in order to escape his sexuality. Clym's comfort in adoring his mother (at the expense of “seeing” his wife) is a kind of asexuality which culminates in the end in his becoming a preacher. Like Giles Winterborne's retreat into the fog, Clym's blindness represents a powerlessness to assert his masculine sexuality with the woman to whom he commits himself. Giles gives up fighting for Grace, and Clym too becomes complacent enough to accept his blindness and “stick to my doom” (201). Clym's contentment in his furzecutting job mocks his prior idealistic dreams to educate the world, the goggles over his eyes a perfect costume for repression. His literal reduction of vision corresponds to his repressed awareness of Eustacia's desires.

Clym's retreat into priesthood is an ironic end to his originally high and progressive moral aims. Clym receives a second chance to claim a woman other than his mother, but he is impervious to Thomasin's attractiveness until it is too late. Clym is unaware that he has an adversary in Diggory Venn (he doesn't observe her blush when Venn appears) and Clym is reduced at last to voyeurism, watching Thomasin from the window. His final vocation carries a heavy dose of irony: his preaching is not a moral victory but a substitution for his failure to see or to understand Eustacia. Clym's conviction is inadequate: “I have made a covenant with mine eyes; why then should I think upon a maid?” (307). There is a beautiful irony here, since it is Clym's blindness that brings him where he is, and Hardy's subtle commentary on Clym perfectly attests to the need to regard observation as a method of understanding: “it was well enough for a man to take to preaching who could not see to do anything else” (315, my emphasis).

Diggory Venn is probably closest to Elizabeth-Jane in his effective observation from a distance. They are both sexually low-charged. Venn is self-aware like Elizabeth-Jane, and in face Hardy calls them both “perspicacious.” Their perspicacity lies in the ability to calculate what kind of action best suits what they observe. Venn's clever eye enables him to spy on and ultimately to master Wildeve as the reddleman gives up his red dye for Wildeve's widow. Called a “Mephistophelian visitant,” the reddleman's sudden and timely appearances set him up as a disinterested deus ex machina—though he curiously becomes Thomasin's suitor.

Venn's sharpness is directly contrasted with Clym's dull vision: “Venn's keen eye had discerned what Yeobright's feeble vision had not—a man in the act of withdrawing from Eustacia's side” (208). This “keen” observation enables him to “reconnoiter” successfully and to incite the other players in a way which will resolve the action of the novel. Venn's sharp eyes connect him with Thomasin in that they both have the power to see and to survive in the Heath at night.

The power of observation, as Hardy records it, is wonderfully apparent in the looking-glass scene between Clym and Eustacia. Clym has just discovered that his mother had visited his house the night that she died. Although Clym slept through Mrs. Yeobright's rapping at the door, he supposes that Eustacia intentionally turned his mother away, thus causing her death. In this scene, Eustacia looks at her own reflection. She sees Clym's face in the glass and is frozen, just as Grace was frozen by the awareness that Fitzpiers was watching her look at him. But here Eustacia and Clym continue to look at each other through the glass and his “death-like pallor flew from his face to hers.” The intensity of Clym's anger and of Eustacia's fear is beautifully caught in this momentary exchange of glances, through a looking-glass that aptly locates a perversity in how they communicate. Eustacia rightly accuses Clym of deceiving her “by appearances, which are less seen through than words” (256). The two are ill matched; she falls in love with her own vision and he falls in love with his vision of her. She doesn't see Clym's passivity and he doesn't see Eustacia's passion. Thus when Eustacia observes the villagers' dance, her sensuality invests power in her observation and “she beheld Wildeve” (203).

In Return of the Native, there is a striking connection between hidden observation and how the plot and characters evolve. The novel is like a grand stage in a dream where characters appear and disappear by turns, looking secretly at and looking over the stage and each other. Masks and disguises abound. Simple light and simple darkness serve as indications of how clearly or confusedly the characters understand the nature of things.


Elizabeth-Jane, in The Mayor of Casterbridge, is probably the closest to an observer who “sees” things as they really are. She is also probably the most perplexing of all Hardy's characters. Not only a gifted observer she is moved to act by what she sees. This, as we have seen, is an admirable quality for a Hardy character. But Elizabeth-Jane is also a very troubled young woman. The “crystalline sphere of a straightforward mind” (137) captures our interest because of her concurrent fragility. It is her vulnerability which makes her a hidden observer. Elizabeth-Jane's fear of yet again “tempting Providence to hurl … me down” (67) makes her keep her distance from others in the novel. But like Hardy, who professes to be detached from the action only to have his narrator interject with commentary, Elizabeth-Jane is in fact deeply involved with what happens. She is a sensitive character, subject to the pain of what she learns from her observations. She also, however, responds in an affirmative way to her thoughtfully considered observations. Elizabeth-Jane doesn't watch to gain sexual power as do real voyeurs. Rather, she has the low-charged insight and the strength against adversity that enable her to survive in Hardy's world.

Hardy attributes Elizabeth-Jane's observations to her “innate perceptiveness that was almost genius” (67). Elizabeth-Jane is acutely aware, however, of the cost of “seeing” clearly. To the extent that she is detached by her objectivity, she maintains her distance to shield herself from the “wreck of each day's wishes” (137) that she knows is inevitable. When she responds to her mother's letter by going to meet Farfrae at the granary, she hides from him, impelled “By some unaccountable shyness, some wish not to meet him there alone” (71). Elizabeth-Jane's sense of her vulnerability is apparent also in her reluctance to be “too gay”:

she had still that field-mouse fear of the coulter of destiny despite fair promise, which is common among the thoughtful who have suffered early from poverty and oppression.


Elizabeth-Jane builds a fortress of self-defense that makes her a survivor, but it also conceals from others the very sensitive woman beneath that “crystalline” exterior.

Elizabeth-Jane's rare asset and strength among Hardy's characters is her appreciation of irony. Irony represents the greatest distancing tool; it supports her self-defense and enables her to carry on with fortitude. Though Elizabeth-Jane goes unnoticed in the scene, she ironically observes the absurd theatrics of Farfrae's competition with Henchard over Lucetta: “How ridiculous of all three of them!” Her Hardyesque response to losing Farfrae is an ironic comment: She “wondered what unwished-for-thinking Heaven might send her in place of [Farfrae]” (137). So it is because she is out of the game that Elizabeth-Jane is able to observe circumstances with such perspicacity.

The criticism of Elizabeth-Jane's “emotional limitations” typifies certain critics' emphasis on her unwillingness or inability to “take full advantage of the opportunities for happiness which she now has.”14 This emphasis, I think, is misplaced. Perhaps the silence of her strength against adversity blinds us to what Elizabeth-Jane really has undergone, before and during the course of the novel: Her father is lost at sea; she and he mother are impoverished; her mother dies; her lover finds another; her stepfather discards her only after treating her alternately with cold indifference and captious criticism. She is treated as an object by not only Henchard, but by Lucetta and Farfrae as well. Learning of Henchard's distaste for Elizabeth-Jane, Lucetta decides that “Elizabeth-Jane would have to be got rid of—a disagreeable necessity” (119). Scenes later Lucetta resolves to use her as a “watch-dog” to lure Henchard back. It is no wonder that Elizabeth-Jane is well aware of a “sense of her own superfluity” (104). Farfrae's apparent unawareness of her love for him, his unconsciously callous agreement to let her remain in the house once he has married Lucetta, shows that he too is blind to Elizabeth-Jane's presence.

Elizabeth-Jane, like Grace Melbury and others, is the true Hardy heroine because she realistically accepts the had she is dealt, learns from what she observes, and acts accordingly. When she discovers that Lucetta has married Farfrae, out of pride, Elizabeth-Jane departs instantly. She leaves Henchard when he treats her badly. But whereas the exploiters, based on what they observe, act for immediate self-gratification, Elizabeth-Jane acts for humanity as well as her own pride. She races to protect Lucetta from the skimmity ride. She rushes to Jopp's house to care for Henchard when he is ill. After learning of Henchard's abject deception of her (denying her knowledge of her real father's existence), she turns Henchard away; it would be difficult to take seriously not only Elizabeth-Jane's strength but also her right to the central point of view in the novel if she didn't react emotionally to Henchard's betrayal. Nevertheless, “her heart softened towards the self-alienated man” (251). Though she knows that she probably should forget him, she goes in search of Henchard, responding to her intuitive drive to ameliorate the pain she knows he feels.

Elizabeth-Jane is ultimately the deal observer for Hardy. Observation and understanding become one, converging in thoughtful action. She, like Hardy, is a realist. Her last thoughts in the novel coincide with Hardy's, that the best we can achieve in this world is a “cunning enlargement, by a species of microscopic treatment, of those minute forms of satisfaction that offer themselves to everybody not in positive pain” (255)

A final note here on the narrator's role as observer may help to draw some conclusion about Hardy's interest in observation. Hardy's myriad references to what “a spectator would have seen” or “a beholder might have felt” suggest a real self-consciousness about his presence on the scene. At the risk of committing the biographical fallacy, I would suggest that this acute sensitivity to the observer role relates to his upbringing. Michael Millgate describes Thomas Hardy, the boy, as a silent unnoticed observer. Millgate pays much attention to Hardy's emotional dependence on his family, particularly his mother, and how this adversely affected his relationship with his first wife Emma. More importantly, Millgate characterizes Hardy perfectly as J. Hillis Miller's model of a hero who looks only at what he cannot have. Millgate makes the point that Hardy's curious combination of passive observer and detached dreamer contributed to his narrative technique: “Distance enforced a more absolute dependence on memory and it could actually enhance the imaginative recovery of past scenes and emotions.”15 And yet one cannot help thinking that this paradigm of “distance and desire” too easily reduces the art of Hardy's narrative to a facile comment about his early life in Dorset. That is, when we consider the later development of novelistic techniques, particularly in James and Conrad, we begin to understand Hardy more as a vanguard figure in the development of the modern novel.

Hardy desired to make his narrator objective and detached in order to invest more depth in what and how his characters “saw.” The interjections of an omniscient narrator are, however, curious. They seem to thwart his intention to portray characters who retard or push forward their own destinies. The interruption of the self-propelling process the characters engage in may be partly explained by Hardy's own nature. He simultaneously desires to remain unnoticed and to play a part in the action. An observer's hidden presence on the scene invests a power (omniscience, at first) in the onlooker. When, however, that power produces fantasies about others (Bathsheba for Oak, Grace for Fitzpiers, Grace for Giles), the power is short circuited by a recognition that one must act. It is Hardy's impulse, then, to interject his statement of truth in order to guide the reader. This is a kind of narrative response to the educational value of observation. If at times these authorial presences are disconcerting, they provide insights that do not detract from the characters or the plot. Rather, they relate the character to the plot psychologically and entangle us further in what Ian Gregor calls the “Great Web” of Hardy's fiction.

Perhaps we should know what Hardy tells us without his interference. And yet, like the criticism of recurent coincidences in Hardy's fiction, these remarks fail to appreciate how interdependent these elements are. The relationship between observation and understanding is a perfect example of this interdependence. It is one way of describing Hardy's prescient amalgam of a Jamesian narrative technique and a Lawrencian breakdown of the distinctions between external reality and the human unconscious. Looking at the world, for Hardy, determines that world as much as if not more than looking is determined by that world. The painful paradox for Hardy is that to “see” is not only to understand, but to believe that insight and understanding are positive values. “Seeing,” then, is misplaced in a world ironically characterized as unintelligible. This constitutes the ultimate and yet the very realistic detachment in true observation. An Elizabeth-Jane or a Hardy, destined to understand the pain of understanding, is also destined to survive, forever paying homage to “the doubtful honor of a brief transit through a sorry world” (256).


  1. Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886; reprint, New York: Norton Critical Edition, 1977), 132. I cite further passages parenthetically in the text.

  2. Thomas Hardy, “Afterwards,” in The Wessex Selection of Thomas Hardy's Poetry, ed. John and Errin Wain (London: Macmillan, 1978), 179.

  3. See Ian Gregor's The Great Web (London: Faber and Faber, 1974). Gregor makes a connection between Hardy and Henry James and links Hardy's technique of observation to the “unfolding” of his stories:

    In Hardy, we find a notion of form, which resides in the structuring power itself, rather than in that which is structured, a sense of form seen not as a result, a shape, more a process, a direction, a verb rather than a noun. Where James finds his key term in structure, Hardy finds his in story.


  4. See Robert Langbaum's “Lawrence and Hardy,” Hardy Annual 3 (1985): 69-90. The blurring of distinction that I suggest here is analogous to Langbaum's view that Hardy's novels represent the “[dissolution of] the distinction between fate and the characters' individual unconsciousness” (90).

  5. Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd (1874; reprint, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978), 67. I cite further passages parenthetically in the text.

  6. J. Hillis Miller, Thomas Hardy: Distance and Desire (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1970), 124.

  7. See Langbaum (note 4), 87-88.

  8. See Miller (note 6).

  9. Daniel Schwartz, “Beginnings and Endings in Hardy's Major Fiction,” in Critical Approaches to the Fiction of Thomas Hardy, ed. Dale Kramer (London: Macmillan, 1979), 27.

  10. Thomas Hardy, The Woodlanders (1887; reprint, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), 176. I cite further passages parenthetically in the text.

  11. See Mary Jacobus's “Tree and Machine,” in Kramer (note 9), 116-35. Jacobus correctly notes that Marty's “oblique presence is itself expressive of disjunction rather than relationship, making her less a particular than an observer throughout the novel; even her attempted interventions in the mechanics of the plot misfire as completely as Tim Tang's man-trap” (121).

  12. If, as Dale Kramer tells us, Giles has a “strong sex drive” (14), this is either repressed or irrelevant, since a man must not only know what he wants but carefully observe what he sees in order to reconcile his desires with reality, as Gabriel does.

  13. Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native (1878; reprint, New York: Norton Critical Edition, 1969), 49. I cite further passages parenthetically in the text.

  14. Schwarz (note 9), 25; Miller, 154.

  15. Michael Millgate, Thomas Hardy: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1982), 187.

Judith Mitchell (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Mitchell, Judith. “Hardy's Female Reader.” In The Sense of Sex: Feminist Perspectives on Hardy, edited by Margaret R. Higonnet, pp. 172-87. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Mitchell offers a poststructuralist approach to Hardy's fictional heroines, concluding that the feminist reader of Hardy will necessarily feel ambivalent about his representations of women.]

What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance.

—Budd Boetticher, Hollywood director of B Westerns

The heroines of Hardy's early novels are presented primarily as objects of erotic interest not only for the narrators and for the male characters … but also for the implied reader/voyeur. … What they think or feel seems not to matter; the focus of attention is on the feelings they arouse in a variety of men.

—T. R. Wright, Hardy and the Erotic

How does a female reader—particularly a modern feminist reader—read Thomas Hardy? Does she applaud his feminism? Deplore his sexism? The question of Hardy's representation of women has perturbed literary critics since the turn of the century. Just as mainstream critics remain unsure about Hardy's formal virtuosity (citing him with equal conviction as both a great literary artist and a crass technical bungler), feminist critics seem undecided whether to accept Hardy with distaste or to reject him with reluctance. Like Hardy himself, many remain ambivalent; Katherine Rogers reaches the fairly typical conclusion that “These novels show the tenacity of sexist assumptions even in so humane and enlightened a man as Hardy.”1 He is noted both for his revolutionary protests against social conventions that restrict women's freedom—Sue's repugnance for being “licensed to be loved on the premises” comes to mind—and for the blatantly sexist remarks that are scattered throughout his oeuvre like some kind of sexist graffiti. Hardy's feminism (or lack of it) can be assessed partly in the approach his inscribed reader is invited to take toward his strong, interesting female protagonists, particularly as they are visualized. The question bears reexamination, especially in light of recent feminist film theory: how is Hardy's reader encouraged to “see” his heroines?

Such theory has far-reaching implications for the study of nineteenth-century novels and their female readership, simply because traditional realist film inherited the narrative conventions of traditional realist fiction. Annette Kuhn, describing classic Hollywood cinema, remarks that “All films are coded: it is simply that certain types of film are coded in such a way as actually to seem uncoded. … This of course is one of the pleasures of the classic realist cinema: an address which draws the spectator in to the representation by constructing a credible and coherent cinematic world, which at the same time situates her or him as a passive consumer of meanings which seem to be already there in the text.”2 The viewer of a Hollywood film and the reader of a Victorian novel, in other words, are in much the same viewing position, that of a “passive consumer” of the “obvious” meanings inherent in a seemingly uncoded fictional world.

Laura Mulvey's well-known article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” subjects this viewing position to a searching analysis. Mulvey discerns “three different looks associated with the cinema: that of the camera as it records the profilmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of each other within the screen illusion.”3 These positions have obvious parallels in those of the narrator, the reader and the characters of a novel. According to Mulvey, all three are constructed as male subjects, who together watch the woman, the sexual object. “Traditionally, the woman displayed has functioned on two levels: as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium, with a shifting tension between the looks on both sides of the screen” (419). In addition, Mulvey locates in the female figure “a deeper problem” for the male viewer. “She also connotes something that the look continually circles around but disavows: her lack of a penis, implying a threat of castration and hence unpleasure” (421). According to Mulvey, the male viewer responds to this unconscious anxiety by means of two strategies, namely voyeurism and fetishism. Voyeurism, the devaluation and subjection of the woman via the gaze, is associated with sadism (of a controlling male protagonist, with whom the cinema audience pleasurably identifies) and with narrative (“Sadism demands a story”). On the other hand fetishism, the overvaluation of a feared object so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous, “can exist outside linear time as the erotic instinct is focused on the look alone” (422). This “fetishistic scopophilia” applies to moments of spectacle or iconicity in the film, moments in which the woman's visual presence draws attention to itself and “tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation” (419). Such moments, termed “extradiegetic” by film critics because they seem to lie outside the movement of the narrative, occur during close-ups or musical numbers in films, and in passages of description and portraiture in novels.

Is there any place in this scenario for the female spectator? According to Mary Ann Doane, a female viewer confronted with the classical Hollywood text has basically “two modes of entry: a narcissistic identification with the female figure as spectacle and a ‘transvestite’ identification with the active male hero. … The female spectator is thus imaged by its text as … a hermaphrodite. It is precisely this oscillation which demonstrates the instability of the woman's position as spectator. … The female spectator identifies doubly—with the subject and the object of the gaze.”4 In her “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,’” Laura Mulvey speculates that the pleasure derived in this manner is an uneasy one: although the female spectator may secretly enjoy the “trans-sex identification” that has become second nature to her in Western culture, she also “may find herself so out of key with the pleasure on offer, with its ‘masculinisation,’ that the spell of fascination is broken.”5 This unstable, oscillating, bisexual subject position is also (interestingly) characteristic of the female novel reader; Doane's and Mulvey's observations are strikingly reminiscent of Jonathan Culler's well-known account of “Reading as a Woman”: “Reading as a woman is not necessarily what occurs when a woman reads: women can read, and have read, as men. … To ask a woman to read as a woman is in fact a double or divided request.”6

The dynamics of looking and reading that these theorists describe apply particularly well to a novelist like Hardy because of what Judith Bryant Wittenberg refers to as his “spectatorial narrator.”7 Hardy is undoubtedly one of the most scopophilic novelists in the nineteenth century, and his vivid visualizations of figures as well as landscapes contribute to his reputation as a representative of high realism (a designation that remains unaltered by his mythological/romantic tendencies). The pleasure derived from reading a Hardy novel comes primarily from its air of solid “reality”; like the audience of a realist film, the reader of a Hardy novel is encouraged to “escape” into the narrative, suspending all disbelief and all critical sense in favor of an avid interest in the characters and their world. Feminist critics have noted, however, that this world seems real, is recognizable, partly because it parallels the patriarchal world we know, especially in its tacit assumptions about gender. As Elaine Showalter points out, citing Irving Howe's analysis of The Mayor of Casterbridge, traditional criticism uncritically posits both a male narrator and a male reader of Hardy's novels. Howe's praise of the opening scenes of The Mayor [The Mayor of Casterbridge] runs as follows: “To shake loose from one's wife; to discard that drooping rag of a woman, … through the public sale of her body, as horses are sold at a fair; and thus to wrest, through sheer amoral wilfulness, a second chance out of life—it is with this stroke, so insidiously attractive to male fantasy, that The Mayor of Casterbridge begins.”8 Such a statement no doubt reveals more about Howe's fantasies than it does about Hardy's; nevertheless, Hardy's narrator does seem to share a male perspective with his implied reader. The gaze shared by these two entities, in particular, is ineluctably gendered, as I shall show, and looking is their predominant activity. The “vision” Hardy shares in this way is intensely personal, undoubtedly a contributing factor in the plethora of criticism extolling the reader's sense of “knowing” Hardy through his novels.

What makes Hardy's vision so personal, I would submit, is the eroticism that informs it, so that the relation that constantly applies is a literary recapitulation of the dynamic that occurs in representational visual art between a male artist and his viewer. Art critic Sarah Kent describes this dynamic as “a complex interaction … focused on the nudity of the female model. Intimacy is created through sexual rivalry—perhaps a sublimated form of homosexuality—in which the model appears to be the subject of the conversation when she is, in fact, only a form of currency in a male centred exchange.”9 Hardy's females are not literally nude, but they are similarly exposed to the shared gaze of an overtly male narrator and a projected male reader. The look these entities share is compounded of curiosity, longing, affection, fear, contempt and adoration; in short, it is the look of desire of a defensively alienated, ambivalent male. Many theorists have held that the male gaze at women in Western culture is always of this type, sight being an erotic perceptual mode eminently suited to the somatophobic male psyche. With its automatic distancing of subject from object, looking provides a position from which it is possible to “possess” a woman without having to deal with her “in the flesh.” The obsessive looking of pornography is an obvious instance of this, but all representations can be said to partake of such “safe” distancing between viewer and object. Helena Michie, in discussing Jocelyn Pierston's infatuation with women who are “copies” of each other in The Well-Beloved (an overt instance of such distancing), observes that “Eroticism lies in representation; a painting that stands for a woman, a woman that stands for another is a less direct and therefore a less terrifying confrontation of female sexuality.”10

The gaze, then, is supremely important in Hardy's novels, which readily translate into film. They are “cinematic” in every sense, as critics have noted in dozens of books and articles on vision and perspective in Hardy's work. In Hardy's case the fictional “eye” could easily be a camera, and the questions of whose eye it is and what it sees are easily answered: the eye is Hardy's own (he himself observed that “A writer … looks upon the world with his personal eyes” [Orel 110]), and what it mainly sees is women. It is no accident that there is so much spying, particularly in the early novels (Gabriel Oak's and the Reddleman's activities are obvious instances), or that the characters spied on are female. Gabriel spies on Bathsheba numerous times in the opening chapter of Far from the Madding Crowd, and while the erotic aspects of such looking are downplayed by touches of humor, the voyeuristic titillation these incidents afford is unmistakable: when Bathsheba looks in the mirror as Gabriel watches from behind the hedge, for instance, the narrator ingenuously remarks that “The change from the customary spot and necessary occasion of such an act—from the dressing hour in a bedroom to a time of travelling out of doors—lent to the idle deed a novelty it did not intrinsically possess” (1.5). “Novelty” here is obviously a Victorian euphemism for “eroticism,” as the “dressing hour in a bedroom” suggests. This is not what Mulvey would term a “scopophilic” scene, a cinematic close-up, but rather an event, an action, in the midst of which the voyeur “catches” the woman. In such instances, according to Mulvey, “Pleasure lies in ascertaining guilt (immediately associated with castration), asserting control, and subjecting the guilty person through punishment or forgiveness” (422).

This is certainly the case in this instance, as the narrator casually makes the condemnatory remark that will cling to Bathsheba throughout the novel: “Woman's prescriptive infirmity had stalked into the sunlight” (1.5). It is the female character who is judged to be guilty (and guilty on the basis of her castrated sex—she is demonstrating woman's prescriptive infirmity), even though it is the male character who is conducting himself in a way that could be seen as morally questionable. This scene, and the others like it (such as Gabriel's spying on Bathsheba as she feeds the cows and as she does gymnastics on horseback), are characteristic examples of the viewing paradigm Mulvey describes, in which the male character, the male narrator and the male reader all engage in the activity of watching—and judging—a female character. Such looking is always erotic, and always implies power and control of the viewing subject over the viewed object. Nor is Hardy unaware of this dynamic; his narrator complacently observes that “Rays of male vision seem to have a tickling effect upon virgin faces in rural districts; she brushed hers with her hand, as if Gabriel had been irritating its pink surface by actual touch” (3.20). Gabriel does suffer some guilt—after he mentions her unconventional horseback riding to Bathsheba, he “withdraw[s] his … eyes from hers as suddenly as if he had been caught in a theft”—but the narrator makes it clear that it is his telling, rather than his looking, that is amiss (“His want of tact had deeply offended her—not by seeing what he could not help, but by letting her know that he had seen it” [3.21]). “What he could not help” is debatable, as Gabriel stations himself to watch for Bathsheba through the loophole in the wall of his hut rather than out in the open where she could have seen him; however, the important point is that the right of the male to observe and judge the female in this way is an unquestioned ideological “given” in Hardy's fictional ethos.

When the woman looks in Hardy's novels, on the other hand, she embodies no such power and control, nor does she participate in any such shared dynamic with the narrator and the reader. The male object of her gaze is not similarly objectified or eroticised, as he is in Charlotte Brontë's novels, for example (Jane Eyre confesses that “My eyes were drawn involuntarily to [Rochester's] face; … I looked, and had an acute pleasure in looking—a precious yet poignant pleasure; pure gold, with a steely point of agony”),11 because Hardy's women characters do not function as erotic subjects even when they exercise the power of the gaze. Instead of identifying with such a character and sharing her point of view (a potential mode of entry for a female reader of Hardy), the reader again is invited to share the perspective of the male narrator, and to “look at her looking.” We watch Eustacia as she watches for Wildeve in The Return of the Native, for example, in the following way:

Far away down the valley the faint shine from the window of the inn still lasted on; and a few additional moments proved that the window, or what was within it, had more to do with the woman's sigh than had either her own actions or the scene immediately around. She lifted her left hand, which held a closed telescope. This she rapidly extended. … The handkerchief which had hooded her head was now a little thrown back, her face being somewhat elevated. A profile was visible against the dull monochrome of cloud around her; and it was as though side shadows from the features of Sappho and Mrs. Siddons had converged upwards from the tomb to form an image like neither but suggesting both.


Here we are given neither a description of the object of Eustacia's attention—the object, indeed, is “far away down the valley”—nor admittance to her perceptions; the scene is recounted, like so many scenes in Hardy's novels, from the viewpoint of an amorphous, anonymous narratorial “spectator.” Eustacia herself, by a deft adjustment of narrative focus (“The handkerchief which had hooded her head was now a little thrown back. … A profile was visible”) becomes the observed object, even though it is she who is doing the looking. Mary Ann Doane, in investigating the phenomenon of the woman's gaze in classical cinema, finds that such a scopic adjustment is a standard device in such scenes. The female gaze on the cinema screen, according to Doane, is typically “framed” in some way (by the use of mirrors, eyeglasses, etc.) in order “to contain an aberrant and excessive female sexuality. For framing is the film's preferred strategy when it wishes to simultaneously state and negate. … The male gaze erases that of the woman.”12 Eustacia's telescope is just such a framing device, and it seems safe to conclude that Hardy's reasons for its use are similar to those of the filmmakers Doane describes.

The vision of Hardy's heroines thus constructed is at once intensely erotic and intensely personal, evoking a strong sense of “knowing” these women; but the character we really get to know in his novels, and to know very intimately, is Hardy. Tess, in particular, elicits this intimate response; there is no male spy as such in Tess of the d'Urbervilles simply because the voyeur in that novel is Hardy himself in the guise of the male narrator. “Voyeur,” however, is not precisely the correct term, as in Tess [Tess of the d'Urbervilles] the voyeuristic spying of the earlier novels is succeeded by Mulvey's “fetishistic scopophilia” in which “the powerful look of the male protagonist … is broken in favor of the image in direct erotic rapport with the spectator. The beauty of the woman as object and the screen space coalesce; she is no longer the bearer of guilt but a perfect product, whose body, stylized and fragmented by close-ups, is the content of the film” (423). The look of desire in such films, according to Mulvey (she is referring specifically to Josef von Sternberg's films starring Marlene Dietrich), is unmediated because “The male hero misunderstands and, above all, does not see” (424).

As Kaja Silverman points out in her excellent account of figuration and subjectivity in Tess, the male viewer in Hardy's penultimate novel is similarly elided because he, too, “does not see.” Quoting the well-known passage describing Tess's lips (“To a young man with the least fire in him that little upward lift in the middle of her red top lip was distracting, infatuating, maddening. He had never seen a woman's lips and teeth which forced upon his mind with such insistent iteration the old Elizabethan simile of roses filled with snow”), Silverman points out that though it is ostensibly Angel's gaze that is turned upon Tess, the passage is less an account of Angel's perceptions than “an ironic admonition” to a young man who obviously does not have “the least fire in him.” The admonition, of course, is given by the narrator himself, who is able to “see” Tess accurately and who is revealed to be “the speaking subject, the one whose desires structure our view of Tess.”13 This is confirmed by the next few sentences of the “lips” quotation: “Perfect, he, as a lover, might have called [Tess's lips] off-hand. But no—they were not perfect. And it was the touch of the imperfect upon the would-be perfect that gave the sweetness” (24.92). Tess is clearly one of the most erotic novels of the Victorian period; Tess herself, however, by virtue of such obsessive narratorial “looking,” is a sexual object rather than a sexual subject, a sort of nineteenth-century Marilyn Monroe, so that a female reader can only identify with her by means of what Mary Ann Doane calls “a narcissistic identification with the female figure as spectacle.” Nor can the female reader identify with the actively fantasizing narrator, other than by an extreme act of vicarious “transvestite” empathy. That female readers have managed this perceptual feat so successfully for so long is simply evidence of Jonathan Culler's assertion that “Women can read, and have read, as men.”

To give him credit, Hardy did attempt to go beyond the scopophilic objectification of his female characters in his last novel, Jude the Obscure. As we might expect, Sue Bridehead commands a different sort of attention than Tess, both from the male characters in the novel and from the reader. More intellectual than Tess, she is an effective mouthpiece for much of Hardy's polemic; more importantly than this, her physical appearance, her status as an aesthetic and sexual object, is de-emphasized. Jude first notes that she is “so pretty,” but then he reflects that “He had been so caught by her influence that he had taken no count of her general mould and build. He remembered now that she was not a large figure, that she was light and slight, of the type dubbed elegant. That was about all he had seen. There was nothing statuesque in her; all was nervous motion. She was mobile, living, yet a painter might not have called her handsome or beautiful” (2.2.104-5). This rather vague account (rendered, however, from the point of view of a “painter”) is obviously very different from the sensual details of Tess's “mobile peony mouth,” her “arm, cold and damp … as a new-gathered mushroom” or the “stop'd-diapason note which her voice acquired when her heart was in her speech.” The concrete details we are given in connection with Sue tend to be “cute” (and safely diminutive) rather than voluptuous, such as her “little thumb stuck up by the stem of her sunshade,” which reappears at intervals in the novel. It is clear that she does not function solely as a female object in Jude [Jude the Obscure.]; and yet, curiously, the reader seems to have no readier access to Sue's consciousness than to that of Hardy's other female characters. The reason for this, I would submit, is that none of Hardy's heroines, including Sue, functions as a fictional subject.

This may seem like an absurd assertion, given the distinctive personalities of such characters as Bathsheba, Eustacia, Tess, and Sue; a close examination, however, reveals the subjectivity of these characters to be largely illusory, and the seeming absurdity to be a function of Hardy's persuasive realism. His female characters are seen almost exclusively from the outside, in terms of physical description, action and dialogue, a fact that has no doubt contributed to his reputation as a “balladeer” among novelists. Most of these characters, like Tess, are physically present in an immediate and very sensual way, which tends to obscure the fact that their point of view is explored only superficially. But Sue is also perceived from the outside rather than from the inside. We are never given access to her consciousness, so that she remains an enigma rather than a true subject. These elisions of female consciousness—which constitute another stumbling block to the female reader's appreciation of Hardy's novels—are at least partly a result of Hardy's consistent avoidance of the technical device of free indirect speech, a favored technique among nineteenth-century novelists and a key distinction between film and the novel. Even at crucial turns of the plot—points normally conductive to character revelation using this device—we are admitted only sketchily to the inner lives of his heroines. To illuminate the contrast between Hardy's handling of such moments and that of a more traditional Victorian novelist such as George Eliot, I would like to examine two passages of inner musing by two of their heroines who seem the most alike, Gwendolen Harleth and Eustacia Vye. In each passage the strong-willed heroine experiences a moment of disillusionment, Gwendolen when Herr Klesmer informs her of her lack of talent and Eustacia when she realizes that Clym is content to remain a furze cutter. After Herr Klesmer leaves, Eliot's narrator reports Gwendolen's state of mind in the following way:

The “indignities” that she might be visited with had no very definite form for her, but the mere association of anything called “indignity” with herself, roused a resentful alarm. And along with the vaguer images which were raised by those biting words, came the more precise conception of disagreeables which her experience enabled her to imagine. How could she take her mamma and the four sisters to London, if it were not possible for her to earn money at once? And as for submitting to be a protégée, and asking her mamma to submit with her to the humiliation of being supported by Miss Arrowpoint—that was as bad as being a governess; nay, worse; for suppose the end of all her study to be as worthless as Klesmer clearly expected it to be, the sense of favours received and never repaid, would embitter the miseries of disappointment. Klesmer doubtless had magnificent ideas about helping artists; but how could he know the feelings of ladies in such matters? It was all over: she had entertained a mistaken hope; and there was an end of it.14

This rather unremarkable passage is an utterly typical instance of how Eliot (as well as most of her contemporaries) handles the thought processes of the important characters in her novels. Writing before the “discovery” of the stream-of-consciousness novel, authors of realist novels tended to rely heavily on a “blend” of voices—the character's and the narrator's—to convey their characters' inner musings. This blend (labeled free indirect speech by formal critics) basically consists of a reporting of the character's thoughts in the narrator's voice, marked linguistically by the idiom, semantics and emotive punctuation of direct speech. In the above passage, for example, Gwendolen's thoughts are reported in ordinary indirect speech up to the sentence beginning, “How could she take her mamma and the four sisters to London,” after which point they are couched in free indirect speech, indicated by the questions (“how could he know the feelings of ladies?”), the vocabulary (“as bad as being a governess”; “Klesmer doubtless had magnificent ideas”), and the overall sense of despair evinced by the abrupt phraseology (“nay, worse”; “It was all over … ; and there was an end of it”). In such passages we are made aware not only of what the character is thinking and feeling but also of the narrator's opinion of such musings; in the above passage, for instance, Eliot's narrator (as she so often does with Gwendolen) stands aside with a sort of ironic pity. Overall, such passages yield freer and more intimate access to a character's consciousness than either ordinary direct speech (“‘How can I take my mamma and four sisters to London?’ thought Gwendolen”) or ordinary indirect speech (“Gwendolen wondered how she could take her mother and four sisters to London”).

Hardy tends to eschew this device in favor of precise and detailed descriptions of his female characters' physical qualities, an entirely different mode of “knowing” them. After Clym confesses to Eustacia that he intends to stay on Egdon Heath, for example, we are told that

When he was gone she rested her head upon her hands and said to herself, “Two wasted lives—his and mine. And I am come to this! Will it drive me out of my mind?”

She cast about for any possible course which offered the least improvement on the existing state of things, and could find none. She imagined how all those Budmouth ones who should learn what had become of her would say, “Look at the girl for whom nobody was good enough!” To Eustacia the situation seemed such a mockery of her hopes that death appeared the only door of relief if the satire of Heaven should go much further.

Suddenly she aroused herself and exclaimed, “But I'll shake it off. Yes, I will shake it off! No one shall know my suffering. I'll be bitterly merry, and ironically gay, and I'll laugh in derision! And I'll begin by going to this dance on the green.”

She ascended to her bedroom and dressed herself with scrupulous care. To an onlooker her beauty would have made her feelings almost seem reasonable. …

It was five in the afternoon when she came out from the house ready for her walk. There was material enough in the picture for twenty new conquests.


The contrast in technique between this and Eliot's passage is obvious. Eustacia's thoughts and feelings are conveyed either directly (“Two wasted lives—his and mine …”; “But I'll shake it off,”) or indirectly (“She cast about …”; “She imagined …”; “To Eustacia the situation seemed …”). Within the latter mode, there are no indications of Eustacia's emotions or vocabulary: “mockery of her hopes,” “door of relief” and “satire of Heaven” (the most emotive of these indirect utterances) sound unequivocally like the dispassionate, observing narrator. And “observe” is exactly what this narrator does, inviting the reader to do the same. The sentence “To an onlooker her beauty would have made her feelings almost seem reasonable” encompasses a characteristic Hardyesque shift of perspective, from Eustacia's point of view to that of an unspecified, unobtrusive “onlooker.” Such unobtrusive refocusing is a device that occurs with great regularity in Hardy's representations of women characters, reaching its culmination in Tess of the d'Urbervilles, in which, as Kaja Silverman points out, the unspecified “onlooker” is invoked again and again. From this anonymous vantage point the narrator is free to distance himself from Eustacia and also to objectify her (her feelings “almost seem reasonable” from this purely external viewpoint, for example). When she emerges from the house, this viewpoint is still operational and her objectification is complete: Eustacia has become a “picture” which can only be interpreted from the outside. The sentences that follow simply elaborate on the details of this picture (“The rebellious sadness that was rather too apparent when she sat indoors … was cloaked and softened by her outdoor attire … ; so that her face looked from its environment as from a cloud, with no noticeable lines of demarcation between flesh and clothes” [305-6]).

The shift is subtle, but what has happened in this passage is a typical alteration of Hardy's narrative focus, from Eustacia's internal musing to her external appearance. The solid physical details of this appearance, so carefully and elaborately constructed and so freely interpreted by the observing narrator (the “rebellious sadness” is such an interpretation), produce the effect of “knowing” the character intimately, obscuring the fact that the consciousness being explored in such passages is not that of the female character at all, but that of the male observer. Ironically, this richness of detail in Hardy's descriptions of women has in fact helped to earn him the reputation of a novelist who portrays female characters with great sensitivity. Feminist critics, however, have noted that these portrayals are primarily physical; Rosalind Miles points out that “Hardy really is a lover of women in the fullest physical sense. E. M. Forster remarked that Hardy conceived his novels from a great height, but his females are drawn from very close up; there is an almost myopic insistence upon the grain of their skin, and texture of hair. Sound, scent, mouth, cheeks, downy plumpness—no detail of their physical presence is allowed to escape our senses.”15 This detailed portraiture is myopic in more than just a physical sense, serving to distract the reader's attention from what would otherwise seem a glaring omission of female consciousness.

That male consciousness is not elided in this way is a telling comment on Hardy's patriarchal bias; Jude, for instance, muses at length during Sue's and Phillotson's wedding in the following way:

By the time they were half way on with the service he wished from his heart that he had not undertaken the business of giving her away. How could Sue have had the temerity to ask him to do it—a cruelty possibly to herself as well as to him? Women were different from men in such matters. Was it that they were, instead of more sensitive, as reputed, more callous, and less romantic; or were they more heroic? Or was Sue simply so perverse that she wilfully gave herself and him pain for the odd and mournful luxury of practising long-suffering in her own person, and of being touched with tender pity for him at having made him practise it? He could perceive that her face was nervously set.


Except for the first and last sentences, this passage consists entirely of Jude's free indirect speech—endorsed, in this case, by the male narrator. The perplexed questions, the mournful chagrin, are a skillful rendition of Jude's mental processes at this crucial turn of events. Sue's perceptions, by contrast, are hardly ever rendered in this mode, even when she is alone and pensive (as she is when she buys the statuary, for example). The reader, like Jude, is left to “interpret” her thoughts from her actions and her dialogue, a fact that undoubtedly has much to do with the mystery that has always surrounded her character in the copious amounts of criticism it has occasioned.

We can see, then, that Hardy seems at once peculiarly intimate with and peculiarly dissociated from his female characters, creating an authorial distance from them that seems too close physically and too remote in other ways. His unwillingness or inability to explore the consciousness of his heroines has led to much critical bafflement as readers try to deal with the enigmatic personalities Hardy thus presents them with. Tellingly, his creations include no Lucy Snowe, Maggie Tulliver, or Dorothea Brooke with whom the female reader can readily identify; as Rosalind Miles points out, “Hardy women seem different from one another—Bathsheba is mistress, Fanny is maid, Tess is rounded while Sue is slight—but on closer examination they all prove to originate from one prototype. And the prototype, in its visual aspects at least, tends to be invidiously sexist, a mysterious, unpredictable and alien entity called woman, a dangerous signifier admitting of endless scrutiny (Miles remarks that Hardy “saw women as dangerous simply in being, to themselves as well as to men”).16

An analysis of the scopic elements of Hardy's novels on its own, in fact, points to the conventional patriarchal perspective of the rigidly differentiated, ambivalent male toward the castrated, castrating female other—which is why Laura Mulvey's analysis of the conventional (male) audience of the realist film fits Hardy so well. The angle of vision is from outside the female (hence we are not given her perspective) and obsessed with the female (hence we are given minutely detailed, fetishistic portraits of her). The look that is thus brought into play—the male look of desire, of curiosity, of control—is especially evident in the unobtrusive “shifts” of narrative focus I have described, which inevitably culminate in what Judith Bryant Wittenberg calls the “voyeuristic moment” (“the moment in which the seeing subject and the seen object intersect in a diegetic node that both explicitly and implicitly suggests the way in which the world is constituted in and through the scopic drive”).17

Is there no answer, then, to my opening question? Can the enlightened female reader of the late twentieth century no longer read or enjoy Hardy's novels? And if she can enjoy them, what kinds of pleasure might they afford? Clearly the old pleasure of immersion in the realist text, the uncritical acceptance of a fictional precoded reality, is no longer possible for such a reader, just as it is no longer possible for the viewer of a realist film. Of her own analysis of the phallocentric viewing paradigm inherent in realist cinema, Laura Mulvey readily admits that “There is no doubt that this destroys the satisfaction, pleasure, and privilege of the ‘invisible guest,’ and highlights how film has depended on voyeuristic active/passive mechanisms. Women, whose image has continually been stolen and used for this end, cannot view the decline of the traditional film form with anything much more than sentimental regret” (428). This loss of pleasure, of course, comes as no surprise to the postmodern reader, who is abundantly aware that the ideological examination of realism—in any of the arts—inevitably entails such a close analysis of representational structures themselves. And the losses are more than offset by the gains of such a process, presumably, as the reader achieves a dispassionate critical distance from patriarchal novelistic forms. One possible pleasure Hardy's female reader can undoubtedly derive from his texts, then, is the sheerly intellectual satisfaction of unravelling the ideological ambiguities of her former somewhat blinkered enjoyment, an exercise that is particularly rewarding with an author like Hardy, whose novels can be seen as excellent examples of Myra Jehlen's point that “A work may be … quite wrong and even wrongheaded about life and politics and still an extremely successful rendering of its contrary vision.”18

Also, we need to remember that Hardy's “scopic economy” is only one (albeit an important) aspect of his narrative achievement. If we examine his novels from the point of view of their “narrative grammar,” for instance—a term Laura Mulvey uses in “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’”—they appear in a wholly different light. For although the gaze in Hardy's novels is relentlessly male, the narratives themselves invariably place a female character at the center of the action in precisely the same way that Mulvey describes in the “woman-orientated strand” of melodrama in classical cinema: “Introducing a woman as central to a story shifts its meanings, producing another kind of narrative discourse. … The landscape of action, although present, is not the dramatic core of the film's story, rather it is the interior drama of a girl caught between two conflicting desires. The conflicting desires … correspond closely with Freud's … oscillation between ‘passive’ femininity and regressive ‘masculinity.’ … Now the female presence as centre allows the story to be actually, overtly about sexuality. It is as though the narrational lens had zoomed in … to focus on the figure of the princess, waiting in the wings …, to ask ‘what does she want?’”19 These “two conflicting desires,” according to Mulvey, are represented by the heroine's choice between the law-abiding “hero” (who represents her passive, feminine, socially acceptable self) and the exciting “villain” (who represents her active, masculine, regressive self). Ultimately, neither of these choices is adequate, because “although the male characters personify [her] dilemma, it is their terms that make and finally break her,” and the heroine is “unable to settle or find a ‘femininity’ in which she and the male world can meet.” In other words, there is no place for such a heroine either in the hero's masculine symbolic or in the villain's phallic, regressive rebellion against it. Hardy's novels, interestingly, can also be viewed in this way, as the “narrative grammar” of many of them follows exactly the pattern Mulvey describes, with a central heroine (Bathsheba, Eustacia, Tess, Sue) caught between two potential partners, neither of whom is entirely satisfactory. And, like Mulvey's melodramas, such texts can be viewed as implicit protests against the cultural marginalisation of the feminine, opening up an empathic narrative position with which the female reader/spectator can comfortably and pleasurably align herself.

Hardy's female reader, therefore, will undoubtedly continue both to applaud his feminism and to deplore his sexism, sensing simultaneously in his novels their “narrative grammar,” which empathizes so deeply with the plight of the culturally marginalized female, and their “scopic economy,” in which male consciousness is explored subjectively while female consciousness is quietly and systematically elided. The tension between these two aspects of Hardy's representation of women, in fact, makes his work one of the richest and most complex sources of feminist commentary in the realist novel. It is no wonder that Hardy's novels perplex and fascinate his female reader, yielding a peculiarly ambivalent kind of pleasure. In their representation of women, they function both as indignant condemnations of the ideological atrocities of patriarchy, and—ironically, paradoxically—as formidable examples of such atrocities themselves.


  1. Katherine Rogers, “Women in Thomas Hardy,” Centennial Review 19 (1975): 257.

  2. Annette Kuhn, “Real Women,” in Feminist Criticism and Social Change, ed. Judith Newton and Deborah Rosenfelt (New York: Methuen, 1985), 268. In this paper I use “realism” in the same broad, general sense that Mulvey uses it, to refer simply to “the codes and conventions … that articulate a flowing, homogeneous coherent fictional time, space and point of view” (“Changes: Thoughts on Myth, Narrative and Historical Experience,” in Visual and Other Pleasures, ed. Laura Mulvey, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989, 164, originally published in Discourse in 1985).

  3. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Women and the Cinema: A Critical Anthology, ed. Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1977), 427, originally published in Screen in 1975, hereafter cited in the text.

  4. Mary Ann Doane, The Desire to Desire: The Woman's Film of the 1940's (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 19, 117. See also Teresa de Lauretis, Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 142.

  5. Laura Mulvey, “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ inspired by King Vidor's Duel in the Sun (1946),” in Visual and Other Pleasures, 29, 33.

  6. Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism After Structuralism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), 49.

  7. Judith Bryant Wittenberg, “Early Hardy Novels and the Fictional Eye,” Novel 16 (Winter 1983): 152.

  8. Elaine Showalter, “The Unmanning of the Mayor of Casterbridge,” in Critical Approaches to the Fiction of Thomas Hardy, ed. Dale Kramer (London: Macmillan, 1979), 102.

  9. Sarah Kent, “Looking Back,” in Women's Images of Men, ed. Sarah Kent and Jacqueline Morreau (New York: Writers, 1985), 59-60.

  10. Helena Michie, The Flesh Made Word: Female Figures and Women's Bodies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 112.

  11. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966), 203.

  12. Doane, Desire to Desire, 100.

  13. Kaja Silverman, “History, Figuration and Female Subjectivity in Tess of the d'Urbervilles,Novel 18 (Fall 1984): 10-11.

  14. George Eliot, Daniel Deronda (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 224. Subsequent references are to this edition.

  15. Rosalind Miles, “The Women of Wessex,” in The Novels of Thomas Hardy, ed. Anne Smith (London: Vision, 1979), 31.

  16. Ibid., 28, 27.

  17. Wittenberg, “Early Hardy Novels,” 151.

  18. Myra Jehlen, “Archimedes and the Paradox of Feminist Criticism,” in The “Signs” Reader: Women, Gender, and Scholarship, ed. Elizabeth Abel and Emily Abel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 192.

  19. Mulvey, “Afterthoughts,” 35.

Laura Green (essay date summer 1995)

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SOURCE: Green, Laura. “‘Strange [in] Difference of Sex’: Thomas Hardy, the Victorian Man of Letters, and the Temptations of Androgyny.” Victorian Studies 38, no. 4 (summer 1995): 523-49.

[In the following essay, Green addresses the concepts of gender relations and androgyny in A Pair of Blue Eyes and Jude the Obscure.]

When Thomas Hardy finished his last novel, Jude the Obscure (1896), this son of a provincial stone-mason had already attained the status of a literary lion. At his death some thirty years later, his ashes were placed in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey. In fact, the macabre details of Hardy's interment dramatize the persistent division in his identity as a self-made man of letters. Fellow literary men J. M. Barrie and Sydney Cockerell quickly arranged for the Abbey ceremony, but Hardy's own instructions and the feelings of his family directed that he be laid in the churchyard at Stinsford, the parish of his birth, with his parents, grandparents, and first wife. The compromise reached was that his heart should be removed from his body and buried at Stinsford and the rest of him cremated and placed in the Abbey. This queasy division of the spoils epitomizes the conflict between origins and attainments that haunted Hardy throughout his career. The struggle between his widow, Florence Dugdale Hardy, and Sydney Cockerell, first over his physical and then over his literary remains, inflects that division with a further distinction of gender.1 Florence Hardy seems to embody claims of domesticity and blood kinship, while Cockerell and Barrie represent a masculine, public literary eminence. This schema tellingly links femininity to the foregone realm of origins, masculinity to the triumphant realm of becoming, but it does not fully capture the complexity of the gender and class identifications of the self-made man of letters whose position Hardy exemplifies.

A conventionally Victorian opposition between the domestic and social demands of women and the intellectual development of the male protagonist does recur in Hardy's novels; for example, Jude the Obscure imagines as one explanation for Jude's failure the financial, sexual and emotional claims made on him by Arabella and Sue: “Strange that his first aspiration toward academical proficiency had been checked by a woman, and that his second aspiration—toward apostleship—had also been checked by a woman,” Jude muses (228). But intellectual leanings are not restricted to Hardy's male protagonists: Elfride Swancourt in A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) and the eponymous heroine of The Hand of Ethelberta (1876) are both storytellers; other Hardy heroines, including Bathsheba Everdene, Grace Melbury, and Sue Bridehead, have educational attainments that set them apart from, and have the potential to raise them above, their immediate surroundings. Indeed, specifically artistic and aesthetic impulses—Ethelberta's storytelling, Elfride's novel, Felice Charmond's brief acting career in The Woodlanders (1887)—are generally associated with women. When we consider the circumstances of Hardy's own career, it is clear that these heroines represent not an antithesis to the ambitions of the author, but an expression of them.

The autobiographical Life of Thomas Hardy (1928), with its notorious evasiveness about Hardy's antecedents and thorough chronicling of his later society connections, reveals that Hardy's own literary aspirations were embedded as much in the social restlessness of Eustacia Vye or Grace Melbury as in the reforming intellectual zeal of Clym Yeobright or Angel Clare. Hardy's position resembles that of his heroines to the extent that their intellectual development often becomes the means of improving their social standing. Unlike his heroines, Hardy had for the achievement of his ambitions, social and financial as well as intellectual, vehicles other than the traditionally feminine one of prudent marriage. His assault on the fiction market after his first marriage is a reminder that the image of the novelist as engaged primarily in self-expression, and only latterly in professional negotiation, has always been an idealization of a profession whose relationship to profit was covert almost from its inception.2 As Peter Widdowson writes, “Hardy, in deciding to become a writer, had a careful eye on the market and its requirements. This is borne out by his response to the earliest criticisms from publishers' readers, editors, and reviewers of his first works” (134). In the pursuit of publication, Hardy was willing to alter plot elements and prose to placate nervous journal editors, and he was typical rather than exceptional in his attention—shared by Charles Dickens and George Eliot, among others—to the financial details of publication, reproduction, and copyright.

Hardy's oblique identification with the ambitions of his heroines is not idiosyncratic but revealing of the feminized structure of the literary market-place, and particularly the production of fiction. The novel was considered the most feminized Victorian literary genre, partly because of its alleged intellectual informality. George Eliot's mid-century pronouncement was typical: “No educational restrictions can shut women out from the materials of fiction, and there is no species of art which is so free from rigid requirements” (Eliot, “Silly Novels” 162). Whether or not this openness actually existed, the emphasis on the femininity of fiction obscured the fact that it was not only women of all classes who were excluded by their gender from the elite institutions (prep schools and universities) which controlled access to cultural capital and authority: men of the working and lower-middle classes suffered “educational restrictions” too. As Mary Poovey writes,

Even though literacy was increasingly available to members of the lower classes, access to the world of professional letters was still determined in the first instance by one's ability to write in a certain way, with an acceptable breadth of allusion, and according to recognized paradigms, genres and modes of address.


That access was determined by both class and gender. Once the man of letters achieved some success, however, an antecedent exclusion from elite institutions might be ideologically recuperated as a benign seclusion. Like the discourse of separate spheres which apotheosized the domestic angel as above the capitalist fray, “literary discourse … acquir[ed] its moral authority by its (putative) distance from the ‘masculine’ sphere of alienation and market relations” (Poovey 125).3 The price of this recuperation was thus the borrowing of a feminine model, and to some extent a devaluation of the very activity—novel-writing—being redeemed. That devaluation, partly a consequence of feminization, no doubt contributed to the disdain that Hardy always expressed for his novel-writing career, and his insistence that poetry was his true métier.

Social advancement subjected the successful man of letters to another feminizing structure. Although the designation of genius might be under the control of a largely male literary elite, it was women who conferred the respectability and status without which genius could not be fully publicized and enjoyed. “Cultivated” society was putatively a sphere of female power, whose norms were determined by feminine sensibility and judgments and administered by upper-class women. A nostalgic novelistic tradition—in evidence, for example, in Great Expectations—suspects upward mobility as emasculating in itself, representing working-class masculinity as more virile, because subject to physical and material rather than mental and emotional laws, than its upper-class counterpart. (The same tradition, of course, codes working-class femininity as deficient: even cleaned up and elevated from drudge to domestic influence, Biddy remains unacceptable for Pip.) Unfortunately for the working-class hero, intellectual and social achievement can be registered fully only within a sphere defined not only by its distance from physical labor but also by the prominence of feminine judgments codified as domesticity in the middle class, and “society” among the elite. From Dickens to Hardy to Lawrence and beyond, therefore, the aspiring male protagonist who is educated out of his provincial, working-class background suffers the loss of his original conceptions of masculine identity and social reality. No longer able to share the masculinity of his father—the blacksmith, the builder, the coal miner—he must find new standards for the creation of his adult masculine identity.4 One such standard seems to be the ability to attract women of observable social and intellectual worth (Estella for Pip; Elfride for Stephen Smith; Ursula Brangwen for Rupert Birkin) over whom the male protagonist attempts to display his new dominance.

On a continuum with Dickens as the exemplary Victorian male novelist, Lawrence the representative Modern, and Hardy the hinge of late-Victorian/proto-Modern sensibility, it is not surprising that Hardy's representation of the anxiety of feminization at the heart of Victorian intellectual masculinity is the most divided. The suspicion of the feminine exemplified in the early A Pair of Blue Eyes gives way to the temptation of androgyny in Jude the Obscure. In A Pair of Blue Eyes, the attraction between the literarily-inclined, working-class male protagonist and the clever middle-class heroine eventuates in her death and is rerouted into an alliance between the hero and an older, middle-class man whose values he shares; the novel is partly structured by the misogyny of what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has termed “male homosocial desire.” In Jude the Obscure, an attraction between Jude Fawley, of similarly humble antecedents, and Sue Bridehead, somewhat arbitrarily rendered as possessing middle-class, feminine refinement, also suggests that heterosexual alliances, particularly across real or apparent class lines, are fatal. Jude the Obscure, however, is much more reflective than the earlier novel in its estimation of the shaping pressure of gender on intellectual aspiration. In its lack of interest in masculine solidarity, its insistence on the similarities between its male and female protagonists, and, most important, its tentative exploration of the attractions of androgyny, Jude [Jude the Obscure] is the most radical as well as the most pessimistic of Hardy's novels. The excessive and finally irresolute force of Hardy's representations of gender conflict illuminates a more general late-Victorian struggle to construct an acceptable literary masculinity. Indeed, if Hardy, despite the frequent misogyny of his narrative voice and plotting, remains a compelling figure for feminist criticism, it is precisely because of his recognition of the pyrrhic quality, and frequent failure, of patriarchal resolutions.


A Pair of Blue Eyes is partly a jeu d'esprit along the lines of many of Hardy's poems, an ironical but pastoral quadrille. Its rigid formal structure is matched by a stark division between male friendship and mentorship on the one hand, and heterosexual attraction and romantic love on the other. The plot turns on the class difference between Stephen Smith, a young, self-educated architectural clerk who is the son of a master-mason and a dairy-woman, and Elfride Swancourt, the daughter of a snobbish rector, who sings prettily, rides well, and often writes her father's sermons. When Stephen is dispatched by his employer to Swancourt's parish to restore the church, he and Elfride fall in love, encouraged by Swancourt, who does not know that Stephen's parents are among the lower ranks of his own parishioners. On Swancourt's outraged discovery of Stephen's antecedents, the lovers attempt to elope, but Elfride gets cold feet, and Stephen goes to work in India while she promises to wait for him. Meanwhile, Elfride writes and publishes, anonymously, a medieval romance that is reviewed, anonymously (and scathingly), by Henry Knight, a man of letters who has been Stephen's mentor. Knight and Elfride become acquainted; he makes light of Elfride's intellectual pretensions; naturally, she falls in love with him and abandons her secret engagement to Stephen. The triangle ends tragically, as Stephen, upon his return, silently yields Elfride to Knight; Knight, however, discovers the history of the abortive elopement and casts her off. Despairing, Elfride marries the local lord of the manor, miscarries, and dies. Stephen and Knight, each of whom has independently decided to ask for her hand again, find themselves on the same train to what turns out to be her funeral; having arrived as bitter rivals, they depart united in grief.

From the outset, the mentor/ephebe relationship between Stephen and Knight conflicts with the romance between Stephen and Elfride. When Stephen first mentions Knight to Elfride, she protests, “‘I don't care how good he is; I don't want to know him, because he comes between me and you. You think of him night and day, ever so much more than of anybody else; and when you are thinking of him I am shut out of your mind’” (64). The novel posits an exclusive relationship between gender and kind of companionship: women like the capricious Elfride possess emotional and sexual attractions, but only men can provide intellectual support and act as role models. “‘I shall try to become [Knight's] intimate friend some day,’” Stephen tells Elfride, “‘… he came originally from the same place as I, and taught me things; but I am not intimate with him. Shan't I be glad when I get richer and better known, and hob and nob with him!’ Stephen's eyes sparkled” (64). It is difficult to tell whether intellectual, social, or quasi-romantic aspirations put the sparkle in Stephen's eyes. But without distinguishing among these possibilities, Elfride intuits that mentorship is an alternative to marriage, a funnel for ambition that will leave her, despite her graces, out in the cold.

The notion that the companionship of women—even, or perhaps especially, intelligent ones—threatened the communal retention of male privilege found its ideological application in the latter part of the century in the debate over the higher education of women. In her study of women novelists of Somerville College (Oxford), Susan Leonardi identifies fear as the prime motivation for nineteenth-century opposition to women's establishment at Oxford: “First … fears that the character of Oxford as a haven for the intellectual life and a ground for the establishment of male relationships would be diluted by the presence of women; second, fears that women themselves would change in various ways to the detriment of men and society” (20). In a complementary analysis, Linda Dowling has demonstrated that the Victorian construction of masculinity at Oxford appropriated the language of “Hellenism,” or identification with the Greek republican ideal, to give value to male homosexual desire and homosocial community. Using the Greek ideal to associate heterosexuality with effeminacy, this appropriation, in Dowling's brilliantly paradoxical account, also played on fears of social disintegration. Although A Pair of Blue Eyes is not concerned with institutional developments, it certainly dramatizes a masculine fear of the dilution of male relationships and “intellectual life” by the distraction of heterosexual desire, even borrowing from a Hellenistic vocabulary of masculine ardor, as when Stephen muses over the fact “that his rival should be Knight, whom once upon a time he had adored as a man is very rarely adored by another in modern times” (238). At the same time, however, Stephen Smith is not a member of the Oxford elite for whom homosocial community might enshrine real privileges. On the contrary, responding to his mother's suspicions of Elfride, he exclaims, “Why, to marry her would be the great blessing of my life—socially and practically, as well as in other respects” (89).

One of Hardy's own letters gives some clue to what a Stephen Smith (or a Jude Fawley) might find both appealing and frightening about such a heterosexual alliance; he complained to one of his early female correspondents of “having been denied by circumstances until very lately the society of educated womankind, which teaches men what cannot be acquired from books, and is indeed the only antidote to that bearishness which one gets into who lives much alone” (Millgate 149). The terms of this apparently self-denigrating compliment echo a passage from George Eliot's Middlemarch, published a few years before, in which the infatuated and doomed Lydgate tells Rosamond Vincy: “‘An accomplished woman almost always knows more than we men, though her knowledge is of a different sort. I am sure you could teach me a thousand things—as an exquisite bird could teach a bear if there were any common language between us’” (131). Eliot's deeply ironic formulation—Lydgate is later forced to reflect, “It seemed that [Rosamond] no more identified herself with him than if they had been creatures of different species” (487)—makes plainer than Hardy's the compensatory structure and dangerous ignorance of such obeisances to feminine cultivation. Intended to foster the skills to palliate or complement masculine intellect without interfering with its privileges, the distinction between accomplishments and learning establishes a heterosexual economy that circulates opposing and unfulfillable desires.

The triangulated, rivalrous relations among Stephen, Elfride, and Knight partly exemplify the narrative structure of male homosociality identified by Sedgwick. In a defining moment of that structure, according to Sedgwick, masculine bonds are strengthened across class distinctions by the destruction of a woman. Central to this outcome is “the scene wherein male rivals unite, refreshed in mutual support and definition, over the ruined carcase of a woman. … The spectacle of the ruin of a woman … is just the right lubricant for an adjustment of differentials of power” between men (Sedgwick 76). A Pair of Blue Eyes concludes with such a moment, as Knight and Stephen, previously unable to respond to each other outside of a frame of condescension/adulation defined by their relative class positions, “side by side … retrac[e] their steps down the grey still valley to Castle Boterel” (371). Yet the elegiac mood of this conclusion makes it difficult to see its protagonists as “refreshed”; and the scene before them emphasizes not only the ruin of Elfride, but also the distance of both men from the class position of her aristocratic widower. The triangle in A Pair of Blue Eyes, in other words, points less to the recuperation than to the failure of masculinity—particularly intellectual masculinity—in its encounter with heterosexuality and the feminine.

Furthermore, the novel's triangle can be viewed as emblematic of individual psychology rather than social relations: that is, Stephen and Henry are younger and older, less and more successful, versions of the same self—united by their resemblance to their creator. Hardy claimed that if any character in A Pair of Blue Eyes was autobiographical, it was Henry Knight rather than Stephen Smith (Life [Life of Thomas Hardy] 76), but one might equally say that the resemblance is divided between them: Stephen is the eager young architect's apprentice that Hardy was, Knight the man of letters he might have imagined himself becoming. In this developmental model, male maturity depends on the nature of a man's relationship to a woman: homosocially directed desire is routed through heterosexual attraction even when its object is a projection of the self. Immature men, such as Stephen, are patronized by, feel inferior to, or actually are the social or intellectual inferiors of the women to whom they are attracted; mature, successful men neutralize that inferiority by reversing it. In A Pair of Blue Eyes, however, no men actually attain such maturity. Both Stephen Smith and Henry Knight remain notably effeminate. On first meeting Stephen, Elfride reports to her father: “‘His face is—well—pretty; just like mine’” (16). In a paragraph of extraordinarily tortured prose, we are told that Stephen shares with Elfride an “inflammable disposition”: “Elfride's emotions were sudden as his in kindling, but the least of woman's lesser infirmities—love of admiration—caused an inflammable disposition on his part, so exactly similar to her own, to appear as meritorious in him as modesty made her own seem culpable in her” (24). The sense of the passage is that Stephen has a responsiveness that Elfride approves because it flatters her vanity; but the syntax emphasizes the likeness between Stephen and Elfride (“so exactly similar to her own”) and even, briefly, suggests that “woman's … infirmities” are being attributed to Stephen. Again, after the two reach an understanding, Elfride tells Stephen she loves him “‘because [he is] so docile and gentle.’” Stephen is conscious that something is amiss in Elfride's admiration: “‘Those are not quite the correct qualities for a man to be loved for,’ said Stephen, in a rather dissatisfied tone of self-criticism” (63). Hardy seems ambivalent about not only his hero's possession of feminine qualities, but also the significance of those qualities:

[Stephen's] constitution was made up of very simple particulars; was one which, rare in the springtime of civilizations, seems to grow abundant as a nation gets older, individuality fades, and education spreads; that is, his brain had extraordinary receptive powers, and no great creativeness. Quickly acquiring any kind of knowledge he saw around him, and having a plastic adaptability more common in woman than in man, he changed colour like a chameleon as the society he found himself in assumed a higher and more artificial tone.


On the individual level, progress up the social ladder from physical to mental labor is not necessarily amenable to traditionally masculine methods (forcible or adversarial) of self-advancement but may call upon the dubious and perhaps degenerate social skills—artifice, adaptability—by which women, in the history of the novel at least, more frequently rise. At the same time, Stephen's effeminacy is generalized to English culture as a whole by its association with the effeteness of an aging civilization.

The transfer of Elfride's affections to Henry Knight, however, and the resulting narrative attention to him, raise the possibility that Stephen's effeminacy may be a function of his youth rather than his constitution. In Stephen's eyes, certainly, Knight represents a more virile model of the man of letters, particularly because he is not associated with fiction. To Elfride's query, “‘Is [Knight] only a reviewer?’” Stephen replies with ardent pomposity that his position is “‘finer than being a novelist considerably. … He really is a literary man of some eminence. … He writes things of a higher class than reviews. … His ordinary productions are social and ethical essays’” (64). But Hardy does not share Stephen's naïveté: if he identified with Knight, then the debacle of Knight's romantic career (which shatters, at least temporarily, his literary one) has the character of a self-admonishment. Hardy speculates that Knight is a “bachelor by nature” (186), and rapidly demonstrates that Stephen and Knight himself are mistaken in thinking that intellectual power and achievement amount to virility. Once Knight falls in love, his man-of-the-world pose collapses. Elfride's charms play upon an “imagination … fed up to a preternatural size by lonely study and silent observation of his kind—[and] emotions … drawn out long and delicate by his seclusion, like plants in a cellar,” while “several years of poetic study, and, if the truth must be told, poetic efforts, had tended to develope [sic] the affective side of his constitution still further, in proportion to his active faculties” (298). In other words, like a woman (and like Stephen), he is sensitive, receptive, and imaginative. He is also less sexually experienced than Elfride, who has been kissed before, so that at the moment when he seems to have arrived at the fulfillment of masculine sexual triumph, he can experience only its humiliating absence: “How childishly blind he must have seemed to this mere girl! How she must have laughed at him inwardly!” (297). Knight is wrong in imagining that Elfride has been mocking him for his lack of sexual experience—she has, rather, been fearing his discovery of her own—but his extreme reaction demonstrates the tenuousness of sexual superiority: his ability to dominate her verbally becomes irrelevant in the light of the single kiss she has shared with Stephen.5

The idea of male maturity as—tenuously—invested in the ability to demonstrate intellectual and sexual superiority to women who are themselves of a superior class marks not only Hardy's novels but also the progress of his career, which is punctuated by relationships with literarily-inclined women of varied class backgrounds. These begin with the middle-class respectability of his first wife, Emma Gifford (like Elfride Swancourt, a rector's daughter), attain a social peak with friendships with socialites such as Florence Henniker and Agnes Grove, and culminate in his marriage to Florence Dugdale, whose antecedents and ambitions closely resembled his own. That final marriage might seem socially anti-climactic, but Hardy's marriages and his society friendships represent different negotiations of sexual, social, and intellectual standing.

Both sets of relationships are structured by a tension between reciprocity and disavowal. The marriages, at least at the outset, seem to have been imagined as working partnerships, in which both partners invested their ambitions and abilities in a single product—Hardy's intellect. Robert Gittings, for example, provides an account of the joint educational effort early in Hardy's first marriage:

Under Hardy's direction, [Emma] had set herself to copy into a stout ruled notebook the extracts from books and newspapers he had made in previous years, and to bring them up to date with quotations from his recent reading. The raw material for a self-taught and self-improving novelist was laid out neatly in her still-schoolgirl hand, and by the beginning of April 1876, she had provided him with over 200 entries. … Emma's labour was clearly designed to provide fodder for his future productions.


Florence Dugdale, who married Hardy after his career as a novelist had ended, served as his amanuensis in a more direct project of self-making. She had been a journalist and children's book author: after the marriage, her greatest literary contribution was the hoax of the autobiographical Life of Thomas Hardy, written in the third person by Hardy, collated and typed by Florence, and published under her name. This fiction, which might seem to publicize Florence Hardy as a writer, paradoxically serves to obscure her: though the name is hers, the voice that it circulates is his. The Life simultaneously advertises the feminine, in its attribution and its celebration of Hardy's connections with society women; exploits it, in the harnessing of Florence's name and labor; and erases it, in its general reticence about both Florence and Emma. Hardy's literary career, then, can be viewed as the single product of triple labor and ambitions. Since there is no evidence that either Emma or Florence Hardy possessed great literary talent, the allocation of resources was no doubt efficient, but it was also clearly determined by, and representative of, prevailing gender arrangements. The marriage of Jane Welsh and Thomas Carlyle, for example, displays a similar structure, including the subsuming of Jane's literary ambitions, the division caused by Carlyle's attraction to the society hostess Lady Harriet Ashburton, and his regret for his neglect after Jane's death.6 In their self-representation as men of letters, Hardy and Carlyle typify a complex pattern, disavowing the feminizing labor and ambition in which their middle-class wives had participated and which they had witnessed, but displaying associations with upper-class women as the sign of their achievement.

If Hardy's relationships with socialites tended less to subsume the women, they nevertheless suggest a functionalist and formalized model of heterosexual reciprocity. Women such as Florence Henniker, daughter of Lord Houghton, “one of the best-known hosts in Europe,” who was “from her earliest years … accustomed to high society, cosmopolitan and literary” (Gittings 72), were not dependent on Hardy for the fulfillment of their social aspirations. But if their attentions assured and signified his achievement, his in turn ratified their intellectual seriousness. This reciprocal structure is largely static, a minuet in which each partner must perform a single step, male intellect guiding female accomplishment, female accomplishment emulating—from an admiring distance—male intellect. When Hardy met Florence Henniker in 1893, she had already published three novels; Hardy nevertheless approached her as raw material, offering himself as her literary mentor. He collaborated with her on a short story, “The Spectre of the Real,” edited her prose, advised her on publication, and wrote to agents and publishers on her behalf. “‘Speaking very generally,’” he wrote to her on one occasion, “‘I think you are not likely to be treated very badly: one reason is that you being a friend of mine would make a publisher remember that you are likely to know the tricks of the trade’” (Hardy and Pinion 32). Similarly, he wrote to her in 1896: “Many thanks for your little ‘Brand of Discord’ which I have read; and like everything about it except the title. It is as good as anything you have done, and resembles rather the work of an experienced writer than of a novice” (Hardy and Pinion 58); in that same year, Florence Henniker was elected President of the Society of Women Journalists. Henniker may indeed have benefited by Hardy's greater fame, experience, and aesthetic judgment; nevertheless, he seems as much to be constructing a fantasy of a woman in need of his mentorship as assisting one who actually was. J. M. Barrie wrote after Hardy's death: “I have read the letters to Mrs. Henniker. … I rather grudge her being a writer at all, and indeed I believe [Hardy] did also. … She was delightful and cultured and could take him on holiday from himself (for which I bless her). …” (qtd. in Hardy and Pinion xxviii). Considering the degree to which Hardy strove to aid Florence Henniker's literary career, we might conclude that Barrie, as he half admits, is simply projecting his own unselfconsciously “grudging” response to female intellect. But the diminutives Hardy consistently applied to her work (“your little ‘Brand of Discord’”) and his condescension accord with Barrie's interpretation.7 Hardy's interest in Florence Henniker's literary work appears to be largely an occasion for him to demonstrate his intellectual superiority in a relationship whose social benefits were controlled by her.


The foregoing analysis suggests that while on the one hand, the masculinity of the man of letters is threatened by his proximity to the position of middle-class women in noticeable exclusion from cultural capital, on the other, he is dependent upon women both for practical aid and for the ratification of his social standing. In this context heterosexual reciprocity is essentially hostile, since it is based on the granting or withholding of social and intellectual, as well as (or under cover of) sexual, favors. While Jude Fawley's relationship with Sue Bridehead is certainly represented as a dizzying succession of intellectual advances and sexual withdrawals on her part, Jude the Obscure nevertheless attempts to replace this combative reciprocity with something closer to mutuality or alliance. Jude's marriage to Arabella exaggerates the convention according to which women represent the undertow of sexual desire and financial thralldom. Jude and Sue, by contrast, grope toward a model of mutual fulfillment.

The nineteenth-century reception of Hardy's novels generally exemplifies the condescension that a male author of Hardy's class and educational background might expect from reviewers. Victorian women writers, also excluded from elite educational institutions, were famously castigated for not conforming to the expectation that they would write about emotional or romantic situations, rather than intellectual or political ideas; but women were by no means alone in being patronized or dictated to about their proper style and subject-matter. Even as Hardy became the preeminent living English novelist, reviewers continued to object to his choices of vocabulary and setting when they departed from the pastoral. However consciously or ironically he might take as a theme inequities of access to language and erudition, Hardy's tendency to put in the mouths of his characters the same range of allusions that he himself had acquired annoyed his critics and gave them frequent opportunities to put him in his place—which, they felt, was in the country. For example, the Quarterly Review's reader, Mowbray Morris, pronounced of Tess [Tess of the d'Urbervilles]:

[Hardy] is too apt to affect a certain preciosity of phrase which has a somewhat incongruous effect in a tale of rustic life; he is too fond—and the practice has been growing on him through all his later books—of … making experiments in a form of language which he does not seem clearly to understand, and in a style for which he was assuredly not born. It is a pity, for Mr. Hardy had a very good style of his own once, and one moreover excellently suited to the subjects he knew and was then content to deal with.

(qtd. in Lerner 86-87)

The Fortnightly's reviewer, too, objected that Hardy “will make [Tess] talk sometimes as the author of Far from the Madding Crowd is often wont to write” (qtd. in Lerner 87). The two objections are not identical: the first is that Hardy expresses himself incongruously, the second that he makes his characters do so as well. But as the second criticism makes clear, the two are essentially one: rural, lower-class and sometimes female speakers, including Hardy himself, are grasping after “a style for which [they were] … not born”—they are, in other words, transgressing class and (in Tess's case) gender boundaries. Perhaps accidentally, the criticism also points to the gender transgression in Hardy's authorial identification: despite his notorious specular objectification of Tess, they share that “ache of modernism” that incorporates both the ambition to transgress boundaries and the fear of their dissolution.

This standard criticism of Hardy's language, in fact, ignores the degree to which Hardy's conscious subject is the use of language and intellect as a means and sign of such transgression. Linguistic pedantry occurs with remarkable frequency in moments of flirtation or jockeying for position between male and female characters. Crucial moments in The Woodlanders (1887), for example, display this structure. Grace Melbury, meeting Fitzpiers in the woods as she searches for a purse she has lost, invokes Robinson Crusoe. “‘Indeed, money is of little more use at Hintock than on Crusoe's island; there's hardly any way of spending it.’” Fitzpiers interrupts his speculation about who gave her the purse in order to pay her a pompous compliment: “‘You unconsciously practice [the cardinal virtues], Miss Melbury. … According to Schleiermacher they are Self-control, Perseverance, Wisdom, and Love; and his is the best list that I know’” (107-08). Here, the intention of the lovers seems to be merely to impress each other with their cultivation; but such exchanges can be more sinister. At the end of the novel, Fitzpiers, having married Grace and then been extravagantly unfaithful to her, attempts to win her back by persuading her that his feelings have matured:

“It is a different kind of love altogether … less passionate; more profound. It has nothing to do with the material conditions of the object at all; much to do with her character and goodness, as revealed by closer observation. ‘Love talks with better knowledge, and knowledge with dearer love.’”

“That's out of Measure for Measure,” said [Grace] slily.

“O yes—I meant it as a citation,” blandly replied Fitzpiers.


The adverbs—“blandly” and “slily”—suggest that the speakers are consciously using “citation” as a form of manipulation. Fitzpiers attempts to impress Grace with a relatively esoteric reference; when she recognizes its source, he must claim that he was intending not to impress her but simply to refer to a mutual fund of knowledge. In either case, he is under the imputation of rhetorical calculation that is not entirely consistent with the expression of unabashed admiration. Erudition, in other words, is a social and romantic weapon or medium of exchange, not simply a result or sign of “intellect.”

The reception of Jude the Obscure, though by no means unanimously negative, certainly occasioned some of the most spectacular attacks on both Hardy's narrative and his moral practices. In addition to criticizing its moral dubiousness, reviewers on the whole found Jude the Obscure a markedly divided narrative, because they were unable (or unwilling) to recognize the similarities between Jude's situation and Sue's. Thus the Saturday Review essay celebrates the centrality of the “working man” and chastises other journals for their attention to “the peculiar matrimonial difficulties of Jude's cousin Sue” (qtd. in Lerner 136). “After you have read Jude the Obscure,” wrote another reviewer, “your thoughts run in two separate channels cut by Mr. Hardy's two nearly separate purposes. Your opinion of the book will largely depend on which you regard as the main one. These purposes are wound in with the history of Jude and history of Sue” (qtd. in Lerner 130). Jude's story is regarded, on the whole, as that of “a man of the people with the native instincts of the scholar” (qtd. in Lerner 130), whereas in the words of Edmund Gosse, who finds (contra the Saturday Review) that “the vita sexualis of Sue is the central interest of the book,” her story is “a terrible study in pathology” (qtd. in Lerner 120, 121).

Reviewers could overlook the fact that Sue's story was one of intellectual ambition, and Jude's one of sexual weakness, partly because tradition assigns the woman the sexual, and the man the intellectual, role in narratives of the Fall. In fact, Jude the Obscure challenges precisely such distinctions between character as socially contingent and character as inherently constituted and, most fundamentally, between masculine and feminine fulfillment. If the novel is explicitly concerned with Jude's intellectual aspirations and their failure, it is equally explicitly concerned with Sue's intellect,8 while, despite the fascination exerted by Sue's sexual peculiarities, it is Jude whose sexual appetite precipitates the tragic action. It is not clear whether Jude's failure to attain even the smallest of his academic and theological ambitions proceeds from a social injustice (the lack of access to Oxford for those without money) or a constitutional failing (his weaknesses for women and liquor): he himself gestures toward both explanations (344-45). Similarly, we can never be sure whether Sue Bridehead owes her undoubted capriciousness to her individual constitution, or to some flaw inherent in femininity itself: both explanations are advanced at different times.9

As his preface to the 1912 Wessex edition of Jude reveals, Hardy himself had mixed feelings about the novel's topical appeal and contribution to narratives of gender conflict and class struggle, as well as its protagonists' degree of representativeness. It is certainly the novel that most consistently and overtly represents its protagonists' struggle for, and self-conscious use of, a mastery of the culture of humane letters, but it is not narrowly autobiographical, any more than Eliot's Mill on the Floss is. For one thing, Hardy—like Eliot—withheld from his fictional characters his own successes. It is, however, as the reader for the Saturday Review observed, “The first time in English literature [that] the almost intolerable difficulties that beset an ambitious man of the working class—the snares, the obstacles, the countless rejections and humiliations by which our society eludes the services of these volunteers—receive adequate treatment” (qtd. in Lerner 136). In that sense it does give voice to the forming consciousness of a class to which its author certainly belonged, much as Jane Eyre was understood to give voice to a kind of female experience shared by its author. In both cases, reviewers were inserting the novels into a cultural narrative rather than considering how they might complicate that narrative: just as Jane Eyre is hardly credible in the role of revolutionary “mouthpiece … to plead the cause of governesses” (Rigby 176), so too Jude is an unlikely “ambitious man of the working class,” with all the industrial, urban resonances that such a description would have had in the 1890s. His rattling of the gates of Christminster has a distinctly modern quality, but he is an artisan, a product of rural rather than urban disintegration.

Hardy, in any case, resisted his own implication in the narrative of “intolerable difficulties,” protesting perhaps too much against any connection between Jude's academic struggles and his own. In the Life he asserted that he “was not altogether hindered going [to University], at least to Cambridge, and could have gone up easily at five-and-twenty” and gave a number of different reasons for his failure to do so (216, 296-97, 467). In the preface to Jude, he asserts that both the state of marriage law and the “difficulties down to twenty or thirty years back of acquiring knowledge in letters without pecuniary means” (xxxviii) were simply part of the story's “tragic machinery” (xxxvii); at the same time he notes, with a detachment behind which it seems possible to detect some pride, that he “was informed that some readers thought … that when Ruskin College was subsequently founded it should have been called the College of Jude the Obscure” (xxxviii). He similarly both asserts and distances himself from Sue's centrality as a contemporary type, coyly attributing to an unidentified “experienced reviewer of [Germany]” the opinion that “Sue Bridehead … was the first delineation in fiction of the … woman of the feminist movement—the slight, pale ‘bachelor’ girl—the intellectualized, emancipated bundle of nerves that modern conditions were producing, mainly in cities as yet” (xxxviii).

Hardy's desire both to claim and to disavow topicality reflects not only his own reluctance to identify with the struggles of the class from which he had risen, but also the position of the novel as a genre in the late-Victorian period. Topicality and particularity—the detail of lived life—are the realist novel's distinguishing motivation; but its distinguishing justification, particularly in the nineteenth century, is human and temporal universality. The role of art, according to a bourgeois and essentially conservative aesthetic, is to encourage not specific, or political, action, but general, or moral, contemplation. The novel, that is, properly engages topical themes in order to resolve them by evading topical outcomes. By the 1890s, the almost universally reprobated “New Woman” novel had become the epitome of the potentially scandalous topicality of the novel form. Not only did it focus unabashedly on a (female) particular as opposed to the (male) universal, and on the materiality of sex rather than the abstraction of romance, but it also deformed the relationship between realism and reality by encouraging speculation that the scandalous activities of its protagonists resembled those of its authors. Many critics who disparaged Jude did so by associating it with “New Woman” narratives; it is against this categorization as merely and scandalously topical and personal that Hardy claims, though hesitantly, that Jude is rather “the fable of a tragedy, told for its own sake as a presentation of particulars containing a good deal that was universal, and not without a hope that certain cathartic, Aristotelian qualities might be found therein” (xxxvii).

Yet it is not simply out of stubborn incomprehension that reviewers tended to focus on Hardy's representation of Sue's “pathological” sexuality. Although I will argue that he uses it to different ends, the vocabulary that Hardy finds for Sue's physical and emotional peculiarities is, like that of much “New Woman” fiction, clearly drawn from the contemporary scientific controversy over female intellect that I call “gynecological anti-feminism.” The early Victorian discourse of Woman had been couched in the metaphorical vocabularies of literature, religion, and philosophy; the domestic angel who was the subject of debate through the 1860s remained a largely incorporeal figure. She grew more substantial as actual, middle-class women began to demand first social privileges (access to elite forms and institutions of education; employment in the professions) and then political ones (the suffrage). By the 1870s, when colleges for women had been established at both Oxford and Cambridge, it was apparent that the wall of educational disability keeping middle-class women from the exercise of civic and economic power was bound to fall. At that time, the proto-scientific theorizing about women and gender difference of such philosophers as Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer, emphasizing the separate and specialized roles of women as mothers and nurturers of the race, was joined by more assertively scientific accounts of sexual differentiation such as Darwin's The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871).10 Evolutionary theory influenced the medical domains of psychiatry and gynecology, which increased their descriptive and prescriptive power over women, in what it is tempting to regard as a direct response to women's encroachments into education, politics, and the regulation of sexual morality.

The focus of conservative anxiety, then, was the spectre of middle-class female power; the contemporaneous educational demands of working-class men—the mechanics' institutes, working-men's colleges, and university extension movement—failed to generate a similarly unified repressive discourse. Indeed, as the reception of Jude suggests, the two large social groups excluded from the educational advantages of middle- and upper-class men—men and women of the laboring classes and women of the middle and upper classes—rarely perceived themselves, and were rarely represented, as sharing either a class interest or a common symbolic significance within the culture. In Jude the Obscure, however, intellectual and educational aspiration form the first link between the male and female protagonists. The novel participates ambivalently in the fin-de-siècle representation of the educated woman as monstrously unsexed, representing that “monstrosity” as intensely attractive. At the same time, it reveals its hero as at least partly feminized, and insists on the similitude between hero and heroine. Thus, although proposing no political alliance between the working-class man and the middle-class woman, the novel nevertheless attempts to rescue the androgynous intellect, figured in Sue Bridehead, from the discourse of gynecological anti-feminism.

An exemplary early text of that discourse, written by a psychiatrist in whose theories of degeneracy Hardy was interested (Dale 207), is Dr. Henry Maudsley's “Sex in Mind and Education” (1873), published in the Fortnightly Review. Maudsley's fundamental concern is the propagation—or extinction—of the race. Scorning to palliate his argument by appeals to maternal instinct or rewards, he asserts that women's education must take into account “their peculiar functions and … their foreordained work as mothers and nurses of children. Whatever aspirations of an intellectual kind they may have, they cannot be relieved from the performance of those [maternal] offices so long as it is thought necessary that mankind should continue on earth” (471). According to Maudsley, the period of menarche that enables these “offices” is so physiologically stressful for women, and the recurrence of the “periodical functions” so disruptive, that the proper development of reproductive capacities is inconsistent with significant intellectual labor. Thus women's intellectual aspirations are absolutely limited by the imperative to reproduce. When women ignore this imperative, the result is a monstrous androgyny that threatens humanity itself:

It may be the plan of evolution to produce at some future period a race of sexless beings who, undistracted and unharassed by the ignoble troubles of reproduction, shall carry on the intellectual work of the world, not otherwise than as the sexless ants do the work and the fighting of the community.

. … Sex is fundamental, lies deeper than culture, cannot be ignored or defied with impunity. You may hide nature, but you cannot extinguish it. Consequently it does not seem impossible that if the attempt to do so be seriously and persistently made, the result may be a monstrosity—something which having ceased to be a woman is not yet a man—“ce quelque chose de monstrueux,” which the Comte A. de Gasparin forebodes, “cet être répugnant, qui déja paraît a notre horizon.”


Although Maudsley does not himself use the word “androgynous,” the figure he envisions comports with the word's Victorian usage: “uniting the (physical) characters of both sexes, at once male and female” (OED). Although Maudsley imagines such a unity only in terms of loss and monstrosity, his futurist pessimism certainly shares an imaginative universe with the Hardy not only of the contemporaneous A Pair of Blue Eyes, but also of the later Jude. Stephen Smith's chameleon-like constitution, “rare in the springtime of civilization,” implies a wintry, effete future; Sue sounds very much like Maudsley when she tells Jude that “‘Everybody is getting to feel as we do [about marriage]. We are a little beforehand, that's all. In fifty, a hundred, years the descendants of these two will … see weltering humanity still more vividly than we do now … and will be afraid to reproduce them” (301). But Hardy lacks Maudsley's monolithic conviction that the evolution of heterosexual relations can only signal degeneration. Perhaps because of his experience, as a man of letters, of gender ideology as both metastatic (lending its structure, for example, to the class position of the man of letters) and confining, Hardy in Jude fitfully envisions the androgynous future as utopian. For example, Jude muses on his death-bed that his and Sue's “ideas were fifty years too soon to be any good to us” (422-23), implying that those ideas might become more appropriate in some better future state. Furthermore, rather than invoking “Nature” to ratify the social status quo, as Maudsley does, Hardy represents the conflict of natural and social “law” as a human tragedy against whose effects both men and women must be expected to struggle.

If Hardy's portrait of Sue revises the image of female degeneracy that dominated the anti-feminist discourse of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, it does so less by denying Maudsley's vision than by revealing that “something which having ceased to be a woman is not yet a man” can inspire longing as well as repugnance. Sue Bridehead's significant sexual appeal for a number of the novel's male characters is, in fact, inseparable from her cerebral epicenity. Hardy's representation of that appeal draws somewhat haphazardly on conflicting discourses of the feminine. An Hellenic aesthetic, recalling the homosocial structure of A Pair of Blue Eyes, appears in the celebration of Sue's eroticized boyishness at the expense of the blowsy, female animal represented by Arabella: seeing Sue in his own suit, which she puts on after having walked through a river, Jude compares her to a “marine deity” and a “figur[e] in the Parthenon frieze” (149); she looks, to Jude's admiration, “boyish as a Ganymedes” (159). This boyishness, however, blends into an incorporeality itself open to conflicting interpretations. Sometimes the admiration of both the narrator and Jude of Sue as a “phantasmal, bodiless creature” (272) participates in the Victorian mythology of feminine passionlessness. “‘The average woman is in this superior to an average man—that she never instigates [sexual passion], only responds,’” Sue claims (372), echoing various Victorian dicta that “In [women], the desire [for sex] is dormant, if not non-existent, till excited” (W. R. Greg, qtd. in Poovey 5). Sometimes her disembodiment seems more like a Maudsleyesque anomaly, associated with an unusually developed intellect: “‘My life has been entirely shaped by what people call a peculiarity in me,’” Sue explains, “‘I have no fear of men, as such, nor of their books. I have mixed with them … almost as one of their own sex’” (152). The confusion of representational strategies suggests that a vocabulary for celebrating the attractions of the androgynous woman eludes Hardy. Nevertheless the coexistence in Sue of androgynous or even masculine traits with more conventionally feminine attractions emerges very clearly.

Visiting his aunt at Marygreen, Jude is presented with a series of verbal snapshots of the child Sue, first reciting poetry, “the smallest of them all, ‘in her little white frock, and shoes, and pink sash’” (114) and then, according to Jude's aunt's neighbor, as “‘not exactly a tomboy … but [a girl who] could do things that only boys do, as a rule’”:

“I've seen her hit in and steer down the long slide on yonder pond, with her little curls blowing. … All boys except herself. …”

These retrospective visions of Sue only made Jude the more miserable that he was unable to woo her, and he left the cottage of his aunt that day with a heavy heart. He would fain have glanced into the school to see the room in which Sue's little figure had so glorified itself; but he checked his desire and went on.


“Not exactly a tomboy,” Sue is nevertheless able to “do things that only boys do,” whether sliding on the ice or reading advanced literature; and it is the combination of that capacity with her “white frock,” “little curls,” and “little figure” that renders her so desirable. Sue herself is conscious of the appeal of her unconventional combination of gender attributes: Hardy often represents her as attempting to control male demands through demonstrations of erudition. “‘Say those pretty lines, then, from Shelley's “Epipsychidion” as if they meant me!’ she solicited, slanting up closer to [Jude] as they stood. ‘Don't you know them?’ ‘I know hardly any poetry,’ he replied mournfully” (257). Sue has just annoyed Jude by informing him that she intends their elopement to be celibate; Hardy's choice of verbs—“solicited” and “slanting”—as well as Sue's pointed question, suggest that her behavior is consciously both sexually stimulating and intellectually diminishing to her partner, who indeed responds with resigned obedience to her wishes. Informing Phillotson that she wishes to leave him for Jude, she quotes Mill in support of her plan, leading her unfortunate husband to exclaim, “‘What do I care about J. S. Mill! … I only want to lead a quiet life!’” (page #). In the first instance, Sue's rather magical, if superficial, access to cultural capital gives her an advantage over Jude that appears as a class advantage; she is the refined lady, he the rustic clown. In the second, an ability—however ludicrous in certain instances—to move fluidly between ideas and feelings gives her an advantage over Phillotson, who is finally persuaded by the combination of emotional appeal and intellectual argument.

Despite the strained quality of the argument between Sue and Phillotson, in fact, the habit of metaphysical discussion—particularly that between Sue and Jude—appears, generally, less anomalous in this novel than elsewhere, precisely because the inseparability of emotional and intellectual aspiration is the novel's actual subject. When Sue, having impulsively run away from her training college, spends the night in Jude's lodgings, dressed in his clothing, they flirt uneasily:

“You called me a creature of civilization, or something, didn't you?” she said, breaking a silence. “It was very odd you should have done that.”


“Well, because it is provokingly wrong. I am a sort of negation of it.”

“You are very philosophical. ‘A negation’ is profound talking.”

“Is it? Do I strike you as being learned?” she asked, with a touch of raillery.


Unlike the sparring of Grace and Fitzpiers, or Sue's jarring pedantry when she confronts Phillotson, the exchange has a rhythm of natural banter appropriate to the situation of an unconventional female student and an intellectually ambitious artisan who, isolated by their aspirations, unexpectedly discover in each other kindred spirits. For Jude and Sue are, in fact, both tremendously isolated. They are not entirely cut off from the institutional resources of their class and era: Sue passes a scholarship exam and enters the teacher's Training College at Melchester (which will qualify her for the career pursued by both of Hardy's sisters), and Jude attends public lectures and is briefly the leading light of the “Artizans' Mutual Improvement Society.” But Sue runs away from her college when she is placed in solitary confinement after being out all night with Jude; Jude is forced to resign from the Mutual Improvement Society's committee when the irregularity of his marital status becomes known. The thrust of the novel, then, is to demonstrate the insufficiency of such institutions, which appear to offer their constituents opportunities to develop intellectually, but in fact attempt to confine them to the most conventionally respectable paths, and refuse to acknowledge the depth of their emotional and intellectual hungers.

Sue's piquant manipulation of gender attributes, however, coexists with its opposite: a disdain for the hostile reciprocations of conventional heterosexuality. Jude finds what he terms her “epicene tenderness … harrowing,” but reflects: “If he could only get over the sense of her sex, as she seemed to be able to do so easily of his, what a comrade she would make. She was nearer to him than any other woman he had ever met” (159). This proximity, or similarity, is emphasized throughout the novel. There is, it is true, a submerged class contrast in their relationship, which, if carried through the novel, would make Sue merely the emblem and prize of Jude's ambition. Although her actual origins are no more exalted than his, she is refined and urbane in contrast to Jude's clownishness: “She was quite a long way removed from the rusticity that was his,” he thinks on his first view of her (90). But this antithesis is overwhelmed by the novel's emphasis on their likeness, which everyone perceives. “‘What counterparts they were!’” Jude reflects when Sue comes to him for refuge (149). They are soon able to read each other's thoughts: “When they talked on an indifferent subject … there was ever a second silent conversation passing between their emotions, so perfect was the reciprocity between them” (213). Phillotson, explaining why he is allowing Sue to elope with Jude, says, “I found from their manner that an extraordinary affinity, or sympathy, entered into their attachment. … Their supreme desire is to be together—to share each other's emotions, and fancies, and dreams” (242-43). Penny Boumelha has demonstrated that their lives follow very similar patterns (14-42), and Elizabeth Langland argues that “Through kinship and twinship with Sue, Jude seeks an alternative to the frustrating constructions of his masculinity that his culture holds out” (Higonnet 33).

If he seeks such an alternative, however, he does not achieve it: the ability to combine masculine and feminine traits is contained within Sue. Despite their likeness, Jude's gender make-up is more static. He does display conventionally feminine susceptibilities, particularly in his disgust with the cruelties of farm life, which activate the equally conventional association between feminization and social ambition. He feels sorry for animals: he makes common cause with the crows that he is supposed, as a young boy, to be scaring away, and after his marriage, his inability to kill a pig properly causes the practical Arabella to call him a “tender-hearted fool” and Jude to feel “dissatisfied with himself as a man at what he had done” (65)—not because he has done a bad job of killing the pig, but because he has done it at all. (He owes part of this susceptibility to the early advice of Phillotson to “be kind to animals and birds, and read all you can” [4-5]; and Phillotson, too, is a man of uncertain virility, particularly in his sexual relations.) The young Jude also, like Henry Knight, has an affective relationship to the classics he studies as he labors, impulsively kneeling one moonlit night to recite a poem of Horace to Diana. But if Jude seems feminized in the context of the relatively harsh surroundings of Marygreen, such references drop off after he leaves for Christminster, where the emphasis is rather on his rusticity in contrast to what he imagines as Christminster refinement. Hardy seems to imply that women are more able to achieve and maintain an androgynous ideal partly for that most Victorian of reasons—their lesser sexual impulses. Jude, on the other hand, always finds Sue's sexless androgyny painful as well as attractive.

Jude the Obscure's fantasy of androgyny, then, embodied more fully in its female than in its male protagonist, does not fully erase the “sense of sex.” The novel reveals that it is easier for Hardy to imagine the dissolution of gender than of class boundaries, and to do so by challenging the conventions of femininity rather than those of masculinity. Furthermore, no fantasy of classlessness parallels the yearning for androgyny; the class conflict incipient in Jude's ambition to matriculate at Christminster is subsumed, in the tradition of the domestic novel, by the novel's warped but recognizable marriage plot: social and intellectual conflicts become conflicts, conventionally, over romantic attraction—and less conventionally over its legalities. And both Jude and Hardy fall back on gender-essentialist characterizations to explain the thwarting of Jude's aspirations. “‘Strange difference of sex,’” muses Jude, as he lies dying, “‘that time and circumstance, which enlarge the views of most men, narrow the views of women almost invariably’” (422). Sue Bridehead and Jude Fawley look toward a future that may never come and that may be terrible if it comes at all. Nevertheless, it is possible to discern in Jude the Obscure the outlines of a critique of the mutual operation of class and gender boundaries in blighting the aspiration of the male and female subjects they define. Early in the novel, Jude lies in bed contemplating the collapse of his Christminster dream. “If he had been a woman,” Hardy writes, “he must have screamed under the nervous tension which he was now undergoing. But that relief being denied to his virility, he clenched his teeth in misery” (128). Jude the Obscure itself is the long scream of the Victorian man of letters whose social ascendancy remained in nervous tension with his sexual identity.


  1. For the conflicts over Hardy's interment and the literary executorship, see Millgate 574-77 and Gittings 211-13. Millgate writes that “[o]nce Hardy was dead Cockerell and Barrie began to assert their male authority over what Cockerell (in a letter to his wife) had already referred to as ‘the housefull of women’” (574). Gittings emphasizes particularly the contrast between “[Hardy's] humble beginning [and] his exalted ending” (211).

  2. For a summary of the tensions in the construction of the literary profession, particularly in the nineteenth century, see Poovey 101-108.

  3. In her definition of “literary discourse” Poovey does not distinguish significantly between fiction and non-fiction prose. Carol T. Christ, in her analysis of Carlyle's “The Hero as Man of Letters,” points out that “In Carlyle's construction … the novel['s] … feminization provides the only exception to his heroic masculinization of the world of letters” (20). I am suggesting, like Poovey, that the field of literature in general was structurally feminized (hence the need for heroic masculinization); I am distinguishing the novel, however, as particularly subject to feminization for the reasons discussed below.

  4. A succinct twentieth-century summary of this theme is “England versus England,” by Doris Lessing, whose short stories often reduce the class and gender negotiations of the English fictional tradition to their essence.

  5. A similar working out of this theme—a man's disappointment at discovering that a woman's intellectual dependency does not guarantee her sexual innocence—occurs, of course, in Tess. Like Elfride's and Knight's, Tess's and Angel's relationship is marked by the woman's intellectual submission to the man. “‘When I see what you know, what you have read, and seen, and thought, I feel what a nothing I am,’” Tess says to Angel at the beginning of their courtship (107). Like Elfride, Tess attempts to conceal within this submission the evidence of what she has seen, and thought—and done; like Knight, Angel enjoys the sense of intellectual superiority—“‘I should be only too glad, my dear Tess, to help you to anything in the way of history, or any line of reading you would like to take up—’” he responds—and when he finds that it is balanced by a superiority of sexual experience on the woman's side, he casts her off.

  6. On the marriage of Jane Welsh and Thomas Carlyle, see Rose 25-44 and 243-59.

  7. Florence Hardy, too, divined an unspoken resentment of her writing: “I have a feeling, deep within me,” she wrote, “‘that my husband rather dislikes my being a scribbling woman’” (qtd. in Gittings 161).

  8. Her husband, the schoolmaster Phillotson, says that “[h]er intellect sparkles like diamonds, while mine smoulders like brown paper” (241). The narrator describes her as having “an intellect [that] scintillated like a star” (361), and Jude calls her “a woman-poet, a woman-seer, a woman whose soul shone like a diamond—whom all the wise of the world would have been proud of” (369) and “a woman whose intellect was to mine like a star to a benzoline lamp” (422).

  9. On this point, see Langland, who argues that “Sue both is and is not a typical woman depending on Jude's psychosocial investment in her. At those points when he fears he will lose her, he tends to brand her typical of her sex to distance himself from his need for her” (39).

  10. For an overview of nineteenth-century socio-biological theories of sexual differentiation as they bear upon the construction of femininity, see Russett. For a more detailed account than I can give here of “the growing medicalisation of sexuality” during the latter half of the nineteenth century, see Boumelha 11-25. For further examples of gynecological anti-feminism and another discussion of Jude the Obscure and late-Victorian constructions of femininity, see Brady.

Works Cited

Boumelha, Penny. Thomas Hardy and Women: Sexual Ideology and Narrative Form. Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1982.

Brady, Kristin. “Textual Hysteria: Hardy's Narrator on Women.” The Sense of Sex: Feminist Perspectives on Hardy. Ed. Margaret Higgonet. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993. 87-131.

Christ, Carol T. “The Hero as Man of Letters.” Victorian Sages and Cultural Discourse: Negotiating Gender and Power. Ed. Thaïs E. Morgan. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

Dale, Peter A. “Thomas Hardy and the Best Consummation Possible.” Nature Transfigured: Science and Literature, 1700-1900. Ed. John Christie and Sally Shuttleworth. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989.

Dowling, Linda. Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Eliot, George. “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” Selected Essays, Poems, and Other Writings. Ed. A. S. Byatt and Nicholas Warren. New York: Viking Penguin, 1990.

———. Middlemarch. Ed. and intro. David Carroll. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Gittings, Robert. Thomas Hardy's Later Years. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1978.

Hardy, Evelyn, and F. B. Pinion, eds. One Rare Fair Woman: Thomas Hardy's Letters to Florence Henniker, 1893-1922. London: Macmillan, 1972.

Hardy, Thomas. Jude the Obscure. Ed. and intro. Patricia Ingham. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

———. The Life and Works of Thomas Hardy. Ed. Michael Millgate. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1985.

———. A Pair of Blue Eyes. Ed. Alan Manford. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

———. The Woodlanders. Ed. Dale Kramer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

———. Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Ed. Juliet Grindle and Simon Gatrell. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Higgonet, Margaret, ed. The Sense of Sex: Feminist Perspectives on Hardy. Urbana and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Langland, Elizabeth. “Becoming a Man in Jude the Obscure.The Sense of Sex: Feminist Perspectives on Hardy. Ed. Margaret Higgonet. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993. 32-48.

Leonardi, Susan. Dangerous By Degrees: Women at Oxford and the Somerville College Novelists. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989.

Lerner, Lawrence, and John Holmstrom, eds. Thomas Hardy and His Readers: A Selection of Contemporary Reviews. London: The Bodley Head, 1968.

Maudsley, Henry. “Sex in Mind and in Education.” Fortnightly Review n.s. 21 (1874).

Millgate, Michael. Thomas Hardy: A Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Poovey, Mary. “The Man-of-Letters-Hero: David Copperfield and the Professional Writer.” Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Rigby, Elizabeth. “Vanity Fair—and Jane Eyre.Quarterly Review 84 (1848): 153-85.

Rose, Phyllis. Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages. New York: Random House, 1984.

Russett, Cynthia Eagle. Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Widdowson, Peter. Hardy in History: A Study in Literary Sociology. London: Routledge, 1989.

Dan Jacobson (essay date winter 1996)

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SOURCE: Jacobson, Dan. “Thomas Hardy: The Poet as Philosopher.” American Scholar 65 (winter 1996): 114-18.

[In the following essay, Jacobson states that reviewers have often ignored the sophisticated philosophy which led Hardy to test the limits of the use of language in his poetry.]

Hardy as philosopher? The philosophizing of Thomas Hardy? Say the words out loud or write them down—and a series of other words and phrases follows inexorably. Pessimism. Gloom. Melancholy. Fate. Meaninglessness. The impossibility of faith. The mysterious workings of chance. The malignity of coincidence. Tragedy. Morbidity. Decadence. (That last term is T. S. Eliot's contribution, in After Strange Gods, to the critical lexicon.) Sooner or later Edmund Gosse's famous put-down is also bound to come to mind: “What has Providence done to Mr. Hardy that he should rise up in the arable land of Wessex and shake his fist at his Creator?”

Even readers devoted to Hardy's work will know why it provokes responses of this kind. Angel Clare's woebegone parody of Browning—“God's not in his heaven: all's wrong with the world”—may be dramatically appropriate to his character and to the critical moment in Tess of the d'Urbervilles at which he utters it. But we can hardly doubt that Clare is speaking there not just for himself but for his creator too; that he is expressing an attitude, an emotion, a belief, even a kind of proselytizing impulse, that is found almost everywhere in the oeuvre. There is something damagingly recognizable in the half-conscious enthusiasm of Clare's reflection—in the relish, at once minatory and faintly comic, with which it enunciates its own despair.

In any case, Hardy frequently expresses similar sentiments in both the novels and the poems without making any attempt to “mediate” them through the consciousness of a fictional character. The final, famous comment on the execution of the heroine of Tess of the d'Urbervilles “‘Justice’ was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess”—is a case in point. So is the passing reference in The Mayor of Casterbridge to “the ingenious machinery contrived by the Gods for reducing human possibilities of amelioration to a minimum.” (Offered as an explanation, almost as throttling as the noose looped around Tess's neck, of why Henchard will make no further effort to resist the successive blows that life, or the novelist, has dealt against him.) Or to take almost at random an example from the poems:

But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
—Crass casualty obstructs the sun and rain
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. …
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.

—“Hap” (The ellipsis in the passage is Hardy's own.)

The persistence of these attitudes, emotional prepossessions, and habits of mind—and the depth at which they were held—certainly entitles them to the dignity of being described as “a reaction to the universe.” That was a phrase that John Middleton Murry coined in trying to explain why each of Hardy's works affects us as part of “a vaster and more comprehensive whole.” Although he was writing at that point about the poetry, Murry was convinced that the verse and the fiction were essentially of a piece; and, on the face of it, there is enough misery, regret, chagrin, and wistfulness in both bodies of writing, as well as a sufficient supply of wretched coincidences and unhappy endings, to justify this view. Nevertheless, I want to argue that some of the poems, at least, have an additional quality that is peculiar to them alone. Hardy's overall “reaction to the universe” is certainly discernible in them. But so is something else. In mode and intention, these poems manage to be genuinely philosophical as well.

Traditionally the philosopher's task has been that of trying to develop articulate, settled systems of thought about the nature of the world, about the moral constitution of mankind, and about the grounds and modalities of knowledge itself. Traditionally, too, it was expected that the arguments advanced by a thinker within any one of these areas of inquiry would be coherent not just with themselves, as it were, but also with those put forward in the other two, regardless of the differences in emphasis between them.

Obviously no such system, or interlocking set of systems, is to be found in Hardy's poems. So what justification is there for the claim I have just made about them, or some of them? For an answer, I turn first to Schopenhauer—a grand philosophical system builder in the traditional manner, who, as it happens, used to be held in special esteem by literary people, among them Tolstoy and Hardy himself. “The philosophical disposition,” Schopenhauer wrote, “consists especially in our being capable of wondering at a commonplace thing of daily occurrence, whereby we are induced to make the universal [i.e., the entire class] of that phenomenon our problem.” (Italics in the original.)

In starker (or more Hardyesque) terms, Schopenhauer goes on:

Undoubtedly it is the knowledge of death, and therewith the consideration of the suffering and misery of life that give the strongest impulse to philosophical reflection and metaphysical explanations of the world. If our life were without end and free from pain, it would possibly not occur to anyone to ask why the world exists, and why it does so in precisely this way.

And again:

Not merely that the world exists, but still more that it is such a miserable and melancholy world, is the punctum pruriens [tormenting problem] of metaphysics.

For the mass of people, Schopenhauer then suggests, the “wonder” and “torment” of which he speaks can be allayed only by religious belief and practice. For a much smaller, more reflective number, however, nothing will suffice but the development of, or an adherence to, a metaphysical system of the kind he himself had already developed when he wrote the above words. (The quotations have been taken from volume 2, chapter 7, of The World as Will and Representation.) Nothing else had the power to free them from their “perplexity,” as he puts it on another page, about the world in which they find themselves. We have, on the one hand, therefore, the majority who have to rely on religious dogma and ritual, and, on the other hand, philosophers and their followers. And the rest of us? I mean those people who experience something of the wonder and the torment Schopenhauer has described, who reject the consolations of religious belief, and yet who lack the capacity or the appetite for sustained, abstract argumentation with themselves and their peers that is necessary for the creation, or the sympathetic comprehension, or the critical destruction, indeed, of a fully fledged metaphysical system. What are they to do? How are they to cope?

Well, they can always fall back on their habitual reaction to the universe, whatever that may be—as Hardy often did in his novels and poems; and as most of us do, in quasi-automatic fashion, both at times of crisis and in states of mere reverie. In other poems, however, we find Hardy doing something else, something more surprising. It is as if the brevity of the poetic forms he customarily adopted, the concentration it permitted on single episodes and single issues—rather than on entire lives or groups of lives—enabled him to go back to the original condition from which Schopenhauer insists all philosophical thought springs; and not only to go back to it but, remarkably enough, to remain there.

I quote Schopenhauer's words again: “The philosophical disposition consists especially in our being capable of wondering at a commonplace thing of daily occurrence, whereby we are induced to make the universal [the entire class] of that phenomenon our problem.” Surely that sentence can in itself be thought of as an accurate and even touching description of the movement of mind and emotion we find over and over again in the most impressive of Hardy's poems.

Hardy wrote verse from his adolescence onward, though he began bringing out his poems only after his last-published, though not his last-written, novel, The Well-Beloved, had appeared in 1897. In the remaining twenty years of his life, he published nine more volumes of poetry, his final collection, Winter Words, coming out posthumously in 1929. He also wrote a verse-drama on the Napoleonic Wars, The Dynasts, which appeared in three parts between 1904 and 1908. His decision to abandon fiction and confine himself to verse owed something to the hostile reception given to Jude the Obscure, on the grounds of the novel's supposed obscenity; but the biographical and literary evidence shows that poetry was anything but a pis aller for him. Rather, it could be called his earliest as well as his last calling.

Anyone looking into an edition of the collected poems for the first time might be struck by two apparently contradictory features of the large volume. The first is the uniformity of Hardy's poetry; the second is its variety. By uniformity I mean that it is impossible to trace any kind of development, any growth or decline in power, any change in subject matter, technique, or even emotional tone, from the beginning to the end of his poetic career. No doubt this is in part due to the fact that he had been accumulating poems or drafts of poems for so long before appearing in public as a poet; these were then drawn in irregular fashion into his successive books. The result is that the felicities of his verse are found as frequently in the first collection as in the last; so are the lapses into awkwardness and bathos to which he was always prone; so are those turns of phrase and rhyme that somehow combine the felicitous and the awkward in a manner unlike anything to be found elsewhere in English poetry.

There are of course sequences of poems that plainly belong to one or another specific period of Hardy's life—those he wrote during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), for example; or, even more notably, those written after Emma Hardy's death in 1912, which celebrate and mourn the brief period of happiness he and she had known together, as well as the decades of conjugal misery that followed. (Readers of the available accounts of Hardy's life are likely to feel that they can hardly imagine a more unhappy marriage than his to Emma. Then they go on to learn about his second marriage, to Florence.) However, groups of poems like those just mentioned do not differ in style or vocabulary from the rest of his output; they appear intermixed with others that could have been produced at any time during his adult life; even the themes, moods, and preoccupations that they explore with their own special intensity are familiar from other contexts and in other guises.

So much for what I have called the “uniformity” of the verse. As for its “variety,” he wrote hundreds of dramatic, descriptive, and meditative poems of all kinds, lyrics, love songs, ballads, sonnets, drinking songs, character sketches, poems on public issues and events (the sinking of the Titanic, the outbreak or the ending of wars, an eclipse of the moon), tributes to other poets (Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats, Swinburne), as well as poems that combine these genres, or elements of them, in unexpected ways. The verse forms, rhythms, and rhyme schemes he used vary from poem to poem in what seems to be a positively compulsive manner. No particular form is matched consistently to any particular genre or type of subject matter. (Blank verse, however, appears only in The Dynasts; all of Hardy's other poetry is rhymed.) To complicate matters still further, he will frequently begin a poem in one elaborate stanzaic form, frequently a form newly invented for the occasion, only to switch to another halfway through; sometimes he will then return to the original form before the end of the poem, sometimes not.

The effect of all this is bound to be, intermittently at least, one of “toomuchness.” The formal restlessness of the poet, and the ingenuities of rhyme and syntax into which it frequently drives him, can make an almost childlike impression at times. Nor is it unfair to call childlike some of the delight that Hardy takes in his dramatic and narrative verse especially, in melodramatic coincidences very much like those to be found in the novels, or in a sepulchral spookiness, also reminiscent of much to be found in the prose. However, the word “childlike” can be used with a more interesting and honorific purpose in mind—one that has a direct relevance to the claims I am making here.

I refer once again, and for the last time, to Schopenhauer's “wonder” at “a commonplace thing of daily occurrence” and at the human capacity to make “the universal of that phenomenon our problem.” Consider “Proud Songsters”:

The thrushes sing as the sun is going,
And the finches whistle in ones and pairs,
And as it gets dark loud nightingales
          In bushes
Pipe, as they can when April wears,
          As if all time were theirs.
These are brand-new birds of twelve-
          months' growing,
Which, a year ago, or less than twain,
No finches were, nor nightingales,
          Nor thrushes,
But only particles of grain,
          And earth, and air, and rain.

The “commonplace” here is the annual din of birdsong that rises to the ears even of city dwellers every spring. To define the “entire class” of the phenomenon that has become “our problem” is a more difficult matter. We can come closest to it, I believe, by way of a question—a childlike question, if you like. Where were we, what were we before we came into existence? (“We,” here, refers to all living things.) Alternatively that question could be put in terms more abstract or general still: one might say that the poem speaks of the baffling incommensurability between life (with all its movement and purposes) and the insentient matter out of which it emerges, by which it is surrounded, and to which it eventually returns. However, a complementary and more familiar question in this context is bound to be suggested by my last phrase; Shakespeare's Hamlet, among many others, was famously tormented by it. What becomes of us, what transformations does the material of which we are composed undergo after our death? And what do such transformations tell us about the sense of individual selfhood that we prize so highly while we possess it—or are possessed by it? Not surprisingly, Hardy deals more often in his poems with the question in this form than he does with the startling inversion of it—the unique inversion of it, so far as I know—presented in “Proud Songsters.”

Moving as they constantly do from the commonplace occurrence to the general case, and back again, many of Hardy's poems grapple with a variety of other childlike questions of this kind. What is it like to be dead? What is it like never to have lived? How much of the dead lives in us and how does it show itself? Why is it, or how is it, that I can become aware of this rock or leaf or table when it knows nothing of me? How is it that I can retrace my steps in space and can never go back in time? Or is it actually easier for me to retrace my steps in time because of the memories I carry with me; whereas the person who originally walked this way has already vanished, since (being here) I am no longer what he was? Why can I see so far ahead of me in space and not even an hour ahead of me in time? Where does time go when it has passed, or when we have passed through it? Why is there so much of it on either side of our meager life spans? And so much space around the little area each of us occupies? Are memories real? If so, why are they so impalpable? If not, why do they affect us so deeply? What becomes of them when the person who possessed them has died? How do we arrive at the limits of our knowledge, and how do we recognize those limits when we get there? What does that act of recognition feel like? What is it like to be a cow, or a hedgehog? Or creatures humbler still?



A shaded lamp, and a waving blind,
And the beat of a clock from a distant floor:
On this scene enter—winged, horned, and
A longlegs, a moth, and a dumbledore;
While 'mid my page there idly stands
A sleepy fly that rubs its hands …


Thus meet we five, in this still place,
At this point of time, at this point of space.
—My guests besmear my new-penned line,
Or bang at the lamp and fall supine.
“God's humblest, they!” I muse. Yet why?
They know earth-secrets that know not I.

No doubt the idea of a fly or a moth knowing “earth-secrets” that a human cannot know may seem merely whimsical to some readers; just as the questions asked previously may appear too simple for serious grown-ups to bother with. Still, on the subject of the moths and flies, it was Wittgenstein (usually considered to have been a deeply serious grown-up) who remarked in The Philosophical Investigations, “If a lion could speak, we would not be able to understand it.” And as for the childishness of the questions asked earlier—or their pointlessness, as some down-to-earth or ruthlessly positivistic readers may feel them to be—it was Wittgenstein, again, who said (in the Tractatus): “In order to put a limit to thinking, we have to think on both sides of the limit.”

That is precisely what Hardy is trying to do in the two poems I have quoted and in many others that are both like them and yet, always, fluctuatingly different. Because of the intimate terms in which the problems are posed and the homely contexts in which he seeks to find answers to them, the intellectual sophistication of what is at stake has gone unnoticed—as indeed has the quasi-instinctive movement of his mind away from the “architectural” ambitions of the philosophers of the nineteenth century to the piecemeal linguistic worryings of their successors. (From Schopenhauer to Wittgenstein, as it were.)

One of the central issues that Hardy addresses again and again is this: How is it that we can conceive, talk about, and even base our calculations on aspects of the universe that, by their very nature, defeat both our understanding and our imagination? The expanses of geological or cosmological time (“At Castle Boterel”) might be cited here; or the expanses of astronomical space (“At a Lunar Eclipse”); or, for that matter, the large, undifferentiated oppositions—life and death, matter and creatureliness, knowledge and nescience—that manifest themselves in such different forms wherever we look. (Notice the care with which in “Proud Songsters” Hardy distinguishes by sound and habitat between the various species of bird he mentions. Once nothing more than “particles,” they now “sing” or “whistle” or “pipe” as each in its kind has immemorially done; they hide in bushes or show themselves in ones and twos as their respective natures compel them.) He reaches outward to ask whether our capacity to conceive and talk about that which we cannot understand or imagine should be considered a failure of the human mind—or its greatest triumph. And he reaches inward to ask how the different modes of awareness and ignorance to which we are committed, from which we cannot escape, affect our most intimate apprehensions of our individual lives. Why, for example, are we so prone to valuing in retrospect that which we barely noticed when it was present in its fullness and presentness before us? Or can it be that, because of some other, inexpressible failure in our capacities, fullness and presentness belong exclusively to retrospect and never to the unmediated, extempore event itself?

All this may help us to understand better one of the most striking stylistic features of Hardy's poems: a feature, moreover, that is often dismissed as a sign of the poet's naïveté (not to say childishness), his simplicity of mind, his rurality, his failure fully to recover from his provincial, lower-class upbringing. I refer to the extraordinary number of neologisms to be found in the verse. Anyone who opens the collected poems at random and goes through a handful of pages in cursory fashion will come on a host of these. My own trawl of three or four minutes' duration produced the following: fellow-yearsman, wistlessness, crumb-outcaster, outleant, fervorless, riverooze, God-obeyer, unhope, circleted, The To-Be, unvisioned, ill-motherings, corpse-thing, forthshown, edgewise, Time-outrun, time-torn.

Several things are noticeable about this list, which obviously could be replaced with equal ease by an entirely different one—and so on, almost indefinitely. First, many of the words are compounds; second, many of them are negative, not to say gloomy, compounds; third, such words are relatively rarely found in Hardy's novels. (Dialect terms are another matter.) The first two observations are perhaps self-explanatory. The English language lends itself more readily to the invention of compounds than to that of wholly new terms; and Hardy's temperament—his reaction to the universe—for the most part encouraged him to construct gloomy ones. But something much more important is involved here. In the poems I am speaking of, Hardy was working at the very limits of the thinkable—of that which it is possible for our brains to encompass. In order to do this, he was also compelled to work at the very limits of the language—of that which it is possible for us to say. Hence the necessity he felt constantly to invent new words.

As readers we witness his attempts to create a language that would enable him to say not only everything he wanted to say, but also, more remarkably still, everything he knew he would never be able to say.

Samuel Lynn Hynes (essay date spring 1997)

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SOURCE: Hynes, Samuel Lynn. “How to Be an Old Poet: The Examples of Hardy and Yeats.” Sewanee Review 105, no. 2 (spring 1997): 189-205.

[In the following essay, Hynes discusses the ways in which Hardy and William Butler Yeats dealt with old age and how their responses were evident in their poetry.]

Ten or twelve years ago I wrote an introduction to a volume of Hardy's poems in which I considered the consequences for the poetry of the fact that most of it was written in the last decades of a long life. I want to return to that subject here, but in a different way, expanding it to include another great modern poet, and shifting it upward to the level of theory: The Theory of Old Poets. That's how our thinking about art works, isn't it? We have an idea; time passes; the idea grows, spreads, changes, until particulars begin to look like principles; and we have a theory. I'm a decade and more older than I was when I first wrote about Hardy and old age. And so, I might add, are you. A decade nearer our own old age: high time we thought about it.

When in my theorizing I use the term Old Poets—with those capital letters—I mean, obviously, poets who lived a long time. But not all poets who live past middle age become Old Poets. Some fall silent at the end, as Eliot and Larkin did. Some go on in their poems being their younger selves: Robert Graves, for example. Graves was ninety when he died, and was still writing poems in his eighties; but his bargain with the White Goddess seems to have been that she would continue to inspire him on the condition that he continued to write the kind of poems he had always written. Some poets abandon poetry altogether for another medium: like Kingsley Amis, who turned to fiction—I suppose because it was a better form in which to be bilious about the world.

But most poets go on being poets, and in time become old poets (note the lower case here), just as old painters, old gardeners, old carpenters, old literary critics go on practicing their crafts long past the age at which you might think they should retire. The reason is obvious: it's what they do, what they have always done; it fills their days; and, more than that, it defines them to themselves. To the question Who am I? our work provides us with an immediate and irrefutable answer.

Longevity isn't the sole defining condition of being an Old Poet: as I conceive the category, Old Poets are those who in their old age make poetry out of that state—make age not simply their subject, but the condition of consciousness in their poems, and so make the perceived world of age real to other minds.

Let me describe that world, as I find it in the work of Old Poets. It is a world of less, fewer, and last: there is less activity there than in our world, and less possibility of action; in the grammar of that world words like act and love are past-tense verbs. Things happen there for the last time, and that affects the poetic tone; for, as Dr. Johnson said, “No man does anything consciously for the last time, without a feeling of sadness.” (Eleven poems in Hardy's Collected Poems begin with the word last.)

So old age is a tone. It also has a spatial dimension. Age is a reduced space—the horizons closed in, the interiors confining and disfurnished, like an old unoccupied house. Age is a place in which the present is less present than it is in the world of ordinary being; there are fewer people there, fewer friends. But, if it is unpopulated by the living, it is crowded with the dead: age is ghost-haunted.

If space is different in the world of old age, so is time. Time there stretches backward like a long road taken, into the distant past; forward it has almost no length at all, only a little span, like a short corridor, with a closed door at the end.

This world of age is difficult to talk about. We mustn't be too easily sad or sentimental about what is, after all, only ordinary human reality; and we mustn't let ourselves become mortality-bores. The best of the Old Poets avoid those traps: they are neither sentimental nor boring; they simply confront the world time has given them, and compel it to be poetry.

It's an exclusive world, this poetic world of old age. Younger poets may visit it, through the poems of their elders; but they can't practice there. There is no place in Old Poet Theory for poems by younger poets in which they imagine age: “Here am I, an old man in a dry month” won't do; nor “Grow old along with me / The best is yet to be”; nor “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Those poems have permanent places in our English-language canon, but they don't tell us what age is like. They can't. For age clearly is one of those human experiences—like love, sex, war, and religion—that, before you've had them, aren't anything like what you imagine they will be. (Auden said fame is like that, too.)

When I think about old age as a separate and distinct human condition I think of the Seven Ages of Man speech in As You Like It. Jaques's Seventh Age is grim:

                                                                                                                                  last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness, and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

You must recognize, as I do, that those lines don't accurately describe old Hardy, or old Yeats, or any other Old Poet. And yet … I am caught by Shakespeare's sense of age as diminishment and loss—sans, sans, sans, what Hardy called time's “takings away”—and of oblivion. And so, even though it isn't quite fair, I think of this poetry as Seventh Age poetry: poetry that is about the reality of loss-in-time, and how to live with it, and make poetry out of it.

In this sense Hardy and Yeats are Seventh Age poets. But not in the same way. Indeed I think they can be seen as two distinct subtypes, which we might identify with Shakespeare's two greatest old men: Prospero and Lear. Pause for a moment to think of those two figures of Age. Prospero, in the last act of The Tempest: calm, accepting, beyond action, having resigned his place in the public world of power to return to Milan and think about death. An old man who has accepted diminishment and has given it dignity: Hardy at Max Gate, voluntarily withdrawn from the literary marketplace of London, retired from the novel-writing that had made him famous, living the diminished life of age, and writing the poetry of that condition; the old poet as sage, the truth-teller, no longer an agent in his life, but an observer.

Then think of Lear: Lear on the heath, passionate and raging, without court or courtiers, without comforts, exposing himself to suffering—an old man who would rather be a mad diminished king than no king at all—tragic, and consciously so, playing the role of Old Man as Tragic Hero. Yeats in his late years, not withdrawn, still in the world but raging against it, a passionate public man, the old poetic self remade once more as Seventh Age Hero, the old man who remains an agent in his life by an act of will.

So: two Old Poets, both role-playing, but playing different roles, which yet have this in common—that they make Old Poetry possible.

Just when the Seventh Age begins in a poet's life is unpredictable. No door slams on the earlier life, not at three-score-and-ten or any other age. But in individual cases one can usually locate the point of change quite precisely in the poetry, and if one knows the life one can conjecture reasons. It happened in Hardy's poetic career between the publication of Time's Laughingstocks in 1909 and Satires of Circumstance in 1914—between his seventieth and seventy-fifth year. The cause is perfectly clear: it was of course the death of Emma Hardy in 1912. It was Hardy's greatest loss, his greatest personal diminishment: Emma's death emptied his life of his strongest link with his own past, with youth, hope, and happiness, and shifted her presence and all that she meant to him into the ghost-world of memory.

There is another thing to be said about the effect of Emma's death. She was Hardy's exact contemporary; and when someone our own age dies, we feel a tremor in our life: our own death takes on a felt certainty then that is quite different from the untroubling proposition that all men are mortal. That's why old people read obituary pages, starting with the death-dates; they hope they'll find that the dead are all older than they are, and that death can therefore be postponed into the uncertain future, and thought about another day. The death of an exact contemporary has a different message: it says death is here, in the present.

You can see this change to Seventh Age poetry in the “Poems of 1912-13” that Hardy wrote immediately after his wife's death, most explicitly in the first poem, “The Going”:

                              Well, well! All's past amend,
                              Unchangeable. It must go.
I seem but a dead man held on end
To sink down soon. … O you could not know
                              That such swift fleeing
                              No soul foreseeing—
Not even I—would undo me so!

But it is everywhere in his later poems, in poems about his coffin, his grave, his ghost—a curious line of posthumous poems by a living Old Poet.

For Yeats the point of change occurred somewhere in the 1920s, between Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921) and The Tower (1928)—earlier in his life than in Hardy's. (In 1921 Yeats was only fifty-six.) The cause seems of a different kind: the Troubles, the Irish Civil War, and the settlement that was a defeat for his dreams of a romantic Ireland made him an Old (and a bitter) Poet before his time. The great poems that came out of those last years, the final two decades of his life, are full of age and loss.

Two great poets become Old Poets, then, for different reasons that reflect their different relationships to the world. Hardy, the private man, suffers a private loss that leaves him memory-haunted; Yeats, the public man, suffers a public loss that leaves him haunted by his country's history, and by the impotence of poetry in the public world. In both cases the book that follows the loss is the poet's greatest single volume. What shall we make of that? That, for a poet, loss is gain? That great art may come out of the diminishments of the Seventh Age of Man? The history of western culture offers us considerable evidence that this may be true: old Michelangelo, deaf Beethoven, aging Degas (who only became Degas, Renoir said, as his health and sight began to fail), and Renoir himself, old and crippled, a brush strapped to his arthritic hand, still painting Renoirs.

When Seventh Age poets speak in their own voices, they often do so in images of their diminishment. Here is a stanza from Hardy's most poignant poem of age, “An Ancient to Ancients”:

Where once we danced, where once we sang,
The floors are sunken, cobwebs hang,
And cracks creep; worms have fed upon
The doors. Yea, sprightlier times were then
Than now, with harps and tabrets gone,

And here is the first stanza of Yeats's poem of age, “An Acre of Grass”:

Picture and book remain,
An acre of green grass
For air and exercise,
Now strength of body goes;
Midnight, an old house
Where nothing stirs but a mouse.

You see the similarities: two passages of confinement, decay and loss, two imaged spaces emptied of human company—and of human energy, too, for Old Age's reality also has its kinetic aspect as life runs down at the end.

And yet in these poems there are presences, not living but imagined, a company of the Old to be invoked against age. Hardy calls up classical authors who wrote into their old age: Sophocles, Plato, Socrates, Pythagoras, Thucydides, Herodotus, Homer, Augustin, Origen. And Yeats names old artists and their old creations, as images of how the mind's energy can defy age: Shakespeare's Timon and Lear, William Blake, Michael Angelo. By naming these aged heroes, Old Hardy and Old Yeats claim places in their company.

But not in the same way, not in the same tone. I have suggested that Hardy and Yeats are two distinct types of Old Poet—one Prospero, the other Lear. Hardy, Prospero-like, ends his poem in a calm diminuendo, addressed to the young generation that will succeed him:

And ye, red-lipped and smooth-browed; list,
Much is there waits you we have missed;
Much lore we leave you worth the knowing,
Much, much has lain outside our ken:
Nay, rush not: time serves: we are going,

A curious, energyless ending, like the soft speech of an old man short of breath, uttering one line at a time, and finally one phrase at a time:

Much is there waits you we have missed; (breath)
Much lore we leave you worth the knowing, (breath)
Much, much has lain outside our ken: (breath)
Nay, (breath) rush not: (breath) time serves: (breath)
          we are going, (breath)
                    Gentlemen. (long breath)

Yeats is very different; he roars into his last stanza on a crescendo that only settles into calm at the end—one clause, without a single mark of punctuation to locate a pause in it—one continuous burst of energy, one breath. And then comes the final stanza, first continuing the crescendo. Another continuous burst; and look at the verbs: beat, pierce, shake—what a violent old man this is, alone in his acre of grass!

But the poem doesn't end there, with the dead shaking in their shrouds: it has its own two-line closing diminuendo, its own vision of diminishment: “Forgotten else by mankind, / An old man's eagle mind.” Forgotten: as a poet, that is: a condition to fear and resist, if you're Yeats, because poet was for him an essential, self-defining term.

Do you remember his little poem “To Be Carved on a Stone at Thoor Ballylee”? In it Yeats refers to himself as “the poet William Yeats,” and prays that the characters of the inscription he has had carved on a stone at his tower-home in the West of Ireland will survive when all is ruin again. Those characters do remain on the tower, and a visitor can see them there. But characters means more in the poem than the carved words on that stone: it means the characters of the poem we are reading, and of all Yeats's other poems. Yeats isn't saying that they will certainly remain: what is certain is that, in the cycle of changing things, ruin will return. Those last lines are more a prayer than an affirmation of the permanence of poetry: may they remain; may the words of a poet defeat forgetfulness.

Hardy is different—in many ways. First, in the absence from his poems of himself as a poet. You can't imagine him writing: “I, the poet Thomas Hardy,” because that isn't the role he plays in his poems. He isn't the artist, or the self-created hero: he doesn't remake himself to play the poet's role on the world's stage. He is simply what he is, an old man who used to notice things, a country walker, a rememberer. It is extraordinary how completely Hardy controls the scale of himself in his world, keeping it all small, human-scaled, unpoetic.

Another difference concerns forgottenness. Yeats feared it; Hardy didn't. To be forgotten is a natural and inevitable fate in Hardy's world: the past fades, memory grows dim, the dead survive for a time in the minds of the living, and then cease to exist even there. You all know many poems on that general theme: “His Immortality,” “The To-be-Forgotten,” “The Ghost of the Past,” “Ah, Are You Digging?” Annihilation is a principle that Hardy accepted calmly and without resistance: everything changes, dies, falls; nothing that exists is exempt from Time—not a man, not a star. Hardyans will catch my reference there: It is to “Waiting Both,” a poem from Human Shows, published when Hardy was eighty-five:

A star looks down at me,
And says: “Here I and you
Stand, each in our degree:
What do you mean to do,—
                    Mean to do?”
I say: “For all I know,
Wait, and let Time go by,
Till my change come.”—“Just so,”
The star says; “So mean I:—
                    So mean I.”

It's a poem of complete, motionless passivity: man stands on the earth, star stands in the sky. Both wait. There is nothing else to do.

Yeats was no less aware of the power of Time and Change than Hardy was, but he played the theme differently. In his old poems the will to create confronts the inevitable destruction of Time in a tragic opposition. Yeats celebrates that confrontation: don't stand, he says; don't wait: act; resist Time. You'll lose, but it is mankind's glory to oppose destruction with creation. The late poems are full of statements of that theme: “Lapis Lazuli,” for example, and the last stanza of “Two Songs from a Play”:

Everything that man esteems
Endures a moment or a day.
Love's pleasure drives his love away,
The painter's brush consumes his dreams;
The herald's cry, the soldier's tread
Exhaust his glory and his might:
Whatever flames upon the night
Man's own resinous heart has fed.

Such energetic images of defeat, such strenuous verbs: drives, consumes, flames. The end is the same as in Hardy: everything passes, nothing escapes the force of Time. But the energy in Yeats makes a difference. That energy drives all those Yeatsian heroes in “An Acre of Grass”—Timon and Lear and William Blake and Michael Angelo. I find no such energy in Hardy's Ancients. They are quiet, past-tense heroes; they “Burnt brightlier towards their setting-day,” Hardy says; but that day came. There is no resistance there, no energy extravagantly spent in the war against Time: they are simply dead old thinkers, fixed and motionless, like portraits on a wall.

Old age is a time of necessary loss. It's also an embarrassment: anyone past middle age knows that; Hardy knew it, and so did Yeats. “I look into my glass, / And view my wasting skin”—that's Hardy; “What shall I do with this absurdity— / O heart, O troubled heart—this caricature, / Decrepit age that has been tied to me / As to a dog's tail?”—that's Yeats. If we look further into these two poems we will see that they express more than the decay of the flesh; they also reveal the separation between the outer and the inner self that all old people feel. Listen again to Hardy:

I look into my glass,
And view my wasting skin,
And say, “Would God it came to pass
My heart had shrunk as thin!”
For then, I, undistrest
By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
With equanimity.
But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide.

This is the last poem in Wessex Poems: Hardy at about sixty. Wasting skin, fragile frame: the exterior is old. But inside is a heart that has not shrunk, but throbs as it did in the noontide of youth. That's the problem.

Now consider Yeats, at about the same age:

What shall I do with this absurdity—
O heart, O troubled heart—this caricature,
Decrepit age that has been tied to me
As to a dog's tail?
                                                                                Never had I more
Excited, passionate, fantastical
Imagination, nor an ear and eye
That more expected the impossible—

Again, on the outside, there is the caricature Age, and inside beats the passionate heart. In both poets appears the same self-contradictory old/young self.

How should an Old Poet deal with dissonant reality of diminished flesh and undiminished heart? Hardy went one way—Prospero's way; Yeats went the other—the way of Lear.

Consider first Yeats/Lear. The Lear way with old age is to defy it, to deny diminishment, to proclaim the old heart's vigor. Be passionate, be furious, be insane if you have to; be physical, be sexual—frankly and grossly so. (Do I need to argue that these terms describe Lear? Surely not. Read the sixth scene of act four, one of Lear's mad scenes: “Adultery? Thou shalt not die: die for adultery? No: the wren goes to't, and the small gilded fly does lecher in my sight. Let Copulation thrive. …” There's a full and passionate old heart here, undiminished, working at full throttle.)

Old Yeats adopted Lear's way, not in his life (which was seemly enough) but in his old poems. One way he did so was by inventing Learish characters as masks of himself, a gallery of old, half-crazy (or entirely crazy) surrogates: the Wild Old Wicked Man, Crazy Jane, Tom the Lunatic, an unnamed Old Man and Old Woman, a hundred-and-one-year-old lover. Through these masks Yeats could speak passionately, directly, coarsely about age, sex, and physical change; he could utter truths that would not have come properly from the mouth of an Irish senator and winner of a Nobel prize—lines such as “Love has pitched his mansion in / The place of excrement.”

Yeats's poems of age are often fiercely sexual, yet in most of them sex is not really the subject; it is, rather, the energy that drives the poems, a way of affirming the undiminished heart and the undiminished imagination, against the evidence of the diminished body. It is a strategy for an Old Poet. Yeats explained that strategy in a little poem called “The Spur.” It's a poem about the themes of lust and rage in his later poems. But the poem isn't really about sexuality or anger: it's about how to be an Old Poet. Cherish the furious passions for their energy, it says; better to lust and rage in your poems than to be silent and forgotten.

And what about Hardy? What is Prospero's way with diminishment? It is the opposite of Lear's: acceptance; forgiveness; resignation; calm. By the end of The Tempest we know that for Prospero sex is a disturbance of youth—of people like Ferdinand and Miranda; that lust belongs to Caliban's world; and that rage is inappropriate to age. Prospero has reached the calm seas beyond those storms. Old Hardy was like that; or so it seems, from his poems. For there the passionate acts and issues of human existence have been transposed from the first-person lyric voice (such as Yeats used in his mask-poems) into sexual dramas from other, imagined lives: mismarriages, adulteries, betrayals, suicides, and other satires of circumstance, sometimes witnessed by the speaker of the poem (“The Harbour Bridge”) sometimes told as local history (“The Mock Wife”), or folk-memory (“A Set of Country Songs”), but always distanced—passionate situations that happened to somebody else. And in the rare poems where the desire is first-person personal, it is in the past tense, remote in time, remembered as one might remember an accident or a sickness that one suffered long ago. I'm thinking here specifically of such poems as “Louie” and “Thoughts of Phena,” but the distancing of the erotic is also true of the “Poems of 1912-13.” Look at those poems again: love is present, and very movingly so; but desire is far back, in Cornwall, when Hardy and Emma were young. Sex is only history, in the now of those poems.

You can see the difference in present-tense sexuality between Hardy and Yeats in two small poems in which the poets regard young women. Do you remember Yeats's “Politics”? It comes near the end of his posthumous book of poetry, Last Poems. In the poem Yeats stands in the midst of a political conversation, but can't fix his attention on it, because there is a young girl present. The poem ends: “But O that I were young again / And held her in my arms!” This is the Irish senator being the decorous old Public Man in public, but privately feeling intense, present-tense desire.

And Hardy? The poem that comes to mind is “The High-School Lawn.” Hardy (so often the old voyeur in his poems) peeps through a hedge at a whirl of pretty schoolgirls; but what he feels is not desire, but their common mortality:

A bell: they flee:
Silence then:—
So it will be
Some day again
With them,—with me.

To see pretty girls and think of death how old must a man be?

Hardy, I conclude, was an old poet who was content to be entirely old, who was at ease with diminishment, and even at ease with the prospect of approaching death, accepting silence, accepting forgottenness. A philosophical old man—like Prospero; the opposite of Yeats and Lear, and to me a more disturbing model.

I wonder if posterity, or the lack of posterity, had something to do with it. Yeats had a son and a daughter, and prayed for their future in poems; Hardy had none. Perhaps, because Yeats had children, he thought also of other, nongenetic heirs, and named their inheritance in poems, most movingly in the third part of “The Tower,” which begins:

It is time that I wrote my will;
I choose upstanding men
That climb the streams until
The fountain leap, and at dawn
Drop their cast at the side
Of the dripping stone; I declare
They shall inherit my pride,
The pride of people that were
Bound neither to Cause nor to State …

A will is an old man's utterance, a voice that is first heard from the grave. You have to believe in posterity to write one. Yeats's posterity here is what he called “the indomitable Irishry,” his own defiant and opposing people. In them he survives.

There is another sense of inheritance in Yeats. In “Under Ben Bulben,” his last lyric poem in the edition of Collected Poems that I prefer, he speaks to Irish poets who will come after him, as an aged parent might speak to his children:

Irish poets, learn your trade,
Sing whatever is well made,
Scorn the sort now growing up
All out of shape from toe to top,
Their unremembering hearts and heads
Base-born products of base beds.

You can hear the old man's anger building there against the ugly, artless, unremembering modern world—Yeats playing Lear to the end. But you can also hear the pride of continuance, Irish poet to Irish poet.

There's none of that in Hardy: no descendants, no choosing of heirs, no address to poets to come. The end, in his mind and in his work, was terminal and unconditional; and he accepted it with resignation. You hear none of Yeats's anger in Hardy's old poems, and no pride. He said to his wife, Florence, just before his death, that he had done all that he meant to do, but did not know whether it had been worth doing. Was that diminished pride the source of his calm at the end? The feeling, as he put it in a poem, that “Nothing much matters”? Is that why, in the final poem of his Collected Poems, he resolved to say no more? Life and poetry ran down together, it seemed, and ended in silence—without continuance, and without regret.

Two old poets, at the close of life, regard their lives and their work, and think about worth. These are old thoughts, but they are not exclusively poets' thoughts: all old people must look back that way—in reflective self-assessment. Some readers must have noticed that that last point has hovered over this entire essay, that I haven't really been talking about Old Poets—or not only about Old Poets: I've been talking about Old Age. An unargued assumption all the way has been that poems chart life, or compose models of life lived, that poets can embody truth though they cannot know it (as Yeats said at the end). And that the poems of Old Poets (those capital letters again) may embody truths about old age, which we can learn. They say that age is a diminishment; that life empties then, as memory fills; that age is a time of loss (of friends, of powers, of hopes and expectations); and of self-judgment; and that death becomes a presence, like another person in the room. There is not much comfort in those truths; but then we don't desire truth for its comfortableness, do we? We desire truth because that desire makes us human. We must know, and learn to live with what we know.

How to Be an Old Poet, then, means simply How to Be Old. Hardy and Yeats offer two possible ways—one modest, the other flamboyant; one accepting, the other opposing. Hardy put on old age like an old coat, and lived in it; it fitted him. Yeats made old age a set of gaudy theatrical costumes to act in. Two ways, nearly antithetical, of responding to and enduring what is both an unavoidable physiological fact and a state of mind. Is one way preferable to the other? I can see no objective way of answering that question: your own nature will answer it. But, the reader may say, surely I have leaned toward Yeats, and made him the hero of my essay; surely it is better to be a Wild Old Wicked Man than a Dead Man Stood on End. If you think that, it may be because you have been seduced by Yeats's Old Man's romanticism. For Yeats's old poems do have a high romantic style—“High Talk,” he called it—and high romantic heroes, and grand settings and stage properties—the Sistine Chapel, the cathedral of Saint Sophia, the art of the Quattrocento. And great defiant gestures: that, surely, is the way to be old.

Hardy's old poems have none of that: the talk is not high but plain, and there are no heroes and no works of art. Only life (and, occasionally, Life with a capital L), seen clearly through old eyes, as it is, as it has been. And spoken—not sung, not ranted—in a quiet, unclamorous voice. I want to end this essay with the sound of that old voice, as we hear it in an interesting sequence of Hardy's poems: “For Life I Had Never Cared Greatly,” from Moments of Vision; “Epitaph,” from Late Lyrics; and “He Never Expected Much” and “A Placid Man's Epitaph,” both from the posthumous Winter Words. These are all poems of self-assessment that are also assessments of life itself: the old man not so much judging as defining his own existence in the world. Listen to them—both what they say, and the tone they say it in:

                    For Life I had never cared greatly,
                                        As worth a man's while;
                                        Peradventures unsought,
                    Peradventures that finished in nought,
Had kept me from youth and through manhood till lately
                                        Unwon by its style.
I never cared for Life: Life cared for me,
And hence I owed it some fidelity.
It now says, “Cease; at length thou has learnt to grind
Sufficient toll for an unwilling mind,
And I dismiss thee. …”

And a stanza in which World addresses Hardy as a child:

“I do not promise overmuch,
          Child; overmuch;
Just neutral-tinted haps and such,”
          You said to minds like mine.
Wise warning for your credit's sake!
Which I for one failed not to take,
And hence could stem such strain and ache
As each year might assign.

And the last of his epitaphs:

As for my life, I've led it
With fair content and credit:
It said: “Take this.” I took it:
Said: “Leave.” And I forsook it.
If I had done without it
None would have cared about it,
Or said: “One has refused it
Who might have meetly used it.”

These are all poems written in the last decade of a very old poet's life: if any poems are Seventh Age poems, these are. Consider what they express: the Old Poet themes of loss, diminishment, and limitation. But not as an experience peculiar to the winding down of age; all existence is neutral-tinted, any action may come to nothing at any time. Yet there is no pain or bitterness in the poems: they share a calm serenity. They are solitary poems—one voice in emptiness, speaking to nobody; and yet three of them take the form of direct address—to Life, to World—as though in extreme old age, when loss has emptied his world, the Old Poet still has company, the company of All Existence, which speaks to him as honestly as he speaks to us. And speaks in imperatives, says Take this. Leave that. Cease.

These poems are as consistent in their untroubled acceptance as Yeats's poems of crazy old people are in their wild defiance. Perhaps, like Yeats's, they are also mask-poems—a face to wear and a voice to speak with, in order that an old poet near his death might go on making poems, as Hardy did to the very end, to his death-bed. A way to face the Seventh Age of life as a poet, and as yourself.

How to be an Old Poet (which, I have admitted, is really How to Be Old). Yeats and Hardy offer distinct responses to that question, but with some common factors. “How to” suggests a set of instructions, like a recipe. It isn't, of course, that simple, but I think I can abstract a few general principles from their cases: 1) Confront reality honestly: look into your glass. 2) Don't turn away either from the past, which is long and full of failures, nor from the future, which will surely be brief. 3) Seek no consolations. To be honest, in old age, is to be unconsoled. There is one more principle, and it is the most important. 4) Preserve the life of the imagination: feed it with memories and inventions; because imagination is life. This turns my proposition of a moment ago around: the answer to How to Be Old is: Be an Old Poet.

Dennis Taylor (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: “Thomas Hardy and Thomas Gray: The Poet's Currency.” ELH 65, no. 2 (1998): 451-77.

[In the following essay, Taylor discusses how Thomas Gray was a key influence in Hardy's aesthetics and thoughts on the public culture, and how Gray's influence convinced Hardy that his highest vocation was not as a novelist, but as a poet.]

Why did Hardy, a major novelist, call his novels “mere journeywork” and say that they “have been superseded … by the more important half of my work, the verse”?1 Consistently, over a writing career of more than 70 years, Hardy maintained that his literary vocation was that of a poet, not a novelist. His novels were what he did for a living; his poetry—enabled by the success of his novels—was what he did for immortality. Where novels for Hardy somehow pander to the society, poems resist it and yet also command it by seeking higher ground. What accounts for the force of Hardy's self-definition, given the artistic quality of his novels?

What we have not realized is a key influence on Hardy's sense of his vocation. Thomas Gray is, of course, only one of a number of influences felt by Hardy in the 1860s, from the perennial influence of Shakespeare's use of the Horatian “Exegi Monumentum” theme to the contemporary influence of Swinburne. But Gray, I would argue, is a key influence because of his unique combination of aestheticism and anxiety about the public culture.

Though Gray is little mentioned in Hardy studies, the Gray-Hardy relationship opens up a major topic: the ways poets see themselves in relation to an increasingly commercialized and invasive society. For Hardy and Gray, poetry has both a defining and antagonistic relation to the society which exalts it. In “The Bard,” Gray forecast Shelley's great formulas that poets are “the authors of language” and “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”2 But when Gray said that “the language of the age is never the language of poetry,” he was also trying to withdraw poetry from circulation and contamination.3 If poetry creates language, it must also resist being co-opted and debased by the common currency of an established language. The paradox of all this, of course, is that Gray is among the most established of our writers. Gray gave Hardy the suggestion that a poet could be canonical without being compromised. It was from Gray, as confirmed by Shelley, that Hardy picked up the notion that poets purify the dialect of the tribe, while themselves remaining pure.

Gray is famous for his statements rejecting the world of published books; he complained, for example, that the “Elegy's” stanzas “had the Misfortune … to be made … publick, for w[hich] they certainly were never meant,” that “the public would have received it as well if it had been written in prose.” “The still small voice of Poetry was not made to be heard in a crowd.”4 When Hardy claimed “I never did care much about publication, as is proved by my keeping some of the verses forty years in MS” (CL [Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy], 6:119) and that “he was not so keenly anxious to get into print as many young men are” (L [The Life And Work of Thomas Hardy], 51), his statements parallel Gray's but are in fact inconsistent with Hardy's vital interest in his audience and in publication of both prose and verse. Gray's attitudes also lie behind Hardy's various statements, that he “did not care much for a reputation as a novelist in lieu of being able to follow the pursuit of poetry” (L, 102), that he viewed the verse “as my essential writings, & my prose as my accidental” (CL, 5:94), that poetry is much more “quintessential” in expression than prose.5 Hardy is nervous about the increasingly established entry of fine literature into the public marketplace, a development Gray witnessed and resisted at its early stages. The poignancy of Hardy's admiration for Gray, who blinded Hardy to the importance of his novels, is that by Hardy's time Gray's battle for the cultural independence of literature was nearly lost.6

The reason Gray has not assumed more prominence in Hardy studies is that he seems like the last writer one would compare with Hardy. Gray is the quintessential insider, elegant, urbane, living a leisured life, part of the establishment, a litterateur, a Cambridge man, a lifelong academic, devoted to scholarship and to high poetic genres (mostly odes) and ending with a sinecure professorship. Hardy is the famous outsider, awkward, provincial, who wrote novels for a living, finished his schooling at sixteen, was more or less denied the university, needed first to labor at architectural masonry and design before turning to novels and later to poetry. Socially, Gray occupied the position Hardy desired: independently wealthy, friend of the aristocracy, typified by his grand tour of the continent and his association with Horace Walpole. Hardy is the son of a master mason and began a slow rise up the social ladder, married above himself to a solicitor's daughter, gradually moved into the world of literary people and eventually was able to mingle with people of Gray's class, details of which he was proud to put in his “biography” (it was written largely by himself). Literarily, Gray was a fastidious poet, an eighteenth-century Mallarmé, who declined the poet laureateship and is known for one very slim volume of verse. Hardy is the regional novelist and successful entrepreneur of Dorset, whose collected works make up twenty-four volumes.

But what connects Gray and Hardy is the peculiarly testy relation they have to their culture, both high and low, a testiness rooted in their own experience of the class system. Both distrust the mobility that enabled them to prosper. Hardy is not being disingenuous but expressing the complexity of his situation when he said of himself in 1867: “He constitutionally shrank from the business of social advancement, caring for life as an emotion rather than for life as a science of climbing” (L, 54). If Hardy aspired to rise up the social ladder, Gray strove not to sink. There is in fact a sense of anxiety in Gray about the work world he had evaded. Samuel Johnson called Gray the son of a “scrivener of London” and quotes a letter describing Gray: “though without birth, or fortune, or station, his desire was to be looked upon as a private independent gentleman, who read for his amusement.”7 Hardy read John Mitford's life of Gray in the 1885 edition and was alert to Gray's economic struggles; where Mitford reported that Gray's mother “cheerfully maintained him on the scanty produce of her separate industry,” Hardy underlined “industry” and in the margin explained: “i.e. income.”8 Both men are haunted by an anxiety: that in a world requiring income, they would be unable to retain or gain their independence. For Hardy with his Grayish attitudes it was extremely painful that for lack of money he could not become a full-time poet in his twenties, a nightmare Gray had avoided thanks to his mother and some inherited wealth. With the anxiety, however, there comes for both writers some significant resentment at the world of high culture and fine literature which can so cruelly exclude its impoverished devotées. Gray and Hardy are edgy prophets, fiercely loyal but resentful of the world of high literature. They have chips on their shoulders, irritable abrasive attitudes; they condemn the commercializers but suspect the muckamucks. They are in high culture but not of it, benefiting from its hegemony but also attacking it. They are tortured, gloomy, aesthetical, pessimistic, and proud. Appropriately, their favored genre of writing, poetry, is the ultimate outsider and insider genre.

In this article I propose to demonstrate the manifold ways in which Gray shows up in Hardy's writings, and to suggest that these ways reflect the distinctive insider/outsider, disinterested/commercial anxieties which characterize Hardy's relation to Gray. I contend that the Gray-Hardy relation illuminates the problem of poetic language in a commercial culture, and in its evolution from 1771 (the date of Gray's death) to 1860 (the date of Hardy's first known poetic exercise). Gray, the poet of the polished conventional formulas, and Hardy, the poet of tortured and original phrasing, would seem again completely opposite. In fact, their two types of language are complementary expressions of a common problem: how to purify the “real language of men.” They share a common motive shaped by the differences between the eras in which they wrote. In their quest for a language which would be a permanent norm for the standard language, they achieve almost opposite results.


The great instrument through which Gray influenced Hardy was The Golden Treasury, given to Hardy as a gift by Horace Moule in 1862. This was the key book of Hardy's early discovery of himself as a poet and early set the standard for what he wanted to be as a writer. As his wife later said, “His only ambition, so far as he could remember, was to have some poem or poems in a good anthology like the Golden Treasury” (L, 478).9 In The Golden Treasury, the chief representative of the entire eighteenth century was Gray; it quotes more of Gray's lines and more of his poems proportionately to his total oeuvre than any other poet. Of these, “The Progress of Poesy” and “The Bard” confirmed the audience's sense of Gray's magisterium in poetic history. In his copy of The Golden Treasury Hardy marked both poems. He put marginal lines next to Gray's lines 133-34 in “The Bard”: “And distant warblings lesson on my ear / That lost in long futurity expire.” These are the bard's failing attempts to hear what happens to the lyric tradition after Milton's time. Hardy, of course, hopes to pick up the fallen standard.10

In Hardy's era Gray was still considered the poet's poet, the poetic grandfather of the Victorian age, the age for which The Golden Treasury was the premier poetic anthology. In his notes, Palgrave called Gray's “Elegy” “perhaps the noblest stanzas in our language.”11 According to Arnold, “Gray is our poetical classic of that literature and age. … He is the scantiest and frailest of classics in our poetry, but he is a classic”; “Gray, a born poet, fell upon an age of prose.”12 From an 1882 Athenaeum review article (of Gosse's Gray) Hardy copied the following into his Literary Notebooks: “Gray's position as a poet is beyond all cavil; in relation to the mass of his work he is the greatest ‘maker’ of single poetic lines in our literature.”13 In the 1885 edition (Hardy's edition) Mitford quoted Sir James Mackintosh: “Of all English Poets he was the most finished artist. He attained the highest degree of splendour of which poetical style seems to be capable.”14 Early in his much marked copy of Henry Reed's Introduction to English Literature, Hardy read the legend, so attractive to marginalized poets, that General Wolfe on the eve of the battle of the Plains of Abraham recited Gray's “Elegy” to his officers and concluded, “Now, gentlemen, I would rather be the author of that poem than take Quebec.”15

The oddity of Palgrave's refined standard is that his anthology became a commercial success, and Gray as fastidious artist became the unofficial poet laureate, his work the ultimate in costly production for which the General Wolfe anecdote is a classy advertisement. To be included in The Golden Treasury is to be included in the most popular poetic anthology of all time.

It is not surprising then that Gray's influence should be felt through Hardy's trade productions, his novels, especially his first four.16 Gray also influenced more of Hardy's titles for his novels than anyone else. Far from the Madding Crowd's use of Gray's line (“Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,” line 73 of the “Elegy”), is well known. A little less known is that Jude the Obscure alludes to, among other things, Gray's line “Their homely joys and destiny obscure” (line 30 in the “Elegy”).17 There may also be some Gray in the title of Under the Greenwood Tree. We assume Shakespeare, but Hardy may have been influenced by a rejected stanza of the “Elegy” beginning “Him have we seen the Green-wood Side along” (which Hardy marked, though later, in his own edition of Gray).18 Later in life, Hardy's secretary asked him about Stinsford, “Mellstock” in Under the Greenwood Tree, “It's a Gray's Elegy sort of place, isn't it, Mr. Hardy?” Hardy reportedly replied, “It is Stoke Poges.”19 Gray had also an important influence on Hardy's first novel, though not its title, Desperate Remedies. Hardy names his heroine “Cytherea” and describes her with her lover: “The ‘bloom’ and the ‘purple light’ were strong on the lineaments of both” (51). In his Golden Treasury Hardy had marked lines 40-41 of Gray's “The Progress of Poesy” celebrating “Cytherea's day”: “O'er her warm cheek and rising bosom move / The bloom of young desire and purple light of love.”20 Cytherea's last name is Graye. Gray's themes easily migrate to Hardy's novels.21

The Gray phrases alluded to in Hardy's novel titles, “far from the madding crowd,” “destiny obscure,” and perhaps “Him have we seen the Green-wood Side along,” allude to the idea of a world removed from circulation, outside the mainstream of London business. The pastoral, Georgic, nostalgic dimensions of this removal in Hardy have been thoroughly studied. But here I am concerned with Hardy's deepest sense of himself as a writer and as a poet. “The Progress of Poesy” concludes by hailing its last poet (probably Gray) who will “mount and keep his distant way / Beyond the limits of a vulgar fate.”22 Hardy in turn said that a novelist's genuine quality is “lurking like a violet in the shade of the more obvious, possibly more vulgar, talent,” that it “sifts down to a very small measure of genuine corn” (PW [Personal Writings], 116-17):

When one considers that he might have made himself a man of affluence in a few years by taking the current of popularity as it served, writing “best sellers” … his bias towards poetry must have been instinctive and disinterested.

(L, 329)

The violet image recalls Gray's “Elegy” stanza on the “gem of purest ray serene” and the “flower born to blush unseen,” images for a value which exists in itself and not in its exchange.23

Such an admiring and critical relation to the high culture explains Gray and Hardy's similar attitudes to the world of learning and the world of the university. Gray provided Hardy with the model of the education and career of the poet, by associating poetry with learning, a learning that is elegant, removed, a bit pedantic. The poet is a scholar, not just a daemon-driven oracle. In his Dictionary of National Biography article, Leslie Stephen, echoing a Johnson quotation from William Temple, called Gray “the most learned of all our poets.”24 A study of Hardy's Literary Notebooks shows that he may not be far behind. Gray's scholarly professionalism lifted Gothic into a respected category and helped begin the Gothic Revival in which Hardy participated.25 Gray was in some ways too smart, too rigorous, too scholarly for his university. A century after Milton, Gray still held to the Latin education of the poet, a model Hardy followed when he moved from his self-taught Latin to his early writing of Sapphics and applied classical meters to English verse.26 Gray's carefully historical interest in metrical techniques is the model for Hardy's own extensive exploration of the stanza forms.27 Hardy's metrical development from conservative and classical forms, to increasingly complex and original forms, and on to single irregular stanzas parallels the slighter history of Gray who began with classical imitations, heroic and blank verse, moved to conservative ode stanzas like that of “Ode on … Eton,” and on to the complex Pindaric stanzas of “The Bard” and “The Progress of Poetry,” with stops along the way for a sonnet, a tail rhyme, and elegiac and other quatrains, and ending with the irregular freer ode form of “Ode for Music.”28 Gray's definition of poetry as one of the fine arts, and his famous associations of poetry with painting, is the source of Hardy's own painting analogies in prose and verse.29 But both share a view of poetry as something high, difficult, technical, learned, and traditional. But their learning makes an uneasy fit in a society where Gray is seen as too educated, Hardy as self-educated. The learned product they achieve becomes the established canon, even while they question its cannonicity.

Thus we can begin to see the importance of a major unnoticed influence of Gray on Hardy: Gray's view of the university, and the way in which this view was incorporated into Jude the Obscure. Jude's exclusion from the university may represent Hardy's deepest fear, of being excluded from the vocation of poetry. Gray would make a good Tetuphenay who haughtily reminds Jude to keep to his place. But in fact Gray and Hardy are both radically critical of the reserved world of which they were desperate to be, or remain, part. And we can now see the significance of Gray as a source for a major Hardy scene, Jude's beholding of the ghosts of Christminster.

Gray wrote his “Ode for Music … performed in the Senate-House at Cambridge, July 1, 1769, at the installation of His Grace Augustus Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Grafton, Chancellor of the University.” In the “Ode” Gray describes ghosts parading through Cambridge: “There sit the sainted sage, the bard divine, / the few whom genius gave to shine / Through every unborn age.”30 Gray moves from the intellectual and literary figures to the political ones (“and, pacing forth / With solemn steps and slow, / High potentates and dames of royal birth / And mitred fathers in long order go; / Great Edward, with the lilies on his brow”31); and these gathering spirits “speak in soft accord / The liquid language of the skies.”32 They “bless the place, where on their opening soul / First the genuine ardour stole,” and wonder: “What is grandeur, what is power? / Heavier toil, superior pain.”33

Gray's poem is a source of one of Hardy's most famous fictional episodes, Jude's vision of the parading ghosts of Christminster. The university luminaries are heard in “the brushing of the wind“: “There were poets abroad. … Speculative philosophers drew along. … then official characters—such men as Governor-Generals and Lord-Lieutenants” (92-93). Like Gray, Hardy moves from literary figures to philosophers to politicians and aristocrats, and his attitude toward them is complementary to Gray's. Hardy associates the “germ of Jude the Obscure” with the “short story of a young man—‘who could not go to Oxford’” (L, 216) (a conventional-sounding phrase), but he also associates it with Cambridge: “There is something [in this] the world ought to be shown, and I am the one to show it—though I was not altogether hindered going, at least to Cambridge” (L, 53). In fact, class status and finances were obstacles for Hardy, despite his claim that his father would have helped him. Gray succeeded in doing what Hardy wanted to do, but both construct a portrait of university lights and wits, a portrait tinged with melancholy and irony, longing and criticism, admiration and scorn. Hardy outside the walls, Gray inside, construct this parallel picture of parading university ghosts.34

The impossibility of being either inside or outside helps explain the famous pessimism of Gray and Hardy. The strategy of pessimism enabled the two writers to have a love-hate relationship with their culture. Hardy pointedly connected his pessimism with Gray's when he cited Gray's “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” especially the stanza beginning “Alas, regardless of their doom.”35 About 1913, the year which marked a major turning point for his poetry, Hardy said of himself, “To adopt Walpole's words concerning Gray, Hardy was ‘in flower’ in these days, and, like Gray's, his flower was sad-coloured” (L, 389). Above I cited Hardy's and Gray's images of shy violets and unseen flowers. Hardy noted that an Eton master told him: “Gray is an unbearable poet.” Hardy's reflection was: “That's how they get out of it.”36 Hardy seems comically to point up the relation between his and Gray's pessimism in his Greek Anthology adaptation, “Epitaph on a Pessimist” (no. 779), which may evoke Gray's Stoke Poges. Thus Hardy: “I'm Smith of Stoke, aged sixty-odd.”37

Again their different orientations make us distinguish. Gray's despair was graceful, elegant, and upper class, modeled on the best authority. For Tate, Blackmur and others Hardy's pessimism has the ungainliness of a mind violated by ideas; Chesterton—famously—characterizes Hardy as the “village atheist brooding and blaspheming over the village idiot.”38 But again we have to deal with the inverse complementarity. Gray's and Hardy's pessimism represents for them an integrity associated with the writing of poetry; the pessimism protects the poem from too easy commerce with a world where, as he claims in “In Tenebris II,” “stout upstanders say … ruers have nought to rue” (no. 137). Pessimism claims that the poem will not profit by its place in the world. Pessimism must also not profit from itself. The poem must be the frailest of monuments: “poetry has become, as it were, contiguous with poverty.”39 Gray and Hardy are their own scholar gypsies, and Hardy marked Gray's description of the anonymous poet.40 Hardy's “I am the One” (no. 818) is his version, mediated through Arnold, of Gray's anonymous wanderer poet: “I am the one whom ringdoves see … But stay on cooing, as if they said: / ‘Oh; it's only he.’”41 And yet such humility only seems to further the success it scorns.

So the paradox of Gray's and Hardy's relations to the literary establishment multiply: the popular poet insulated from his popularity, the obscure poet somehow famous but untainted, the university celebrity who is a gypsy-scholar, the educated poet who is too educated or “self-educated.” All of this points to the major influence on Hardy of Gray's “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” and of its paradoxes of the famous obscure and the forgotten famous. In Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Angel discovered that the “conventional farm-folk” and the “typical and unvarying Hodge,” ceased to exist and had been replaced by “varied fellow-creatures … some mutely Miltonic, some potentially Cromwellian” (152). Hardy had made the point earlier, also with the allusion to Gray, in “The Dorsetshire Labourer” (PW, 170-71). Thus Hardy may have taken from Gray a theme which is so closely identified with Hardy as a Dorset writer. The poem “Drummer Hodge” (no. 60) may be read as a miniature Gray elegy on anonymous burial and ironic monument. “They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest” is a rougher version of “Each in his narrow cell for ever laid” but the scenic details (“His landmark is a kopje-crest”) carry a weight similar to Gray's “Beneath those rugged elms” and other landscape details which “No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.”42 Gray's acknowledgment that “Memory o'er their tomb no trophies raise” but “even these bones from insult to protect / Some frail memorial still erected nigh … Implores” underlies Hardy's final ironic celebration of Hodge: “And strange-eyed constellations reign / His stars eternally.”43 Hardy also followed Gray's more positive note in “In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’” (no. 500), which contrasts Gray's oxymoronic “annals of the poor” to “War's annals.”44 “Let not ambition mock their useful toil,” Gray had said, and Hardy continues: “Yet this will go onward the same / Though Dynasties pass.”45 “Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke” in Gray becomes in Hardy: “Only a man harrowing clods.”46 Gray's “Ev'n in our ashes live their wonted fires” influences Hardy's “Only thin smoke without flame.”47 Some deep longing in anonymous mankind threatens to explode.

Hardy's Wessex Poems has as frontispiece a Hardy drawing of Stinsford Churchyard, with urns and graveyard (including the grave of Hardy's father). The drawing evokes Stoke Poges Churchyard of the “Elegy” and indeed looks like one of the many illustrations made over the decades to accompany Gray's poem. Underneath his frontispiece Hardy writes a verse condensed from his poem “Friends Beyond” (no. 36): “At mothy curfew-tide / They've a way of whispering to me,” which evokes Gray's “curfew.”48

Indeed, Gray's famous “Elegy” provided Hardy with his basic model of what a poem is. Gray's title, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” made an obscure usage (practiced by minor poets) into a common canonical practice, especially in what Meyer Abrams has called the “greater romantic lyric.”49 After Gray, there came a flood of followers who wrote poems “written” in various places. The “Elegy” is now the archetypal model of a poem self-conscious about itself as an activity taking place and influenced by the scene being recorded.

All of this is extremely relevant to Hardy, one of whose great originalities was to conceive the poem as an object molded by the natural forces of the scene it records. A poem like “During Wind and Rain” (no. 441) creates the illusion that it is composed during wind and rain, by a speaker who is moving from tomb to tomb in a graveyard, and whose reveries about the buried are regularly interrupted by the stages of the storm. Some of Hardy's poems, like “Voices from Things Growing in a Churchyard” (no. 580), seem to become speaking inscriptions: thus, we can see more fully the significance of Hardy misremembering it as “Voices from Things growing in a Country Churchyard” (L, 446). Other Hardy poems like “The Figure in the Scene” (no. 416) have verse forms seemingly shaped by rain and wind, as though they were sketching pads blown across by the water. It is a sign both of poetry's integrity and its vulnerability that it is an object in the world, not so much a well wrought urn as a battered tombstone. The poem is literally inscribed on the earth, written in place, to keep it from becoming loose change; at the same time it is discarded like an elegy written and left on a country tombstone. Gray gave Hardy the sense of the poem as a product so negligible that it created the value by which all literature is measured. We can more fully see the significance of Hardy saying: “It bridges over the years to think that Gray might have seen Wordsworth in his cradle, and Wordsworth might have seen me in mine” (L, 417).50


Gray is chronologically placed at the beginning of an historical process which had evolved to its inevitable conclusion with Hardy. That process is the one by which polite literature became professionalized and then became commercialized; it is also the process by which the noble and upper-class status of writers had been replaced by middle-class, eventually professional and sometimes working-class status. Gray, as recent studies have shown, reflects the transition between an aristocratic literary culture, to which Gray clung, and the new bourgeois entrepreneurial culture which was “marginalising all that he stood for.”51 As Chesterton says of Gray's “ploughman … as he plods away”: “when the ploughman comes back out of that twilight, he will come back different. He will be either a scientific works-manager … a free peasant or a servant of alien machinery; but never the same again. … Something was, indeed, fading before the eyes of Thomas Gray.”52 It was this process that prompted Gray to lament that

Commerce changes intirely the fate and genius of nations, by communicating arts and opinions, circulating money, and introducing the materials of luxury; she first opens and polishes the mind, then corrupts and enervates both that and the body.53

One result is that the “English tongue … is too diffuse, & daily grows more & more enervate.”54 The process that Gray regretted was the process that gave Hardy the opportunity to be a writer. By Hardy's time, the increasingly entrepreneurial culture had reshaped the working class for which Hardy's high accomplishment is the first canonically assured literary success. What I have called Gray's and Hardy's “inverse” complementarity has to do with their placement at the beginning and the end of this historical stream, Gray fighting not to be included in its inevitable drift, Hardy prospering because of it and then trying to climb out of it. Gray would perfect the standard language of the educated classes but distrusts the evolution of that standard language. Hardy inherits the standard language which Gray had helped polish but in his own way resists being included in it.

At first glance, it would seem that Gray echoes throughout Hardy. “Friends Beyond” (no. 36) throughout evokes echoes of the “Elegy”: “Farmer Ledlow late at plough … in Mellstock churchyard now!,” “that group of local hearts and heads,” “fellow-wight who yet abide,” “Chill detraction stirs no sigh”; and there is the turn at the end to the “me”: “murmur mildly to me now.” “Lying Awake” (no. 844) moves from the personal “I” to the impersonal “names creeping out everywhere,” with a final evocation of Gray: “You, Churchyard, are lightening faint from the shade of the yew.” Gray's subliminal pun, “That teach the rustic moralist to die” (how to die, or, to despair and die), is like some of Hardy's puns: “I shall mind not, slumbering peacefully” (“Regret Not Me” [no. 318]).55 In “The Fading Rose” (no. 737), Hardy gives a literalist answer to Gray's question: “Can storied urn, or animated bust, / Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath”?56 The gravedigger, “Mid text-writ stones and grassy heaps,” says that the deceased beloved “must get to you underground.” In manuscript (noted by Gibson as a variant) Hardy for “text-writ stones” had written “storied stones.” Hardy poems read like repetitions and reconstitutions of the language of Gray's “Elegy,” a poem Hardy powerfully experienced at a formative moment when he studied it in The Golden Treasury.

Gray's eloquently impoverished idiom (“No more; where ignorance is bliss, / 'Tis folly to be wise”) is picked up in Hardy poems: “Enough. As yet disquiet clings / About us. Rest shall we” (“The Impercipient” [no. 44]) and “Well, well! All's past amend, / Unchangeable. It must go. / I seem but a dead man” (“The Going” [no. 277]).57 Gray's phrasing for this personal reference in “Ode on the Spring” (“With me the Muse shall sit, and think”) is echoed in Hardy's “The Fallow Deer at the Lonely House”: “One without looks in to-night / As we sit and think” (no. 551).58 In “The Darkling Thrush” (no. 119) Hardy's “And all mankind that haunted nigh / Had sought their household fires. … And every spirit upon earth / Seemed fervourless as I” repeats Gray's sense of isolation and turn to the “me”: “The ploughman homeward plods his weary way, / And leaves the world to darkness and to me.”59

But there is a major difference between Gray and Hardy as “authors of language.” Gray seeks canonicity, Hardy resists it. Gray seeks the polished formula, Hardy roughens the polish. The second two stanzas of “Afterwards” (no. 511) beginning “If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid's soundless blink” evoke the second stanza of the “Elegy” beginning “Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight.”60 But there is a great difference in grace and idiom. Gray's series of eighteenth-century Virgilian abstractions, in “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College,”

These shall the fury Passions tear,
          The vultures of the mind,
Disdainful Anger, pallid Fear,
          And Shame that skulks behind;
Or pining Love shall waste their youth,
Or Jealousy, with rankling tooth,
          That inly gnaws the secret heart,
And Envy wan, and faded Care,
Grim-visaged comfortless Despair,
          And Sorrow's piercing dart(61)

and continuing, forecast Hardy's specters in his great war poem, “And There Was a Great Calm” (no. 545):

There had been years of Passion—scorching, cold,
And much Despair, and Anger heaving high,
Care whitely watching, Sorrows manifold,
Among the young, among the weak and old,
And the pensive Spirit of Pity whispered, “Why?”

But in Hardy's poem Gray's formulas have become strangely particularized personifications.

Gray taught Hardy about the nature of poetic language and keyed his own evolution of a distinctive idiom. Hardy's copy of The Golden Treasury has multiple markings and underlinings, and a few of these are made in Gray's poems. These underlinings then became the basis of a very important notebook, entitled Studies, Specimens &c, which Hardy started keeping in 1865.62 The notebook contains thousands of words and phrases excerpted from many poets and writers. Gray is not in this notebook, but he is present in another, the “1867 notebook.” Here Hardy excerpts several phrases from Gray's poems: “sceptred care” from “The Bard,” “rosy Pleasure” and “the cheek of Sorrow” from the “Ode on … Vicissitude,” “the toiling hand of Care” and “Contemplation's sober eye” from the “Ode on the Spring,” “pallid Fear,” “Envy wan,” “faded Care,” “moody Madness laughing wild,” “grinning Infamy,” the four lines beginning “Lo, in the vale of years beneath,” all from the “Ode on … Eton,” “Folly's idle brood” from “Ode to Adversity,” “Grandeur … with a disdainful smile,” “The dull cold ear of Death,” and two lines from the “Elegy,” in which Hardy underlined “a smiling land” and “in a nation's eyes.”63 As he read The Golden Treasury and compiled his word lists under Gray's influence, Hardy then began writing poems which he continued to do until “forced” to turn to novel writing.

From Gray Hardy learned of the poet's prophetic ambition to purify the dialect of the tribe. But in their poetic language Gray and Hardy, again, would seem to be on opposite sides of the matter, as we can see simply by citing the first stanza of Hardy's Complete Poems (“The Temporary the All” [no. 2]):

Change and chancefulness in my flowering youthtime,
Set me sun by sun near to one unchosen;
Wrought us fellowlike, and despite divergence,
          Fused us in friendship.

Compare this with Gray's lines also about “chance” (from “Ode on the Spring”):

Alike the Busy and the Gay
          But flutter thro' life's little day,
          In Fortune's varying colors drest:
Brush'd by the hand of rough Mischance,
Or chilled by Age, their airy dance
          They leave, in dust to rest.(64)

In Hardy, phrases are pasted together as though they were puzzle pieces, and words are chosen helter skelter from various classes: obsolete, Anglo-Saxon, Latinate. The lines are about accidental friendship, and have an anomalous mixture of words and phrasing consistent with the accidentality which is their theme. Gray's lines are elevated and learned, but graceful and conventional; most of the words are within the common pale, though slightly elevated. Common words are given a certain elevation by being made allegorical, capitalized. The lines are full of idioms, close to clichés: “life's little day.” By contrast, Hardy's “flowering youthtime” is deliberately anomalous, and his “sun by sun” is not so much a play with idiom as a mutilation of idiom like “day by day.” Gray ends with the witty rhyming punch line “in dust to rest,” thick coated with old idiom. Gray assumes a sophisticated reader who can enjoy his Horatian wit—“we” all agree about the Busy and the Gay. But Hardy assumes no kind of reader, and projects no clear persona; his is the language of fragmentation and diversity, whereas Gray's is the language of the great tradition, the high style for “what oft was thought.” One's initial reactions might be that Gray's style is educated, Hardy's is self-educated.

Gray is one of the great standardizing poets of the English language. The TLS article which Hardy clipped begins by quoting William Watson's lines on Gray:

Gray, who on worn thoughts conferred
That second youth, the perfect word,
That elected and predestined phrase
That had lain bound, long nights and days,
To wear at last, when once set free,
Immortal pelucidity.(65)

Such is the amazing paradox of Gray that no poet has been more accepted into our language, even though he is supposedly the poet of poetic diction and a language far removed from the language of the age. A study of the OED shows Gray's currency. As far as I can see, more words are quoted from Gray, proportionate to the size of his oeuvre, than from any other poet: 1028 words, with an additional 341 words quoted from Gray's prose. Of the 195 words cited from the “Elegy,” only nine are clearly labeled as obsolete, rare, poetic, and so on. (custom'd,haply,inglorious,jocund,lea,long-drawn,madding,note of praise,wonted) while the rest are now standard. Only three of the “Elegy”'s words remain unique citations, all compounds (desert-air,incense-breathing,ivy-mantled).66 For four words Gray is the first citation (breezy,cell [grave], long-drawn,woeful-wan), but this statistic does not convey the pervasive influence of Gray on the literary language. It would seem that if many of Gray's words were veering toward the specialized and poetic, his poetic usage paradoxically made them veer back toward the standard. Many usages from elsewhere in Gray have become part of the standard idiom: “brac'd all his nerves,” “a huge imbroglio,” “a second spring,” “at our time of life” (middle age); also from the prose, “one's contemporaries,” “picking up again” (recovering), “it will do you a power of good.67 Gray's example of “fearful joy” antedates the OED citation.

So Gray's claim that poetic language is never the language of prose (or the language of the age) defines at best a temporarily conflicting relationship between the two.68 The paradox of Gray can be seen in the way he is characterized by Arnold as the poet born in an age of prose, which could mean that Gray was a lonely heroic opponent of his prosy age, or that Gray was somehow tainted by this age of prose. The same paradox can be explained if we consider that poetic diction, as explained by Davie, Tillotson, and others, is diction which has a powerful sense of itself as varying the registers of prose and ordinary speech. There is an inbuilt prose sense in the use of poetic diction, and indeed poetic diction helped establish that precise sense of register we associate with a post-Dryden English.69

But the story is more interesting even than this. There is something very odd about Gray's idioms and clichés. In fact, Gray's style, Mitford says, is like an “elaborate mosaic pavement,” a sort of imagery which was widely applied to Gray whose poetry was described as a “laborious mosaic” (Carlyle), illustrating a “tesselated mind” (Arthur Hallam), “pieced and patched together so laboriously” (Edward Fitzgerald), which sound like phrases from reviews of Hardy.70 The TLS article noted of Gray: “His thoughts were ‘worn thoughts’ and he took immense pains to find the word for them, borrowing, as he knew well, from others and the whole sometimes became perilously near patchwork.”71 Gray said of “The Bard”: “do not wonder therefore, if some Magazine or Review call me Plagiary: I could shew them a hundred more instances, which they never will discover themselves.”72 Thus, Johnson said that the “Eton College” ode “suggests nothing to Gray, which every beholder does not equally think and feel,” that the “Elegy” “abounds with … sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo.”73 From the Athenaeum review article, Hardy copied: “Gray—A spirit of gigantic proportions imprisoned in the sealed jar of eighteenth cent. convention” (LN [The Literary Notes of Thomas Hardy], 1:148). Leslie Stephen noted that the “Elegy” “includes more familiar phrases than almost any poem of equal length in the language.”74 The poem abounds with instantly familiar platitudes which however do not quite cohere: poor country folk die and will never see their families again; but the rich and famous should not mock the simple annals of the poor; indeed the rich and famous die too; so do not mock the poor for having no monument; in any event, monuments cannot bring the dead to life; for that matter, riches and fame do no good in the tomb; besides there might have been an unknown genius among the country folk; but their lot prevented their development—and their crimes; instead they kept to the quiet life; but even they should have a small monument; for no one leaves life without regret. Gray strings together the great clichés of his time, but the string keeps knotting up. It may be this odd mixture of clarity and obscurity in the poem which made Hardy reflect that “the same lines may be lyrical to one temperament and meditative to another; nay, lyrical and not lyrical to the same reader at different times … Gray's Elegy may be instanced as a poem that has almost made itself notorious by claiming to be a lyric in particular humours, situations, and weathers, and waiving the claim in others” (PW, 77). There is something eerily familiar in Gray's platitudes, and it is fitting that in hearing Gray's “Elegy” recited by a friend at Gray's graveside in 1899 Hardy should have had a déjà vu experience:

his friend recited in a soft voice the “Elegy” from the first word to the last in leisurely and lengthy clearness—without an error (which Hardy himself could not have done without some hitch in the order of the verses). With startling suddenness while duly commending her performance he seemed to have lived through the experience before.

(L, 326)

About this experience, Hardy said: “What a thin veneer is that of rank and education over the natural woman” (L, 327). The comment reflects the “Drummer Hodge” demoticism of the “Elegy” and also shows that the “Elegy” was widely known by heart, and memorized by Hardy with only “some hitch in the order of the verses.”

What Hardy learned from Gray is the strange density of apparently obvious phrases and idioms. For example, the opening line, “The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,” is one of the most standardized lines in English literature.75 It is cited four times by the OED, under “curfew,” “toll,” “knell” and “parting.” It may seem churlish to complain about such a warranted piece of language, but the line is strangely perplexed, as though from a super-abundance of established idioms and allusions crowded together. Indeed previous allusions had used “curfew,” “toll,” and “bell” singly or in double combination, but never in triple combination.76 “Curfew tolls” and “tolls the knell” would be unexceptionable; but all together create an odd redundancy (as does “knell of day” and “parting day”). “Curfew,” “tolls,” and “knell” are each associated with a bell sound, though the etymology is more vividly present in “tolls” than in “curfew,” a word fast losing the sense of its history (and in fact returning to its pre-bell meanings of “regulation” and “hour”). But in Gray's line these etymologies crowd forward creating a clamor which subverts the clarity of the standardized phrasing. (Campbell, for example, complains that excessively evoked etymology makes a standard style stumble.77) “Parting” combines the descriptive and funereal associations of the word, leaving and also dying. All of this might serve, since poets traditionally exploit etymology and polysemy, and even Campbell allowed them some license. But here the excessive flurry of etymological echoes perplexes the plain sense. The formality of the personification jars against the onomatopoeia and etymology of bell sounds. The curfew is not only the bell, it is an allegorized Curfew figure which is tolling the knell; and similarly “parting day” is given some kind of allegorical status, as though the day were to raise its hand and wave good-bye. The line in fact reads like a translation (a complaint often made against Hardy), or like a yoking together of quoted phrases from elsewhere. One might compare the first line of Hardy's Gray-ish poem, “Afterwards” (no. 511): “When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,” which also yokes etymologies and personifications in strange fashion.

Some of Gray's lines are so clear they become obscure. Others are obscure but we think them clear. One example is the “Elegy”'s “Epitaph” line “Fair Science frowned not on his humble birth.” One complainant noted that “The very smoothness of Gray's lines seduces the ear and diverts the reader from an inquiry into the meaning.”78 Some readers assumed that Gray meant: “Fair Science smiled not on his humble birth” parallel to the earlier lines, “Knowledge to their eyes her ample page … did ne'er unroll.” To figure out the line, you should remember Horace's ode (4.3) about Melpomene looking on her poet “with smiling eye” (“placido lumine”) and also remember Gray's “Ode on … Eton” (“grateful Science still adores / Her Henry's holy shade”).79 The contortion here reflects the strange power of standard phrases, to clarify and also to dull. (It also may reflect Gray's uncertainty about the source of real knowledge, in education or in rural quiet.) The poem ends with a non-commercial exchange and a disinterested value:

He gave to Misery all he had, a tear,
He gained from Heaven ('twas all he wished) a friend.
No farther seek his merits to disclose(80)

They “repose” in the bosom of God. This hidden value is not only alien to Gray's commercial culture; it is hidden (“so that … hearing they may hear and not understand” [Mark 4: 11-12]) behind standard idiomatic formulas which have deceptive clarity but in fact have become opaque to most readers. But in this way Gray keeps his language preserved in a world where he says a friend “overheard three People, whom by their dress & manner he takes for Lords, say, that I was impenetrable & inexplicable, and they wish'd, I had told them in prose, what I meant in verse, & then they bought me … & put me in their pocket.” Against such prosy reduction to cheap currency, Gray polishes his poetic language into the ultimate formulas of our society, so ultimate that we cannot get behind them in order to understand them. They understand us. “We think in words,” Gray said.81

“Language, like the rocks, is strewn with the fossilised wrecks of former conditions of society.”82 What became opaque for Gray had disappeared for Hardy:

Why thus my soul should be consigned
          To infelicity,
Why always I must feel as blind
          To sights my brethren see,
Why joys they've found I cannot find,
          Abides a mystery.

(“The Impercipient” [no. 44])

An enormous divide of social and philological history separates Gray from Hardy for whom the standard language was not only under historical critique, in his era of the OED, but also under social critique, in an era where Horne Tooke, the working man's philosopher, had proclaimed standard language the obfuscation practiced by the oppressive class system. What Gray undermined from inside the system, Hardy undermined from outside. Where Gray says “Alike the Busy and the Gay / But flutter thro' life's little day,” Hardy says: “Chance and Chancefulness in my flowering youthtime” (“The Temporary the All” [no. 2]).83 Where Gray wakes us with his play on traditional formulas, Hardy wakes us with his minute scrutiny of them. The Hardy problem seems the very opposite of the Gray problem: Gray, urbane, platitudinous, with polished poetic diction; Hardy, “self-educated,” awkward, jangling. Again study of the OED illustrates this difference. Of Hardy's 243 words cited from poems and Dynasts, 41٪ remain unique citations (compare Gray's “Elegy”'s 2٪), and few are first citations (none in the first edition of the OED, but 7٪ in the second edition). Characteristic unique citations are disillusive,formularist,impercipient,Necessitator,subtrude,undecrease,unforefending and so on. Also Hardy has one of the most labeled vocabularies in literature; some 40٪ (56٪ in the first edition of the OED) of the words cited from poems and Dynasts are obsolete, poetic, dialect, and so on (compare Gray's “Elegy”'s 5٪). There is little in Hardy of Gray's pioneering of standard colloquialisms; typically, indeed, Hardy made poetic use out of some of the “Elegy”'s few non-standard words: customed,madding,haply,lea.84 Hardy's vocabulary remains anomalous, unassimilated by the history of the standard literary language. In those minute scrutinies Hardy conducted in his early notebooks, he became so fascinated by the formulaic density of Gray's phrases that he constructed his own home-made idiom in an inversely complementary spirit.

Thus, “The Temporary the All” is full of clearly labeled words or words that never get into the dictionary at all: chancefulness (coined form), youthtime (coined after the archaic youthhood), fellowlike (“obsolete”), forthcome (occasional use), self-communed (coined), all-eclipsing (coined), forefelt (coined), breath-while (coined), life-deed (coined), outshow (“poetic”), showance (“rare”), earth-track (coined), sufficeth (archaic ending). Hardy's practice includes words which are still standard in the original OED, but given a strange aura in these contexts: fulfiller,prevision,forefelt,visioned,intermissive. Hardy's words are not only from various temporal and social classes; they seem to compound elements in unusual ways. The uneasily yoked elements in individual words—aforehand,misprision,hereto,upclomb—reflect the manipulated sense units in the sentences themselves. The way such language shapes consciousness into obsolete frames is beautifully expressed in Hardy's “The Pedigree” (no. 390) where the style fits the theme of seeing one's ancestors in the looking-glass:

                              And then did I divine
          That every heave and coil and move I made
Within my brain, and in my mood and speech,
                    Was in the glass portrayed
          As long forestalled by their so making it;
The first of them, the primest fuglemen of my line,
Being fogged in far antiqueness past surmise and reason's reach.

His mind, Hardy says in another poem, is

          scored with necrologic scrawls,
Where feeble voices rise, once full-defined,
From underground in curious calls.

(“In a Former Resort after Many Years” [no. 666])85

Where Gray put together, Hardy took apart. Hardy makes explicit the potential perplexities in Gray's overly polished style, unleashes the hidden histories and exploits the syntactic oddities. Though both Hardy and Gray assume the power and domination of the standard language and standard literary language, both constitute assaults on its presumptuous complacency. Gray perplexes by writing in a poetic diction so standardized that it is obscure; Hardy perplexes by writing in a language that never has become standardized but continues to jangle our ears and our idioms. Gray had said: “our language not being a settled thing (like the French) has an undoubted right to words of an hundred years old.”86 Gray's response is to naturalize the French, Hardy's to denaturalize the English. Under the influence of Victorian historical philology, he cited the mistake of treating English “as a thing crystallised at an arbitrarily selected stage of its existence, and bidden to forget that it has a past and deny that it has a future.”87 So Hardy's style perplexes us both with the jangling of social classes of language and with the diachrony of multiple historical strands:

For, wonning in these ancient lands,
Enchased and lettered as a tomb,
And scored with prints of perished hands,
And chronicled with dates of doom,
Though my own being bear no bloom
I trace the lives such scenes enshrine,
Give past exemplars present room,
And their experience count as mine.

(“On an Invitation to the United States” [no. 75])

Hardy's language, as much as Gray's, is pointedly imbedded in historical tradition, but no longer a seamless tradition. The archeological seams of the history of language show at many points, and Hardy exposes rather than naturalizes them. When Gray said that the language of poetry is never the language of the age, he achieved a paradoxical result, a language removed from current language in order to become a new currency, refined and unchanging. Hardy a hundred years later refuses to allow his language to become currency at all; he keeps it withdrawn from circulation, by insisting on its non-standard nature, its perennial challenge to the achievement of a standard language. Thus Hardy's poem rejects the invitation to the United States, to the commercial tour which had made other authors wealthy. Hardy out-Grays Gray in order to fulfill Gray's ambition, to be a poet for all time, not just for his own time.

From Dorset, Hardy comes to London and bores inside the standard language, scrutinizing its structures and materials, undermining its idioms and syntactic grace, releasing its hidden and decentering history, doing to Gray what I did to Gray's curfew line, performing what Horace Moule called Hardy's “minute way of looking at style.”88 Gray the poet of ultimate decorum, Hardy the poet of awkwardness, both have a testy relation to the language of the tribe, and both believe that poetry is the quintessential language of literature. Both write out of an antagonistic relation to the literary culture they seek to influence, because of the potential for betrayal by that culture, either through its exclusion of fine writers (like themselves) or its coopting of fine writing into common currency. This shared antagonism brings them together even though they are on the opposite sides of a class division and an historical era. The differences account for their respective approaches to poetic language, one polished to the point of inscrutability, the other scrutinized to the point of near anomaly. Both linguistic strategies are designed to influence the literary culture without being coopted by it. At opposite ends of the historical corridor and of the social scale, Gray and Hardy participated in a common challenge both to the commercial culture and the high hegemony of the literary tradition. In spite of a history that was changing the nature of literature and the place of poetry, Gray convinced Hardy that, in spite of having written fourteen novels, his highest vocation was poetry, because the language of poetry was a permanent purification of the language of the age.


  1. Thomas Hardy, The Life And Work, ed. Michael Millgate (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1985), 185-86; hereafter cited parenthetically and abbreviated L. Hardy, Collected Letters, ed. Richard Purdy and Michael Millgate, 7 vols. (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1978-1988), 6:182; hereafter cited parenthetically and abbreviated CL. Hardy's Life says that by 1886 Hardy “had quite resigned himself to novel-writing as a trade, which he had never wanted to carry on as such. He now went about the business mechanically” (189).

  2. Percy Bysshe Shelley, “A Defence of Poetry,” in Selected Poems, Essays and Letters (New York: The Odyssey Press, 1944), 533, 568.

  3. Thomas Gray, Correspondence, ed. Paget Toynbee and Leonard Whibley, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1935), 1:192. Since the three volumes of this edition are paginated continuously, further references will omit the volume number.

  4. Gray, Correspondence, 335; Poems of … Gray … Collins … Goldsmith, ed. Roger Lonsdale (London: Longman, 1969), 113; Gray, Correspondence, 296. All quotations from Gray's poetry are taken from Lonsdale's edition of Gray, Collins and Goldsmith unless indicated otherwise. The edition will be abbreviated “Lonsdale” in the notes.

  5. Hardy, Personal Writings, ed. Harold Orel (Lawrence: Univ. of Kansas Press, 1966), 48; hereafter cited parenthetically and abbreviated PW.

  6. Neil Covey, “The Decline of Poetry and Hardy's Empty Hall” (Victorian Poetry, 31 [1993]: 61-78), discusses Hardy's interest in the rarefied and marginalized status of poetry.

  7. Johnson, Lives of the English Poets, ed. George Birkbeck Hill, 3 vols. (New York: Octagon Books, 1967), 3:421, 3:430-31.

  8. Gray's Poetical Works, ed. John Mitford (London: Bell, 1885), ii (Hardy's copy, Dorset County Museum); this edition has several markings by Hardy, which confirm that Gray's earlier influence continued. Hardy also owned Gray's Poetical Works, ed. John Moultrie (Eton: Williams, 1854 [Hardy's copy, Dorset County Museum]), a gift to Hardy in 1918 and signed by him but otherwise unmarked.

  9. The Golden Treasury, ed. F. T. Palgrave (Cambridge: Macmillan, 1861 [Hardy's copy, Dorset County Museum]). Discussing the four divisions of the Golden Treasury (“I to the ninety years closing about 1616, II thence to 1700, III to 1800, IV to the half century just ended”), Palgrave said “they might called the Books of Shakespeare, Milton, Gray, and Wordsworth” (Preface).

  10. Hardy marked these lines and also line 62, “And Sorrow's faded form, and Solitude behind” in Mitford's edition (55, 46).

  11. Palgrave, note to poem no. cxlvii.

  12. From Arnold's “The Study of Poetry” and “Thomas Gray” respectively, in his Essays in Criticism, second series (London: Macmillan, 1888), 42, 91.

  13. Hardy, Literary Notebooks, ed. Lennart Björk, 2 vols. (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1985), 1:172; hereafter cited parenthetically by volume and page and abbreviated LN.

  14. Mitford, “The Life of Thomas Gray,” prefixed to his edition of Gray, Poetical Works, lxxxix.

  15. Reed, Introduction to English Literature from Chaucer to Tennyson (London: Shaw, 1865), 204 (Hardy's copy, Dorset County Museum).

  16. When Hardy described the invasion of Susan's death room in The Mayor of Casterbridge (“Well, poor soul; she's helpless to hinder that or anything now … And all her shining keys will be took from her, and her cupboards opened; and little things a' didn't wish seen, anybody will see; and her wishes and ways will be as nothing!”), Hardy may have remembered the invasion of the poet's house by the ladies comically described in Gray's “A Long Story”: “Each hole and cupboard they explore … Into the drawers and china pry”; see The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), in The Works of Thomas Hardy in Prose and Verse, Wessex edn., 24 vols., (London: Macmillan, 1912-1931), 138. All quotations from Hardy's novels are from this edition and are hereafter cited parenthetically by page; titles may be inferred from the text.

  17. There are at least two other allusions to Gray in Jude the Obscure. Jude and Sue are called “pleasing anxious beings” (part 5, ch. 5, second paragraph), echoing Gray's “Elegy,” lines 85-86: “For who, to dumb forgetfulness a prey, / This pleasing anxious being e'er resigned” (Lonsdale, 132, ll. 85-86); and Jude (in the manuscript of 1894-95 [Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge Univ.], page 98) focuses on Sue with a “fearful joy,” later disguised as “fearful bliss” (part 2, ch. 4, fourth paragraph), the deleted phrase evoking Gray's “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College”: “They hear a voice in every wind, / And snatch a fearful joy.” Hardy copied these lines into his Literary Notebooks (2:463) and used “fearful joy” in Far from the Madding Crowd (181), and in The Return of the Native (166).

  18. Hardy also put a single line next to the Mitford comment following this stanza, and double lines against another rejected Gray stanza beginning “There scatter'd oft, the earliest of the Year” (Mitford, 107).

  19. Mary O'Rourke, Thomas Hardy: His Secretary Remembers, Monographs on the Life, Times and Works of Thomas Hardy, no. 8 (Beaminster, Dorset: Toucan Press, 1965), 7.

  20. Palgrave, 131.

  21. Two of Gray's lines, “Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap” from the “Elegy,” and “We frolic, while 'tis May” from “Ode on the Spring” are quoted as epigraphs to chapters in A Pair of Blue Eyes (21, 151).

  22. Lonsdale, 177, ll. 121-22.

  23. Hardy wrote to Amy Lowell that Keats's “words ‘pure serene’ in the Chapman's Homer sonnet may have been an unconscious memory of the line in Gray's Elegy ending, ‘purest ray serene’” (CL, 6:313). Hardy so noted this source in his 1925 copy of Amy Lowell's John Keats (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1925 [Hardy's copy, Princeton Collection]), where Lowell had failed to find an English source except for Cary's translation of Dante's “pure serene.” But Hardy remembered Gray and in the margin wrote “‘purest ray serene’ Gray.”

  24. Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1917-), 8:470.

  25. Hardy's campaign against ruining ancient Gothic churches by improvements parallels Gray's attack on “the rage of repairing, beautifying, whitewashing, painting, and gilding, and (above all) the mixture of Greek (or Roman) ornaments in Gothic edifices” (Gray, Letter to the Rev. Mr. Bentham, Gentleman's Magazine 54 [1784], 245).

  26. The opening poem of Hardy's Wessex Poems, “The Temporary the All,” is an English imitation of classical Sapphics, perhaps addressed to Horace Moule. And Gray's “first original production,” were the Sapphics, “Barbaras aedes aditure mecum,” addressed to Richard West (Lonsdale, 306). References to Hardy's poems are taken from the Complete Poems, variorum edn., ed. James Gibson (London: Macmillan, 1979) and are hereafter cited parenthetically by poem number.

  27. See my Hardy's Metres and Victorian Prosody (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988). Gray's detailed and scholarly codification of metrical schemes and examples in his “The Measures of Verse” parallels Hardy's practice of making his poems into an encyclopedia of metrical schemes which include over 790 different metrical forms of which over 170 are traditional.

  28. Hardy's one full dress traditional ode, “Compassion: An Ode” (no. 805), is influenced generally by the Pindaric ode tradition and specifically by “The Bard” and its three part Pindaric scheme. In subject matter, the slaughter of innocent animals for Hardy parallels the slaughter of poets for Gray. Gray proclaims a counter “voice, as of the cherub-choir” (“The Bard,” Lonsdale, 199, l. 131), and Hardy proclaims: “A mighty voice calls.”

  29. Gray merits a chapter in Jean Hagstrum's The Sister Arts: The Tradition of Literary Pictorialism and English Poetry from Dryden to Gray (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1958), while Hardy is the subject of two entire books on his relation to painting (one entitled Hardy and the Sister Arts [London: Macmillan, 1979] by Joan Grundy). Hardy, teaching himself painting and allowed into recently opened public museums, early kept a “Schools of Painting” notebook and filled his novels with allusions to paintings (see Hardy, Personal Notebooks, ed. Richard Taylor [New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1979]; hereafter cited parenthetically and abbreviated PN); Gray, privy to private collections, made elaborate notes on his continental tour and filled his poems with the images of painting. Hardy made a note referring to painter William Etty next to lines 40-41 of “The Progress of Poesy” in his copy of The Golden Treasury: “mem: S.K. Museum—Etty. 1863” (131).

  30. Lonsdale, 268, ll. 15-17.

  31. Lonsdale, 270, ll. 35-39.

  32. Lonsdale, 272, ll. 57-58.

  33. Lonsdale, 269, ll. 21-22; 270, ll. 35-39.

  34. Hardy's important poem, “Copying Architecture in an Old Minster” (no. 369), also derives from Gray's hints. Its many details, the summoning of ghosts (“one shade appears, and another”), their emerging forth with the “eve-damps” and association with the “overhead creak of a passager's pinion,” the cast of characters (“And a Duke and his Duchess near; / And one Sir Edmund in columned gloom”), their “parle” in which they caution the unborn not to come “To a world … Of … ardours chilled and numb,” are all reworkings of the Gray and Jude passages. Hardy's ghosts speaking “of … ardours chilled” parallel Gray's ghosts recalling their bygone “genuine ardour.”

  35. Vere Collins, Talks with Thomas Hardy at Max Gate, 1920-1922 (London: Duckworth, 1928), 63.

  36. Collins, 63.

  37. Next to the last two lines of Hardy's Golden Treasury version of Gray's “Ode on … Eton,” Hardy made a note citing Sophocles's Oedipus Rex (see Hardy's Metres, 252). Again, in his copy of R. C. Jebb's edition of Sophocles's Plays and Fragments, Part I (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1893 [Hardy's copy, Yale Collection]), Hardy marked both the Greek and the translation of Tiresias's words: “Alas, how dreadful to have wisdom where it profits not the wise!” In the margin next to the Greek, Hardy wrote: “cf. Gray” (52, ll. 316-17).

  38. G. K. Chesterton, The Victorian Age in Literature (London: Butterworth, 1913), 143.

  39. Henry Weinfield on Gray, in The Poet Without a Name: Gray's Elegy and the Problem of History (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1991), 96.

  40. Where Gray writes “If chance, by lonely Contemplation led, / Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate” (“Elegy,” ll. 95-96), Hardy in his 1885 edition underlined and punctuated: “If, chance,” and in the margin notes: “(i.e. perchance) (or it chance).” Where Gray writes “Another came; nor yet beside the rill, / Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he,” Hardy clarifies: “Another [morning] came” (Mitford edition of Gray, Hardy's copy, 106, 108).

  41. Gray, “Elegy,” Lonsdale, 135-36, ll. 98-100.

  42. “Elegy,” Lonsdale, 120, l. 15 (“for ever laid”), l. 13 (“rugged elms”); 121, l. 20 (“lowly bed”).

  43. “Elegy,” Lonsdale, 124, l. 38 (“trophies raise”); 132, ll. 77-80 (“Implores”). An interesting Hardy pun in “Drummer Hodge” was perhaps influenced by a Gray letter describing his walk by a tree: “and there grow to the trunk for a whole morning” (Gray, Correspondence, 48). Thus, Hardy: “His homely Northern breast and brain / [will] Grow to some Southern tree.” Hardy copied from Gosse's Gray (London: Macmillan, 1882), in which Gray's letter is quoted, and praised the work “which afforded me food for thought during several days” (CL, 1:110).

  44. “Elegy,” Lonsdale, 123, l. 32.

  45. “Elegy,” Lonsdale, 122, l. 29.

  46. “Elegy,” Lonsdale, 122, l. 26 (“glebe has broke”). Did Hardy absorb a “hint” from a letter to the Gentleman's Magazine, (73 [1803], 1140), on Gray's “mistake … in using the word furrow instead of harrow”? The letter writer, “S. C.” (!), concludes: “Perhaps this hint may be attended to in future editions of that beautiful poem.”

  47. “Elegy,” Lonsdale, 134, l. 92 (“wonted fires”).

  48. “Elegy,” Lonsdale, 117, l. 1 (“curfew”).

  49. Meyer Abrams, “Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric,” in From Sensibility to Romanticism, ed. Frederick Hilles and Harold Bloom (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1965).

  50. In the back of his 1885 edition of Gray, Hardy inserted the clipping of a perceptive 1916 article on “Gray” from TLS no. 779 (1916): 617-18. The TLS article suggested that “Gray might have seen Wordsworth in his cradle” (618). Hardy simply completed the TLS sentence. For other Gray-Hardy connections, see F. B. Pinion, A Hardy Companion (London: Macmillan, 1976), 203; Björk's note in Hardy's Literary Notebooks, 1:379; Collected Letters, throughout; and my Hardy's Metres, throughout.

  51. Suvir Kaul, Thomas Gray and Literary Authority (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1992), 8; also see Linda Zionkowski, “Bridging the Gulf Between: The Poet and the Audience in the Work of Gray,” ELH 58 (1991): 331-50. On Hardy's social class, see, among others, Peter Widdowson, Hardy in History: A Study in Literary Sociology (London, Routledge, 1989).

  52. Chesterton, 126.

  53. Gray, Prefatory note, “The Alliance of Education and Government,” in Lonsdale, 91.

  54. Gray, Correspondence, 196.

  55. “Elegy,” Lonsdale, 132, l. 84 (“moralist to die”).

  56. “Elegy,” Lonsdale, 125, ll. 41-42 (“fleeting breath”).

  57. “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College,” Lonsdale, 63, ll. 99-100 (“folly to be wise”).

  58. “Ode on the Spring,” Lonsdale, 50, l. 16.

  59. “Elegy,” Lonsdale, 117, ll. 3-4 (“the world to darkness and to me”). At least one of Gray's contemporary readers found this usage “quaint”: see John Young, A Criticism on the Elegy, 2nd edn. (Edinburgh: Ballantine, 1810; original edition London, 1783), 36.

  60. “Elegy,” Lonsdale, 118, l. 5 (“on the sight”). David Thatcher cites other verbal parallels between the two poems, in “Another Look at Hardy's ‘Afterwards,’” Victorian Newsletter 38 (Fall, 1970): 14-18: “Upland” and “thorn” occur in both pieces, and Gray's “a swain may think,” “crossed,” “dews,” “aged thorn,” and “trembling” are echoed in Hardy's “a gazer may think,” “crossing,” “dewfall,” “wind-warped thorn,” and “tremulous” (16).

  61. “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College,” Lonsdale, 60-61, ll. 61-70.

  62. Thomas Hardy's “Studies, Specimens &c ” Notebook, ed. P. Dalziel and M. Millgate (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994).

  63. See LN, 2:461-63: “The Bard” (l. 141), “Ode on … Vicissitude” (ll. 33, 41), “Ode on the Spring” (ll. 21, 31), “Ode on … Eton” (ll. 63, 68, 79, 74, 81), “Ode to Adversity” (l. 18), the “Elegy” (ll. 31, 44, 63-4). Gray's “Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat” influenced Hardy's various poems about pets; in “Last Words to a Dumb Friend” (no. 619) Hardy imitates Gray's poetical diction. Where Gray's fourth line reads, “Demurest of the tabby kind” (Lonsdale, 81), Hardy's second line reads “Purrer of the spotless hue.”

  64. Lonsdale, 52-53, ll. 35-40.

  65. Hardy's clipping of “Gray,” TLS.

  66. “The Bard” shows similar statistics: of its 81 words cited in the OED, only two are clearly labeled (“orb of day,” symphonious), and only four remain unique, all compounds (awe-commanding,cherub-choir,lion-port,virgin-grace).

  67. Also, interestingly, free verse (under amphibrach) though not cited as such by the OED.

  68. Gray made the observation that “the language of the age is never the language of poetry; except among the French, whose verse … differs in nothing from prose” (Correspondence, 83).

  69. In his Mitford edition of Gray, Hardy underlined Gray's description of Dryden in “The Progress of Poesy”: “Dryden's less presumptuous car,” that is, less presumptuous than Milton and in fact more important for establishing a standard literary language (Mitford, 35, l. 103).

  70. Mitford edition of Gray, cix; the other descriptions are quoted in Alan McKenzie, Thomas Gray: A Reference Guide (Boston: Hall, 1982), 57, 61, 102.

  71. Hardy's clipping of “Gray,” TLS.

  72. Gray, Correspondence, 477.

  73. Johnson, 3:434, 441.

  74. Leslie Stephen, “Gray and His School,” Cornhill Magazine 40 (1879): 70-91, 70.

  75. “Elegy,” Lonsdale, 117, l. 1. In “Drawing Details in an Old Church” (no. 655) Hardy writes “And I catch the toll that follows / From the lagging bell,” evoking Gray's sounds of “tolls” and “knell.”

  76. See Lonsdale, prefatory note to “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” 117.

  77. George Campbell, The Philosophy of Rhetoric, ed. Lloyd Bitzer (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1988), 149.

  78. Harold Williams, “Gray's ‘Elegy,’” Notes and Queries 128 (1921), 358. The line has been the subject of numerous Notes and Queries articles: McKenzie cites four (85, 110, 156, 305; McKenzie's dating of the article cited on page 110 is mistaken; the date should be 1899). The general consensus, laboriously arrived at, is that “frown'd not on” means “smiled upon.”

  79. “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College,” Lonsdale, 56-57, ll. 3-4.

  80. “Elegy,” Lonsdale, 140, ll. 123-25.

  81. Gray, Correspondence, 532, 1294. This oddly dense polish may explain the famous attacks made against Gray, that “he was dull in a new way, and that made many people think him GREAT. He was a mechanical poet” (Johnson in James Boswell, Life of Johnson [London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1953], 600), that Gray's use of a word like “ruin” in “Ruin seize thee, ruthless King!” is an example of a word run to seed in allegorical dullness (Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction [Middletown: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1973], 123), that Gray's emotions are not concentrated but “centrifugal” (F. W. Bateson, English Poetry and the English Language [New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1973], 59), that Gray's example in many poems is “decadent and disruptive” (Donald Davie, Purity of Diction in English Verse [New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1953], 37). The Wordsworth-Coleridge argument over Gray's sonnet left Gray condemned either for writing artificially or else incongruously. Into his Literary Notebooks Hardy pasted a clipping of a TLS review of Courthrope's History of English Poetry; the reviewer wrote: “it is strange to find both Johnson and Goldsmith on the one hand and Wordsworth on the other finding fault with Gray because his diction was so far from natural speech” (LN, 2:301; “The Poetry of the Eighteenth Century,” TLS no. 203 [Dec. 1, 1905], 414).

  82. Archibald Sayce, quoted in my Hardy's Literary Language and Victorian Philology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 221, where I also explain the principles of working with the OED.

  83. “Ode on the Spring,” Lonsdale, 52, ll. 35-36.

  84. Hardy's distinctive use of un-verbs (unblooms,unvision,unspeak), is forecast by a lone second edition Gray citation: “Our defeat to be sure is a rueful affair … ; but the Duke is gone it seems … to undefeat us again” (letter to Horace Walpole, 3 February 1746, in Correspondence, 1:229) but Hardy's converts Gray's colloquial cleverness into that characteristic oddity of scrutinized idiom.

  85. I have discussed Hardy's historicized style in Hardy's Literary Language.

  86. Gray, Correspondence, 193.

  87. I have quoted this passage in Hardy's Literary Language, 221.

  88. Quoted in Hardy's Literary Language, 290.

William R. Siebenschuh (essay date autumn 1999)

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SOURCE: Siebenschuh, William R. “Hardy and the Imagery of Place.” Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900 39, no. 4 (autumn 1999): 773-89.

[In the following essay, Siebenschuh suggests that Hardy's poetic and fictional vision is closely tied to his symbolic use of the sense of place.]

In the text that follows, I make two assumptions about the nature of Thomas Hardy's fiction and poetry in general, both of which were articulated years ago by John Holloway in The Victorian Sage and both of which have been echoed many times since. The first is that though one looks in vain for a coherent general philosophy in Hardy's works, it is clear that he does have something like a coherent imaginative vision, a consistent set of ways of viewing and presenting the world. The second assumption is that this larger vision is seldom, if ever, effectively expressed in abstract terms. What Holloway calls Hardy's “considered view of the world” emerges instead from image, symbol, and the often symbolic or metaphoric narrative structures of the novels.1 It pervades the fiction and poetry, because in them it is more than simply issues or subjects that drive Hardy's imagination, it is also what he once termed an “idiosyncratic mode of regard,” a way of looking at the world with the quality and characteristics of intuitive and imaginative insight, rather than a considered or abstractable philosophy.2 As critics have pointed out for some time, Hardy's most instinctive mode as a writer is figurative, not analytic; his most habitual method is symbolism, not argument.

The symbolic dimension of Hardy's fiction was not what attracted (or offended) his earliest readers and reviewers, who responded to the books most often in mimetic, formal, and moral terms.3 But since at least Marcel Proust's time, critics have become increasingly aware of the importance of the many recurring patterns, symbols, and images in the fiction and poetry.4 It is now a given, for example, that there is more to the sword exercise and sheepshearing scenes in Far from the Madding Crowd than sensationalism and genre painting—the verdict of early reviewers. It is clear that Tess's musings about life on a blighted planet (and similar feelings expressed by other characters in other books) represent more than quaint or “realistic” dialogue, that the rich descriptive writing is far more than “setting,” and that the repetitions of configurations of characters and events are meaningful. “Our response to the detail [in Hardy's fiction],” says Holloway, “must be colored by our enduring sense of what is mediated all in all.”5

The urge to discover “what is mediated all in all” has resulted in a succession of stylistic and phenomenological studies of the fiction and poetry in the past several decades,6 each with a differing idea about which are the most important patterns in the carpet, all with a sense that, to borrow Dennis Taylor's phrase, a “consistency of vision and coherence of sensibility” characterizes both poems and novels.7 The critics' object in most cases is, as J. Hillis Miller puts it, “to identify those underlying structures which persist through all the variations in Hardy's work and make it a whole.”8 My object, too, is to identify and explore one such common denominator: Hardy's symbolic use of a highly personal sense of the relations among identity, community, and place.

The word “place” has come to mean a variety of things to students of the novel. At the simplest level it usually refers to a writer's artistic use of a highly particularized physical environment, geographical region, or human community. Place in this sense has had many uses. One of them, of course, is the increased symbolic role played by “setting” in the gothic, romantic, and post-Romantic novel: the wildness of the health in Wuthering Heights mirroring the inner turbulence of the characters, the riven oak at Thornfield Hall foreshadowing the fate of Jane Eyre and Rochester, and so on. The concrete details of physical places and communities also began to serve the Victorian novelists' growing sense of the complex relations between individuals and history. In the nineteenth-century novel, the physical world was much more fully realized than in earlier narrative—factory and slum as often as village and heath—because there was less interest in timeless moral or ethical drama alone and more in examining what it meant to have been an orphan in the age of Political Economy and the Reform Bill of 1832, or to be an individual with dreams and ambitions swimming against the current of habit, custom, and social and cultural bias at a particular moment in history in a complex community like Middlemarch. As Richard Altick demonstrates, in The Presence of the Present (in a chapter titled “A Sense of Place”), the physical objects that filled and defined places also provided Victorian novelists with a rich new language for revealing aspects of character and registering subtle and not-so-subtle social, class, and moral distinctions.9 (In Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend, the Veneerings' garish gas chandelier marked them immediately, Altick tells us, as pretentious nouveaux riche, and so on.) As with the fuller realization of complex human communities or social strata in Honoré de Balzac's Paris, Dickens's London, and Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire, Hardy's Wessex is also routinely discussed under the rubric of “place,” as is the phenomenon of literary regionalism, usually described as a writer's use of historically accurate detail to preserve images of an obviously disappearing world. William Cobbett's Rural Rides, George Eliot's Scenes from Clerical Life, and Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree are frequently cited examples of this enormously popular genre. Beyond these more common senses of the term, John Alcorn gives the concept of place a post-Darwinian twist. In The Nature Novel from Hardy to Lawrence, Alcorn coins the term “naturism” to describe a school of writers who use place in a specialized way that involves both landscape and setting. “The naturist world,” Alcorn says, “is a world of physical organism, where biology replaces theology as the source of both psychic health and moral authority. The naturist is a child of Darwin; he sees man as part of an animal continuum; he reasserts the importance of instinct as a key to human happiness; he tends to be suspicious of the life of the mind … As a novelist, he is likely to prefer a loose plot structure, built around an elaborately described landscape.”10 Each of these ideas under the general rubric of the concept of place is relevant to Hardy to one degree or another. None is exactly my subject here.

My concern is less with Hardy's use of place as setting or historical context, or to reveal character, than with his use of symbolic details and imagery involving people's relationships to places to explore and explain what he perceived to be the psychologically “dislocated” condition of modern men and women. The following brief example will, I hope, suggest the difference between place in this sense and the many others mentioned previously.

When, in Thomas Hardy: His Career as a Novelist, Michael Millgate suggests that “Jude [Jude the Obscure] is a novel curiously deficient in the sense of place,” he is correct in the more traditional senses of the term.11 As he explains, “Apart from Christminster and Shaston, the places visited by Sue and Jude remain, by comparison with places in Hardy's other novels, singularly devoid of individuality, atmosphere, associations.”12 With this suggestion of Millgate's in mind, therefore, let us consider Hardy's treatment of the early episode in which Farmer Troutham hires Jude to guard his cornfield. Jude is alone in the field, and after his initial reaction (“How ugly it is here!”), the narrator provides the following description:

The fresh harrow-lines seemed to stretch like the channellings in a piece of new corduroy, lending a meanly utilitarian air to the expanse, taking away its gradations, and depriving it of all history beyond that of a few recent months, though to every clod and stone there really attached associations enough and to spare—echoes of songs from ancient harvest-days, of spoken words, and of sturdy deeds. Every inch of ground had been the site, first or last, of energy, gaiety, horse-play, bickerings, weariness. Groups of gleaners had squatted in the sun on every square yard. Love-matches that had populated the adjoining hamlet had been made up there between reaping and carrying. Under the hedge which divided the field from a distant plantation girls had given themselves to lovers who would not turn their heads to look at them by the next harvest; and in that ancient cornfield many a man had made love-promises to a woman at whose voice he had trembled by the next seed-time. But this neither Jude nor the rooks around him considered.13

One can see immediately why Millgate (and perhaps others) would not see connections between a description such as this one and the rich, highly particularized, visually, historically, and biologically accurate realizations of Egdon Heath, Hintock Woods, Casterbridge, and the Valley of the Froom. But this small passage is crucial to an understanding of what I see as another kind of use of place. The emphasis here is on the actual and possible psychological relations among a person, a place, and a human community. The literal physical place is used more as a metaphor than a biological environment. It is an objective correlative of a complex idea, and the fact that—as Millgate says—“it is singularly devoid of individuality and associations” is, arguably, the point.

As Hardy describes the scene, we see Jude literally surrounded by a field presented as a rich and potentially valuable text which unfortunately he cannot read, because, for him, the ground he stands upon is deprived of “history.” Although the field is actually rich in history, young Jude has no access to its resonances, because, since he is a relative stranger to Marygreen, there has been no basis for connection. Thus the field evokes no memories and speaks no useful language to him, “though to every clod and stone there really attached associations … to spare.” Because Jude has no ritual, psychological, or imaginative access to associations from either its immediate or distant past, he cannot be sustained by a sense of continuity within a particular community, a geographic region, or a perceived and vital cultural past. As he is presented here, he has no sense of himself as part of the nicely evoked cycles of songs from ancient days, energy, gaiety, horse-play, bickerings, yearnings, the promises, love-matches, and betrayals that occurred in the normal course of things imaged in the timeless cycles of reaping, carrying, and seed-time. There is even the suggestion of a possible warning that goes unheeded. The reference to the long list of men making promises of love that they would soon regret is obviously predictive, but it is of no use to Jude since he cannot share the insight. This is a particularly pure example of Hardy's symbolic use of place in my sense precisely because there is no attempt to realize a physical environment in concrete detail. The emphasis instead is clearly upon the implications of the psychological relationship between Jude and the furrowed field, or more precisely, what the field represents. The tiny scene is a powerful metaphor for both the causes and the effects of the emptiness, disconnection, and sense of exclusion that will characterize Jude for the rest of the book and be echoed symbolically again and again.

Traditionally, one of the commonest ways in which critics have discussed people's relationships to places in Hardy is in terms of oppositions between characters who are in touch with nature, or their environment, and characters who are not. Holloway is typical in asserting that the “single abstraction which does most to summarize Hardy's view is simple enough: it is right to live naturally … to live naturally [according to Hardy] is to live in continuity with one's whole biological and geographical environment.” Hardy's “whole concept of good and bad,” Holloway continues, “follows these lines, and is perfectly simple: people are to be admired as they have continuity with Nature more or less completely, and those whom he stresses as on a false track in life are those who have lost it, and pursue some private self-generated dream instead.”14 Hence the many studies that predictably—and legitimately—oppose Oak and Troy, Venn and Wildeve, Winterborne and Fitzpiers, to cite the most obvious pairs. There is little question that these are common patterns in the Wessex novels, but they are not the only ones. Hardy's use of the idea of place sometimes includes, but is not limited to, a rough bipolarization on the basis of continuity (or lack of it) with physical nature. His value system is far more complicated than “good” and “bad,” or dreamers and the more practical types.

The most often cited images of the “good” Hardy characters in tune with nature are things like Oak's telling time by the stars and predicting the weather by the behavior of the sheep, Venn's ability to navigate the heath in the dark, or Giles Winterborne's almost magical ability to plant trees that will grow and thrive. Suggestions of complementary moral qualities always abound. Such examples are more or less literal; their meaning is on the surface. I am concerned instead with Hardy's symbolic use (by no means limited to harmony with physical nature) of the concept of “in place/out of place” or “location/dislocation” as a broader and more pervasive language which he uses to dramatize the state of emptiness and sense of exclusion and nonbelonging that he writes about ceaselessly and that is one of his favorite ways of characterizing what he considers the condition of modern men and women: those in harmony with nature as well as those who are not. Categorizing characters on the basis of opposites like continuity with nature vs. people on a false track—the private dreamers—inevitably oversimplifies. It puts characters as different as Jude and Fitzpiers, Eustacia Vye and Angel Clare in the same general category. It does not easily accommodate a character like Clym Yeobright, who, on the one hand, can scarcely be thought of except in connection with his beloved heath, who is as in tune with its natural rhythms as Oak with Weatherbury, and yet, on the other hand, who is precisely the private dreamer, the native who has broken the connection with his birthplace and cannot return.

Few modern critics have dealt with the possible symbolism of the small scene of Jude in the cornfield. When they have, their interpretations have naturally mirrored their own particular interests. For Holloway, the image of Jude in the hollow of the field, cut off from the world by its horizon, is an example of an extremely common image in Hardy: that of human life wholly subject to the control of nature. Others see it as a painful lesson Jude learns. When farmer Troutham beats him for allowing the crows to live in peace, Jude gets an early glimpse of the way his instincts will be in conflict with society's customs and rules.15 I see it not only as a good example of what I mean by Hardy's symbolic use of place but also as an example of why other aspects of Hardy's art—like the alternative interpretations just mentioned—may have gotten more attention.

Place in the sense I am suggesting is less a formal subject in Hardy than a symbolic, habitual, and highly idiosyncratic way of seeing and presenting events. It can coexist easily with other themes, because it is by no means always the novel's or poem's subject itself but instead and repeatedly the symbolic context. That is, it is most commonly the medium rather than the primary object of perception. Taylor compares Hardy's use of visual patterns to what Gerard Manley Hopkins called the “underthought” in a poem, which, Hopkins says, “is conveyed chiefly in the choice of metaphors used and often only half realized by the poet himself, not necessarily having any connection with the subject in hand but usually having a connection and suggested by some circumstance of the scene or story.”16 Hopkins's is, I believe, a good description of a habitual way of seeing and imaging a set of related ideas, which I suggest is similar to what Hardy is doing with the ideas of in place/out of place and location/dislocation that had such deep symbolic significance for him. Again and again in the novels and poems there is the surface subject or subjects and then the special lens—or terms—in which we are asked to view them. Consider, for example, the often anthologized poem, “Drummer Hodge.”


They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
                    Uncoffined—just as found:
His landmark is a kopje-crest
                    That breaks the veldt around;
And foreign constellations west
                    Each night above his mound.


Young Hodge the Drummer never knew—
                    Fresh from his Wessex home—
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
                    The Bush, the dusty loam,
And why uprose to nightly view
                    Strange stars amid the gloam.


Yet portion of that unknown plain
                    Will Hodge for ever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
                    Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
                    His stars eternally.(17)

Originally titled “The Dead Drummer,” the poem was first printed in 1899. J. O. Bailey tells us that the change in title reveals Hardy's intention. “In naming the boy Hodge,” he says, “Hardy used a nickname for a yokel or country bumpkin to represent the attitude of the war machine towards country boys as cannon fodder.”18 Bailey is not the last word on the poems, but there is no question that his assertions are correct as far as they go and that the primary subject of the poem is Hardy's attitude about the war. Consider, however, the imagery which both presents and frames the issues.

Hardy could have chosen any number of traditional themes to bring the event's meaning home: the grief of parents and friends, lost potential, the life the boy will never live, and so on. The speaker's sense of the event's significance, however, comes not from the boy's senseless death alone, nor entirely from the fact of his brutally casual burial. The tone is more thoughtful than angry, and Hardy dwells less on the social, moral, or political implications of this tragedy of a wasted life than on the symbolism of the consequences for Hodge after death, principally on images of his eternal “dislocation.” Permanently to be a portion of an unknown plain, Hodge is forever separated from places he knew and felt he belonged. There is a physical concreteness and finality about the separation that suggests loss of identity: “His homely Northern breast and brain, / Grow to some Southern tree” (my emphasis). Simply “thrown to rest,” he has not had the benefit of the rites and ceremonies that give death a meaning (to the living) and provide continuity with a regional and cultural past. And there is little or nothing to remind others of his existence. To say that his only landmark is a kopje crest is to say that there is no meaningful landmark, nothing to indicate his existence or trigger a memory. And three times in three short stanzas the speaker mentions the fact that “strange-eyed constellations [will] reign / His stars eternally.” The implication seems to be that Hodge will be permanently unable to orient himself in either space or time. It is an image less of death than of perpetual annihilation. The images clearly reflect the speaker's concerns, not the boy's, and they become the imaginative medium that shapes our understanding of the events described.

For Hardy, the connections between physical places and the larger issues of identity and belonging obviously began early and continued throughout his long life. This is in part because of his keen sense of the literal presence of the past in physical objects and spaces and in part because of his certain knowledge that the old physical ties between people and places were being destroyed by the changing modern world. In his poetry and fiction, the past is palpably present everywhere. He consistently imagines the relationship of past to present as one of so many simultaneous existences and would most certainly have agreed with Margaret Atwood's suggestion that time “is not a line but a dimension … You don't look back along time but down through it, like water … Nothing goes away.”19

Like the Victorians in general, Hardy was fascinated by the idea of ghosts and often suggests the literal existence of spectral presences. In poem after poem, the ghosts of the dead remain in the places where they died (as in “Friends Beyond,” “Transformations,” “The Souls of the Slain,” “A House with a History,” and “After the Fair”). Beneath the strata of the personal, recent, and regional histories of the current living lie the layered presences of the Roman or Celtic past (as with “Rome on the Palatine,” “Aquae Sulis,” and “In the Old Theatre at Fiesole”). The shades of Roman legionnaires haunt the Ring at Casterbridge. As readers of The Return of the Native will remember, one can sometimes find oneself in the presence of the first ages of the earth, of Druids and the vast expanses of Charles Lyell's and Charles Darwin's new concept of prehistoric time. The figures of ghosts not only people the poetry, but there are also suggestions that by a sort of historical version of the law of conservation of matter, ancient voices, even dialogues, can still be heard in particular places. “Strange articulations seem to float on the air,” says the speaker in “Tryst at an Ancient Earthwork,” alone at night at Mai Dun, the ruins of an ancient Roman fort. “There arises an ineradicable fancy that they are human voices; if so, they must be the lingering airborne vibrations of conversations uttered at least fifteen hundred years ago.”20 The idea of the simultaneous presence of so many pasts so haunts Hardy's imagination that it extends from the macrocosm—the simultaneous presence of the civilizations of the earth—to the microcosm—the layered proximity of genealogical traits in individuals. Watching Elizabeth Jane as she sleeps, Michael Henchard realizes, “there come to the surface buried genealogical facts, ancestral curves, dead men's traits, which the mobility of daytime animation screens and overwhelms” (MC [The Mayor of Casterbridge], p. 233).

In Hardy's poetry and fiction, the presence of so many pasts is pictured not only as a fact of life but also as a source of potential support and stability to anyone sufficiently aware of its existence and able to access its strength.21 Even the existence of national history can be important, as Hardy suggests when he expresses his reservations in “On an Invitation to the United States” in the following terms:


My ardours for emprize nigh lost
Since Life has bared its bones to me,
I shrink to seek a modern coast
Whose riper times have yet to be;
Where the new regions claim them free
From that long drip of human tears
Which people old in tragedy
Have left upon the centuried years.


For, wonning in these ancient lands,
Enchased and lettered as a tomb,
And scored with prints of perished hands,
And chronicled with dates of doom,
Though my own Being bear no bloom
I trace the lives such scenes enshrine,
Give past exemplars present room,
And their experience count as mine.

(p. 110)

In this poem, the speaker's simple awareness of England's rich historic past sustains him in what he/she suggests is a rather emotionally barren, practical-minded present—a theme with dozens of variations in the poetry (see, for example, “Old Furniture” or “Music in a Snowy Street”).

If anything, access to personal and regional resonances was even more significant for Hardy than awareness of national history. “Winter in a solitary house,” says the narrator of The Woodlanders,

is tolerable, even enjoyable and delightful given certain conditions. They are old associations—an almost exhaustive biographical or historical acquaintance with every object, animate and inanimate, within the observer's horizon. He must know all about those invisible ones of the days gone by, whose feet have traversed the fields which look so grey from his windows; recall whose creaking plough has turned those sods from time to time; whose hands had planted the trees that form a crest to the opposite hill; whose horses and whose hounds have torn through that underwood; what birds affect that particular brake; what bygone domestic dramas of love, jealousy, revenge, or disappointment have been enacted in the cottages, the mansion, the street, or the green. The spot may have beauty, grandeur, salubrity, convenience; but if it lack memories it will ultimately pall upon him who settles there without opportunity of intercourse with his kind.

(W [The Woodlanders], p. 146)

The common denominators among all of the above examples are, first, the idea that the history/associations are physically present in specific places; second, that they can be accessed by memory and/or the imagination; third, that such associations have tremendous power to comfort and sustain a person who has access to them; and fourth—as the examples from Jude and “Drummer Hodge” make clear—that this connection can be broken or fail to exist with what, to Hardy, could be tragic consequences (see his poem “Welcome Home”). Nothing is clearer in the above example from The Woodlanders than the sense we get that a person with recourse to associations like those described would have a strong sense of participation in a historically continuous community. There would be a ready-to-hand logic to the narrowly geographical universe in which one lived, and such knowledge would almost automatically confer a sense of both identity and belonging. Nothing also seems to have been clearer to Hardy than the fact that this particular source of strength and stability was becoming rarer and rarer. And, as a consequence, few images seem more deeply rooted in his imagination than those involving the implications of connection and disconnection, location and dislocation. If one physically or psychologically breaks the tie with the places where the associations are, the link to the community is lost.

The reasons why Hardy so closely connected the ideas of place, identity, and community are of course in part idiosyncratic. But for a person disposed in this way, there were external causes aplenty. He had only to look about him—or within. People's traditional ties to the land, loosening for a century, had begun to dissolve even more rapidly in his lifetime, and with predictable results. In the preface to Far from the Madding Crowd, he explains why present readers would have trouble finding a village like the Weatherbury of the novel. The principal causes of the changes that have occurred, he asserts, “have been the recent supplanting of the class of stationary cottagers, who carried on the local traditions and humours, by a population of more or less migratory labourers, which has led to a break of continuity in local history, more fatal than any other thing to the preservation of legend, folklore, close intersocial relations, and eccentric individualities. For these the indispensable conditions of existence are attachment to the soil of one particular spot by generation after generation” (FFMC [Far from the Madding Crowd,], p. ix).22 Hardy was a knowledgeable regional and social historian and highly aware of the various radical transformations of culture and countryside occurring in his time. Even closer to home, perhaps, were his own complex feelings about his literal and psychological departure from Bockhampton and the traditional, close-knit, but circumscribed world of his birth. Like his admittedly autobiographical alter ego Clym Yeobright, Hardy was himself a native who could never fully return and be content to submerge in the rapidly disappearing cultures he wrote about endlessly. Instead, I suggest, those vulnerable, fast-disappearing worlds and his own separation from them became a series of complex symbols and images that he used repeatedly to frame or mediate much about which he wrote.

The distinction between the various subjects Hardy dealt with and the lens or medium through which he asks us to view them is crucial. In the novels and poetry, Hardy dealt with a broad range of topics either directly or obliquely. When he looked about him at the world of the late nineteenth century, it is clear that he saw many of the same things that William Wordsworth, Matthew Arnold, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson saw—and in their differing ways, William Butler Yeats and T. S. Eliot as well. The generalizations used to describe that world have become a familiar litany. Increasingly, people had lost the external supports of religion and consensus about cultural values. Creeds had become outworn; the template of Victorian morality and social protocol no longer fit the complexities of modern human experience. Traditional wisdom was ceasing to apply in the rapidly advancing, technologically sophisticated, profit-driven, and emotionally sterile present. One can find all of these subjects echoed in the novels and poetry—and more. It is even possible to see intuitive awareness of the dark side of romantic individualism—the possibilities for unromantic, anti-Byronic loneliness and isolation which form the negative aspect of self-assertion—and even a sense of the perils of replacing older senses of local community with emerging ideas of nationality. What concerns me here, though, and what I believe truly distinguishes Hardy, is his repeated presentation and analysis of human struggle in terms of images of place: in place/out of place, and location/dislocation. The term often used to describe the situation of Hardy's characters is déracine (literally, uprooted). I prefer the idea of in place/out of place because it seems more inclusive and accurately descriptive and because the characters' isolation is usually more psychological than literal. If they are uprooted or move about, as they often do, it is the symptom, not the disease.

The disease, of course, is one or another form of what Hardy himself repeatedly terms “the emptiness” or “the void within.” (It is a phrase even used to characterize Gabriel Oak at one point.) Miller does an especially good job of describing this state as Hardy viewed it. Hardy's characters, Miller tells us, “are possessed of a longing for God or something like a God to give order and meaning to themselves and to their world … His characters, in a world without a center, a world without any supernatural foundation, seek unsuccessfully to locate a center and a foundation.”23 Miller focuses in particular on Hardy's use of human relationships to dramatize the problem, specifically Hardy's treatment of desire—the projection of inner needs on another person—as a way of attempting to deal with the emptiness and lack of direction. Miller deals brilliantly with the psychological complexities of this “desire” and quite rightly focuses on the degree to which love deludes and fails to provide Hardy's great tragic characters with stability or an antidote to their emptiness. In his own terms, of course, Hardy seems to have arrived at an insight closer to that which E. M. Forster gives to Margaret Schlegel in Howards End. “It is sad to suppose,” Margaret says, “that places may ever be more important than people … I believe we shall come to care about people less and less, Helen … I quite expect to end my life caring most for a place.”24 Though it is not clear that Hardy and Forster shared exactly the same insight (Forster is more apt to emphasize people's spiritual connections with places, while Hardy's interests seem to be more psychological—or even cognitive), it does seem clear that again and again in Hardy's fiction and poetry, people disappoint and delude, places sustain.

If anything, Hardy's awareness of the significance of place is closer to more recent cognitive and sociological discussions of the subject than to earlier and more exclusively literary applications of the term. Modern writers concentrate much more openly on the subject of the influence of place on the quality of life and mind, and Hardy would have had no trouble agreeing with Tony Hiss that “our ordinary surroundings, built and natural alike, have an immediate and a continuing effect on the way we feel and act, and on our health and intelligence. These places have an impact on our sense of self, our sense of safety, the kind of work we get done, the ways we interact with other people, even our ability to function as citizens in a democracy. In short, the places where we spend our time affect the people we are and can become.”25 While Hardy and Hiss might not agree on the specific causes, their senses of the effects of place are surprisingly similar. For Hardy, people's relationships to places both explain and symbolize their link to a supportive human community and the degree of their grasp of a sense of themselves. Like Miller's objects of desire, the “place” (Jude's cornfield, the associations in the house in The Woodlanders, etc.) contains possible bases of strength outside the characters, who are seldom if ever (Oak is a major exception) presented as possessed of any meaningful source of inner strength or innate emotional ballast. And, if less obvious and pyrotechnic than the tortured and tragic love relationships, the subtly drawn relationships between people and places (or the lack thereof) drive the perception home with extraordinary power.

The role played by Hardy's conviction of the importance of the relationship between people and places is what he is talking about in his well-known and much quoted description of his method as a writer. “As in looking at a carpet,” he wrote, “by following one color a certain pattern is suggested, by following another color, another; so in life the seer should watch that pattern among general things which his idiosyncrasy moves him to observe and describe that alone. This is, quite accurately, going to Nature; yet the result is no mere photograph, but purely the product of the writer's own mind.”26 This is one of Hardy's most explicit statements about what he meant by an “idiosyncratic mode of regard.” Considered in one light he seems to be saying little more than that, like everyone else, an artist's perception is selective. What it seems most important to Hardy to stress, though, is that what he produces is not a photograph but a way of seeing things he calls “purely the product of the writer's own mind” and what I would call—to use a more modern term—the artist's unique vision. At a time when “realism” was the more common language and the boast of the serious novelist, and when Hardy's early work had been routinely praised and criticized precisely on the basis of readers' sense of its historical and mimetic accuracy, it is an interesting claim, and one that is completely consistent with my sense of the role played by what I have been calling the imagery of place. For I believe that this imagery is one of the most important points at which Hardy's personal vision and his style intersect.

Proust's famous assertion about style is, I suggest, applicable here. As Proust's narrator, Marcel, tells us, “Style for the writer, no less than colour for the painter, is a question not of technique but of vision: it is the revelation, which by direct and conscious methods would be impossible, of the qualitative difference, the uniqueness of the fashion in which the world appears to each one of us.”27 Marcel suggests a few pages later that “The writer's work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have perceived in himself.”28 I use the term “vision” in Proust's sense here precisely because to me among the most interesting dimensions of Hardy's novels are those which, to use Proust's phrase, Hardy seems to have found impossible to talk—or write—about by direct and conscious methods, and which may even have been largely unexamined because the perceptions that underlie them were so fundamental. The idea of style as a lens or optical instrument is consistent with my sense that what I am trying to describe is less Hardy's subjects than the perceptual and stylistic lens through which he instinctively viewed them and invites us to view them as well.

Hardy included with his poem “In a Eweleaze near Weatherbury” [ … a] remarkable sketch.

The poem itself is a graceful piece spoken by a middle-aged man who has returned to a landscape which brings back memories of the pleasures of his youth. The relationship of the illustration to the poem is less than crystal clear and has, as one might imagine, invited a variety of responses. While I do not wish to enter the general debate, I do want to call attention to an idea the drawing has generated. Given the fact that the landscape behind the lenses is rather commonplace and undistinguished, “The fairest conclusions one can draw from the picture,” says William Buckler, “is that only the eye glasses give it distinction.”29 While I am not prepared to say that only the imagery of place gives Hardy's texts distinction, I think this strange drawing offers a useful visual way of thinking about my argument here. We seldom perceive real lenses when we are wearing them. If they are functioning properly, they enhance or correct our vision without calling attention to themselves. Not so these strange Magritte-like spectacles. They make the commonplace objects striking and memorable precisely because we cannot ignore the incongruity of their presence. However we interpret their role, they affect our vision, the way we see whatever they mediate, and the conclusions we draw based on what we see. What I call Hardy's symbolic language of place is not nearly as obtrusive and, seldom if ever, as incongruous as the superimposed spectacles, but it is visible. It signals its artful presence, and the principles on which it operates are arguably similar. It influences the way we view the significance of the human dramas it mediates and frames.

“Art,” Hardy once said, “is a disproportioning—(i.e. distorting, throwing out of proportion)—of realities, to show more clearly the features that matter in those realities.”30 Place and people's relationships to places in the senses I have been discussing were obviously “features” of what Hardy perceived to be realities of life in the modern world that “mattered” enough to give them “disproportionate” importance in his art. The symbolic and thematic lenses through which Hardy asks us to view so much of his work become for us, as for Hardy himself, a coherent symbolic language which confers greater meaning and psychological resonance upon the powerful human dramas of love, disillusion, and betrayal that normally take center stage. Far from being simply a pattern (among many) in the carpet, this idiosyncratic “language” of place is, arguably, the essence of whatever one might choose to mean by the phrase “Hardy's vision.”


  1. John Holloway, The Victorian Sage: Studies in Argument (Hampden CT: Archon Books, 1962), p. 247.

  2. Qtd. in Florence Emily Hardy, The Life of Thomas Hardy, 1840-1928 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1962), p. 225.

  3. See, for example, contemporary reviews of Far from the Madding Crowd and The Return of the Native, in Thomas Hardy: The Critical Heritage, ed. R. G. Cox (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1970).

  4. The allusion here is to Marcel Proust's specific reference to what he called “the geometry in the novels of Thomas Hardy,” a reference to the repetition of symbolic patterns in such novels as Jude,The Well-Beloved, and A Pair of Blue Eyes, “those novels which can be superimposed on one another like the houses piled up vertically on the rocky coast of the island” (Remembrance of Things Past, trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin, and Andreas Mayor, 3 vols. [New York: Vintage, 1982], 3:382-3).

  5. Holloway, p. 251.

  6. The classic example is J. Hillis Miller's superb phenomenological study of both novels and poetry, Thomas Hardy: Distance and Desire (Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1970). More recent works that approach Hardy in similar fashion, i.e., by seeking and analyzing repetitive symbolic patterns, include Dennis Taylor, Hardy's Poetry, 1860-1928 (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1981) and Peter Casagrande, Unity in Hardy's Novels: “Repetitive Symmetries” (Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1982).

  7. Taylor, p. 39.

  8. Miller, p. x.

  9. Richard Altick, The Presence of the Present: Topics of the Day in the Victorian Novel (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1991), pp. 339-82.

  10. John Alcorn, The Nature Novel from Hardy to Lawrence (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1977), p. x.

  11. Michael Millgate, Thomas Hardy: His Career as a Novelist (New York: Random House, 1971), p. 332.

  12. Ibid.

  13. Hardy, Jude the Obscure, Wessex edn. (1912-14; rprt. New York: AMS Press, 1984), p. 10. With one exception, all quotations from Hardy's fiction are from the AMS 1984 facsimile of the Wessex edition and will henceforth be cited parenthetically in the text with the following abbreviations: FFMC for Far from the Madding Crowd, MC for The Mayor of Casterbridge, and W for The Woodlanders.

  14. Holloway, pp. 281, 283.

  15. See, for example, Casagrande, p. 205.

  16. Qtd. in Taylor, p. 41.

  17. Hardy, “Drummer Hodge,” in The Complete Poems of Thomas Hardy, ed. James Gibson (New York: Macmillan, 1976), p. 90. All references to Hardy's poems are from this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text with page numbers.

  18. J. O. Bailey, The Poetry of Thomas Hardy: A Handbook and Commentary (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1970), p. 120.

  19. Margaret Atwood, Cat's Eye (New York: Doubleday, 1989), p. 3.

  20. Hardy, “Tryst at an Ancient Earthwork,” in The Portable Thomas Hardy, ed. Julian Moynahan (New York: Viking Press, 1977), pp. 62-74, 67.

  21. Hardy is aware that occasionally the effect can be quite the reverse for individuals with negative associations triggered by places. Quoted as speaking of a particularly beautiful sunset in The Early Life, Hardy regretted, he says, that “the sunset did not occur in a place of no reminiscences, that I might have enjoyed it without their tinge,” and “Wessex Heights” makes a much stronger statement about the downside of too many ghosts and bad memories (Florence Emily Hardy, p. 55). But by far the preponderance of the images of location/dislocation and in place/out of place assert the existence of the powerful supports that come with the associations and resonances connected with familiar places and objects that contain our history and shape our identity.

  22. In 1988, Time magazine ran a story, “The Sorrows of Cobb County,” about an alarming series of teen suicides in a group of “booming” upper middle-class suburbs of Atlanta. The suicide rate in this county was a whopping 33 percent higher than the national rate, and the writer concluded by saying, “Authorities speculate that the root cause may be explosive growth. ‘Fifteen years ago Cobb County was rural pastureland,’ says Dirk Huttenbach, a psychiatrist for adolescents. ‘Anytime you have greater instability and less tradition, you're going to have this sort of turmoil’” (Time 132, 20 [14 Nov. 1988], p. 29). The connection may seem too pat, but the article would have spoken directly to Hardy.

  23. Miller, pp. 183-4.

  24. E. M. Forster, Howards End (New York: Bantam, 1985), p. 102. The suggestion of this similarity to Forster was made by a perceptive reader of this essay in manuscript.

  25. Tony Hiss, The Experience of Place (New York: Knopf, 1990), pp. xi-xii.

  26. Florence Emily Hardy, pp. 198-9.

  27. Qtd. in Proust, 3:931-2.

  28. Proust, 3:949.

  29. William Buckler, The Poetry of Thomas Hardy: A Study of Art and Ideas (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1983), p. 186.

  30. Qtd. in Florence Emily Hardy, p. 229.

Peter Widdowson (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Widdowson, Peter. “Hardy and Critical Theory.” In The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Hardy, edited by Dale Kramer, pp. 73-92. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Widdowson presents an overview of critical theory on Hardy, especially in criticism written since the 1960s.]

Essay titles are an attempt to say much in little, at once synoptic shorthand for the work which follows and for the whole area of intellectual enquiry to which it alludes. As such, they are susceptible to ambiguity and imprecision, and the title of the present essay is no exception. What is meant, we might ask, by “Critical Theory,” and is it synonymous with that other cognate phrase—“Literary Theory”? While the commonly made slippage between the terms demands urgent attention, it is way beyond the scope of an essay such as this. Let me clear the ground, therefore, by simply stating that I take “Literary Theory” primarily to be concerned with offering theoretical definitions of the nature of literature, and “Critical Theory” to be the articulation of theorized principles on which critical approaches to the analysis of literature are premised. The latter, at least, will be the working definition deployed in this essay. But even so, in its present formulation, the title remains ambiguous. Are we to be concerned here with Hardy's own critical and theoretical writings and their relationship to critical theory in general; or is it, rather, the relationship between Hardy's literary oeuvre and modern critical theory which is the essay's principal focus? It would be perverse to pretend that it is anything other than the latter; but just for a moment it is worth considering what that former sense might summon up—if for no other reason than to see whether it may have any bearing on the undeniable attraction Hardy's work has had for later critics and theorists of literature.

Hardy was no Henry James in regard to the sustained production of a body of theory about fiction (or, indeed, about poetry). All we have as a self-authenticated theoretical key to Hardy's practice are the short prefaces he wrote for the novels and volumes of poems, themselves so clenched with irony as to be thoroughly diversionary; scattered reflections throughout his notebooks and letters; and “Florence Emily Hardy's” The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy by Thomas Hardy (LW)—which we know to be Hardy's own attempt to write his “life” as he wanted it to be read. In addition, there are the three essays on fiction he produced, uniquely, between 1888 and 1891,1 but even these are “occasional” pieces which resolutely refuse to articulate a coherent or systematic theory of fiction. Nevertheless, Hardy was no untutored natural genius, but rather a widely read intellectual closely familiar with the literary debates of the second half of the nineteenth century. For the purposes of the present essay, we may deduce one—albeit crucial—feature of Hardy's involvement in these: one which casts him as ineluctably “transitional” between “Victorian” and “Modern” and which suggests the affinity between his work and late-twentieth-century critical approaches. If we read between the lines of the three fiction essays—verified by jottings in his notebooks and by memoranda quoted in The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy—it is apparent that Hardy is actually participating in the pan-European debate about Realism, and that he was opposed to a “photographic” naturalism, favoring instead a kind of “analytic” writing which “makes strange” common-sense reality and brings into view other realities obscured precisely by the naturalized version. Famously, Hardy comments—and we may note here the consonance of his notion of “disproportioning” with the later widely influential Formalist concepts of “defamiliarization” and “denaturalization”:

Art is a disproportioning—(i.e., distorting, throwing out of proportion)—of realities, to show more clearly the features that matter in those realities, which, if merely copied or reported inventorially, might possibly be observed, but would more probably be overlooked. Hence ‘realism’ is not Art.

(LW, p. 239)

At the same time, however, he can acknowledge Defoe as a mentor, but only perhaps for the latter's ability to “fake” the truth (LW, pp. 424-25; see also The Hand of Ethelberta, chapters 13 and 16); can himself elevate his Wessex “Novels of Character and Environment” above his “Romances,” “Fantasies,” “Novels of Ingenuity,” and “Experiments”;2 but still close his novel-writing career with The Well-Beloved. And he can give up writing fiction at the height of his powers in order to produce the huge “unstageable” epic verse-drama, The Dynasts, and over 950 individual poems—thereafter claiming that poetry was his true art and novel-writing merely a money-making trade. Theorist or not, Hardy surely had a consciously contradictory relationship with Realism—the force of which we shall have cause to return to in surveying the ways in which recent criticism recasts his work.

Just as Hardy himself was not a formulator of literary theory, so his work is not a site on which new critical theory has been formulated in any primary sense. Unlike that of Balzac, say, or Dostoevsky, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, or Joyce, Hardy's work always seems to have a slightly later application as a testing-ground for already defined new theories. Leavis, for example, chose not to deal in extenso with Hardy's work; the early New Critics did not cut their teeth on it either, although later related formalistic (including Leavisite) critics did; Marxist and other cultural-materialist (but not yet “new historicist”3) criticism took it up quite late; poststructuralist and deconstructive readings only begin to appear in the mid-to-late 1980s; feminist criticism alone takes on Hardy quite early in its post-1960s phase, but even here feminist critical theory was not formulated by way of his writings. In this respect again, then, the present essay's title is imprecise, inasmuch as it is not “critical theory” which Hardy promotes, but “theorized criticism”: theoretical models applied to his work at once to test their applicability and to see what happens to Hardy read in these new ways. His always protean oeuvre seems particularly well suited to being refashioned in the image of the critical approach taken to it.

Two further preliminary equivocations. First, my sketch below of Hardy criticism prior to the late 1960s—when theory took on a highly visible presence within literary studies—must, de facto, give an account of literary criticism rather than of critical theory, simply because the former remained a practice largely unaware that it was based on (subliminally active) theoretical positions. Secondly, a somewhat unbalanced account of “Hardy and Critical Theory” follows, since Hardy's poetry, even now, has not received anything like the same quantity or quality of theoretically engaged critical attention that his fiction has: with a few honorable exceptions, Hardy the Poet awaits his theoretical critics.

Whatever the furor surrounding the publication of Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure—after which Hardy effectively gave up writing fiction—the “Wessex Novels” by 1896 represented Hardy's acknowledged achievement in fiction; even more so by 1912, when he himself seems to confirm their status as his “Novels of Character and Environment” (see note 2); and also for most of the twentieth century—including the filmic 1990s. Implicit in this, however, is the exclusion from the received canon of almost half of Hardy's total fictional production: the so-called “minor novels” which abjure his “true” or “characteristic” Wessex mode and exemplify his “faults” as a novelist writ large, and of which The Hand of Ethelberta and A Laodicean are the most execrated. Taken together with the “flaws” critics have conventionally descried scattered throughout his fiction—“improbable” use of chance and coincidence, “flat” and “stagey” characterization, melodrama, and an obtrusively over-elaborate style—this critical fashioning4 of the “true” Hardy implies several tacit “theoretical” premises about his work. It tends to see him as really a practitioner of humanist realism (the essential mode of the genre as a whole in its finest incarnation) whose work is marred on occasion by a perverse deviation from the characteristic features of such a mode: high moral seriousness, the centrality of human character, verisimilitude. Nevertheless, despite their “faults,” the Wessex Novels exemplify these features and justify Hardy's presence in the wider canon of “Great Literature,” while the maverick “minor novels” need to be excised in order to sustain this naturalized orthodoxy.

However, it is F. R. Leavis's dismissal of Hardy in The Great Tradition (1948)—“by the side of George Eliot—and the comparison shouldn't be necessary”—as no more than “a provincial manufacturer of gauche and heavy fictions”5 that is the most telling critical intervention in the debate about Hardy's claim to canonic status as tragic realist. It suggests that, in order to promote Eliot as the novelist whose pre-eminent representation of the organic interconnectedness of the “web” of human society places her at the heart of “the great tradition,” Leavis surely sensed that he had to reject Hardy's fiction because it could so easily be construed as strategically subverting Eliot's humanist-realist project. It is pointedly ironic, then, that the title of Ian Gregor's later, equally formative, contribution to the construction of Hardy as himself a great humanist-realist novelist should be The Great Web: The Form of Hardy's Major Fiction (1974).6

But two other words besides “web” in Gregor's title indicate a further development in Hardy's critical history. A new interest in the “form” of the “major” novels begins to emerge in the post-Leavisite, post-New-Critical, formalism of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. As their titles suggest, works which offer newly illuminating close textual analysis of the formal properties of Hardy's fiction—language, imagery, symbolism, structure—include Jean Brooks's Thomas Hardy: The Poetic Structure (1971), Dale Kramer's Thomas Hardy: The Forms of Tragedy (1975), and Peter Casagrande's Unity in Hardy's Novels: “Repetitive Symmetries” (1982).7 What is also apparent, however, is that the theoretical principle driving them is to establish the unity and coherence of Hardy's vision and practice; that this formal achievement is still premised on the presupposition of a tragic humanist working within an (expanded) notion of realism; and that, therefore, the focus must be exclusively on the “major” novels. The informing ideology of the literary criticism, in other words, remains largely unchanged; neither, of course, is it perceived to be an ideology, nor explicitly articulated or questioned. Later, I will suggest how the advent of recent critical theory challenges these positions and opens up Hardy's fiction to analyses which destabilize both that ideology and the fictional texts themselves.

Although early reviewers of Hardy's poetry, shocked by what seemed his treacherous desertion of fiction for another genre in which he had no expertise, commented negatively on his poems,8 Hardy quite rapidly became accepted and admired as a poetic voice—albeit of a distinctly “characteristic” kind. Certainly, with the volumes Satires of Circumstance (1914) and Moments of Vision (1917), he was regarded by people of diverse literary persuasions (from Edmund Gosse to Ezra Pound) as a major modern poet; and by his death in 1928, with over 950 individual poems to his credit, his popular, if not his critical, stature was assured. But Hardy's career as poet coincided with the onset of Modernism, and despite Pound's admiration, therefore, by the 1920s Hardy's work was more often aligned with the now enfeebled “Georgian Poetry” movement rather than with the dynamic innovations of the Modernists. Indeed, it was his more “Georgian” characteristics which represented his general appeal—then and, arguably, even now. His celebration of the rural scene, his melancholy love poems, his reinvocation of the lost past, his witty obsession with time, aging, death, and the dead, his downbeat poetic language, and his controlled, rhythmically ever-inventive prosody—all became conventionally associated with the “true” Hardy as Poet. In other words, a frame of recognition was fashioned for his most familiar virtues—what Samuel Hynes was later to christen “Hardy's unique poetic voice” which produced “characteristically Hardyesque” poems.9

Harold Orel has divided the history of Hardy poetry criticism this century into three phases.10 The first is the period up to Hardy's death glanced at above, and continuing till 1940, in which his stature as a poet remained an issue, together with the related question of whether he was really “Victorian” or “Modern.” The second is heralded by the publication of the “Thomas Hardy Centennial Issue” of the Southern Review (6/1 [1940]), where the principal focus was on his poetry, and where the contributors included, inter alia, W. H. Auden, John Crowe Ransom, R. P. Blackmur, F. R. Leavis, Allen Tate, and Bonamy Dobrée. The general thrust of this collection was to celebrate Hardy's technical craftsmanship and poetical prowess, and much of the criticism that follows, down to the 1960s, bears the imprint of this broadly New Critical matrix. Following the publication in the 1960s of a wide array of biographical materials (about Hardy's relationships, views, reading, etc.), Orel suggests the third phase begins, continuing down to the 1990s. Critics were now able to take a diverse range of approaches to the poetry, and Orel's own collection is intended to exemplify this. In the event, the essays he reprints are by such critics as Tom Paulin, Samuel Hynes, Frank Pinion, Paul Zietlow, and U. C. Knoepflmacher—in themselves excellent examples of the kind of humanist formalism practiced on the novels during the same period, but which are neither any more theoretical than that was, nor any more fundamentally revisionary in their reading of Hardy's poetry.

The sole explicitly interventionist—and hence arguably “theoretical”—critical work in this whole period was Donald Davie's Thomas Hardy and British Poetry (1973). Challenging what he saw as the dominance of Marxist intellectualism and Anglo-American Modernism in the academy, Davie represents Hardy as the originator of an alternative British poetic tradition, whose principal contemporary avatar is Philip Larkin, and whose work promotes an, admittedly “modest” and “limited,” but nevertheless “decent,” “liberal,” and “humanist” poetry. Hardy is for Davie a poet of “integrity” and “social democracy” who allows, albeit minimally, for human choice and freedom, and whose diffidently asserted liberalism thus resists the ideological authoritarianism of late-twentieth-century intellectual culture.11 Davie's position may be rejected on both political and poetic grounds; but at least for once we can acknowledge an engaged reading of Hardy's poetry and of its insertion in contemporary cultural politics.

However, overdetermining the whole history of Hardy poetry criticism is one material (if not “theoretical”) factor: the sheer bulk of the material for analysis—950-plus poems (leaving aside The Dynasts)—and the problem of establishing the principles on which a core canon of his “best” work can be selected out. Once again, it is F. R. Leavis who puts down an early marker that there is a crux here. In New Bearings in English Poetry (1932), he praises Hardy as the single significant twentieth-century practitioner of an older poetic tradition. But he also notes that amidst “a vast bulk of verse interesting only by its oddity and idiosyncrasy” there are merely “a dozen poems” which are truly “great” and on which Hardy's reputation rests.12 Leavis typically does not say which they are, but this notion of a limited selection of “true” poems amidst the large mass of his “inferior” poetry recurs constantly in criticism and editing right down to the present. Critics as diverse as William Empson, Mark Van Doren, Samuel Hynes, Donald Davie, and J. Hillis Miller have identified the problem: everyone, says Davie, “complains that nearly 1,000 poems are too much, and asks for a more or less agreed-upon select few, a canon on which Hardy's reputation shall rest.” The problem, however—at least in 1973—was that “one perceives no consensus emerging as to what is centrally significant in Hardy's poetry, still less therefore as to what is the canon of his secure achievements” (Davie, Thomas Hardy and British Poetry, pp. 27-28). Editors of modern selections of Hardy's poems still reiterate similar concerns. David Wright identifies his “difficulty” in making a selection as “not least because one man's Hardy is often as not another man's bathos,”13 and Andrew Motion registers the “alarm” with which even Hardy's “most enthusiastic admirers still respond to the enormous bulk” of the Collected Poems, and the perceived impossibility of producing an “adequate selection … when no one agreed which were [Hardy's] best poems.”14 What is equally striking is the uniformity with which editors give scant indication of the principles on which they have based their judgment of what constitutes Hardy's “characteristically” “true,” “great,” or “finest” work.

In fact, what has happened—in a process of critical and editorial fashioning that has intensified since Davie's effort—is that a fairly small number of Hardy's “familiar” poems have been assumed to define the central core of his poetic achievement, rather as the “major” novels do for his fiction. My own research has shown that around eighty poems are more or less always reprinted in “Selected” editions,15 together with a variable sampling of less well-known ones depending on the size of the volume and the schema which governs it (biographical, thematic, chronological, etc.). Equally, where critics will on occasion offer a positive reading of an unfamiliar poem, the choice of such will differ from critic to critic. So that while there is a (largely tacit) consensus about Hardy's “best” poems, which seem naturally to select themselves for inclusion and critical approbation, there is absolutely no consensus about the virtues or otherwise of the less familiar ones. At neither point, in other words, is there any explicit theorizing of the aesthetic or cultural ideology which shapes Hardy the Poet in this way; rather, many assumptions about the constitution, value, and function of “Literature” are taken for granted there. Hardy's poetry may not yet have been the focus of much theorized criticism, but that does not mean the poet we know and love is not a creature of theoretical presuppositions. Is not the conventional late-twentieth-century image of him still that of ironic rural quietist crafting moving lyrics from the “universal” materials of Nature, Love, Time, and Death?

The “moment” of critical theory arrived around the end of the 1960s, and over the past thirty years “Literary Studies” has been transformed by the incursion of waves of diverse theories about the nature of literature and the function/point (if any) of the academic practice of literary criticism. As a result, and like almost all other “canonic” writers, Hardy has been subject to a variety of the newer critical approaches and has been radically reshaped in the process. Never a primary site for new theory, he has nevertheless proved a fertile testing-ground for theoretical practice. What the remainder of this essay does, therefore, is give a synoptic account of the latter, focusing necessarily but not exclusively on his fiction. In conclusion, it will assess what happens to “Hardy” when such theorized criticism is brought to bear on his work, and speculate on what may still be to come.

Not unexpectedly, the main categories of the newer theoretical perspectives on Hardy are “materialist” (those with a sociological, Marxist, or socialist orientation); feminist; and poststructuralist (the last two also drawing heavily on psychoanalytic theories). The categories are, of course, fluid and overlapping, so that it is commoner to find socialist-feminist, materialist-poststructuralist, or feminist-poststructuralist approaches than discrete examples of them. What they all have in common, however, is a cultural politics which seeks to subvert the orthodox “Hardy” and to (re)mobilize the “disproportioning” dimension of his work noted above (p. 74).

An ur-text to the first of these is Raymond Williams's early, but recognizably “cultural-materialist,” chapter on Hardy in The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence (1970).16 This has been highly influential in its locating of Hardy's work at a sharply transitional sociological and literary conjuncture, and in its attempt to prise his fiction free of the fashionable cultural pessimism of much modernist literary criticism by emphasizing the positive elements in his “tragedies.” Williams also offers some tantalizingly brief comments in Politics and Letters (1979) on the subject of why Leavis had to write Hardy out of “the great tradition,” and an essay, with Merryn Williams, “Hardy and Social Class” (1980), remains a helpful attempt to define the exact class fraction Hardy derived from (although not from which he wrote as metropolitan novelist).17

Terry Eagleton also writes briefly but influentially about Hardy in his “structuralist-marxist” Criticism and Ideology (1976), where, influenced by Althusser and Macherey, he emphasizes the formal disjunctions of Hardy's texts and the ideological significance of their resulting “anti-realism.” Jude [Jude the Obscure] then becomes a “calculated assault” on its readership, its “crudities” not a failure of artistic control but “a defiant flouting of ‘verisimilitude’ which mounts theatrical gesture upon gesture in a driving back of the bounds of realism.”18 Eagleton's most influential concept here is that of “ideology,” which allowed for a more complex analysis of the relations between literature and history than did earlier reflectionist notions of “text and context.” Now, literary works could be seen to expose, and thus subvert, the ideology within which they were produced, even though they were held within it; and to be historically determined, not just by their moment of production, but also by their reproduction within the cultural and aesthetic ideology of later periods. In Walter Benjamin or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (1981), Eagleton further outlines the modes of production and reproduction in history whereby (the canonic figure) “Thomas Hardy” denotes “the set of ideological practices through which certain texts … are processed, ‘corrected’ and reconstituted” so that they can be endowed with the “coherency” of a “readable” oeuvre and be found a place in the literary tradition.19 These processes include the shaping by literary criticism and editing sketched above, and also by education syllabuses, heritage, and tourism, and now by the “classic film” industry. But the particular “correcting” of Hardy's work I want to highlight is how its anti-realist subversiveness has either to be expelled or explained away (hence those “flaws,” “minor novels,” and never-anthologized “bad” poems) in order to sustain his presence in the English tradition as liberal-humanist novelist and poet.

Eagleton's preparatory insights have been expanded upon most obviously in the work of George Wotton and Peter Widdowson (but see also Penny Boumelha below). In Thomas Hardy: Towards a Materialist Criticism (1985), Wotton offers a materialist historical account of “Wessex”; examines the way characters (especially female ones) are “seen” and represented both within and by the novels; extends this to an analysis of the “aesthetic ideology” at work in modern (male) critics' naturalized perception of Hardy's women as sexual objects; and presents a deconstructive reading of the twentieth-century cultural icon Hardy has been fashioned into.20 Widdowson's book, Hardy in History: A Study in Literary Sociology (1989), complements Wotton's by offering an extended analysis (or “critiography”) of the way the work of a “major writer” such as Hardy is constructed—in its reproduction at different historical moments by literary-critical and other cultural discourses—and the social and cultural meanings ascribed to it. Here, and elsewhere since, Widdowson has attempted to “re-read” Hardy's fiction against the grain of his conventional critical representation, in terms especially of class, gender, and anti-realism, while his selected edition of Hardy's poetry places in interrogative juxtaposition sections of both the latter's most “familiar” and his least often reprinted poems. It also includes a “critiographical” commentary on the processes by which Hardy has been shaped as a poet for our times.21

More recent works of materialist criticism are Joe Fisher's The Hidden Hardy (1992) and Roger Ebbatson's Hardy: The Margin of the Unexpressed (1993). The ingeniously persuasive theoretical premise of the former is that a distinction can be made in Hardy's novels between his “traded” texts, sold to the bourgeois fiction market—in which “Wessex” and the “Novels of Character and Environment” are the principal commodities—and his “narrated” texts, the “minor” “Novels of Ingenuity,” with their subversive narrative strategies. Fisher sees the major novels as representing “an inherently conflictual engagement of the two,” in which the expert market “trader” exploits a gap between the man who sells and the narrator who tells, which simultaneously makes the “traded object” acceptable and “corrupts” it. The “hidden Hardy,” then, is a “self-subversion … a sustained campaign of deception which runs through all [the] novels, creating hostile and part-visible patterns” beneath the “surface” of the text.22 Ebbatson's book is apposite in the context of “Hardy and Critical Theory” because it largely comprises readings which draw directly (if rather formulaically) on the work of major theorists (Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, Kristeva, de Man, Bakhtin) in order to articulate the “not-said” of Hardy's works. It also offers a deconstructive reading of Hardy's admired essay, “The Dorsetshire Labourer,” which seeks to show that, rather than being a socially sensitive account of the “real lives” of nineteenth-century farmworkers, it is, in fact, an example of Hardy as successful man-of-letters displacing their poverty, exploitation, and injustice into aestheticized pap for his middle-class metropolitan readership—hence silencing, rather than speaking for, its subject.23

To conclude this survey of materialist criticism and pave the way for feminism, it seems fitting to salute the work of John Goode.24 Informed by, but not predicated on, contemporary theory, Goode's pioneering essays represent a recognition of the subversive textual/sexual politics and performative anti-realism of Hardy's fiction—features which have come to dominate more recent critical analysis. “Woman and the Literary Text” (1976) proposes that texts are not “representations” but processes of signification, and that “we can only see the political implications of a text by attending to its formal identity.” Apropos of Tess, Goode suggests that what we witness (and are complicit in) is her “objectification … by the narrator which is acted out in the novel,” so that we too, consuming with our eyes both the text and hence Tess herself, collude in Alec and Angel's patriarchal construction of her as an “object of consumption.” As a “character,” she is only composed of all the “object images” the novel subjects her to bearing—primarily those of male “gazers” (including the narrator/novelist and the implicated reader). This mode of textual signification means that the novel's discourses have to be accepted as unstable and contradictory.25 Such ideas are extended in “Sue Bridehead and the New Woman” (1979), where Goode suggests that Sue is an “exposing image” in the “taking apart of reality” which Jude radically effects—most particularly of the mystifications inherent in conventional heterosexual notions of love and marriage: “the incomprehensibility of Sue … is one way at least in which the incomprehensibility of the world (i.e., bourgeois ideology) is offered.”26 His later book, Thomas Hardy: The Offensive Truth (1988),27 continues to highlight the disrupted, transformative textuality of Hardy's fiction, registering its self-reflexive obsession with the act of writing as a metaphorical representation of the artifice/iality of “real” social relations and with representation, especially in the patriarchal imaging and silencing of women. But despite the novels' finally unresolvable “incoherence,” Goode still sees political force in them, the disjunctions and discontinuities being a reflex of their angry confrontation of conventional ideological discourses: by showing an “offensive truth,” truth goes on the offensive.

Feminist critical readings of Hardy abound (as do the earlier essays on “Hardy's Women” they challenge and replace). Mary Jacobus's three essays from the 1970s—on Sue Bridehead, on “Tess's Purity,” and on The Woodlanders28—signal the directions much new feminist work would take: a questioning of Hardy's own attitude to his female characters (“feminist” or chauvinist?) and a gendered close reading of the language of his texts. So, too, does Elaine Showalter's essay, “The Unmanning of the Mayor of Casterbridge” (1979), which proposes that it is in Hardy's understanding of the “feminine spirit in his man of character,” of Henchard as “New Man,” rather than in his depiction of “New Women,” that the case for his “feminist sympathies” may be made.29 And Patricia Stubbs's chapter on Hardy's fiction in Women and Fiction: Feminism and the Novel 1880-1920 (1979), while lacking Goode's recognition that the formal tensions and contradictions must in some way “speak” the novels' sexual politics, nevertheless develops a pioneering thesis on Hardy's central “contradiction.” This is comprised by his “intensely modern, even feminist consciousness” and his residual acceptance of conventional male literary character-stereotypes for women—thus belying his ultimate containment within patriarchal ideology.30 While some later feminist critics would agree, others with a less historically constrained poststructuralist perspective would see those “stereotypes” as revealingly fissured and disturbed.

Penny Boumelha, in Thomas Hardy and Women: Sexual Ideology and Narrative Form (1982), may be seen as one of the latter. The first critic to offer a full-scale poststructuralist analysis of gender ideology in Hardy, Boumelha is also a socialist-feminist whose work is significantly influenced by Althusser as mediated through the Terry Eagleton of Criticism and Ideology. Her conception of ideology, however, is overdetermined by post-1968 feminism, and is thus reinflected in terms of gender: “it will also encode other relations of power and dominance, and principally that of male dominance.” Unlike Stubbs, Boumelha does attempt to correlate the “experimentalism” of Hardy's fiction (including, exceptionally, the “minor novels”) with its radically subversive presentation of sexual relations, pointing to uncertainty of narrative focus, the “voiding” of “character,” textual dislocation, and self-interrogation of the novels' own narrative strategies, as evidence of a “radical break” in which Hardy's texts confront their own informing ideology. The force of his representations of women resides in “their resistance to reduction to a single and uniform ideological position.”31 What remains unclear is whether Hardy's “radicalism” is his own, or whether it is activated in Hardy's texts by the radical poststructuralist reading of a modern feminist critic.

Patricia Ingham, a specialist in language as well as a feminist critic, also indirectly challenges Patricia Stubbs. Her Thomas Hardy: A Feminist Reading (1989) offers a critique of recent feminist approaches to Hardy—approaches which remain limited by failing to avoid a simplistic reflectionism and by paying inadequate attention to the “multiple voices of the texts”—and then applies an innovative linguistic model of interpretation to Hardy's novels by exploring the “sense of disjunction,” the “fault-line,” in their narrative languages or “syntax.” This “involves the idea that ‘the subject’ of a novel (in this case usually a female subject) is created by the language, which in turn is a product of ideologies.” A close linguistic and gendered reading again reveals the ideological tensions and uncertainties enacted in a late-nineteenth-century male novelist's attempts to find a form and language by which to represent female sexuality beyond the constraints of convention and stereotype. Hardy's figuring of the “pure woman” trope in the language and plot of Tess, [Tess of the d'Urbervilles] for example, in fact indicates his desire to transgress the boundaries of his own ideological positioning.32 A further essay which illustrates that deconstructing Hardy's language is now a primary focus for contemporary critics is Jean Jacques Lecercle's “The Violence of Style in Tess of the d'Urbervilles” (1989). Drawing explicitly on the work of linguist and semiotician Gilles Deleuze, Lecercle proposes that violence in the novel's treatment of women and sexuality is its determining characteristic: Tess is at once subjected to physical violence in the novel and subjected (i.e., constituted as a subject) by the symbolic violence of the language the novel uses to enunciate her. Hardy's achievement lies in his production of a text where different languages clash—giving the “impression of instability, of eruptive violence”—and in his refusal to resolve such linguistic dissonance, but to “let it stand and be perceived.” The metaphorical dimension of the novel's language may be a psychological register of Hardy's “rage,” but it is the linguistic violence which literally constitutes his style.33

Much recent work on Hardy has been by American feminist critics. Rosemarie Morgan's Women and Sexuality in the Novels of Thomas Hardy (1988) claims to be a “revisionary” study, and its introduction clearly implies its provenance within deconstruction in registering the need for “an acute sensitivity” to, inter alia, Hardy's “contrapuntal narrative voices, his poetic complex of metaphorical structures, his elaborate configuration of points of view.”34 It does attempt to “resurrect” a Hardy not much spoken of these days, whose voluptuous heroines bear witness to his celebration of their robust sexuality and dynamic potential for overthrowing the patriarchal status quo. But its failure to engage with the “contradictions” identified by feminist criticism above, combined with surprisingly undeconstructionist critical readings, means that it is more revisionist than “revisionary.” More sophisticated and persuasive is Kaja Silverman's essay, “History, Figuration and Female Subjectivity in Tess of the d'Urbervilles” (1984), which deploys a combination of neo-Freudian (from Lacan and Kristeva35) and visual theory (from film studies) to show how the “gaze” constructed by the narratalogical language of the novel—in its complex “processes of colonization, delimitation, configuration and inscription”—represents a gendered power relationship in which the subject of the “gaze” is male and its object female. This leads Hardy subconsciously to negate the potentially redemptive force of female sexuality, which his discourse of representation has itself created, in a final section of the novel entitled (ironically) “Fulfilment.”36

Also explicitly beholden to Lacanian psychoanalytic theory is Marjorie Garson's Hardy's Fables of Integrity: Woman, Body, Text (1991), which reads seven of Hardy's novels as obliquely expressing “somatic anxiety—anxiety about bodily integrity, fear of corporeal dissolution.” Both in physical terms and in his “nervously figurative language” and fabular structure, a “mythic subtext” becomes apparent which conveys “anxieties about wholeness, about maleness, and particularly about women.” This helps to explain the “instabilities, contradictions, and grotesqueries,” the “defensiveness and self-consciousness” about class and gender, in Hardy's texts—or rather, what Garson, in full poststructuralist rig, would always understand as “Hardy”: “the wider text” which subsumes both “the life” and the writings.37 A further collection of cognate work is The Sense of Sex: Feminist Perspectives on Hardy, ed. Margaret R. Higonnet (1993).38 Higonnet's introduction to the volume offers a succinct account of feminist criticism on Hardy; and while the essays are mixed in quality, a number do indeed offer new “perspectives” on Hardy's work. Drawing variously on psychoanalytic theory, film theory, medical history, reader-response, and narratology, those by Kristin Brady on Tess, Dianne Sadoff on the film of Tess, Judith Mitchell on “Hardy's Female Reader,” Mary Rimmer on the chess game in A Pair of Blue Eyes, and Penny Boumelha on class and gender in The Hand of Ethelberta are to be recommended. One other contribution will help to establish a point I have made in passing on several occasions. It is striking that there is merely a single essay in the entire volume on Hardy's poetry, and that by a male critic, U. C. Knoepflmacher, who offers an interesting (if somewhat shaky) Freudian reading of the sexual-political sub-text of Wessex Poems. What is even more striking is that this is one of only three contributions reprinted from a previous publication (in PMLA, 105 [1990], 1055-70) rather than written specially for the book, and that it reappears again in the 1995 collection edited by Orel referred to earlier. Now it is quite a reasonable essay, but it is not that good; what it shows, rather, is just how little theory-informed criticism there is to date on Hardy's poetry—by feminist critics or by anyone else.39

Much of the influence of poststructuralism on Hardy criticism, as will already be apparent, informs the more recent materialist and feminist work surveyed above. But it seems appropriate to conclude this overview with a recognition of one eminent deconstructive critic who has returned time and again to Hardy's writing in both genres: J. Hillis Miller. Such revisiting is itself a central term in Miller's critical project, for every literary text demands an individual “close reading,” but because no one reading suffices, “the work of reading must always start again from the beginning, even in a rereading of a work already read.”40 His first major work on Hardy, and his last in phenomenological criticism before shifting to the “Yale” inflexion of Derridean deconstruction, seeks to uncover the “single design in the totality” of Hardy's work: the pervasive formal and thematic mental structures of “distance” and “desire” and the correlation between them.41 This, of course, is entirely contrary to deconstruction, and Miller later notes that “attempts to survey the whole and organize it thematically, or phenomenologically, by noting similarities … and generalizing on that basis” are “unsatisfactory.”42 Two of his most admired close readings of Hardy's fiction (on Tess and The Well-Beloved) show, by detailed analysis of the language and formal articulation of the texts, how different forms of repetition lie at the heart of both their structuration and their signification.43 An earlier version of Miller's penetrating essay on The Well-Beloved further sees this “last” novel's “clash of incompatible features” and its overt display of “the fictionality of fiction” as revealing both a radical break with Victorian realism and “an interpretation … or even … parody” of Hardy's own previous fiction: “by presenting a schematic and ‘unrealistic’ version of the pattern they all share,” The Well-Beloved calls attention to “the geometric artifice” of all his novels and hence to their “covert” rejection of the ideology of humanist-realism.44

Miller has also written extensively on Hardy's poetry. The Linguistic Moment is “neither a work of pure literary theory nor a work of pure praxis,” but a work of “critique,” a testing of “the grounding of language in this or that particular text”; and the “self-testing” of this within the poems themselves Miller calls “the linguistic moment”: “a suspension … a breaking of the illusion that language is a transparent medium of meaning” (Miller, Linguistic Moment, pp. xviii, xiv). Hardy's 950-plus individual poems are exemplary, with Miller noting the “uniqueness of each moment of experience … each record[s] in words”; he points out that “each moment, each text, is incommensurate with all the others” and that forms of “discontinuity,” “discord,” and “irrelation” characterize the oeuvre (pp. 270-71, 282). Faced with the fact that the poems are “fugitive glimpses, transient readings of life,” the critic “must resist as much as possible the temptation to link poem with poem in some grand scheme” (pp. 289, 283). Miller's own minutely attentive close reading of a “miscellaneous” selection of poems focuses on their recognition of “life's incoherence,” which is explained by the irrational, “discordant,” and unsystematic properties of language: “for Hardy, between the intention and the deed, between moment and moment, between the self and itself, between mind and landscape, falls the word. This descent of the word is the linguistic moment in Hardy.” His ever-renewed “exploration of the consequences for man of the absence of the logos” means that there can be no “ontological ground” for the coherence of “collective history or of individual histories,” of the “single self” (e.g., “Thomas Hardy”), or of “language”—be it the English language, the language of the “Complete Poems,” or that of any individual poem. That is what Hardy's poetry ultimately represents (pp. 290, 303-04). The five essays from various periods collected in Tropes, Parables, Performatives: Essays on Twentieth-Century Literature also exemplify such views, as does, especially, Miller's microscopic reading, in Linguistic Moment, of the poem “In Front of the Landscape” which shows Hardy “turning perception into language.” This represents a process of translation—as all translation must always be—which is a metaphorical transposing, “a misreading or distortion,” but one which also protects Hardy's integrity in its refusal of any notion of coherence or system in human life and history. Indeed, the proliferating repetition of such an “act of translation” is what comprises Hardy's “Complete Poems” (Miller, Tropes, pp. 208, 212). Miller's deconstructionist work on both genres has quietly and subtly laid the ground for the heteroglossic and unstable “Hardy as Text” which is currently “In Front of the [Critical] Landscape,” and which is itself necessarily an “act of translation” in the terms defined above.

We may now ask: what happens to “good little Thomas Hardy” when he is subjected to such theorized criticism? He becomes, I suggest, a terrain of riven textuality whose major landmarks are faultlines which expose the substrata of cultural politics, class, sexuality, and gender, themselves striated by the unstable language of which they are composed. Hardy “Our Contemporary” lurches from the “Heritage Hardy” (which he nevertheless continues to be in popular culture) to a Deconstructionist avant la lettre. The (“flawed” but “great”) humanist-realist who is properly represented by the “major” Wessex novels is subverted when the “minor novels” are reinserted in the canon, and reappears as a proto-postmodern anti-realist whose own fictional texture is self-deconstructing. Hardy the Poet, once “truly” characterized by only his “finest” poems as the wryly lyrical celebrant of nature, love, time, and mortality or as the ironic liberal-humanist who refuses Modernist cultural despair, is now reconstituted by the undifferentiated mass of his “Complete Poems” in deconstructive proof of the inadequacy of all “grand narratives”—of history, politics, religion, philosophy, and, indeed, of poetry itself.

Now that one of the principal discourses of Hardy's fiction is seen to be class and class relations, readings focus not on the production of an “organic” countryman who gives a “voice” to the rural poor and dispossessed, but on that of a meritocratic, metropolitan man-of-letters who is obsessed, as a bourgeois arriviste, with the problems of upward mobility created by a class society in rapid transition. Equally, the foregrounding of sexuality and gender as discourses everywhere encoded in the novels forces us to debate whether Hardy is a proto-feminist, sympathetically exposing the victimization of women in a patriarchal society, or a closet misogynist terrified, like many of his male contemporaries, by the rise of the “New Woman,” and whose fiction constantly forecloses on the female aspiration and sexuality it so potently depicts. Does it endorse the pervasively erotic “Male Gaze” it deploys, or deconstruct it? Is Hardy's “true” poetry—most famously in the elegies to Emma of 1912-13—a movingly remorseful testimony to lost love, or do many less “familiar” poems give a voice to silenced women, whose robust sexuality and strength is counterpoised with male “faintheartedness” and prurient fantasies of “lost prizes”? Central to all this is a recognition that Hardy's language, in both poetry and prose, is not the linguistic medium through which his “vision” is expressed, but the self-reflexive subject of all his writing—a language not to be read for its “unifying” and “coherent” systems of imagery and symbolism, but for its contradictory, unstable, and hence revealing, inscription of complex social and sexual tensions.

The fundamental theoretical question this “Hardy” poses—and one too seldom asked by even his most sophisticated contemporary critics—is: is Hardy in control of his text? Does he intend his effects and utterances, whatever we may read them to be, or is his writing merely indeterminate textuality which is made to “speak”—in its decoding by contemporary criticism—the tacit ideological complexities and contradictions of both its moment of production and its moment of reproduction? Is it the writer or the reader who ultimately determines meaning? Such a question does not, of course, anticipate a definitive answer (nor does it hope to “solve” the problematics of either intentionalism or postmodern relativism): it merely signals that the question should always be put—explicitly, and within the critical frame.

In conclusion, we may speculate as to what further critical/theoretical perspectives will be brought to bear on Hardy. First, there is as yet no explicitly “postcolonialist” criticism of his work; but notions of national and racial consciousness surely need to be addressed there, as does Hardy's central place in constructions of “Englishness” and of “English Literature” within twentieth-century national and postcolonial cultures. Secondly, and more surprisingly, there is no gay, lesbian, or “queer” criticism of Hardy's texts so far as I am aware. Overt and covert instances of homoerotic desire feature in the novels (e.g., Miss Aldclyffe for Cytherea in Desperate Remedies; Paula Power for Charlotte in A Laodicean), but, more importantly, problematized sexuality and the construction of gender are so insistent, diverse, and obsessive in both novels and poems (consider the variously gendered “voices” there, and the many poems which suggest a sexuality ill at ease with itself) that the texts cry out to be explored by a criticism that goes beyond even recent feminist readings. Thirdly, in the absence of one to hand, I am obliged to call for the invention of a theorized praxis which will meet the pressing need for a criticism that can deal with the accelerating reproduction of Hardy's work in the visual media. New generations of “readers” of Hardy will first come to “his” works through film and television versions of them; will need to know how to negotiate the complex relations between written and visually reproduced texts; and how to read the social meanings encoded in them. It is here, as one instance among many in the current intellectual arena, that literary theory and criticism begin to lose definition as discrete activities, and become merely contributory discourses in the more fully comprehensive projects of cultural theory and cultural history.


  1. “The Profitable Reading of Fiction” (1888), “Candour in English Fiction” (1890), and “The Science of Fiction” (1891)—all rpt. in PW and in Thomas Hardy: Selected Poetry and Non-Fictional Prose, ed. Peter Widdowson (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997).

  2. The categories Hardy used to group the different kinds of his fiction in the 1912 “General Preface” to the “Wessex Edition” of his works. This preface is reproduced in many modern editions of his novels and poetry.

  3. But see n. 39 below.

  4. For a more extended discussion of critics' treatment of the “minor novels” and of Hardy's “flaws,” see Peter Widdowson, Hardy in History: A Study in Literary Sociology (London: Routledge, 1989), chapter 1.

  5. F. R. Leavis, The Great Tradition (1948; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962), p. 140.

  6. Ian Gregor, The Great Web: The Form of Hardy's Major Fiction (London: Faber & Faber, 1974).

  7. Jean Brooks, Thomas Hardy: The Poetic Structure (London: Elek Books, 1971); Dale Kramer, Thomas Hardy: The Forms of Tragedy (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1975); Peter Casagrande, Unity in Hardy's Novels: “Repetitive Symmetries” (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1982). Further examples of this new formalism appear in essays reprinted in Thomas Hardy: The Tragic Novels, ed. R. P. Draper (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan Casebooks, 1975, 1991)—especially essays by Tony Tanner and David Lodge.

  8. For examples, see the reviews rpt. in Cox; and see Thomas Hardy: Poems, ed. J. Gibson and T. Johnson (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1979, 1991).

  9. Thomas Hardy: A Critical Selection of His Finest Poetry, ed. Samuel Hynes (Oxford University Press, “The Oxford Authors,” 1984), pp. xxii, xxi. The identical introduction reappears in a second, different selection by Hynes: Thomas Hardy: A Selection of his Finest Poems, also published by Oxford University Press, in the Oxford Poetry Library (1994).

  10. Critical Essays on Thomas Hardy's Poetry, ed. Harold Orel (New York: G. K. Hall, 1995), pp. 3-11 passim. Other useful accounts of Hardy poetry criticism can be found in Gibson and Johnson, “Introduction,” Thomas Hardy: Poems, and Timothy Hands, Thomas Hardy (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1995), chapter 6.

  11. Donald Davie, Thomas Hardy and British Poetry (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973), pp. 6, 11-12, 25-26, 39-40.

  12. F. R. Leavis, New Bearings in English Poetry (1932; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963), p. 53.

  13. David Wright, “Note on the Selection,” in Thomas Hardy: Selected Poems (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978, 1986), p. 29.

  14. Andrew Motion, “Introduction,” Thomas Hardy: Selected Poems (London: Orion, Everyman Paperbacks, 1994), p. xxvi.

  15. Widdowson, “The Familiar Hardy” section of poems, and “Critical Commentary,” in Selected Poetry and Non-Fictional Prose, pp. 186-217 passim.

  16. Raymond Williams, The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence (1970; St. Albans: Paladin, 1974), chapter 4. This is largely reprinted as chapter 18 of Williams's The Country and the City (London: Chatto & Windus, 1973).

  17. Raymond Williams, Politics and Letters (London: Verso, 1979, 1981), section IV, chapter 2; and Raymond and Merryn Williams, “Hardy and Social Class,” in Thomas Hardy: The Writer and His Background, ed. Norman Page (London: Bell & Hyman, 1980), pp. 245-46.

  18. Terry Eagleton, Criticism and Ideology (1976; London: Verso, 1978), pp. 131-32. See also Eagleton, “Introduction,” Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, New Wessex Edition, 1974).

  19. Terry Eagleton, Walter Benjamin or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (London: Verso, 1981), pp. 126-27.

  20. George Wotton, Thomas Hardy: Towards a Materialist Criticism (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1985).

  21. Peter Widdowson, Hardy in History: A Study in Literary Sociology (London: Routledge, 1989); Widdowson, “Introduction,” Tess of the d'Urbervilles (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan New Casebooks, 1993); Widdowson, Thomas Hardy (Plymouth: Northcote House, Writers and their Work, 1996); Widdowson, On Thomas Hardy: Late Essays and Earlier (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998); Widdowson, ed., Selected Poetry (1997).

  22. Joe Fisher, The Hidden Hardy (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992), esp. pp. 3, 7.

  23. Roger Ebbatson, Hardy: The Margin of the Unexpressed (Sheffield Academic Press, 1993). See chapter 6 for the essay on “The Dorsetshire Labourer.”

  24. John Goode died prematurely in 1994.

  25. John Goode, “Woman and the Literary Text,” in The Rights and Wrongs of Women, ed. Juliet Mitchell and Ann Oakley (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), passim, but esp. pp. 253-55.

  26. John Goode, “Sue Bridehead and the New Woman,” in Women Writing and Writing about Women, ed. Mary Jacobus (London: Croom Helm, 1979), pp. 100, 107-08.

  27. John Goode, Thomas Hardy: The Offensive Truth (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988).

  28. Mary Jacobus, “Sue the Obscure,” Essays in Criticism, 25 (1975), 304-28; Jacobus, “Tess's Purity,” Essays in Criticism, 26 (1976), 318-38 (rpt. as “Tess: The Making of a Pure Woman,” in Tearing the Veil: Essays on Femininity, ed. Susan Lipshitz [London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978]); Jacobus, “Tree and Machine: The Woodlanders,” in Critical Approaches to the Fiction of Thomas Hardy, ed. Dale Kramer (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1979).

  29. Elaine Showalter, “The Unmanning of the Mayor of Casterbridge,” in Kramer, Critical Approaches; rpt. in Thomas Hardy: The Tragic Novels, ed. R. P. Draper, 2nd edn. (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan New Casebooks, 1991), pp. 114, 102.

  30. Patricia Stubbs, Women and Fiction: Feminism and the Novel, 1880-1920 (1979; London: Methuen, 1981), chapter 4 on Hardy, pp. 58-59.

  31. Penny Boumelha, Thomas Hardy and Women: Sexual Ideology and Narrative Form (Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Press, 1982), pp. 5, 7. See also Boumelha, ed., Jude the Obscure (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan New Casebooks, 1996), and her essay on HE in Higonnet, The Sense of Sex (see n. 38).

  32. Patricia Ingham, Thomas Hardy: A Feminist Reading (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989), pp. 6, 7, 71-74. See also her introduction to the Everyman Paperbacks Edition of T (London: Orion, 1991).

  33. Jean-Jacques Lecercle, “The Violence of Style in Tess of the d'Urbervilles,” in Alternative Hardy, ed. Lance St. John Butler (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989), esp. pp. 22-23.

  34. Rosemarie Morgan, Women and Sexuality in the Novels of Thomas Hardy (London: Routledge, 1988), pp. xvi-xvii.

  35. An earlier—less feminist and theoretical—attempt to read Hardy's fiction by way of psychology (principally Jung and Freud) is Rosemary Sumner, Thomas Hardy: Psychological Novelist (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1981).

  36. Kaja Silverman, “History, Figuration and Female Subjectivity in Tess of the d'Urbervilles,Novel, 18 (1984), 5-28.

  37. Marjorie Garson, Hardy's Fables of Integrity: Woman, Body, Text (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), pp. 1-5 passim.

  38. The Sense of Sex: Feminist Perspectives on Hardy, ed. Margaret R. Higonnet (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993).

  39. One honorable exception to this may be Stan Smith's materialist-historical (but not “theoretical”) reading of Hardy's poems in Inviolable Voice: History and Twentieth-Century Poetry (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1982), chapter 2. A second will surely be the awaited book on Hardy's poetry by the new historicist critic, Marjorie Levinson.

  40. J. Hillis Miller, Tropes, Parables, Performatives: Essays on Twentieth-Century Literature (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990), pp. viii-ix.

  41. J. Hillis Miller, Thomas Hardy: Distance and Desire (Oxford University Press, 1970), esp. p. ix.

  42. J. Hillis Miller, The Linguistic Moment: From Wordsworth to Stevens (Princeton University Press, 1985), p. 270; my emphasis.

  43. J. Hillis Miller, Fiction and Repetition: Seven English Novels (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982), chapters 5 and 6.

  44. J. Hillis Miller, “Introduction” to Thomas Hardy, The Well-Beloved (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, New Wessex Edition, 1975), pp. 13-16.

Abbreviations for texts cited

CPW Complete Poetical Works, ed. Samuel Hynes

DR Desperate Remedies

FMC Far from the Madding Crowd

GND A Group of Noble Dames

HE The Hand of Ethelberta

J Jude the Obscure

L A Laodicean

LLI Life's Little Ironies

MC The Mayor of Casterbridge

PBE A Pair of Blue Eyes

RN The Return of the Native

T Tess of the d'Urbervilles

TM The Trumpet-Major

TT Two on a Tower

UGT Under the Greenwood Tree

W The Woodlanders (re-set edition, 1996)

WB The Well-Beloved

WT Wessex Tales

Abbreviations for other primary works and scholarly works

Cox Thomas Hardy: The Critical Heritage, ed. R. G. Cox (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970). Contemporary reviews of Hardy's fiction and poetry, preceded by a historical essay on the reception of Hardy's works.

Letters 1-7 The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, ed. Richard Little Purdy and Michael Millgate (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978-88), in seven volumes.

LN 1-2 The Literary Notebooks of Thomas Hardy, ed. Lennart A. Björk (London: Macmillan, 1985), 2 vols. (Partially published, Göteborg, Sweden: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 1974.)

LW The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy by Thomas Hardy, ed. Michael Millgate (London: Macmillan, 1985). See Millgate's essay in this volume for the history of Hardy's autobiography, originally published under the name of his second wife and accepted as a biography for three decades. The original two volumes (1928, 1930) and the one-volume edition (1962; corrected edition, 1972) are often cited in scholarship.

Millgate, Biography Michael Millgate, Thomas Hardy: A Biography (Oxford University Press; New York: Random House, 1982).

PN The Personal Notebooks of Thomas Hardy, ed. Richard H. Taylor (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1979).

PW Thomas Hardy's Personal Writings: Prefaces, Literary Opinions, Reminiscences, ed. Harold Orel (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1966).

Purdy Richard Little Purdy, Thomas Hardy: A Bibliographical Study (1954; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968, 1978). Much information about the original publication and different versions of Hardy's works.

John Paul Riquelme (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Riquelme, John Paul. “The Modernity of Thomas Hardy's Poetry.” In The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Hardy, edited by Dale Kramer, pp. 204-23. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Riquelme deconstructs a number of Hardy's poems in an attempt to define what makes them “modern.”]


As with literary Romanticisms, a variety of literary modernisms can be described, and no description of modernism as a singular, determinate movement will gain universal assent.1 Among the varieties of poetic modernism, Thomas Hardy's is distinctive because of its class-inflected, skeptical, self-implicating tendencies. The modernity of Hardy's poetry reveals itself in highly ambiguous language, in a resistance to conventional attitudes and hierarchies involving nature and society, in the transforming of lyric traditions, and in an insistence by means of negativity on the possibility of achieving a defiant, permanently revolutionary freedom to choose and to refuse. It is worth admitting at the outset, however, that any depiction of Hardy's modernism is of necessity a selective affair. There is evidence of Hardy's modernity in poems that span the entire period of his career as a publishing poet from 1898 through 1928. Considering that Hardy's collected poetry consists of more than nine hundred texts, not including The Dynasts, a variety of patterns and tendencies can be identified. Primary to my reading of his modernity are poems that reflect on nature and on Romantic attitudes, war poetry, elegies, and poems that use negative language prominently.

Out of Hardy's poems emerge new options for the elegy and for lyric poetry, options that make it possible for later writers to pursue alternatives to other influential poetic modernisms, especially those associated with Yeats and Eliot. All three poets challenge the singular character of the self. But Hardy's style is neither abstract nor fragmented in the manner of Eliot, who uses ambiguous pronoun references, multiple literary allusions, and a group speech based on liturgical language, among other techniques, to disrupt the continuity and spontaneity of the individual voice. Hardy projects at times an anti-self comparable in some ways to the anti-self in Yeats, but he does so in a less mellifluous style. Yeats and Eliot respond in one way to the crass, secularized character of modern culture by turning to the spiritual, that is, by directing attention in some of their poetry to visionary or Christian truths. Hardy also protests against the abusive, destructive, self-destructive tendencies of his society, but his response tends to focus on a recognizably human world of personal relations, work, and death.


Hardy's transformations of poetic traditions result in arresting elegies that are in salient ways both anti-elegiac and unconsoling and in lyrics that present the voice falling silent or that prominently include figures of speech that go against the grain of conventional lyric utterance. The unconsoling elegies and the lyrics in which voices are joined to silence and stillness emerge from a common impulse, to resist the tendency of elegies to provide comfort in situations of loss and the tendency of lyrics to present a voice in song or to humanize the world in a self-regarding, self-validating way. “No answerer I,” says the speaker of one of Hardy's early poems, “Nature's Questioning,” toward the end of a sequence of figurative crossings-over that typifies Hardy's modern imagination. Decades later the speaker in the poem that closes Hardy's final volume still “resolves to say no more.” Hardy's speakers in these poems adopt a position of principled silence.

In “Nature's Questioning,” published in Wessex Poems and Other Verses (1898), Hardy's first volume, the ambiguous use of language and the implications of Hardy's figures of speech, especially figures involving voice, face, and negation, distinguish Hardy from his precursors and connect him to younger writers, including Yeats and Eliot. The title phrase, “Nature's Questioning,” is an amphiboly, an instance of language in which the meaning of the individual words is clear but the meaning of their combination is not. Hardy's title can mean both the questioning of nature by someone or something and the questioning that nature itself does of someone or something. This is an example of the genitive, or possessive, use of language in which subject and object are reversible.2

The poem opens with the speaker looking at nature and nature looking back in an instance of personification that suggests reversible relations. That is, nature is presented as if it possessed a human consciousness like the speaker's. Each observes the other, and the possibility of communication is implied, as it often is in personification:

          When I look forth at dawning, pool,
                    Field, flock, and lonely tree,
                    All seem to gaze at me
Like chastened children sitting silent in a school.

(CPW [Complete Poetical Works], I, p. 86)

In the word “dawning,” we encounter another example of irresolvably ambiguous language. The speaker may be looking forth at the pool and other aspects of the scene at dawn. Or the dawn may be an aspect of scene that the speaker has in view. The speaker looks at dawn in both the temporal and, grammatically speaking, objective senses; it is when he looks and part of what he looks at. The double meaning causes no insurmountable complication to understanding the poem, except that “dawn” is figurative, not just literal language, particularly since it occurs in the form of a gerund, “dawning.” The verbal noun communicates a process, not only a time and a scene. When something dawns on us, we become aware of a new situation or idea. While something is dawning on the speaker, what the speaker becomes aware of is the “dawning,” or coming into awareness, of the aspects of scene being observed. At the moment of dawn, the speaker looks at the dawn scene during his own dawning that is also the observing of something dawning on what he observes. When pressed in this way for implications, the convoluted play and looping back of the language are as complex and puzzling as the often more extravagant linguistic effects of later modernist writers. By anticipating and participating in a modernist direction, Hardy's early poetry marks the dawn of modernism.

Despite nature's personification and its apparent connection to the speaker, the poem's details do not reinforce the suggestion that nature has been humanized as a thinking being. Instead, nature and the speaker are presented, respectively, as stifled or speechless. This qualifying of personification's usual implication revises and challenges a central element in Romantic poetry in a manner that is typical of Hardy and of modernist poetry in general. The five stanzas in the poem's middle that focus on nature's “chastened children” present them as human but worn down, not at dawn but at the end of a long day with “faces dulled” by a teacher who has “cowed them.” The verb cow in this context clearly means intimidate, but Hardy would have known that some readers would register the homonymous noun cow, with its reference to a farm animal. Rather than a lapse in judgment, the incongruity is Hardy's joke about personification's humanizing aspect. There are no jokes in Wordsworth's use of this poetic trope. Hardy's humor causes a dislocation, since the bovine implication turns the humanized “flock” back into something less than human.

The lesson that humanized nature learns through education is not to be more aware but to be “cowed.” In that state, the only speech that “stirs,” described as “lippings mere,” emerges as questions about the children's origin and end. The emphasis on faces and voices that are moribund raises for the reader the question of how fully the natural world mirrors the human and in what ways. The evident suggestion is that this implicit questioning of nature points to a debilitation in nature that is the truth about humanity as well. Rather than recognizing itself in a lively, joyous, humanized nature, humanity is invited to see itself reflected in nature as “worn,” “forlorn,” and “dying.” Further, the force that has shaped nature is presented in nature's questions as itself less than fully human; it is imbecile and “impotent,” an “Automaton” that is “Unconscious.” In an obvious reference to the “embers” that guarantee the continuity between child and man in the ninth stanza of Wordsworth's “Immortality Ode,” the children suggest that they may be “live remains” but of something “dying downwards,” not likely to survive. With “brain and eye” gone, they are closer to being “remains” in the sense of a corpse than they are to being “live.”

The place of the human speaker appears in the seventh, and final, stanza. The poem raises questions about nature implicitly, but this “I” is not in dialogue with nature. He neither questions nature directly nor responds to nature's questioning with his own validating voice, a voice that, could it answer, might confirm the similarity between humanity and nature in positive terms. Instead, a step further toward dying downward than the children, the speaker is “No answerer I.” By choosing not to answer back or by being unable to do so, the “I” cuts itself off or is cut off from the possibility of continued speaking as a sign of life and thought on both sides of a dialogue. The children speak, perhaps to him, but he does not address them as Wordsworth addresses the child in the “Immortality Ode.”

The silence of not answering finds its stilly echo in elements of nature, “the winds, and rains,” and humanized natural “glooms and pains” that are, in another instance of ambiguous phrasing, “still the same.” Like the speaker, they have not been changed by the questioning. They are, like the “I” who does not answer, “still” or quiet; that is, they are “the same” as “I” as well as “still the same.” “Still” suggests not life and human consciousness, but death as well as quiet, especially in a poem that closes by presenting “Life and Death” as close neighbors. The implications here resemble those of the opening of Eliot's “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” in which “you and I” are presented as going “like a patient etherised upon a table,” or else, because of the irresolvably ambiguous phrasing, the “evening is spread out against the sky” like such an unconscious figure. In both poems, the border between the human and the natural has been crossed to suggest not that either one gains by the crossing over but that both are less, not more, conscious and lively than we might have thought. Self and nature are “etherised” or dulled. There is also a quality in Hardy's poem that resembles Samuel Beckett's work, with its emphasis on silence and the loss of parts and faculties. As in the ambiguous title of Beckett's “Stirrings Still,” what stirs in “Nature's Questioning” is all but still.

The modernist challenge to a Wordsworthian Romanticism emphasizing consolation is typical of Hardy's early poems. For instance, “In a Eweleaze near Weatherbury” (Wessex Poems) reverses the “Immortality Ode” by including no consolation for the changes that time has brought. Instead, it brings irony strongly to bear on time's passage by using a hymn stanza to present the lack of consolation. The poem also mixes styles by using both dialect and educated language; the mixture of high and low anticipates the mixture of styles in later poets. In Hardy, however, the low style creates the impression not of a mask worn by a refined speaker but of the speaker's lower-class origins. In an uncanny touch that replicates the crossovers of “Nature's Questioning,” Hardy illustrates the poem in an amphibolic way with a drawing of a landscape made up of fields, flocks, and trees over which is superimposed a pair of glasses. This is more than incongruous, since it is impossible to say whether the glasses are those of the viewer who looks at nature or those of nature looking back at us. In the drawing and the poem, the fit between the human and the natural is less than close, comfortable, or determinate.

The poem following “Nature's Questioning” in Wessex Poems, “The Impercipient,” also illustrates Hardy's modernity in its use of the negative, in this case not “No” but the prefix “im-,” to present a diminution of consciousness. The word impercipient, which means lacking perception, implies the loss of a faculty that makes us human. What the speaker as “a gazer” cannot perceive in the fourth stanza is the sound that an “inland company” thinks it hears, that of a “‘glorious distant sea’” (CPW, I, p. 88). The gazer hears instead only the wind in the trees. The poem specifically rejects the consolation that Wordsworth's speaker experiences in the ninth stanza of the “Immortality Ode.” In that stanza, though “inland far,” the speaker has “sight” of an “immortal sea” and can “hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.” That sight and that sound are ones that, because they are unavailable, can provide no comfort and no consolation to Thomas Hardy's impercipient poetic speakers.

The radically ambiguous effects, refusal of consolation, and negativity persist in ways that respond to Romantic poets besides Wordsworth. “During Wind and Rain,” published in Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (1917), owes a clear debt to Shelley's “Ode to the West Wind.” Harold Bloom even calls Hardy's poem “a grandchild” of Shelley's.3 In saying that, however, Bloom claims not just that wind, rain, leaves, and storm are important in both poems but that Hardy is a late-Romantic poet who follows Shelley thematically and not just chronologically. That is not the case. Shelley's poem is formally elegant, with long lines of verse arranged into five numbered parts that combine the Shakespearean sonnet with an English version of terza rima in imitation of Dante. Hardy's poem is a ballad, a popular form as far from Dante and Shakespearean sonnets as Hardy is from Shelley. The difference is apparent in the poems' contrasting diction. In Shelley, “the leaves dead / Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing.” In Hardy, “the sick leaves reel down in throngs!” (CPW, II, p. 239). “Reel” suggests going round in a whirling motion, but, in the context of singing and the playing of music referred to earlier in the same stanza, “reel” can also call to mind the Scottish dance. In this poem, which concerns change and death, the dance is a danse macabre or dance of death in which all participate. Shelley's poem projects instead a cyclical process that renews life, as the closing optimistically asserts: “O Wind, / If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”

Shelley's closing apostrophe to the wind differs from Hardy's use of apostrophe. Both apostrophe and personification can suggest that a human speaker and humanized nature are mutually supportive. Hardy regularly avoids that suggestion. Shelley's poem begins and ends with an apostrophic invocation to the wind, addressed as “O wild West Wind” in the first line. Several times in the poem, at the end of a line Shelley's speaker invokes the wind as “O thou” or enjoins it to listen with “oh, hear!” Hardy mimics but transforms Shelley's use of apostrophe at line-ends in two of his stanzas by closing the ballad-like refrain at the sixth line with the “O” of an apparent apostrophe: “the years O!” (lines 6, 20). But this “O” is the sound of the voice sighing, a sign of loss rather than an indication of full-throated lyric address. Hardy does not begin and end his poem in a Shelleyan way with apostrophes to an aspect of nature that appears to stand for the imagination. Instead, he literalizes the wind by making it part of the natural context in which the poem's events and his presentation of those events occur. T. S. Eliot does something similar in “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” published in Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) the same year as Moments of Vision.

This literalizing of Romantic figures, like the use of cow in “Nature's Questioning,” creates a revisionary distance between the later poem and the earlier Romantic one. Hardy's “O” at the end of a line rhymes internally with “Ah, no” from earlier in the line and expresses a response to “the years.” That is, instead of addressing “the years” as human by saying “O Years,” Hardy links “O” internally with “no” and with time's passage. In the alternative versions of the refrain, “the years O” becomes “the years, the years” (lines 13, 27) in a repetition that explains what “O” means. Rather than inspiring a prophetic response, which Shelley requests of the wind, the years, along with the wind and the rain, define the context, time, and the weather, in which life proceeds to its inevitable end.

At the end of Shelley's poem, the speaker asks that the wind carry a trumpeting prophecy through his lips to an “unawakened earth,” presumably in order to wake it up. The west wind and the poet's breath would fuse in poetic singing. In this projected mutuality of voice, Shelley has sung to and for the wind, which he asks now to sing through him. There is singing in “During Wind and Rain,” at the beginning, but it is singing by “He, she, all of them” (line 2), apparently real people in a domestic scene, not by a poet intent on prophecy. The domestication of song works in tandem with the literalizing of wind. At the end of Hardy's poem, instead of the promise of prophetic song, we hear that “Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs” (line 28). The scene has become a cemetery in the rain, with drops running down the names of those who once sang. The rain has become a tear that responds to the fact that those who lie in the earth cannot be awakened.

The tear of rain indicates more than lamentation about a loss, for it is figuratively engaged in the agricultural work of ploughing, which is related to carving as an act of marking a surface through human labor. Unlike Shelley, Hardy focuses in his poem's ending not on imaginative wind and prophetic singing but on the human labor of carving, ploughing, and, by extension, writing as work that remembers what once was but has now passed. The response to Shelley involves centrally a corrective gesture in which the “O” of apostrophe is negated, opposed, and written over by the “Ah, no” repeated in all four stanzas in the lines of refrain. Instead of emphasizing a wind that is always there to inspire poetic singing, Hardy stresses time's passage and the changes that compose human history. Rather than imitating the Romantic precursors to whom he responds, Hardy expresses distinctive attitudes. The poetic future that “During Wind and Rain” anticipates and enables includes Seamus Heaney's “Digging,” in which the poet chooses to dig with his pen. For Heaney, as for Hardy, writing resembles working with the earth or with stone, not Shelley's prophetic, wind-inspired trumpeting.


Hardy shares with later modernist poets an experience that their nineteenth-century precursors never had, that of modern warfare, with its attendant social and psychological effects. But Hardy's concern with matters of war begins during the nineteenth century in his lifelong interest in the Napoleonic conflicts. The primary literary result of this interest is The Dynasts, subtitled “An Epic-Drama of the war with Napoleon, in three parts, nineteen acts, & one hundred & thirty scenes, the time covered by the action being about ten years.” The three parts appeared in 1903, 1906, and 1908. In an important, though brief, commentary on this immense work, Isobel Armstrong asserts that The Dynasts is both the culmination of a politically resistant nineteenth-century poetic tradition and a new beginning for poetry as modernist experimentation.4 The work's multiple perspectives and styles and its combining of heroic and democratic forms justify Armstrong's claims for its originality and significance. Hardy's double, antithetical vision of Wellington and Napoleon as versions of each other provides an emphatic, historically focused instance of the tensions and contradictions evident as well in his shorter poems written in response to contemporary wars.

Hardy responded to modern war in two groups of short poems. The first, written about and during the Boer War (1899-1902), appear as eleven “War Poems” in Poems of the Past and the Present (1901), Hardy's second volume of poetry. The best-known of these is “Drummer Hodge,” a poem that exhibits Hardy's withering irony about the pretensions of Imperial Britain in its colonial excursions as they affect the lower classes. The class-inflected character of Hardy's modernism is evident in this antijingoistic poem. Hodge, whose name evokes British agricultural laborers, provides an example of how England is able to carry its imperial burden only at great cost to its uneducated, laboring class. Instead of helping successfully to transform the non-British world into Britain's own image, Hodge becomes fertilizer for foreign plants. Not Britannia but “strange-eyed constellations” (CPW, I, p. 122) rule Hodge's stars. Stylistically, the poem is distinctive because Hardy extends his tendency to mix styles by including phrases of Afrikaans dialect. The infiltration of this strange language, as in the word kopje-crest, meaning hillcrest, into a poem about a simple British soldier, enacts in the style a reversal of British expectations. Another poem in this group, “Song of the Soldiers' Wives and Sweethearts” (CPW, I, pp. 128-29), is an early example of Hardy's adopting a female voice. As does Yeats in his Crazy Jane poems, he chooses a persona so distant from himself that it amounts to what Yeats called an anti-self.

The later group of seventeen war poems, written shortly before or during WWI, appears as “Poems of War and Patriotism” in Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (1917). The widely admired “In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’” (CPW, II, pp. 295-96) is less about war than it is about all that is not war. In this regard, the most memorable of these poems evoke opposites that are mutually defining. “In Time” includes numerous references that in another text could suggest violence and war primarily, but here they do so only indirectly as if by echo. Because of the diction, the perspective is resolutely double. We hear of “harrowing” (as in the harrowing of hell at the last judgment), “stalking,” “smoke,” “flame,” and death. The harrowing is predicated not of the world's end but of the earth during ploughing. The stalking refers not to the deadly activity of soldiers or even hunters but to the cultivating of soil. The smoke is that of a grassfire “without flame.” And the death refers figuratively to the unlikely disappearance of a story that will outlast tales of war. Rather than writing about war, Hardy has set about righting our sense of war's importance by transferring its vocabulary to another, preferable context.

The first poem in the sequence, “‘Men Who March Away’” (CPW, II, pp. 289-90), also includes a doubled perspective, that of the soldiers who sing and that of the silent, doubting observer whom they address. But the poem's effect is to suggest that the double perspective is actually that of the soldiers, who are ambivalent and doubtful about their own endeavor. Hardy cunningly communicates the poem's ambivalence by means of rhymes. The two most frequent rhyme words, “away” and “us,” used in the first stanza, are taken up later in the poem. Those who are marching “away” are heard emphatically to say “Nay” at the opening of two lines (lines 15, 20). These nay-sayers who present themselves as so positive about their own enterprise emphasize their solidarity by saying “us” repeatedly. “Us” comes back, however, as part of the “musing eye” (line 9; italics added here and below) of the observer who is their apparent opposite but actually part of themselves. It returns when they assert in words linked by rhyme to each other and to “us” that they are the “just” because of whom “braggarts must” “bite the dust.” Rather than distinguishing “us” from them, who are the skeptics and the enemy, “us” creates a connection to the musers and to those who bite the dust, who may well be “us.”

Doubling and self-reflection begin early in Hardy's poetry-writing independently of his war poems in texts such as “Wessex Heights,” written in the 1890s but published in Satires of Circumstance, Lyrics and Reveries (1914). The emphasis in “Wessex Heights” on the speaker's present self in uneasy relation to a past self is replicated by the parenthetical date (1896) forming part of the title of a poem published in a volume almost twenty years later. The poem's self-observing element is embodied stylistically in radically ambiguous phrasing that prevents us from separating into two distinct parts something simultaneously doubled and singular:

Down there I seem to be false to myself, my simple self that was,
And is not now, and I see him watching, wondering what crass cause
Can have merged him into such a strange continuator as this,
Who yet has something in common with himself, my chrysalis.

(CPW, II, p. 26)

The speaker appears at first to see himself as in the past false to the self he is now, but the phrasing suggests that he was also being false to himself then, in an act of self-betrayal that is internally divisive. The “I” sees “him watching,” that is, engaging in a related activity of looking, apparently looking at the “I” who is his continuator. The reciprocal activity is like the gazing of the speaker at nature and nature's gazing back at the speaker in “Nature's Questioning.” Both the “I” and his previous self are “wondering” in a mutually reflective way. Mutuality and persistence, as well as the difference, between him and me emerge in the pronoun references when third person and first person are set in apposition as “himself” and “my chrysalis.” The questions raised by this language concerning the continuity or discontinuity between the poet and his earlier self challenge the assertions of continuity in the poet's life found in Wordsworth's poetry, as in the lines from “My Heart Leaps Up” that form the epigraph for the “Immortality Ode.”

A related crossing-over or self-regarding doubling occurs in the last of the “Poems of War and Patriotism,” “I Looked Up From My Writing.” This poem of observation and self-observation expresses skepticism about the speaker's own writing because of the possibility, as in “Wessex Heights,” that he has been false to himself. The later poem again involves looking at something that looks back in a way that enables a recognition:

I looked up from my writing,
                    And gave a start to see,
As if rapt in my inditing,
                    The moon's full gaze on me.

(CPW, II, p. 305)

By means of a pun, itself a form of doubling, the phrase “rapt in my inditing” links the writer and the moon while setting the two in violent opposition. Both are “rapt” or deeply engrossed in the poet's “inditing,” or writing, but the Indo-European root that gives rise to “rapt” means “to seize,” and it stands behind various words with violent implications, such as rapacious. The violent element is confirmed when we hear “indicting” as a pun on “inditing.” The writer may be indicting something in his writing, but the moon is definitely looking at the poet in an accusatory way, as if indicting him for a crime. In doing that, the personified moon proceeds as if reading a poem, first “scanning” the landscape in search of a man who has “put his life-light out,” that is, committed suicide, because his son has been slain in war.

To scan means to look out over something, such as a scene, but also to analyze the metrical pattern of verse. The moon's scanning leads her “to look / Into the blinkered mind” of someone who would write anything in a world in which children are slain and parents commit suicide. “Look into” suggests a physical act of perception, but it also means “investigate,” as one would a crime. What she investigates is the crime of being “blinkered,” or blinded. In an undoing of personification's usual implications, the moon presents itself as different from the human, since what she sees is that this particular human being cannot see; he is impercipient. The blinded mind of the poet, like the blinded bird in Hardy's contemporaneous poem of that title, is dead in life. The moon's “temper,” her mood or her anger, has, by the final stanza, “overwrought” him. Wrought, the past participle of work, is related to the word wright, someone who makes, such as a playwright or, by extension, a poet. He has become overwrought, or anxious, because of the moon's looks, but she has also overwritten him. The poet ceases to speak under the pressure of having been written over, when he realizes he must “shun her view,” not look at her and not be looked at by her, because she thinks he “should,” either ought to or will, “drown him too” (line 24). To be “rapt in his inditing” now means that the poet is wrapped in his own writing, like a corpse in a winding-sheet of his own creating, a winding sheet that is his own indictment.


The refusal in “I Looked Up From My Writing” to hide from the possibility of his own complicity in the violent, unjust process of war finds its counterpart in the sometimes withering honesty and refusal of easy consolation in Hardy's elegies. Those elegies, or poems of mourning in response to a loss, are regularly anti-elegiac. They swerve as clearly as do the war poems from identifying anything as an unalloyed basis for celebration or satisfaction. They recognize that loss is irreversible. Rather than compensating for the loss or finding satisfaction in what remains behind or in the act of writing, Hardy's modern elegies express the dimensions of the loss in surprising, unconventional ways. As in “During Wind and Rain,” those who have departed cannot be called back, but they can be recalled in an act of poetic work that, like ploughing their names with tears, honors them by reinscribing the carved names on headstones or recognizing the ambivalent meaning of flowers growing on a grave. In the process of writing his many powerfully moving elegies, Hardy rewrites the elegiac tradition by shunning one of its frequent features, the suggestion that the dead survive in some form, especially as speaking subjects or as spirits inhabiting a landscape. There can even be a grimly jocular element in the elegies, comparable to Eliot's humor about death in “Sweeney Among the Nightingales,” where the birds defecate on Agamemnon's shroud, as presumably they will on Sweeney's.

Hardy's most widely admired elegies are the twenty-one poems comprising “Poems of 1912-13,” written after the death of his wife, Emma, from whom he had been emotionally estranged for many years. Among the most arresting of the numerous elegies that Hardy wrote later are “The Figure in the Scene,” “He Prefers Her Earthly,” “The Shadow on the Stone,” and the self-elegy, “Afterwards,” in Moments of Vision (1917). These poems include a resolute refusal to accept a deluded consolation, even though at times the speaker expresses the wish that the happiness of an earlier time could be recovered. Part of what prevents that recovery is the speaker's recognition, shared with us, that there has been a double loss. In effect, the person who died was already dead to the speaker in life because of an emotional estrangement. To return the person to life is not sufficient, because doing that does not overcome the distance that separated the speaker from her even during life. The impossibility of the double recovery prevents consolation.

The comparatively brief, deceptively simple “Rain on a Grave” from “Poems of 1912-13” provides a vivid example of Hardy's revision of the elegiac tradition. The poem has been read as the beginning of recovery and consolation for the speaker that is traditional in elegiac poetry.5 In that reading, rain, as a sign of the tears that come with mourning, contributes to the vegetative cycle of growth and flowering that are frequent features of elegies. In fact, Hardy calls up those conventional elements, but he does so to transform and even transmogrify them by means of sexual implications. The rain appears to be not mournful but vengeful, in response to the dead woman's avoidance of water during life:

Clouds spout upon her
                    Their waters amain
                    In ruthless disdain,—
Her who but lately
                    Had shivered with pain
As at touch of dishonour
If there had lit on her
So coldly, so straightly
                    Such arrows of rain.

(CPW, II, p. 50)

Even without the context of Hardy's estranged relations with his dead wife, the erotic implications are evident. The diction suggests that the woman felt dishonor at being touched. This reading is especially likely because of the pun in “arrows of rain,” which sounds like “eros” of rain and evokes the penetrating of her body. Poems of a traditionally elegiac sort do not mix sexual implications and a vengeful attitude in their evocation of loss and possible consolation.

The sexual implications continue when we learn in the closing stanza that “[g]reen blades” of grass will soon grow “from her mound,” both her new grave and her mons veneris or female pubic mound, which becomes covered with hair during puberty. As did the arrows earlier, the blades indicate a violent aspect in nature rather than primarily a gentle, consoling one. The double meaning of “mound” suggests incongruously that in death the woman reaches sexual maturity. The stanza goes on to imply that through the body's decay, she will become part of the daisies on her grave and even “the sweet heart of them.” She is their sweetheart, but, as decomposed matter, she also becomes their heart or central element physically. If we read “them” with emphasis, she has finally become a sweetheart, but to them, not to the speaker, her former sweetheart.

In the poem's middle, the speaker implies that during “the prime of the year” they strayed together as lovers on sunny days and clear evenings. But this was, by implication, during the “prime” of their lives, which is long past. The rain that now falls on her grave began not at her death but much earlier. The recovery of that sunny time, the reversal of the double loss that occurred first through disaffection and then through death, is more than the poem can accomplish. Even the assertion in the final line that “All her life's round” suggests a circularity in her existence and death that is less than consoling. She has become part of the natural round of vegetative death and growth, but she is no closer to an adult human love than she was in life.

Hardy's denial of deluded consolation to the speaker in his elegies often emerges in his use of negative language that appears at times as a kind of ghost or echo of what is ostensibly being said. This generating of overtones from negative statements, related to the multiple meanings in other poems mentioned earlier, is particularly clear in “After A Journey,” one of the most ambitious and subtle of “Poems of 1912-13,” and in the slightly later “The Figure in the Scene.” Both include an implied but emphatic denial that anything remains of the person that can be portrayed as positive or present. The negativity of these poems anticipates its prominent place in Hardy's late poetry. By means of negative language suggesting absence, Hardy makes possible in surprising and vivid ways the recognition of a rich multiplicity of meanings while countering the speaker's delusions. The multiplicity, which can neither reverse the loss nor compensate for it, inhabits and expresses loss in an unusual poetic style that refuses the limits of conventional evocations of grief and relief.

“After a Journey” is a poem about repetitions with a difference, both repetitions that create something new and ones that cannot recapture a lost original. As we learn in the first line, the goal of the speaker's journey has been “to view a voiceless ghost” (CPW, II, p. 59). At the poem's end, the speaker asks to be brought “here again” in closing lines asserting that he is “just the same as when / Our days were a joy, and our paths through flowers.” In light of the poem's directions and its recurring negatives, the assertion is more a protest at the inability to achieve an unvarying, changeless repetition than a convincing statement about a satisfying visit that can be repeated.

Although much of the poem is addressed to “you,” it begins with a monologue that never turns convincingly into a dialogue with the “voiceless ghost.” This ghost without a voice is the poet's dead lover, his muse, and a version of Echo, the mythological figure most closely associated with lyric poetry's repetitive language. Representations of echo occur throughout the poem by means of internal rhymes and end rhymes. The first instance of perfect rhyming in the end rhymes, “draw me” and “awe me” (lines 2, 4), provides the kind of echoing that the mythological figure of Echo practiced. That is, the later sounds are contained wholly within the former words, which have been foreshortened. In addition, every stanza includes lines in which exact or foreshortened repetitions constitute internal rhymes: “Whither, O whither” (line 2), “Through the …, through the” (line 10), “At the then fair … in the then fair” (line 20), and “bringing me here; nay, bring me here” (line 30).

The clearest evocation of echo occurs in the second half of the third stanza, when we learn that “you are leading me on” (line 17) to places known long ago, a waterfall and its cave, “with a voice still so hollow / That it seems to call out to me from forty years ago” (lines 21-22). The language suggests both that the cave, a place of echoes, still has a hollow voice and that the addressee, “you,” has such a voice. But the voice, whether of the place or the “voiceless ghost,” only “seems” to speak. The ghost's apparent speech in the second stanza is merely what the speaker thinks it might have found to say, embedded in questions about what it would say if it could: “Summer gave us sweets, but autumn wrought division? / Things were not lastly as firstly well / With us twain, you tell?” (lines 13-15). The illusion of the ghost's speaking occurs because the interrogative “you tell?” suggests that the speaker is responding to what the ghost has actually said.

The language's double effect resembles the dual character of an echo. An overtone gives the apparently literal language another meaning. This conceptual doubling, which occurs frequently in Hardy's poetry, also informs the phrase “leading me on.” The ghost leads the speaker physically to spots they knew, but the act of this seeming voice amounts to leading him on in a figurative sense toward hopes that cannot be fulfilled. The speaker desires something that will be denied because the voice is not real.

The doubt, hesitation, and denial are evoked in the first internal repetitions, “Whither, O whither,” in the final ones, “bringing me here; nay, bring me here,” and between them. The “O” of apostrophe, which normally projects life, a voice, and a face onto something inanimate, is called up as an unactualized potential, since there is no direct address in the poem's opening. As part of a series of negatives that occur in every stanza, the “nay” (line 30) of the final stanza indicates that the speaker's wish will be denied. That denial has been predicted in the first stanza in the address to the “you” whose “coming and going” (line 8) is the fading in and out of an echo.

In that initial address, the speaker asserts that “Where you will next be there's no knowing” (line 5). Like “leading me on,” this statement has overtones that enable us to recognize that the “voiceless ghost” speaks or is addressed in the context of qualifying negations and an emptying out of the illusory presence. With the phrase “no knowing,” the first negation in the poem, the speaker indicates that he cannot predict where the ghost will be next. The same language, however, tells us what the place is. The place of “no knowing,” where consciousness, our faculty for knowing, does not function, is death. Further, “no knowing” understood as echoic language tells us what the character of that place will be. It is a place, like the one figuratively created by the poem, in which a voiceless, echo-like sound occurs as the exact repetition of sound in “no knowing.” The ghost will be “no-noing,” that is, saying, in an echoic voice of denial, “no, no.” Denial may also have been the ghost's habit during life. The poem both emerges from and tends toward this “no-noing,” the undoing of apostrophe through a negation that turns “O” into the “no,” “not,” and “nay” of each stanza. The “O” that leads the speaker on in the third stanza, manifested by “mistbow shone,” “so hollow,” “ago,” “aglow,” and “follow,” in an insistent sequence of repetitions, leads in this poem's implications ultimately to the place of “no knowing,” not to a place of consolation.

Hardy plays on “no” and “know” in an equally memorable but more condensed way in the final lines of “The Figure in the Scene,” which exemplify his firm refusal of the consolations that elegies frequently offer:

Yet her rainy form is the Genius still of the spot,
                    Immutable, yea,
Though the place now knows her no more, and has known her not
                    Ever since that day.

(CPW, II, p. 217)

The day in question is one in which the speaker sketched his female companion during rain that left “blots engrained” on the sketch. The poem's closing has sometimes been misread to mean, in a conventionally elegiac way, that the woman has become a genius loci or permanent, undying spirit of the place or spot.6 But by “spot” Hardy means not only or primarily the place but the “blots” on the paper. By “still” he suggests not only or primarily her continuing presence but her stillness in death. By “Immutable” he indicates not that she is undying but that the spots of which she is the “Genius” or inspiration cannot be removed, any more than the effects of death can be reversed by elegiac poetry. What the place “knows” “more” “now” is her “no,” the negation that she insistently represents. What it “has known” since the day she left is “her not.” Hardy's refusal of elegy's potential delusions in “The Figure in the Scene” rejects resolutely and absolutely elements central to nineteenth-century conventions of elegiac poetry.


The poems that Hardy published or prepared for publication during the last decade of his life are too numerous and heterogenous to enable comprehensive description. Many of them do, however, continue and elaborate elements we have already seen, including doubled perspectives and negative language. The doubling at times proliferates into multiple views and at times attains the status of an anti-self, while the negative language resists delusions and refuses conventional expectations.

The multiplying of views or selves is reminiscent of what D. H. Lawrence called the allotropic form of his fictional characters, their tendency to change state, as carbon does from coal to diamond. In “So Various,” from his last volume, Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres (1928), Hardy presents in thirteen five-line stanzas thirteen versions of himself, twelve versions as apparently distinct individuals and a thirteenth that encompasses them all:

Now … All these specimens of man,
So various in their pith and plan,
                    Curious to say
                    Were one man. Yea,
                    I was all they.

(CPW, III, p. 208, lines 61-65)

As Yeats says, the artist “will play with all masks.”7 The multiple views of reality recall Wallace Stevens's “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” except that Hardy's subject and object are himself. The stanzaic form, with two longer lines that rhyme followed by three shorter lines that rhyme, suggests an internal division or a combination of opposites, in a way that resembles Hardy's formal reflection of doubling, or being twain, in earlier poems, including “The Convergence of the Twain.”

The combination of opposites and multiplying of selves and voices occurs as well in “Voices from Things Growing in a Churchyard” (CPW, II, pp. 395-97), from Late Lyrics and Earlier (1922), but with an emphasis on echoic language and mortality that include the poetic speaker and the reader. In the final stanza, the dead who have spoken breathe as “maskers” (line 49) to those who linger, both the speaker and the reader. As “maskers,” they are dancers in the dance of death, in which all participate, and they are personae, or masks, that a poetic speaker wears. Their “lively speech” (line 51), the language of the dead, is “murmurous” (line 53), or echoic, as in the rhymes of the refrain, “cheerily” and “eerily,” which define the world's dual but conjoined character as night and day.

To learn from the dead and to take on their murmurous, echoic language as one's own refrain, as the speaker does in the final stanza of “Voices,” is to become an anti-self, image, or mask in the sense that Yeats means those terms when he uses them in his autobiographical writings and elsewhere. For Yeats, to grasp one's anti-self is to achieve “the state of mind, which is of all states of mind not impossible, the most difficult to that man, race, or nation” (Yeats, Autobiography, p. 132). It is the moment at which the poet becomes “the opposite” of all that the poet is in “daily life” (p. 184). This moment, in which a form of freedom is attained, is part of poetic creation for Yeats, when he wears various masks, including that of “a mad old woman” on the Dublin quays (p. 359). Hardy evokes and achieves this state of being his own opposite in his late poetry when he adopts the voices of the dead.

Like Yeats, Hardy achieves the anti-self by taking on the voice of a woman who, as does Yeats's Crazy Jane, speaks independently of and against her male antagonists. In becoming the dead woman who speaks, Hardy anticipates poems by Seamus Heaney, including “Bog Queen” and “Punishment.” In “Not Only I,” from Human Shows: Far Phantasies: Songs, and Trifles (1925), by taking on the mask of a dead woman Hardy's speaker expresses a multiple status in which the male poet becomes a she who is both “I” and “‘Not only I.’” She says that “Not only I / Am doomed awhile to lie” (CPW, III, p. 101) in the grave because she has with her a multitude of attitudes, thoughts, and memories that are not quite “I” in any determinate sense. But her statement means as well that she is not the only one destined for the grave, since all of us die and “lie” in both senses of lying. She differs from those who remain behind, for her lying includes the poetic swerving from literal truth that makes the poem's words those of a woman who speaks from the grave. The poem achieves an ostensibly impossible feat, for the dead speaker expresses what those who have outlived her think: “‘Here moulders till Doom's-dawn / A Woman's skeleton’” (lines 29-30). In defiance of this reductive view the poem's rhetoric asserts the persistence and the importance of all that is “[s]trange” and “unrecorded,” “[l]ost” and “disregarded,” by recording, preserving, regarding, and preferring its strangeness.

Equally strange are the poems in which the speaker's voice or one of the speaker's voices falls silent. This occurs in “Surview,” the closing poem of Late Lyrics and Earlier, when the speaker recounts how his “own voice,” whose language is printed in italics, talked to him in an accusatory way until “my voice ceased talking to me” (CPW, II, p. 485). The situation recalls both “Wessex Heights” and “I Looked Up From My Writing.” The poem that follows from and memorializes speech's cessation within the divided self evokes the uncanny, echoic effect of a falling silent resulting in a poetic speaking that continues the now silent voice by respeaking its words. This falling silent that we learn of through the strange continuation of its textual reflection and result anticipates the self-correcting, contradictory style and the tendencies toward silence in the much later work of Samuel Beckett.

Hardy achieves a culminating paradoxical effect in the closing poem of his oeuvre, “He Resolves To Say No More.” Because of the formal resemblance of its five-line stanza to “So Various,” this concluding poem extends the earlier one while also bringing it to closure. The poet who was so various now enjoins his soul in an apostrophe to be silent: “O my soul, keep the rest unknown!” (CPW, III, p. 274). He will not reveal the remainder, but he also refuses to know what rest is; his grave will be unquiet. By asserting that he chooses silence, the poet speaks as though he could control what he apparently could not earlier in “Surview,” his voice's ceasing to speak to him, and what he absolutely cannot control as he faces death, the loss of speech. Hardy's use of apostrophe to enjoin silence boldly transforms a trope that traditionally implies the ability to speak. Hardy also links the affirmative “Yea” with “none” at the end of the first stanza, and thereafter negative statements reiterate that “What I have learnt no man shall know.”

By shifting from “O” to “no” and to “know” Hardy achieves a final reversal of apostrophe's usual effects in a way that enables us to understand the poem's title, in the manner of Beckett's late style, as both so various and a falling silent. As Beckett writes in Worstward Ho, “Enough to know no knowing … No saying. No saying what it all is they somehow say.”8 Hardy reaches the place of “no knowing” and no-noing from “After a Journey,” where we know he always will next be. While he ostensibly chooses and accomplishes his fate, the silence of death, which he cannot avoid, he tells us in absolute terms that (like Joyce's Stephen Dedalus) he refuses to serve. Hardy resolves not only to say nothing but to say “no” more, to resist conforming even more frequently and more strenuously than before. He responds to pressures of society and mortality with a resisting, exclamatory statement, “no more,” insisting that the pressures must stop. Through its multiple meanings, his style enjoins and enables us to know more when by attending to this poet's no-noing, in which he manages both to fall silent and continue, we become the strange continuators of his still but still stirring, echoing voice.


  1. The classic discussion of the difficulty in defining Romanticism is Arthur O. Lovejoy's “On the Discrimination of Romanticisms” (PMLA, 29 [1924], 229-53), rpt. in his Essays in the History of Ideas (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1948), pp. 228-53.

  2. A prominent instance of amphiboly in a modernist poem is Yeats's use of “from” in the final line of “Among School Children.” In the second episode of Ulysses, Joyce uses subjective and objective genitive, and identifies it grammatically as such, in the phrase “Amor matris,” meaning both the child's love for the mother and the mother's love for the child.

  3. Harold Bloom, A Map of Misreading (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 21.

  4. See the “Postscript” to Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), pp. 479-89.

  5. See the interpretive headnote to “Rain on a Grave” by Tim Armstrong, ed., Thomas Hardy: Selected Poems (London and New York: Longman, 1993), p. 157.

  6. This is the reading that Jahan Ramazani holds to in Poetry of Mourning: The Modern Elegy from Hardy to Heaney (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1994), pp. 62-63.

  7. W. B. Yeats, The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats (New York: Collier, 1965), p. 318.

  8. Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho (London: John Calder, 1983), p. 30.

Further Reading

Bailey, J. O. The Poetry of Thomas Hardy: A Handbook and Commentary. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970.

Bayley, John. An Essay on Hardy. London: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Brodsky, Joseph. “Wooing the Inanimate: Four Poems by Thomas Hardy.” On Grief and Reason: Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1995, pp. 312-75.

Buckler, W. E. The Poetry of Thomas Hardy: A Study in Art and Ideas. New York: New York University Press, 1983.

Christ, Carol T. Victorian and Modern Poetics. University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Clements, Patricia and Juliet Grindle, eds. The Poetry of Thomas Hardy. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1980.

Davie, Donald. Thomas Hardy and British Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Hynes, Samuel. The Pattern of Hardy's Poetry. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press; London: Oxford University Press, 1961.

Larkin, Philip. Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces, 1955-1982. London and Boston: Faber & Faber, 1983.

Lucas, John. Modern English Poetry from Hardy to Hughes: A Critical Survey. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1986.

Mahar, Margaret. “Hardy's Poetry of Renunciation.” ELH, 45 (1978), 303-24.

Marsden, Kenneth. The Poems of Thomas Hardy: A Critical Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Miller, J. Hillis. The Linguistic Moment: From Wordsworth to Stevens. Princeton University Press, 1985.

Tropes, Parables, Performatives: Essays on Twentieth-Century Literature. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991.

Morgan, William W. “Form, Tradition, and Consolation in Hardy's ‘Poems of 1912-13.’” PMLA, 89 (1974), 496-505.

Murfin, Ross. Swinburne, Hardy, Lawrence, and the Burden of Belief. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

“Moments of Vision: Hardy's ‘Poems of 1912-13.’” Victorian Poetry, 20 (1982), 73-84.

Orel, Harold, ed. Critical Essays on Thomas Hardy's Poetry. New York: G. K. Hall, 1995.

Paulin, Tom. Thomas Hardy: The Poetry of Perception. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1975.

Pinion, F. B. A Commentary on the Poems of Thomas Hardy. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1976.

Sacks, Peter. The English Elegy: Studies in the Genre from Spenser to Yeats. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.

Taylor, Dennis. Hardy's Poetry, 1860-1928. New York: Columbia University Press; London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1981. 2nd edn., Macmillan, 1989.

Zeitlow, Paul. Moments of Vision: The Poetry of Thomas Hardy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974.

Louise Dauner (essay date fall 2000)

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SOURCE: Dauner, Louise. “Thomas Hardy, Yet and Again.” Modern Age 42, no. 4 (fall 2000): 358-71.

[In the following essay, Dauner discusses Hardy's poetry, with emphasis on the poet's capacity for lyrical expression of universal emotions.]

Five minutes before he died, Thomas Hardy posed his last question to the universe. “What is this?” He had been asking it for most of his 88 years. It epitomizes his lifelong intellectual and spiritual efforts to understand “Life with the sad seared face.”1 The question, with its many variations, like a revolving mirror trained on the human predicament, is treated in his many prose works (14 novels, numerous short stories, essays, and sketches), in his over 800 short lyrics, and in the massive three-part verse drama, The Dynasts. The “answers” that Hardy worked out did not make him happy. Indeed, his naturalism, with its bleak philosophy, exposed him to negative, often harsh criticism until nearly the end of his life.

Nevertheless, his death, on January 12, 1928, was an international news event. British literature, said the London Times, had been deprived of its “most eminent figure”—a sentiment echoed worldwide. The burial in Westminster Abbey of the ashes of the country boy from the poor county of Dorset was a national rite. The Abbey was crowded with the famous in politics, the arts, education, and society, while crowds waited in pouring rain to file past the open grave in Poet's Corner. He was the first novelist to be buried there since Dickens, in 1870, and the first poet since Tennyson, in 1892. Leading the list of the distinguished participants were the Heads of Magdalene and Queens Colleges, of Cambridge and Oxford, of which Hardy was an Honorary Fellow, and the pallbearers included Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, leader of the Opposition, and six of the most eminent men of letters of the day. Simultaneously, in a “divided funeral,” in Stinsford Churchyard, at Hunsford, where Hardy's grandparents, parents, and first wife, Emma, were buried, Hardy's heart was returned to his native earth.2

For by then, though he was one of the most controversial writers of his time, this gentle, soft-voiced, self-effacing little man was the acknowledged master of the English novel in his age. He had also become an astounding poet. Born in 1840, he is the third Victorian poet with Browning and Tennyson. And now, in comparison, he seems more comprehensive, more dynamic, technically more original and ingenious, and philosophically more uncompromising.

Hardy's poetry suggests an eclectic landscape, with several varieties of “plants” growing out of differing kinds of soil. First, there was his rural heritage, his detailed knowledge of the flora and fauna of the countryside, its dialect and rustic characters. That gave him not only an authentic voice, but such a keen knowledge of nature that, for example, he was able to identify by their calls not only many species of birds but also their characteristic environs. Then, exceptionally sensitive to music, both instrumental and vocal, he early became an amateur violinist, often accompanying his stone-mason father, Thomas, also a violinist, as a second fiddler at weddings, dances, and other rural occasions. That gave him a sense of rhythm and meter, in poetry. From the age of fifteen, and for a number of years thereafter, he studied and practiced architecture, repairing Gothic churches, an interest he maintained during his life. That gave him a sense of design and structure. At the same time, he was sketching and painting in watercolor. That made him aware of visual patterns and tone color. Meanwhile, financially unable to attend Cambridge, a dream he held for many years, he educated himself, reading in the Greek and Roman classics, English and French literature, and philosophy. Moving to London in 1861, he had access to great paintings, music, and the theater. During these years, he often read in his room from six o'clock in the evening until midnight. In a touching gesture, a few hours after his death the scarlet robe of his honorary D. Litt. from Cambridge (1913) was fitted over his nightshirt. His favorite Spirit of Irony, of which he was the most eloquent voice of his age, must have smiled.

The year 1998 marked the centennial of the publication of Hardy's first volume of verse, Wessex Poems and Other Verses. Hardy's poetic career covered the second half of his life, from the 1890s, when he abandoned fiction, following his critical bludgeoning after the publication of Tess [Tess of the d'Urbervilles] (1891) and Jude [Jude the Obscure] (1895), to his death. But for many years he had been studying poetry—Greek, Latin, French, and English poetics—and he had already published a few poems. His often-printed “Hap” dates from 1866 when he was 26.3 Here, with a note of unmerited suffering, he complains, like Job, on the source of his pain. We have here an early suggestion of Hardy's concept of an indifferent cosmos and an uncaring Primal Cause. Life, it seems, is a matter of blind Chance:

… How arrives its joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever
Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a
          moan. …
These purblind Doomsters had as readily
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain. …(4)

Hardy's basic philosophy only grew darker with the years. And though he lived to see the end of World War I, the so-called Jazz Age, and especially the changes in subject-matter, style, and technique in poetry, under the aegis of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot and their followers, and the French Symbolists, Hardy's poetry did not change in content or form. He remained consistent with his own individuality.

Critical responses to his Wessex Poems were mixed, ranging from somewhat favorable to puzzlement to harshly negative. “What induces Hardy to commit himself to verse?” exclaimed Meredith. The Saturday Review noted “this curious and wearisome volume, these many slovenly, slipshod, uncouth verses, stilted in sentiment, poorly conceived, and worse wrought. … It is impossible to understand why the bulk of this volume was published at all.” A more sympathetic critic, Lionel Johnson, who had already written on an early Hardy novel, noted “the arresting, strenuous, sometimes admirable poems,” but regretted their “almost uniform grimness and absence of Humour.”5 Hardy himself complained not of the critics' unkindnesses, but that their comments had shown “such depths of imperceptivity.”6

But there were some alleviating comments. Although reviews tended to focus upon the technique of the poetry rather than the content, one reviewer complaining of “the unmusical expression,” another found “little to please the ear, but much to please the mind that is capable of the charm of melancholy.” One reviewer wrote in The Bookman that Hardy was “essentially a poet. … What justifies Mr. Hardy's verse to the full is his gift of a peculiar intensity of expression which could hardly find legitimate use in prose.” And even reviewers disturbed by Hardy's pessimism found the poems “challenging.” The Athenaeum found that Hardy's poems “voiced a matured and deliberate judgment of life.”7

Of course the repeated note on Hardy's pessimism resonated again. Hardy rejected the term, insisting that he was only “a harmless agnostic” or, as he called himself, an “evolutionary meliorist,” implying a hope that as human intelligence and conscience developed, conditions in the world must improve. In an interview in January 1901 he said, “My practical philosophy is distinctly meliorist. What are my books but a plea against man's inhumanity to man—to woman—and to the lower animals?” As Michael Millgate observes

Fundamentally pessimistic about the human condition, in the sense that he believed birth and coming to consciousness to be a kind of original doom, Hardy could nevertheless respond with compassion to human and animal suffering, and bring a reformist zeal to bear upon evils perceived as social and hence as potentially susceptible to amelioration or even eradication. … Abstractly, theoretically, generally, he could only see an incomprehensible and probably meaningless universe; concretely, practically, specifically he cared deeply about the human condition, perceived value in individual lives, supported humanitarian causes, and thought that things could and indeed did get better.8

The opening poem of Hardy's first volume, “The Temporary The All,” is typically Hardian, with “the dense stresses, the strict yet unfamiliar forms, the inverted syntax, the archaisms and odd coinages.”9 But we may find two other surprising aspects. First, there is a link to the complex, often inverted, jammed-up, oddly-worded poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889). Contemporary with Hardy, Hopkins's poems were not published until 1918, ten years before Hardy's death; and Hardy's first volume of poetry was published nine years after Hopkins's death. Of course, spiritually they were widely disjunct: Hardy, the agnostic, and Hopkins, the anguished Jesuit priest. But the stylistic echoes are intriguing. Another bit of shadow-casting links Hardy and Robert Frost. Both are acute depicters of nature and human nature, and of a specific locale—Hardy, of the “Wessex” country of south-western England (the country around Dorchester), and Frost, of New England.

But more important is the fact that both poets profit aesthetically from being read aloud. In Hardy's poems, the oral tradition is especially evident. He grew up with gifted narrators in his family, with their stores of local legends and country sayings. He was “probably England's last and greatest product of the oral tradition.”10 In the style of oral rendering, Hardy often uses ballad-measures, narratives of love betrayed or lost, and folk legends. Further, the poems of both Hardy and Frost frequently contain rough metrical lines or passages, that create a bumpy effect. When such lines are read aloud, however, the metrical roughness easily absorbs into the natural stresses and pauses of a conversational tone—a principle Frost was later to describe as “the sound of sense.” Hardy may or may not have known the poetry of Hopkins. Frost did know Hardy's work, once commenting, in another context, that “Hardy has planted himself upon the wrongs that can't be righted.”11

Hardy's second volume of poetry, Poems of the Past and Present (1901), received generally more positive reviews. In his Preface to this volume, anticipating criticism about “a lack of cohesion and thought or harmony of coloring,” he wrote, “I do not greatly regret this. Unadjusted impressions have their value, and the road to a true philosophy of life seems to me to lie in humbly recording diverse readings of phenomena as they are forced upon us by time and chance.”12 There is much essential Hardy here, particularly in the shaping and often fateful forces of Coincidence and Time.

So, for nearly thirty years Hardy wrote poetry: love poems and narratives, dramatic monologues and dialogues, occasional poems, and philosophical and theological speculations. The Dynasts, his epical three-part verse drama of the Napoleonic Wars, first conceived in 1875, was completed in 1908. It entailed reading history and military history, plus invoking family and regional legends, as well as contacts with old men who had lived through some of the campaigns. Never intended for stage production, parts of The Dynasts have nevertheless been staged. Hardy had planned to publish his last poems, Winter Words, on his ninetieth birthday. It was posthumously published in 1928 by his second wife, Florence, who noted that even in his old age she had seen no decrease in his poetic powers.

The inner and outer freedoms of Hardy's poems, plus tonal and stylistic links to such poets as Hopkins and Frost, suggest this poetry is definitely pre-modern. Increasingly a significant presence, since the 1970s and notably in the last fifteen years, Hardy's work has engaged fulsome and various literary scholarship. There are new biographies and interpretive volumes. Critics of diverse stances have discovered unsuspected depths and dimensions. Exponents of structuralism, post-structuralism, and semiotics have offered new insights.13 Detailed studies have focused upon Hardy's repetitions; on his use of prosopoeia; the “gaps” in time and perspective in the poems. And literary psychologists have invoked Freud in discussing the Poems of 1912-1913, the 21-poem elegiac sequence written after the death of his first wife, Emma, in 1912.

Nor should we forget the recent emergence of Hardy novels on television, responding to Hardy's powerful and characteristic dramatic impulse. We have seen stagings of The Mayor of Casterbridge,Jude the Obscure,Far From The Madding Crowd, and Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Several versions of several novels, some of which Hardy himself adapted for the stage, were produced in London and Dorchester during his lifetime; and in the twenties a proposal to publish all of the novels as dramas was seriously considered.

I wish now to consider six poems, suggestive of Hardy's poetic art and of various states of mind and heart, youthful and aged. I am primarily concerned here not with contemporary technical exegesis, but with the poems as they show Hardy's capacities for lyrical expression, and as they document particular situations and emotions that become universally moving.

Hardy was one of the most autobiographical of poets. For years he carried pocket notebooks in which he recorded acute observations of natural scenes, rural characters and events, animals, ideas for poems, moods and moments of the human drama. Anything might become the basis for a poem; and judging from the massive corpus of his Collected Poems, nearly anything did. Often the poems were specifically dated—day, month, or year. But since many of them suggest a kind of inherited “peasant caution,” background information is sometimes necessary. “When I Set Out For Lyonesse” profits from such knowledge.

In 1870, Hardy was assigned by his employer, an ecclesiastical architect, to design the re-building of an old church at St. Joliet, a tiny hamlet in Cornwall, near the fabled Lyonesse, known in Celtic mythology as the birthplace of Tristram. Immediately, we have a highly appropriate and romantic setting. Calling on the rector of the old church, he was met by the rector's sister-in-law, Emma Lavinia Gifford, a niece of the Archdeacon of London. It was a fateful meeting, for it involved the following 42 years of their lives. Hardy's visit lasted four days; their marriage, in 1874, lasted 38 years.


When I set out for Lyonesse
                    A hundred miles away,
The rime was on the spray,
                    And starlight lit my lonesomeness
When I set out for Lyonesse
                    A hundred miles away.
What would bechance at Lyonesse
                    While I should sojourn there
                    No prophet durst declare,
Nor did the wisest wizard guess
What would bechance at Lyonesse
                    While I should sojourn there.
When I came back from Lyonesse
                    With magic in my eyes,
All marked with mute surmise,
My radiance rare and fathomless,
When I came back from Lyonesse
                    With magic in my eyes!(14)

This poem records a journey, a departure and a return. It is also a record of a transforming experience. The “lightness” alone contrasts sharply with the deep and permanent significance of the event. The first stanza gives a nighttime departure, in a mood of characteristic “Hardian loneliness.” In the second stanza, we feel a mysterious immanence. In the third stanza, a transformation has occurred. But we did not see it. It has happened between the second and third verses—an example of one of Hardy's “gaps”—a shift in time or perspective, here, from loneliness to “rapture,” and from past to present. This poem “feels” as though the opening two lines came “ready-made,” out of an intense emotion. The development needed only to follow the given direction.

The form is a Hardy “original.” The basic ballad-form is individualized in both rhyme and metrical patterns. In each stanza, the first and fifth, and the second and sixth lines are identical. This both emphasizes the opening line, and also forms a “frame” for the inner lines that tell the “story.” And the repetition enhances the overall lyrical effect. The lyricism is increased by the phoneme “s” which ends 12 of the 18 lines of the poem. The melodic word “Lyonesse” gives the initial pattern, which Hardy intuitively followed. I say “intuitively,” because we have here an interesting example of “sound symbolism” or articulatory gesture,15 in which the movement of the speech organs echoes or imitates or reproduces a quality or characteristic or feature of the referend. Here, the referend is a journey, which embodies movement. “S” is a fricative, like “f” or “v,” and here the movement aspect of the letter “s” underlines the basic fact of the poem, namely, movement. The total effect of all the elements here makes this one of Hardy's most graceful, and charming love lyrics. Hardy did have “magic in his eyes,” because he had fallen deeply in love with Emma.

But, alas, romance does not always last. Our second poem, “The Walk,” written 42 years later, belongs to the 21-poem sequence, Poems of 1912-1913, which Hardy began only a few weeks after Emma's death. Responses to this group move from “some of the most unconventional and impressive elegies in English,” to “one of the best three series of love poems in English,” to “some of the finest love poetry in our language.”16 In contrast, however, a fulsome amount of Freudian interpretation suggests that in these poems Hardy expiates years of neglect and indifference to Emma, his self-reproach being intensified on reading her diaries of 20 years, in which she complained bitterly of his indifference. This theme is critically expanded into indifference, neglect, anger, guilt, self-reproach.

Probably there is much to be said on both sides. Hardy was determined to do his writing, and artists are not the most easy people to live with. Emma had literary aspirations of her own, wrote some essays and poems, and often assisted Hardy with his manuscripts. She resented his growing fame, and her own subordination. Also, there were several women to whom Hardy was attracted, and whose literary aspirations he encouraged and assisted. One of these was Florence Dugdale, first his secretary, and later, his second wife, whom he married in 1914, and who published the Life [The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy] (1928-1930) and Winter Words (1928). All of this, then, the bitter sense of a failed marriage which had begun so rosily, inspired the Emma-sequence. Altogether, over the years, Hardy wrote more than 100 elegies for Emma, memorializing his courtship and idealizing the early relationship.


You did not walk with me
Of late to the hill-top tree
          By the gated ways,
          As in earlier days;
          You were weak and lame.
          So you never came,
And I went alone, and I did not mind,
Not thinking of you as left behind.
I walked up there to-day
Just in the former way;
          Surveyed around
          The familiar ground
          By myself again;
          What difference, then?
Only that underlying sense
Of the look of a room on returning

“The Walk” seems not to have attracted much attention. It is short and poignant, and lacks the dramatic “anger” or “self-reproach” now so often read into other poems in the sequence. Between the stanzas we sense the frequent time-shift from past to present. The poet recalls that often in the evening he and Emma had walked a spiral path from the end of the garden to a “hilltop tree.” Later, for physical reasons, his companion did not accompany him; but he “did not mind,” having still the sense of her presence. In the second stanza, now a present moment, he walks again the familiar path. Nothing has changed. “What difference, then?” he asks.

Only that underlying sense
Of the look of a room on returning thence.

It does not take Freud to define the peculiar impact of this brief poem. But this poem is not for everyone. It is only for one who has known that painful moment of entering a place haunted by the sense of a beloved personality, now lost. There is a moment of starkness. One does not want to enter. It is as simple as that. As simple as the difference between Life and Death.

In keeping with the situation, the diction is flat, prosaic, with the colloquial, “I did not mind.” In 1914, Lytton Strachey commented on “the flat undistinguished poetry of Mr. Hardy,” but added, “Hardy has found out the secret of touching our marrow-bone.”18 This is another example of Hardy's intuitive power.

The visual pattern of the poem is created by its varied metrics, the first two lines being trimeter, the next four, dimeter, and the last two, tetrameter. With his keen structural sensitivity, enhanced by his architectural experience, Hardy designed his poems for the eye as well as for the ear. Further, I suggest that this rhythmical variation may have been an instinctive response to the physical situation. The walk covered a slightly uphill path. The varied meters may reflect the physical “pull” as the walker adapted to the varying levels. And the ground is “familiar”—physical and psychic. He has done it all before. But the sting is in the last two lines. This poem is a special kind of human document, for a special kind of reader.

Hardy has a genius for last lines. We see it repeatedly, as in our next poem, “The Oxen”:

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They knelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come, see the oxen kneel
“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb,(19)
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.(20)

This poem is dated 1915, when Hardy was 75. Its four stanzas carry the poet back to the lost certainties of childhood and youth. Each half of two stanzas marks a time period: past and present. The first half presents a rural meeting on Christmas Eve, a group gathered in a “flock,” recalling a folk belief of cattle kneeling at midnight. The second half contrasts this fair fancy,” which no one there doubted, with “these years,” a twentieth-century world now in the second year of World War I. The poem conveys a sense of newfound wistfulness, and regret.

For, arriving in London, in 1861, at the beginning of the turbulent 1860s, Hardy had gradually lost his youthful religious faith. Traditionalism was under various assaults; from Darwinism, the scientism and agnosticism of T. H. Huxley, the agnostic oratory of Robert Ingersoll, the Oxford Movement, especially the voice of the future Cardinal Newman, and Liberalism, the “Higher Criticism,” lately arrived from Europe. Plunged into this ideational vortex, Hardy, like many English intellectuals such as Matthew Arnold, whom he knew and whose influence he noted, was unable to maintain his early beliefs. He continued, however, to respond to the music and rituals of religious service, which answered both his emotional and his aesthetic needs, and which had given direction to his early social ambition, when his dream was to be a parson. Indeed, he once amazed a group of both Christians and agnostics, when he shyly admitted to being a believing communicant of the Church of England.21 This apparent inconsistency is really a matter of different levels of intellectual and emotional involvements. Millgate notes that much of Hardy's best work “emerged directly from the juxtaposition of deeply traditional attitudes and intensely localized country lore, with an emotional susceptibility to the music and ritual of the Church of England, and a subsequent intellectual acceptance of some of the more radical and skeptical trends in late nineteenth-century thought. Remarkably, these influences did not supersede each other, but co-existed.”22

The appropriate ballad form, with its lyrical rhymes and meters, makes this poem especially touching. But there are some significant metrical variations in which the basic iambic pattern becomes trochaic: as in “Christmas Eve,” “Now,” in the second line, “in these years” in the third stanza, followed by a caesural pause. “Yet” another heavy accent, “Come, see,” both accented, and the last line, “Hoping.” The heavily accented words are all keywords. “Might,” the subjunctive verb, emphasizes the contrary-to-fact impulse of the poem. We are left with the sad knowledge that this lovely folk-belief is indeed a “fairy tale.” The diction is appropriately simple, most of the words being of one syllable, with the dialectical “barton” and “coomb.” “Gloom” is metaphoric, suggesting both the darkness of midnight and the poet's aging spirit. The integration of all the elements—situation, form, diction, theme, metrics, and tone—makes this one of Hardy's memorable poems.

For a change of key, here is “Starlings on the Roof”:

“No smoke spreads out of this chimney-pot,
The people who lived here have left the
And others are coming who knew them
          not. …
“If you listen anon, with an ear intent,
The voices, you'll find, will be different
From the well-known ones of those who
“Why did they go? Their tones so bland
Were quite familiar to our band;
The comers we shall not understand.”
“They look for a new life, rich and strange;
They do not know that, let them range
Wherever they may, they will get no change.
“They will drag their house-gear ever so far
In their search for a home no miseries mar;
They will find that as they were they are,
“That every hearth has a ghost, alack,
And can be but the scene of a bivouac
Till they move their last—no care to pack!”(23)

This is an avian dialogue that may remind us of an Aesop's fable in the bird's comment on a perennially foolish humanity. The theme, a domestic “moving,” notes an empty house, the occupants having left in hope of bettering their situation. “Why did they go?” asks the second bird. The first three stanzas simply offer casual comment. But with the fourth stanza an ominous note develops. “Seeking a new life,” answers the first bird. But, he continues, wherever they go, “They will get no change,” nor will they find a home with “no miseries,” until their final move. There can be no real change for the movers, for they must take themselves with them. The “answers” are uttered with a flat calmness, the fatalistic equations brooking neither addition nor subtraction. It is not a comforting observation.

We must not overlook the poem's title. It is starlings that sit on the roof and make their sardonic comments. Hardy knows his birds. It is not robins, or mourning doves, or some other species of quite friendly birds. Starlings are chatty, noisy, greedy, aggressive. They are well cast here as doom-sayers. This poem could appear in a collection of Frost's poems. Both Frost and Hardy are fond of conversational, philosophical birds, and both can make their birds suggest doom-like implications.

We continue with a darkly contrasting “bird poem,” possibly the most anthologized Hardy poem. Originally titled “By the Century's Deathbed,” it is known and loved as “The Darkling Thrush,” and even our cursory sampling must include it. The poem is dated December 31, 1900, and marks the hour of transition from the nineteenth century to the twentieth. Perhaps it may hold special meaning now as we enter a new millennium.

The poet, presumably on a walk, leans upon a coppice (a small wood) gate, from which he records a desolate winter scene: a generally deathlike aspect. The frost is “spectre”-like, the “dregs” of winter in the “darkling” (deepening) twilight increase the sense of desolation, and local “haunters” have retreated to fireside warmth. All aspects, “the sharp features” of the landscape, combine to suggest the century's “corpse”; the sky its “crypt” and the wind is “death-lament.” The remains of vegetation, the “ancient pulse of germ and birth” is “shrunken hard and dry,” and Hardy (now at the age of 60), identifies in spirit with the depressive scene.

I leant upon a coppice gate
          When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
          The weakening eye of day,
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
          Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
          Had sought their household fires.
The land's sharp features seemed to be
          The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
          The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
          Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
          Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
          The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
          Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
          In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
          Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
          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 blessed Hope, whereof he knew
          And I was unaware.(24)

The poem is divided into two equal halves, the first presenting the winter scene. But the second half moves us from Death to Life. And now comes the wonderful third stanza. It marks a triple “transposition” into a different key, like moving from a minor to a major mode. First, the plane of action rises from ground-level to “overhead”; second, the poet's vision moves from eyes to ears; third, we sense at least a suggestion of a “lightening” of the poet's spirit from his “fervourless” state. What has happened? From above, in the “bleak twigs” comes

… a full-hearted even-song
                    Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
                    In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
                    Upon the growing gloom.

This bird—not a starling—is a thrush, a bird with a particularly clear, sweet, liquid song. This is an old bird; and he is having a hard time. The physical details are pictorial: Not only is he markedly frail, but the sharp wind has ruffled his feathers, and we can almost see the tail-feathers blown nearly inside-out by the sharp blast. The contrast between his appearance and his song is noteworthy. How can that song project such joy into this “growing gloom”? The poet can see no reason for such brightness “on terrestrial things,” or near or far. But now he touches on “some blessed Hope,” “whereof he knew / And I was unaware.”

Hardy is suggesting here that the bird, through its natural wisdom, brings comfort and relief from the present desolation which the poet himself, with all his obsession for knowledge, has so far not discovered. The thrush not only sings; he “flings his soul” upon this desolate world. He takes his place here like a small, death-defying soldier, confronting, with his sacred essence, an implacable death-dealing universe. Hardy would have known that for ages a bird has been a symbol for the soul. Here the bird seems illumined by a ray of special grace which throws Life against the Death-aura of the scene. As we feel the literal upsurge of the situation, I think we may regard this poem as one of the “permanent things” in the repertory of English poetry.

The ballad-like form is metrically flawless in its tetrameter/trimeter progression, with but one exception:

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small

The first two feet and the last are perfect lambs. But in the third foot, “frail” and “gaunt,” each syllable is heavily accented, and further, each is set off by a caesura. This double emphasis heightens the contrast between the frail old bird and his life-giving message. We should also note that the marked regularity of the poem's movement is unusual for Hardy, who did not like too much “smoothness” in lines. But his basic response to experience is emotional (usually quickly moved to a rational level) and here the “gloom-to-joy” progression and the climactic song underlie the lyrical effect. The integration of all the elements—the subject, theme, the singable ballad-measure, the metaphors, gloom to joy, and death to hope—makes this a favored Hardy poem.

The characteristic “gloom,” however, leads us now to Hardy's theological-philosophical poems of questioning and speculation. Hardy is not a philosopher. He is a poet. His speculative knowledge, based in his wide but not strictly organized reading, his supersensitive responses to experience, his intuitive powers, his deep compassion for human and animal suffering, his romantic temperament, and his keen social conscience contribute to his special genius, and to his basic attitude toward life and the universe. He was continually trying to explain to himself the mystery of the origin of Evil in its variety, and getting no answer except in his sense of a dark universe, created by some Primal Cause and then left to run itself, at the mercy of Time and Chance, exerting untold woes on sentient life. He had differing names for his Primal power: “It,” the Prime Mover, the Immanent Will, Nature, the Spinner of the Years, the Absolute, the Causer, God.

There is considerable variety in these poems, a variety that suggests aspects of Hardy's view of existence. Some, especially those of his last years, such as “The Absolute Answers,” are long, 16 or 18 stanzas. Sometimes they are dialogues between the speaker (the poet) and Deity, who may answer in a voice that somewhat suggests the God who speaks to Man in Genesis. (Hardy had read the Bible through more than once, and he frequently annotated texts or passages, upon which later poems were based.) By the middle of his twenties, he had already established a kind of philosophical home base which did not essentially change over the years, except, perhaps, to darken. Most of these poems are too long for presentation here, but we can do quite well with a few sample quotations. Perhaps it is important to note that sometimes Hardy called these intellectual excursions “Phantasies,” which gives them a sort of fable-quality.

In the early “Nature's Questioning,” the poet perceives various aspects of Nature—“Field, flock, and lonely tree,” sadly asking “why we find us here.”

“Has some Vast Imbecility
          Mighty to build and blend,
          But impotent to tend,
Framed us in jest, and left us now to
“Or come we of an Automaton
          Unconscious of our pains? …
          Or are we live remains
Of Godhead dying downwards, brains and
          eye now gone?”(25)

This poem concludes, “No answerer I.” But here we have most of the basic premises.

In “The Sleep-Worker,” the poet addresses Nature as “the Mother” (in modern mythology, “The Great Mother”) as having created “unwittingly”

Fair growths, foul cankers, right enmeshed
          with wrong,
Strange orchestras of victim-shriek and
          song. …(26)

and asks, should Nature some day “wake” to her creations.

“How wilt thou bear thyself in thy sur-
Wilt thou destroy in one wild shock of
The whole high heaving firmamental frame,
Or patiently adjust, amend, and heal?”

Again, Hardy's “last line” hits home. The heavy iambic accents highlight the conclusion, which offers a faint hope that a suffering universe may one day be relieved. The progression is meaningful. There is a dim hope here for ultimate betterment in the universal scheme.

A similar hope may be discerned in “To the Unknown God” (the original title was written in Greek), in which the poet addresses a “Willer masked and dumb / Who makest Life become,” and asks

“How much of consciousness informs Thy will,
Thy biddings, as if blind,
Of death-inducing kind,
Nought shows to us ephemeral ones who fill
But moments in thy mind.”

Perhaps, he suggests,

“that listless effort tends
To grow percipient with advance of days,
And with percipience mends.”(27)

Perhaps this universal wrong may one day be discerned as “a wrong / Dying as of self-slaughter … ?”

These samples may imply Hardy's fundamental attitudes toward universal life. It is quite wrong to brand Hardy as an “atheist.” Agnostic, yes. He does not know. But who does? He is deeply religious in temperament, and simply believed that “if way to the Better there be / It exacts a full look at the Worst.”28 Hardy observed, meditated, and wrote what he believed to be truth—at least, for himself, at a time when such sentiments were, to say the least, unfashionable, and were often harshly criticized.

I select our final poem not because its subject has captivated the public for 86 years—in the last several years almost to the point of popular hysteria—but because this is an extraordinary, even an amazing poem. Hardy titled it, “The Convergence of the Twain,” and it was written within two weeks of the catastrophe. It was “made” for him, in its subject, theme, instances of coincidence and irony, and essential tragedy. I refer, of course, to the sinking of the Titanic, on April 14, 1912.


In a solitude of the sea
Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her,
          stilly couches she.


Steel chambers, late the pyres
Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic
          tidal lyres.


Over the mirrors meant
To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls—grotesque, slimed,
          dumb, indifferent.


Jewels in joy designed
To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and
          black and blind.


Dim moon-eyed fishes near
Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: “What does this vain glorious-
          ness down here?” …


Well: while was fashioning
This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges


Prepared a sinister mate
For her—so gaily great—
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and disso-


And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Ice-
          berg too.


Alien they seemed to be:
No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,


Or sign that they were bent
By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august


Till the Spinner of the Years
Said “Now!” And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two

This is an “occasional” poem, one written for a special situation or occasion. Hardy is especially effective with this type of poem, another memorable one being “And There Was a Great Calm,” written shortly after the end of World War I, and commemorating Armistice Day, November 11, 1918.

The Titanic disaster is toned by Hardy's favorite voice, Irony. The story is one of hubris, and Hardy saw in it the spirit of classical tragedy. Historically, this disaster came to symbolize the end of an era—when Victorian smugness and sense of certainty gave way to its opposite, a loss of certainty and confidence which has colored life ever since.

The poem is divided into eleven three-line stanzas, numbered in Roman numerals, suggesting formality and care. Stanzas one through five, and six through ten divide the poem neatly into two parts, with the final stanza acting as a kind of “summary,” and stating the critical moment of the action.

The first stanza is itself extraordinary. In twenty words and three lines we are given the setting, the theme, and the situation. In “solitude,” 12,460 feet deep in the North Atlantic, far removed from human vanity and pride, “stilly couches she.” The inverted syntax puts the (female) subject of the poem and of the long sentence at the end, now calm, and as though she is resting. Contrasting the elegance of the ship and its passengers, “the opulent” with the dark subterranean depths, we meet again this theme of “vain gloriousness.” (We remember that this ship was designated “unsinkable.”)

In the second five stanzas we begin to sense a growing tension. Thousands of miles away, “a sinister mate for her,” “so gaily great,” a “Shape of Ice” is slowly developing:

And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Ice-
          berg too.

Nothing, it would seem, could have been farther apart than these two dramatis personae.

Or sign that they were bent
By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august

Here again is Hardy's law of coincidence. And then the climax:

Till the Spinner of the Years
Said “Now!” And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two

The imagery of the poem, the personification of the ship and the iceberg, She, feminine, “a creature of cleaving wing” half-bird and half-ship and the Shape, presumably masculine, but more effective for not being specifically described, are brought together for the main metaphor of the poem, a “consummation”—a kind of unholy marriage, an “intimate welding.” And we know that never again will this ship and this iceberg be sundered.

A marked use of alliteration in the poem can be discerned, for example, in stanza IV:

Jewels in joy designed
To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and
          black and blind.

The metrical pattern is also interesting: basically iambic, and the accent on the last line falls heavily on “bleared” and “black” and “blind.” The first two lines of each stanza are in trimeter, the last line being in hexameter. Twice three is six. It is easy to feel that each of the two short lines suggests one of the actors in this drama, and the last line, the coming together of the two. Also, if you look at the visual pattern of any stanza in the original publication, you see that the lines form an outline of a ship. Here again, Hardy's architectural sense seems to be working.

There is a significant shift in the tone of the poem, from the formal quality of the first half to the more relaxed conversational tone introduced by “Well.” Then follows an answer to the question, “What does this vain gloriousness down here?” We note also that the first five stanzas—the first half—are all in the present tense. The next five shift to the past tense, which continues until the “Now!” of the last verse when, at the moment of the “consummation,” the present tense comes, making the climax immediate and effective.

The poem is masterly, and a fitting conclusion to our sample consideration of Hardy's poetry. As analyses continue, we will increasingly find Hardy to be the poet he always was, and as he wished to be known.

Hardy is not Shakespeare or Milton or Wordsworth or Yeats, though he may have affinities with each. And in the massive corpus of his poetry there is some inevitable unevenness. Sometimes the polemic of a poem weighs too heavily on the “poetry.” Sometimes the technical ingenuity becomes the major focus.

Nevertheless, today Hardy looms like a modern Colossus, bestriding the pages of English poetry, one foot firmly on the nineteenth century, the other on the shores of the twentieth, while beneath, the swirling waters of poetic fashions come and go. As Ezra Pound said of T. S. Eliot, “Read him!” It is a fitting epigraph.


  1. “To Life,” Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy (New York, 1937), 107.

  2. Michael Millgate, Thomas Hardy, A Biography (New York, 1982), 575.

  3. “Hap,” a person's luck or fate. A happening.

  4. Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy, 7.

  5. Quoted in Thomas Hardy, A Biography, 394.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Quoted in Neil Covey, “The Decline of Poetry and Hardy's Empty Hall,” Victorian Poetry, Vol. 31 (Spring 1993), 63.

  8. Thomas Hardy, A Biography, 410-411.

  9. Ibid., 392-98.

  10. Ibid., 36-37.

  11. John E. Walsh, Into My Own: The English Years of Robert Frost (New York, 1988).

  12. Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy, 75.

  13. Lance St. John Butler, Alternative Hardy (London, 1989), xi.

  14. Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy, 293.

  15. See Otto Jespersen, Edward Sapir, Alexander Johannessen, E. Prokosh, Sir Richard Paget.

  16. Quoted in Jahan Ramazani, “Hardy and the Poetics of Melancholia: Poems of 1912-13 and other Elegies of Emma,” English Literary History, Vol. 58 (Winter 91), 957.

  17. Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy, 320.

  18. In the New Statesman. Quoted in Hardy, A Biography (New York, 1994), 810.

  19. “barton,” dialect, a barnyard. “coomb,” dialect, a small valley or hollow.

  20. Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy, 439.

  21. Ford Madox Ford, “Thomas Hardy,” Portraits from Life (New York, 1937), 137.

  22. Thomas Hardy, A Biography, 38-39.

  23. Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy, 366.

  24. Ibid., 137.

  25. Ibid., 58.

  26. Ibid., 110.

  27. Ibid., 171.

  28. Ibid., “In Tenebris,” II, 154.

  29. Ibid., 288.

Shannon L. Rogers (essay date July 2001)

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SOURCE: Rogers, Shannon L. “‘The Historian of Wessex’: Thomas Hardy's Contribution to History.” Rethinking History 5, no. 2 (July 2001): 217-32.

[In the following essay, Rogers examines the influence of Hardy on concepts of the history of rural nineteenth-century England.]

In 1869, J. R. Green wrote that ‘History … we are told by publishers, is the most unpopular of all branches of literature at the present day, but it is only unpopular because it seems more and more to sever itself from all that can touch the heart of a people’ (Green 1888: xi). Green might just as easily have been commenting on our present day, when the notion of a history book produces countless yawns from prospective readers. And yet, the number of films devoted to historical topics—produced by major Hollywood studios as well as by independents—is growing seemingly exponentially, Renaissance Faires have never been more popular, and historical novels such as Patrick O'Brian's Captain Jack Aubrey series enjoy a large and enthusiastic following. Clearly, it is not ‘the past’ as a concept that leaves the average person cold. It is the notion of ‘the past’ as a discipline. With its rigorous attention to veracity and detail, academic history is often stripped of its connection to life, to the land, to the every day—in other words, from the ‘heart of the people’. People want to experience the past, to see how events effected the lives of characters they care about, to forget the present and immerse themselves in an alternative reality, even if it has been distorted or glamourized. It would appear, therefore, that it is the form, and not the content of history's presentation, that makes the real difference.

As we can deduce from Green's comment, this struggle between content and form was one that plagued historians and historical consumers (if we might use that term) during his own day. In many ways, the field of history—and of historiography—as we know it was in its infancy during the Victorian era. Concurrent with its development was that of the historical novel, ‘invented’ by Sir Walter Scott in 1814. Inspired by the overwhelming commercial and popular triumph of Scott and his successors, many historians, such as Green, Carlyle and Macaulay attempted to make their accounts more alive to the reader, ‘reconstructing’ conversations and re-envisioning the scenes of the past in all their colourful details. This blurring of the line between history and fiction appears to have given more authority to pure fiction as historical source. As one venerable historian wryly noted after the turn of the century: ‘After all the history we have ever learned, our first thought of Mediaeval England is quite likely to be a picture of England as the setting for Ivanhoe and Robin Hood, even if our second thought is that this is all wrong’ (Butterfield 1924: 2). For the civilian reader, that second thought was slow in coming, if it ever arrived at all. The visual and descriptive vibrancy of the works of these fiction authors contrived an image of such force—particularly in a literary age in which the novel served the place that television and film does for us—that the historical reality lying behind it came to life. Many historians, including Ranke, the aforementioned Macaulay and John Clive, have admitted that shaking the force of the visual image created by a historical novel is a difficult task indeed. Which provokes us to ask the question of whether such an image should be completely shaken.

Hayden White reminds us that, although based on evidence gathered from various sources, all historical works are ultimately the fictive creations of historians. What might historians today learn from nineteenth century realist writers like Thomas Hardy? With this in mind, it becomes not only valid but obligatory to appreciate the value of alternative sources of history, and approaches and modes of narrative history that tease and challenge the imagination to ponder what life was like in the past. It is also intriguing to consider the works of unconscious historians (but self-conscious writers) who treated topics of historical interest in their fiction and who, while adopting the documentary and factual approach to the study of the past, were driven by the cognitive demands and benefits of placing form before content.

Thanks to the development of the realist school of fiction, many novels of the Victorian period provide deep insight into what life was like during that period. Dickens, for instance, is frequently mined for this sort of evidence, his novels a chronicle of the social ills in the industrializing city, the hazards of the education system, or the pitfalls of the British legal system. George Eliot provides us with a great deal of reliable information on bourgeois and upper class rural life. And Thomas Hardy is an extremely valuable source for the history of life in southwestern England during the nineteenth century. What these authors, among others, achieve is the creation—usually unconscious—of historical documents through the medium of fictionalized social commentary. They are responding to the world around them and remarking upon its shortcomings. What this does is to create a record of those shortcomings for later generations to examine as both a work of deliberate fiction and as a historical creation.

Hardy is not generally considered a novelist of historical fiction by the strict standards of the genre. And yet his similarities to Scott, its father, are striking. Both were concerned with ballad forms, with the preservation of folkways and with the continuing influence of the medieval in society. More importantly, both writers were attempting to document, before all traces were wiped away by modernity, the manners and customs of a particular group of people in a specific place and time. Scott was concerned with Scottish Highland culture (and in many ways can be claimed as its inventor along with the historical novel). Hardy, of course, brought fame and life to rural Wessex. His use of the moniker ‘Wessex’ to describe the area of southwestern England that was home to his 14 novels was both a product of pure fancy and a serious historical reference. Wessex was one of the kingdoms of Britain's Anglo-Saxon heptarchy, the kingdom of Alfred the Great, who, along with the mythical Arthur, was a particular darling of the Gothic Revivalists. The name of Wessex, familiar yet dropped from usage, was a conception both within history and outside of it. It held echoes of a distant past, evoking a simpler time before machinery and modern ways had changed the face of the land. It was both romanticized and realistic, a fact not lost on the British Royal family in their recent decision to revive the Anglo-Saxon title Earl of Wessex for Prince Edward. In fact, Hardy's creation/adoption of Wessex was the very sort of manipulation of the past that Hollywood thrives on today.

However, Hardy's use of the past was in no way intended to be a romanticization or a nostalgic longing to return to a golden world lost. History, for Hardy, represented knowledge. Ties to tradition and to the past were not necessarily tethers, but instead connecting threads symbolizing continuity. Those of his characters who struggle along this long, unbroken chain of human experience, suffer. Tess is haunted by the incongruity of her own situation in juxtaposition to her much-vaunted ancestors. Angel Clare artificially struggles for modernity while romanticizing Tess's imagined past. In A Laodicean (1881), Paula Power similarly forces an incongruous clash of modern and medieval, which ultimately makes her incapable of romantic commitment. The pattern is repeated in Jude the Obscure (1896). Sue Bridehead claims a modernist paganism based on the classical, a rebellious and flimsily-conceived system which eventually gives way to a medieval Christian self-abnegation. At the same time, characters like Gabriel Oak and Richard Phillotson see the changes that are developing around them, but either adapt to them or placidly accept them and, thus, survive. Their lives are not easy, but this is merely the nature of Hardy's world and not an evil inherent in a recognition of history's passage.

It has been noted that ‘The great historical backcloth is seldom absent for long in a Hardy novel’ (White 1974: 64). All of his novels reflect a consciousness of historical change. In fact, with the exceptions of Desperate Remedies (1871), A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873), The Hand of Ethelberta (1876) and A Laodicean, the œuvre of novels cover the span of the nineteenth century (Weber 1965: 224).1 In each novel, Hardy demonstrates the indirect and direct consequences of impersonal historical events and movements upon the life of the individual. In other words, ‘The … novel shows us the microcosm and allows us to draw larger conclusions for the macrocosm’ (Sanders 1978: 234). Although it falls roughly mid-way in Hardy's novel-writing career, The Trumpet-Major (1880) is chronologically his earliest subject from a historical point of view. It is also the novel that most obviously conforms to the ‘historical fiction’ genre, and Hardy conducted a fair amount of research into the background of the tale. Like Scott in Waverley and other novels, Hardy interviewed veterans of the Napoleonic Wars. His employment of oral history through eyewitness reports creates a unique account that is historically accurate. It is so colorful and realistic as to have prompted one contemporary scholar to comment ‘To read it is to live for a while in an English country village of the old style. … It is an admirable realization of rural England in Napoleonic times; all nerves and hatred of Frenchmen underneath the placid habit of her existence, ready to break out into a wild scurry of mingled effort and fear when the bogy of invasion becomes suddenly insupportable’ (Abercrombie 1927: 54, 56).

The Trumpet-Major is indeed a set-piece brought to life. Hardy initially reminds the reader of the tangible flow of history through everyday experience when, in Chapter 3, the cavalry enters Loveday's mill-house for the party. Hardy remarks that the paving in the passage way ‘was worn into a gutter by the ebb and flow of feet that had been going on there ever since Tudor times’ (Hardy 1974 {1880}: 60).2 Having set the larger historical scene, Hardy goes on to describe the emotions, excitement and energy attendant on the grand military events taking place in this remote corner of Wessex. He describes at length the Royal procession of King George III, for which the townspeople have prepared for days. The cortège passes quickly, but young Anne Garland ‘was rewarded by seeing a profile reminding her of the current coin of the realm’. Juxtaposed with this image is the profile portrait of Napoleon which Bob Loveday later shows to Anne: ‘The hat represented a maimed French eagle; the face was ingeniously made up of human carcases, knotted and writhing together in such directions as to form a physiognomy; a band, or stock, shaped to resemble the English Channel, encircled his throat, and seemed to choke him’ (Hardy 1974 {1880}: 121, 218). The differences of human perspective are evident both in the propaganda itself and the responses it elicits from the viewers. Bob, the navy man, finds it ‘stirring’. Anne, aware of the very real threat to those she loves, finds it ‘dreadful’.

Throughout the novel, Hardy balances the historical progress of the military preparations, the alarm raised, and the anticlimactic movement of the troops to another area, with the impact of these activities on the daily lives of those involved. There is romance—too complex to be a mere love triangle—featuring John Loveday (the Trumpet-Major) and Anne Garland. Anne is unfortunately in love with John's brother Bob, who initially has plans to marry the giddy Matilda. Anne is also pursued by the nephew of the local squire, Festus Derriman, a pompous and ridiculous boy who only answers the King's call to arms to impress Anne. To all but Anne and John, the threat of Napoleon is a game, an opportunity for excitement in a dull village. But John's sense of responsibility for his wayward brother leads him to see the deeper repercussions and to make continuous sacrifices for Bob's benefit. In the end, the lighthearted mood occasioned by the antics of most of the characters fades. Anne marries the wrong man and John finds death ‘upon one of the bloody battle-fields of Spain’ (Hardy 1974 {1880}: 344). These very personal details were no doubt inspired by the eyewitness accounts Hardy gathered as part of his research.

Hardy collected a great deal of information from primary, unwritten sources, making vast use of oral history. Like any proper historian, he supplemented this information with published primary and secondary accounts, conducting a great deal of his research at the British Museum. Hardy was initially rather proud of his novel, proud enough ‘to think that there would be some appropriateness in my offering a copy to his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales’.3 Many years later, however, in typical Hardyan self-effacement, he wrote: ‘That the T{rumpet} M{ajor} should have any accuracy or any value nowadays, is a wonder; for it was written 30 years ago, from hand to mouth, as it were, for a periodical merely, & I used documents in a much more haphazard way then than I do now’.4 This comment might be in response to a charge of plagiarism levelled against him at the time of publication, implying that the offence was true although inadvertent.5 Or perhaps it may have instead illustrated Hardy's conscious development as a historical researcher and writer. In a correspondence with a scholar of Napoleonic history, Hardy remarked that in researching The Dynasts, ‘the matter I collected {was} … 5 times as much as I required for the TM [The Trumpet-Major]’. He also pointed out the critical importance in both works of the oral sources he gathered, the use of which could not be accused of being plagiarized: ‘I collected … what is now very valuable to me (in writing The D.)—oral information on those times from people who lived in them, which now could not be got: e.g., the arrival of the regiments at camp, at the beginning of the story, which was described to me by eyewitnesses’.6 Hardy also commented at length in letters upon the research conducted for The Trumpet-Major that was still useful to him and of the various new sources he consulted. What is interesting is the amount of difficulty he faced recreating the chronology of minor events or the progress of battles from his sources, even though the Napoleonic period was ground heavily traversed by historians. For instance, he attempted to determine the exact locations of George III's reviews of artillery. From evidence in the written sources, he placed George III's camp and several major inspections on Bincombe Down. However, he remarks that ‘old people who were present at the reviews, encampments, & c., used to tell me in my boyhood that the camp was on Mayne Down. But as this adjoins Bincombe Down there is no great discrepancy’.7 He also experienced great difficulties in arranging the sequence of the Battle of Leipzig. Demonstrating his understanding of a critical approach to history and a need to compare sources as well as a certain confidence in his own abilities in the field, he wrote: ‘I defy any human being to synchronize with any certainty its episodes from descriptions by the historians … My time-table was, I believe, as probable a one as can be drawn up at this date’.8

Carl Weber has remarked that Hardy's first role in The Dynasts was as a historian and that he did his best to retain actual speeches in the text (Weber 1965: 338-9). Indeed, Hardy's research was extremely thorough and more careful than it had been for The Trumpet-Major (much of it was in fact conducted for him by Florence Dugdale, the future second Mrs Hardy). So immersed was he in the world of the Napoleonic Wars that by Part III, he wrote to a friend, ‘It is well that the business should be over, for I have been living in Wellington's campaigns so much lately that, like George IV, I am almost positive that I took part in the battle of Waterloo, & have written of it from memory’.9 His sources included biographies of Napoleon and Nelson, histories of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars in both English and French, as well as general histories of Europe and more detailed histories of the British navy and individual campaigns. His own copies of Sir Archibald Alison's History of Europe from the Commencement of the French Revolution in MDCCLXXXIX to the Restoration of the Bourbons in MDCCCXV (1841-2) seems to have been of particular use to him as he annotated it heavily.10

Hardy never needed to research any of his other works in this fashion and most of them were instead influenced by his own personal experiences of growing up in Dorset, listening to the stories told by his family, absorbing the folk culture, the music and the agricultural way of life. His vivid descriptions of the countryside and towns of Wessex grew out of a lifetime's observation, as did his characterizations of rustics, and vast knowledge of country legends. So expert was he on the subject of agricultural workers of his region that he wrote the article ‘The Dorsetshire Farm Labourer’ in 1883 and was solicited to write another article on the ‘English rustic’ for the journal Merry England.11 He also very authoritatively gave instructions for proper illustrations for Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), including specific directions for smock frocks, sheep-crooks, gaiters, and malt-houses.12 Hardy's comparatively brief times spent in London did little more than temporarily sap his creativity, it seems. He remained a Dorset man at heart and it was Dorset that was his creative muse.

When in 1889 J. M. Barrie called Hardy the ‘Historian of Wessex’, it was with good reason. Barrie wrote that ‘No reader of his Wessex tales would have him shake this influence off, for it is part of his greatness as a novelist’. He recognized, even at that early date, the important role of Hardy in the historic recording of a dying way of life.

The closing years of the nineteenth century see the end of many things in country parts, of the peasantry who never go beyond their own parish, of quaint manners and customs, of local modes of speech and ways of looking at existence. Railways and machinery of various sorts create new trades and professions, and kill old ones … Mr. Hardy has given much of his life to showing who these rustics were and how they lived.

(Barrie 1889: 57)

What Barrie recognized were the very changes Hardy was emphasizing: the double-edged sword of modern progress. The railways opened up new opportunities for travel within the country. Cheap fares, for antiquarian excursions especially, provided the poorer classes with the kind of practical, visual education that might foster an appreciation of history. At the same time, schooling was more widely available and literacy on the increase. All of these were positive social developments and yet the benefits of education and travel carried with them risks and outright losses. Education could give a child unreasonable expectations or create a social gulf within the family, as it so plainly does in The Hand of Ethelberta,The Woodlanders and Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Standardized schooling also meant standardized English and the erosion or even extinction of local dialects. Railway travel put people of different regions into more fluid contact with one another, a phenomenon which created greater and more diverse social exposure, eventually breaking down regional differences.

A font of cultural history, Hardy's novels preserved these dialect forms and customs, often only remembered from his own childhood or young adulthood. In his early career, however, he was not always recognized as, much less applauded for, serving this important function. At the time when Hardy began writing, rural labourers were not considered to be fit subjects for art. Hardy not only completely defied this notion but went a step further in making his rustics the voice of reason and salt of the earth wisdom in his world. Thus, Hardy suffered the misfortune of describing the seemingly familiar in an unfamiliar, even threatening, way. His use of Dorset dialect was really no different than Scott's use of Scots. Yet, the very strangeness of Scots placed the earlier novelist above the harm of criticism—reviewers feared they did not know enough about it to critique it intelligently. So revered did Scott become that even his Elizabethan style ‘medieval’ speech in Ivanhoe drew praise from critics for its ‘authenticity’. English peasants, conversely, were familiar. Reviewers seemed to believe that the only quality Hodge should evidence was a lack of intelligence.13 Hardy's combination of a coherent and unique dialect with sharp intuition and rustic profundity drew attacks from several critics. An anonymous review of The Return of the Native (1878) in the Athenæum, for instance, maintained that ‘People talk as no people ever talked before, or perhaps we should say as no people ever talk now. The language of his peasants may be Elizabethan, but it can hardly be Victorian’ (Athenæum 1878: 654). The irony of course is that Hardy's ‘Elizabethan’ peasants spoke a form of language he grew up hearing.

Far from the Madding Crowd was Hardy's first real commercial success and featured his first major experiment in faithfully portraying peasants. It drew a now-famous complaint from Henry James who accused Hardy of displaying patronizing attitudes to his rustics by making them too clever, a comment that showed James to be either completely disingenuous or appallingly unaware of his own patronizing attitude (James 1874: 27-8). The Saturday Review responded similarly, remarking ‘we feel either that we have misjudged the unenfranchised agricultural classes, or that Mr. Hardy has put his own thoughts and words into their mouths. And this suspicion necessarily shakes our own confidence in the truthfulness of many of the idyllic incidents of rustic life which are so plentifully narrated throughout these volumes’ (Saturday Review 1875: 57). In other words, because Hardy failed to meet the reviewer's pre-conceived notions of rural labourers, his veracity was in doubt. Had he created stereotypically dim rustics, he would have been judged to be completely realistic. Instead, his innovative realism was greeted with suspicion.

Not all voices were dissenting, however, and as the century progressed, more critics came to accept Hardy's revisionist notions of rural life. This is a powerful testimony not only to his believability, but to his knowledge of the Dorset region. The New Quarterly Magazine, surveying Hardy's works to date in 1879, commented that ‘His rustic personages are clearly drawn from nature, and if we were in a position to question their truth, we should have no desire to do so’ (New Quarterly Magazine 1879: 412). A fellow novelist complained that Hardy's rustic scenes and people were too informative, so much so that he felt he was reading ‘a conscientious, well-done report, executed by a thoroughly efficient writer’, a comment demonstrating the ongoing tension between form and content for readers (Moore 1888: 235-6). Edmund Gosse remarked on the evolution in attitudes to Hardy's peasants, from that of ‘gratuitous inventions’ to an acknowledgment ‘that Mr. Hardy was well within the bounds of truthful observation when he reported or arranged these exquisite dialogues of rural humour’ (Gosse 1879: 295).

What helped cause this acceptance was a growing realization of the harsh realities of rural life in the nineteenth century. Political and social awareness of the migration of farm labourers to the cities and the increasing mechanization of farm work—an awareness to which Hardy had himself contributed—created a familiarity with the victims as real people, and a compassion for a lost way of life, one that was inextricably bound to the English myth of the pastoral. This new attitude is revealed in Harold Williams's review of the Wessex Novels, in which he wrote:

The older agricultural life dies hard; and even in England there are still large tracts of country, notably in the southwest, where large cities there are virtually none, almost untouched by the desolating influences of the great industrial centres. Yet, even here, life is not what it was to the middle of last century. The Wessex of Mr. Hardy is ‘a modern Wessex of railways, the penny post, mowing and reaping machines’ … In the Wessex novels, the older ways, the older thought, the old wisdom, speech, and humour are reflected by a master mind.

(Williams 1914: 125)

Coming after the close of the century, Williams's comments illustrate the gradual nature of this understanding. This passage also reveals an appreciation of Hardy's authority on rural culture and folk history. His characters are fictional, his works are novels, but their situations clearly demonstrate a historically verifiable milieu. He is describing ‘how things were’ rather than ‘what happened’, a sort of hybridization of what Ranke attempted in his avowal to portray the past ‘as it really was’. If Ranke is still considered by many to be the quintessential social historian, then can Hardy—even as a novelist—fall very far outside this definition?

The Wessex world he evoked was very much alive and vibrant for his readers and its historical associations and contemporary interest were even encouraged by Hardy himself: ‘Outside the novels, Hardy contributed actively to the creation of ‘this physical provincial definition’, not only by public pronouncements on “Wessex” life and language, but also by his willing support of popularizing and commercializing schemes advanced by admirers of the novels’ (Keating 1989: 334). This included his early promotion of the topographical interest of Dorset in a review of the poems of William Barnes (Hardy 1879: 469-73). Seven years later, he responded tetchily to a comment in Saturday Review that the setting of The Mayor of Casterbridge was ‘a remote region—we are unable to localize’. Hardy wrote to Kegan Paul, firmly asserting the reality of his fictional region: ‘I am not disposed to think the review entirely the product of stupidity. That there should be no mistake about the locality I told the editor the real name of the town: so the paragraph about not recognizing it is meant as a civil snub, I suppose’.14 Of course, in later editions of the novels, Hardy's map included both ‘Wessex’ names and actual names, which only serves to emphasize his purpose of chronicling a cultural history of the region.

Around the time of the publication of Tess [Tess of the d'Urbervilles], Hardy was quite adamant that the name of Wessex be actively connected to his novels. He wrote to Edward Marston, ‘Could you, whenever advertising my books, use the words “Wessex novels” at the head of the list? I mean, instead of “By T. H.”, “T. H.'s Wessex novels”, or something of the sort?’ That this was not only a source of pride, but a commercial interest is clear from his next statement. ‘I find that the name Wessex, wh. I was the first to use in fiction, is getting to be taken up everywhere: & it would be a pity for us to lose the right to it for want of asserting it. It might also be used on the paper covers of the novels’.15 Fourteen years later he was contemplating the need ‘in self defence as it were, to publish an annotated edn {sic} giving a really trustworthy account of real places, scenery, & c. (Somewhat as Scott did)’.16 Despite this apparent complaint, he had already actively encouraged people to associate his novels with country scenes. In 1901, he advised Hermann Lea, who was planning to publish photographs of the West Hill Fair, to emphasize the connection with nostalgia, titling the article ‘in some such words as “A Fair in Old England”’. He also urged Lea to mention Far from the Madding Crowd, implying that the novel and Old English fairs were (or should be) synonymous in the popular imagination.17

As the twentieth century progressed, Hardy became even more involved in what has been called ‘the romanticisation of his “regionalism”’, which was so much a part of the tourist industry (Keating 1989: 334). In 1902, Hardy made suggestions to the Town Clerk of Dorchester for historical places to be marked in the official Guide to the town and several years later he demonstrated not only his knowledge of the region but his affinity for its history by urging the Town Council to change back the names of recently renamed Dorchester streets.18

In 1922, a W. G. Bowman proposed a ‘Wessex Magazine’ to be called Wessex Life: A Popular Magazine Devoted to the Wessex Movement of Thomas Hardy. The plan of the magazine was to ‘bring the Wessex Movement into the Homes of the People’. The magazine unfortunately never appeared so that we cannot know precisely what ‘the Wessex Movement’ may have entailed. At Bowman's request, Hardy offered some suggestions for its operation and focus. Most important among Hardy's ideas are his insistence that Somerset and Devon should be included ‘to make it cover all the six counties of the old kingdom (which included a great part of Devon)’, and his preference for the term ‘Southwest’ rather than ‘the South’, which again emphasized the perimeters of the historic kingdom. In opposition to his former wishes to be closely connected to the name Wessex, which he had intimated to be his own rather exclusive provenance, he now suggests that his name not be associated with the magazine because it ‘would certainly prejudice some people against it’.19

While this dissociation could certainly be another symptom of Hardy's famous over-sensitivity, it implies as well that he was willing to let the interest in Wessex take on a life of its own. His popularization of the term was no longer in danger of dispute and so he still could gain by its use while its independence as a concept would also emphasize its historical reality. He expressed this pulling away explicitly in a letter to Francis Macnamera (dictated to Florence Hardy), concerning the proposed Wessex Review which, unlike Wessex Life, at least lasted for three issues: ‘{Hardy} desires me to say that he has no idea what the prospects of the contemplated “Wessex Review” may be. The development of a utilitarian Wessex is entirely beyond the scope of his past conceptions & writings, which have been merely of a dreamland roughly resembling & conterminous with the six counties that now cover the old kingdom’.20 Of course, this was not really the case—all that Hardy had written previously supports his conception of Wessex as an actual topographical location.

Hardy's latent ambivalence to Wessex-related themes in popular culture aside, it was certainly his familiarity and expertise in the history of the region that gained him a reputation as authority on its language and lore. His letters are full of references to local legends. Hardy mentions the manor house of the Turbervilles, which he recreated as the scene of Tess's ill-fated wedding-night and recounts the legend of the phantom coach, remarking that it is ‘well-known here’. In answer to a question as to the veracity of his legends, Hardy replies, ‘the legendary matter & folk-lore in my books is traditionary, & not invented … this being a point on which I was careful not to falsify local beliefs and customs’.21 If he only viewed his work as a ‘dreamland’, then fabrication and fantasy would have been part and parcel of the fictionalization. But again, Hardy is careful to protect the historical content in order to maintain a certain historicism to his fiction.

Hardy's history not only earned him a great deal of respect, but may even have fostered the study of folklore. The Folklore Society was founded in 1878, at which time it was elevated from antiquarian interest to ‘a matter of preserving a vital human resource. The very title “folklore” lent the subject a new dignity, yet emphasized how divorced it was from the people who actually did the studying. It was the “lore”—a deliberately archaic term—of the “folk”’ (Rattue 1995: 133). In spite of anecdotal tales of Hardy's aloofness from actual Dorset peasants, he was not so divorced from the folk as many folklorists were. He had grown up fairly closely among them and his mother had taught him many of the tales he recounted, having learned them herself in her own girlhood. Like Scott, he absorbed this information through a lifetime of association. He noted that his method of acquiring folklore had never been systematic, ‘which a well-known folklorist tells me makes the items I mention the more valuable. They have nearly disappeared, however, from Wessex life’.22 It eventually earned him high praise from the London Folklore Society as well as requests for information from folklore scholars who considered him an expert (Firor 1931: 304). His novels, most importantly, had influenced scholarship to such an extent that books and theses appeared with ‘Wessex Folklore’ as their subjects, such as J. S. Udal's Dorsetshire Folklore (1922).23

Hardy not only popularized and perhaps helped legitimize folklore studies, but he preserved Dorset dialect and this provided an important resource for linguistic studies. One scholar has remarked, ‘To study Hardy's English closely is to become aware of a thousand years of linguistic history’ (Elliott 1984: 9). Language, in fact, seemed to be the single area in which his usually elegiac tone slipped into outright nostalgia and regret for the changes time brings. He often lamented that dialect words and phrases were lost during his own lifetime, victims of standardized education and social expectations. Time and again he made remarks such as ‘alas, they are old expressions rapidly dying’ or ‘the expression … is dying away hereabout’. Increasingly, words like ‘Ich’ were giving way to the standardized ‘I’: ‘This & kindred words—e.g.—“Ich woll”, “er woll”, &c, are still used by old people in NW Dorset & Somerset … I heard “Ich” only last Sunday; but it is dying rapidly. I know nobody under seventy who speaks so, & those above it use the form only in impulsive moments when they forget themselves’.24 Behind this romantic attachment to the language lay a solid knowledge of Dorset dialect, one which caused linguists to consult him for etymological information. Sir James Murray, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, inquired of Hardy the use and meaning of ‘tranter’ (an itinerant peddlar) and John Wesley Hales, Professor of English at King's College, London, asked Hardy about his usage of the expression ‘good-now’. While researching The English Dialect Dictionary (1896-1905), philologist Joseph Wright started an active correspondence with Hardy, inquiring about the meanings of such words and phrases as ‘Trangleys’ and ‘To chaw high’.25

It is clear that Hardy achieved much more than merely creating an escapist world for his readers. Wessex could never truly provide escapism because it was so firmly based on the realities faced in rural life over the course of the century. It was never Hardy's intention either to romanticize this dying world, although some aspects of it—especially the language, legends and sense of community—he was sorry to see pass. In fact, I would argue that he was never consciously chronicling that world. It is only in the hindsight of his letters written decades after his last novels that he realizes what he had accomplished. Like his work in folklore—unsystematic and instinctive—Hardy's work as historian was essentially untrained, sometimes haphazard, but often true because he had no historical point to make. His purpose was social criticism of his present and not documentation for the future. Therefore, the reality of his fiction provides us with a means of interpreting the past (to us) in which he lived.

What emerges in his novels, informed as they are by his own experiences rather than simply by book-knowledge, is an accurate account of rural life through all of the century's developments, one which provides us with an alternative to academic cultural histories. Through the alternative form of his novels, we see the introduction of telegraph, railways and farm machinery to Wessex—the historical content that we are often apt to study for their own sakes with little regard to their ever-expanding cultural influences. Hardy's novels bring vividly to life the incongruity of modern love letters delivered via telegraph and the impact that change has on the individual or the elevation of social expectations education brings and how that shapes the family dynamic. Hardy shows all of these things in living detail, commenting briefly, but mostly allowing the consequences of modernity to reveal themselves. He understood, like Scott before him, not only the futility of fighting the future, but of the ultimate benefits that progress can bring. His novels are elegies, but never idealizations and his solid knowledge of the past he chronicles gained him respect among scholars as an expert on rural Wessex, its culture and its history.


  1. Weber has somewhat controversially proposed that Hardy's coverage of history begins with The Trumpet-Major, which covers the period from 1800 to 1808, and ends with Tess, which takes place between 1884 and 1889. His argument is based upon internal clues, such as revised marriage laws in The Woodlanders (1887) or lack of modern technology in Return of the Native (1878), which certainly implies the importance of historical developments within the texts themselves. According to Weber, the historical chronology runs thus: The Trumpet-Major, 1800-8; Under the Greenwood Tree, 1835-6; Return of the Native, 1842-3; The Mayor of Casterbridge, 1846-9; The Well-Beloved, 1852-92; Jude the Obscure, 1855-74; Two on a Tower, 1858-63; Far from the Madding Crowd, 1869-73; The Woodlanders, 1876-9; and Tess of the d'Urbervilles, 1884-89.

  2. This image mirrors Hardy's impression of St. Mark's, Venice seven years later: ‘The floor, of every colour and rich device, is worn into undulations by the infinite multitudes of feet that have trodden it’. (see Hardy (1985) [1928-30] The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy (ed.) Michael Millgate, Athens: The University of Georgia Press.

  3. Thomas Hardy to Francis Knollys, 14 December 1881, Letters 1: 98.

  4. Thomas Hardy to A. M. Broadley, 31 December 1907, Letters 3: 286.

  5. Hardy had relied heavily on C. H. Gifford's two-volume History of the Wars Occasioned by the French Revolution (1817), the use of which indirectly, but unfortunately, opened him to a curious charge of plagiarism. Gifford's book was the source behind the drill scene in Chapter 23. However, Gifford's drill scene, as Hardy admits in the 1895 Preface, was not original with him. It was in fact a retelling of an anonymous account reprinted in John Lambert's Travels through Lower Canada and the United States in the Years 1806, 1807, and 1808 (1810) according to Carl Weber. Yet, the actual accusation in the American Critic (28 January 1882) has Hardy lifting the details from A. B. Longstreet's Georgia Scenes, of which Hardy stoutly maintained he had never heard.

  6. Thomas Hardy to A. M. Broadley, 31 December 1907, Letters 3: 286.

  7. Thomas Hardy to A. M. Broadley, 7 January 1908, Letters 3: 289.

  8. Thomas Hardy to J. H. Morgan, 12 October 1922, Letters 6: 161.

  9. Thomas Hardy to Edward Clodd, 31 December 1907, Letters 3: 287.

  10. Hardy consulted William Hazlitt's four volume Life of Napoleon Bonaparte (1852), a book White describes as ‘full of inaccuracies and hero worship’ but well-loved by Hardy. Curiously, Hardy does not mention reading Scott's Life of Napoleon (1827) despite his admiration for Scott's fiction and poetry. White theorizes that Hardy must have owned a copy of J. Holland Rose's The Life of Napoleon I (1901), although it is not mentioned as being among his books. White also presumes that Hardy might have read at least volume 5 of Albert Sorel's L'Europe et la Révolution Française (1885-1904). Hardy also used Sir Archibald Alison's History of Europe from the Commencement of the French Revolution in MDCCLXXXIX to the Restoration of the Bourbons in MDCCCXV (1841-2). Hardy's personal copy of this 20 volume set (7th edn, London, 1847-8), was well-annotated and marked, as was his copy of The Epitome of Alison's History of Europe (1849). Hardy also consulted Adolphe Thiers's 20 volume Histoire du Consulat et de l'Empire (1845-84), which he owned in its original French along with a 10 volume translation by D. Forbes Campbell (1845-62), Pierre Coquelle's Napoléon et l'Angleterre, 1803-13 (Paris, 1904), Sir W. F. P. Napier's The History of the War in the Peninsula and in the South of France (1840), and Philippe-Paul Ségur's Campagnes de Bonaparte: ou, Napoléon et la Grande-Armée Pendant l'Année 1812 (1839), of which last Hardy owned a copy. Hardy read C. H. Gifford's History of the Wars as a child and purchased a copy of the 1876 edition of Pierre Lanfrey's Histoire de Napoléon 1er, which he annotated and marked. Rounding out Hardy's list of sources were G. R. Gleig's The Leipsic Campaign (1852) and The Story of the Battle of Waterloo (1848), William Beatty's Authentic Narrative of the Death of Nelson (1808), Baron Claude-François de Méneval's Mémoirs Pour Servir a l'Histoire de Napoléon 1er Depuis 1802 Jusquà 1815 (1894), Edward Pelham Brenton's The Naval History of Great Britain, 1783-1836 (1823-5), and Arthur Lévy's Napoléon Intime (1893) (see Rosenbaum 1990: 197, 222, 219, 211, 212; White 1965: 83, 85, 88, 92, 89, 96, 106).

  11. Thomas Hardy to Wilfred Meynell, 2 March 1883, Letters 1: 115-6.

  12. Thomas Hardy to Smith, Elder and Co. [mid December 1873], Letters 1: 25.

  13. Hodge was a colloquial nickname for an English rustic or agricultural labourer, dating from the late Middle Ages. It developed from either the male first name ‘Roger’ or the surname ‘Rogers’, which was a common name of peasants in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

  14. Thomas Hardy to C. Kegan Paul, 1 June 1886, Letters 1: 145.

  15. Thomas Hardy to Edward Marston, [1888], Letters 1: 171.

  16. Thomas Hardy to Frederick Macmillan, 31 March 1902, Letters 3: 16.

  17. Thomas Hardy to Hermann Lea, 31 July 1901, Letters 2: 294.

  18. Thomas Hardy to the Town Clerk of Dorchester, 28 April 1902, Letters 3: 19-20; Thomas Hardy to John Acland, 24 February 1910, Letters 4: 76.

  19. Thomas Hardy to W. G. Bowman, 3 July 1922, Letters 6: 143-4.

  20. Thomas Hardy to Francis Macnamara, 20 July 1922, Letters 6: 149-50.

  21. Thomas Hardy to Nelson Richardson, 5 June 1906, Letters 3: 209-10; Thomas Hardy to E. Pasco, 10 December 1903, Letters 3: 93.

  22. Thomas Hardy to J. S. Udal, 9 June 1915, Letters 5: 111.

  23. Thomas Hardy to Ernest Rhys, 10 October 1913, Letters 4: 308; Thomas Hardy to J. S. Udal, 9 June 1915, Letters 5: 111.

  24. Thomas Hardy to Madeleine Rolland, 14 March 1921, Letters 6: 74; Thomas Hardy to John Wesley Hales, 19 July 1892, Letters 1: 277; Thomas Hardy to Edmund Gosse, 26 October 1888, Letters 1: 181).

  25. Thomas Hardy to Sir James Murray, 24 October 1913, Letters 4: 312-3; Thomas Hardy to John Wesley Hales, 19 July 1892, Letters 1: 277-8; Thomas Hardy to Joseph Wright, 18 December 1902, Letters 3: 42; Thomas Hardy to Joseph Wright, 26 June 1897, Letters 2: 168.


Abercrombie, Lascelles (1927) Thomas Hardy: A Critical Study, London: Martin Secker.

Anonymous (1878) Athenæum, 23 November.

Anonymous (1879) New Quarterly Magazine 2: 412-31.

Anonymous (1875) Saturday Review, 9 January.

Barrie, J. M. (1889) ‘Thomas Hardy: The Historian of Wessex’, Contemporary Review 56: 57-66.

Butterfield, Herbert (1924) The Historical Novel: An Essay, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Elliott, Ralph W. V. (1984) Thomas Hardy's English, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Firor, Ruth A. (1931) Folkways in Thomas Hardy, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Gosse, Edmund (1879) ‘Thomas Hardy’, The Speaker, 13 September.

Green, J. R. (1888) A Short History of the English People, rev. edn, New York: American Book Company.

Hardy, Thomas (1879) ‘Review of Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect by William Barnes’, New Quarterly Magazine, in Harold Orel (ed.) (1969) Thomas Hardy's Personal Writings, Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Hardy, Thomas (1974) {1880} The Trumpet-Major, London: Macmillan.

James, Henry (1874) ‘Review of Far from the Madding Crowd’, Nation, 24 December, in R. G. Cox (ed.) (1970) Thomas Hardy: The Critical Heritage, New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc.

Keating, Peter (1989) The Haunted Study: A Social History of the English Novel 1875-1914, London: Secker and Warburg.

Moore, George (1888) Confessions of a Young Man, in R. G. Cox (ed.) (1970) Thomas Hardy: The Critical Heritage, New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc.

Purdy, Richard Little and Michael Millgate (1978-88) The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Rattue, James (1995) The Living Stream: Holy Wells in Historical Context, Bury St. Edmunds: The Boydell Press.

Rosenbaum, Barbara (1990) Index of English Literary Manuscripts, vol. 4, part 2, London: Mansell.

Sanders, Andrew (1978) The Victorian Historical Novel 1840-1880, London: The Macmillan Press.

Weber, Carl J. (1965) Hardy of Wessex, New York: Columbia University Press.

White, Hayden (1987) The Content of the Form, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

White, Hayden, ed. (1968) The Uses of History, Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

White, R. J. (1974) Thomas Hardy and History, New York: Barnes and Noble Books.

Williams, Harold (1914) ‘The Wessex Novels of Thomas Hardy’, North American Review, in R. G. Cox (ed.) (1970) Thomas Hardy: The Critical Heritage, New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc.

Jeffrey Meyers (essay date September 2002)

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SOURCE: Meyers, Jeffrey. “Hardy and the Warriors.” New Criterion 21, no. 1 (September 2002): 34-40.

[In the following essay, Meyers discusses Hardy's influence on post-World War I poets.]

The Great War in Europe devastated towns and villages, obliterated irreplaceable architecture, and destroyed an entire generation of young men. The survivors were conscious of living in a shattered civilization, and felt a collective lack of confidence and direction. In “Signs of the Times,” written in the late 1920s, D. H. Lawrence described how young men under thirty, sick of war and materialism, have

a certain instinctive contempt
for old values and old people:
a certain warlessness even moneylessness,
a waiting for the proper touch, not for
          any word or deed.

The aged Thomas Hardy had “the proper touch.” His bleak but unflinchingly realistic vision profoundly appealed to traumatized war poets. Prominent survivors—including Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and T. E. Lawrence—made pilgrimages to the author at his home, Max Gate, near Dorchester. Drawn to him for personal and poetic reasons, they hero-worshipped the Old Master. He responded by encouraging them, praising their work, and accepting them, at the beginning of their careers, as colleagues. Hardy's complex and often moving relations with these writers reveal his great reputation and influence between the wars.1 He helped them repair their ruined lives, gave them a living link to the tradition of English poetry, and restored their faith in cultural continuity.

At the turn of the century Hardy, father-figure to the Georgians, was the most controversial poet in England, and his reputation has continued to rise throughout the modern age. Ford Madox Ford maintained that he had founded the English Review in 1908 when no other journal would publish Hardy's “A Sunday Morning Tragedy.” Robert Frost, who lived in England just before the war, exclaimed “Hardy's my man,” called him an excellent poet, and praised him as “one of the most earthly wise of our time.” Frost's friend and disciple Edward Thomas published an essay on Hardy in the January 1913 issue of Poetry and Drama. D. H. Lawrence composed his brilliantly idiosyncratic “Study of Thomas Hardy” the following year, and Lascelles Abercrombie brought out a book on Hardy in 1919.

In the “Study,” Lawrence acknowledged Hardy as his master and wrote about his novels with admiration and affectionate understanding. Lawrence observed that there is in Hardy's novels, as Sassoon recognized when he read them in the trenches, “a great background, vital and vivid, which matters more than the people who move upon it. … Upon the vast, incomprehensible pattern of some primal morality greater than ever the human mind can grasp, is drawn the little, pathetic pattern of man's moral life and struggle.” In October 1916 Lawrence called Hardy “our last great writer.” The following month he placed him above the greatest masters of the novel: “They are all—Turgenev, Tolstoi, Dostoevsky, Maupassant, Flaubert—so very obvious and coarse, beside the lovely mature and sensitive art of … Hardy.”

In Thomas Hardy and British Poetry (1972), Donald Davie noted that “Hardy steered Lawrence, as for good or ill he steered Sassoon and Blunden, away from Eliot's and Pound's poetry of the ironical persona.” But Pound consistently praised Hardy's poetry and in 1992 thought Hardy “woke one to the extent of his absorption in subject as contrasted with the aesthetes' pre-occupation with ‘treatment.’” Though Eliot, Joyce, and Ford were still alive in 1934, Pound claimed that “nobody has taught me anything about writing since Thomas Hardy died.” In 1937 he wrote that in Hardy's Collected Poemsthere is a clarity. There is the harvest of having written 20 novels first.”

In his “Apology” to Late Lyrics and Earlier (1922), Hardy warned readers that his poems contained some “grave, positive, stark delineations,” and he quoted his credo in “In Tenebris”: “If way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst.” The man who'd feared in 1914 that English literature might be wiped out by the Germans, now maintained that we “seem threatened by a new Dark Age” and (like the survivors of the war) wondered “whether the human and kindred animal races [will] survive till the exhaustion or destruction of the globe.” In May 1917 he wrote Sassoon that he did not know how he could bear “the suspense of this evil time if it were not for the sustaining power of poetry.”

Davie mentioned Hardy's “elegiac and indignant celebration of pre-industrial values,” so cherished by the war poets, “which industrial technology had doomed.” David Perkins described his natural world, “composed of grays, bleakness, emptiness, chilling winds and rain, yellowing leaves, and mutely suffering creatures, with signs everywhere of dreariness, ominous threat, and blight”—the climate of suffering, relieved by his compassion and understanding.

Hardy responded deeply to the experience of war—the overwhelming event in the lives of Graves, Sassoon, and T. E. Lawrence. As Samuel Hynes observed, it “offered him a supreme dramatic example of the meaningless destruction which he found throughout existence.” Hardy wrote many fine poems, including “Channel Firing” and “In the Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations,’” which first prophesied and later described the horrors of the Great War. His finest work in this genre—“‘And There Was a Great Calm’ (On the Signing of the Armistice, Nov. 11, 1918)”—played on the phrase “dead calm” and expressed the qualities that most strongly appealed to the war poets: colloquial diction, sharp irony, cunning technique, complexity of theme, and clarity of vision as well as his characteristic sympathy and wisdom. The title comes from Matthew 8:26. During a storm at sea, when the men of little faith trembled, Christ “arose and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm”—which, in the poem, signals the end of the meaningless war. Instead of celebrating the conclusion of hostilities, Hardy suggested that peace now seems strangely unnatural and rather bitterly questioned why the war ever took place. Instead of offering a comforting answer, he rejected the Sinister Spirit's conclusion and merely repeated the unanswerable question at the end of the poem:

Calm fell. From heaven distilled a clemency;
There was peace on earth, and silence in
          the sky;
Some could, some could not, shake off misery:
The Sinister Spirit sneered: “It had to be!”
And again the Spirit of Pity whispered, “Why?”

In a perceptive summary, Irving Howe explained why Hardy's poetry profoundly appealed to the shell-shocked Graves, who'd been severely wounded and reported dead; to Sassoon, who'd won the Military Cross and then been sent to a sanatorium (instead of being shot) for opposing the war; and to T. E. Lawrence, who'd been captured and raped by a Turkish officer: “Hardy's ultimate concern is not with any immediate emotion, but with the consequences of emotion, survival beyond emotion: how a man lives through what it seems he cannot, and how he learns not to tamper with his grief and not even to seek forgiveness in his own eyes.”

In October 1919, Sassoon had brought Hardy the “Poets' Tribute,” an attractively bound book in which more than forty poets—including Graves, Sassoon, and D. H. Lawrence—“had each inscribed in Hardy's honour a copy of one of his own poems.” Hardy was not (like many writers) a great egoist. Always loyal to his friends, he had the uncanny ability to respond to the younger generation. He, too, was a survivor, gratified that his work was still highly regarded by the postwar poets and pleased that he himself was admired by war heroes. The “Tribute,” Hardy wrote using the third person, “was almost his first awakening to the consciousness that an opinion had silently grown up as it were in the night that he was no mean power in the contemporary world of poetry.”

Augustus John's great portrait of 1923 vividly captures the physical presence of the eighty-three-year-old Hardy. In three-quarter view, seated in front of a crowded bookcase, with bald dome, raised antenna-like eyebrows, beaky red nose, drooping mustache, and quizzical expression, Hardy grasps the lapels of his thick gray suit and stares clear-sightedly ahead, ruminating on the sad fate of mankind and on his own approaching death. The last of the great Victorian writers, Hardy was the only one to span the Edwardian and Georgian periods and take an active role in postwar literature—a modern without being a modernist. He'd attacked conventional religion and sexual morality, and after the fierce controversy aroused by Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure had stopped writing novels in 1895. But he was still subversive and startling, and published two volumes of poetry after The Waste Land had appeared: Human Shows (1925) and, at the age of eighty-eight, Winter Words (1928). Robert Graves later remarked that it was rare “to find a case like Hardy, who stopped writing poems for several decades then picked it up again in his sixties and went on to the eighties.” In Contemporary Techniques of Poetry (1925), Graves rejected most of his contemporaries and firmly aligned himself with the themes and style of Hardy and Robert Frost.

Graves first met Hardy when the older poet was awarded an honorary degree at Oxford in February 1920. That August Graves bicycled from Oxford to Dorchester to pay homage to the master, and later recorded his impressions in his autobiography, Goodbye to All That (1929). Hardy heartened Graves by emphasizing inspiration rather than revision: “I have never in my life taken more than three, or perhaps four, drafts for a poem. I am afraid of it losing its freshness.” And he encouraged Graves's natural inclination to reject technical experiment and write in traditional forms: “In his opinion, vers libre could come to nothing in England. ‘All we can do is to write on the old themes in the old styles, but try to do a little better than those who went before us.’”

Hardy also struck a sympathetic chord by expressing respect for military officers and compassion for ordinary men. When Graves responded to Hardy's query and said he no longer used his army rank, Hardy insisted: “But you have a right to it; I should certainly keep my rank if I had one, and feel very proud to be called Captain Hardy.” Referring to his own war work, he said that serving on the committee to prevent war-profiteering “was a hundred times better than sitting on a Military Tribunal and sending young men to the war who did not want to go.” A few days after the visit, Graves told Edmund Blunden, another great admirer, who would write a book on Hardy in 1942, that Hardy had “exceeded the most extreme expectations. Marvellous man!”

Three years later, in September 1923, T. E. Lawrence, another Hardy-worshipper, told Graves (then writing Lawrence's biography) an anecdote that Graves adapted to his own purposes. Lawrence, who would later translate the Odyssey, “said something a little reflecting on Homer: and he took me up at once, saying that it was not to be despised: that it was very kin to Marmion.” Lawrence emphasized Hardy's self-assurance and was impressed by the “man to whom Homer and Scott are companions: who feels easy in such presences.” Reporting the incident to Siegfried Sassoon in 1925, Graves subtly changed the emphasis to make Hardy's judgment seem somewhat absurd: “Lawrence and the Hardies are inseparable now it appears. It was to Lawrence that T. H. made his magnificently Hardyish remark. Lawrence had said something a trifle disrespectful of Homer and T. H. replied rather warmly: ‘Really, I have a far higher opinion [of it] than of the Iliad. It reminds me at times of Marmion.’” This favorite and now familiar anecdote resurfaced in Goodbye to All That with a pointed comment that again seemed to denigrate Hardy: “when Lawrence ventured to say something disparaging about Homer's Iliad, he protested: ‘Oh, but I admire it greatly. Why, it's in the Marmion class!’ Lawrence at first thought that Hardy was having a little joke.”

Sassoon, who knew Hardy much better than Graves did, sprang to his defense and strongly objected to what he considered Graves's intrusive and egoistic account.

Your article on Max Gate made things worse. As you ought to know, T. H. was an essentially private character. And the spectacle of the self-advertising antics of literary men exploiting their acquaintance with T. H. maddened me; and your article made me feel that you were making fun of him. There was too much about yourself and too little about his greatness. (The picture of him in your book is misleading, because it shows his simplicity without his impressiveness. Also you have got the Marmion anecdote wrong.)

Though Hardy's precise meaning remains obscure, he was far too shrewd to equate Scott with Homer. Most probably, he was reminding Lawrence, who admired his judgment, that Scott's long poem on the sixteenth-century battle of Flodden Field had once been held in very high esteem. Hardy himself had called it “the most Homeric poem in the English language.” By changing Hardy's words from “very kin to Marmion” to “It reminds me at times of Marmion” to “it's in the Marmion class!,” Graves enlivened the story but distorted the truth.

Sassoon's uncle, the sculptor Sir Hamo Thornycroft, was a friend of Hardy and had introduced his nephew to the poet. Hardy's fictional vision of rural England had consoled Sassoon at the battlefront, and his Satires of Circumstance influenced the bitterly satirical war poems that established Sassoon's reputation in 1920. In 1917 Hardy had accepted the dedication of Sassoon's Old Huntsman. Christie's 1975 catalogue of The Library of the Late Siegfried Sassoon lists seven presentation copies of Hardy's books; fourteen postcards and letters from Sassoon to Hardy; a holograph reproduction of “Catafalque,” his uncollected elegy on Hardy; and numerous references to Hardy in his correspondence with Graves, Lawrence, Edmund Gosse, and Sir Sydney Cockerell.

Sassoon's postwar Diaries contain many descriptions of his visits to Max Gate. On November 7, 1918—four days before the Armistice and two years before Graves turned up—Sassoon found Hardy “Frail and rather gnome-like in the candle-shine and dim room, with his large round head, vast brow, beaky nose and pendulous grey mustache.” He believed in the nourishing power of art and told Sassoon that he “feared (in 1914) more than anything else that English literature might be wiped out by the Germans.”

In February 1921 the thirty-three-year-old Sassoon was tremendously impressed by Hardy's physical agility and intellectual liveliness, and by an old age that made him seem rooted in the earth: “He is no age at all. … With the rural antiquity of an old tree or house but … eager and interested like a young man—and yet so wise, for all his simplicity.” In the early 1920s, Sassoon noted that Hardy was chirpy, talkative, and responsive to jokes. “Still full of curiosity about the world” and with a remarkable interest in current affairs, he had “the face of one who has suffered intensely, a face of almost unearthly wisdom.” Hardy took him back to the past (while Sassoon kept him in touch with the present) and seeing him, Sassoon felt, was “no doubt one of the precious experiences of my life.”

In September 1925 Sassoon recorded that the sprightly Hardy “once again amazed me by his vigour of mind and body.” Two years later, in a letter to Edmund Gosse, he described Hardy's most characteristic attitude—less formal and more relaxed than in the portrait by Augustus John:

“Perched on the least easy chair, supporting his head with one hand, & gazing downward with a gentle & rather wistful expression.” I noticed this evening—when the half-lit room was dealing gently with his face—the great beauty of his expression. There were some indications of an increasing weariness—“I think I've had enough of Napoleon!” he confessed to Sassoon [alluding to The Dynasts] on that same occasion—but no obvious slackening either of creative activity or of literary caretaking.

Sassoon's attitude to Hardy in his autobiography, Siegfried's Journey, 1916-1920, provides an adoring complement to Graves's more critical Goodbye to All That:

[His] modesty was instinctive and quite unaffected. … He was, in fact, a wise and unworldly man who had discarded intellectual and personal vanity. … The door of his mind always remained open to the ideas and speculations of the young. … I still looked on him as such an eminent and al