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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 448

The criticism of Jude the Obscure and Tess of the D’Urbervilles for their supposed immorality led Hardy to pursue seriously his longstanding ambition to write poetry. Appealing to a better educated, more sophisticated audience than novelists did, poets were given more latitude. The poems in Wessex Poems, the first of many volumes of poetry that Hardy was to publish, included some poems written as early as the 1860’s, as well as poems written specifically for the book. Wessex Poems received a mixed critical reception. The established poetical style of the Victorian age had grown stale, and Hardy—somewhat like his contemporary Gerard Manley Hopkins—sought a new poetry. Difficulties in Hardy’s syntax and his very eclectic diction led many of the first readers of the Wessex Poems—and many readers since—to find the poems in this volume sometimes awkward.

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Hardy employed a wide range of poetic forms in Wessex Poems: sonnets (including a sixteen line “sonnet” in the form pioneered by George Meredith), ballads, and dramatic monologues among them. In “The Impercipient,” Hardy makes ironical use of a metrical form common in Anglican hymns. Equally ironic is his use of the rigorous patterns of the sonnet to complain of the randomness of Fate in “Hap,” which is in this respect a forerunner of Robert Frost’s later sonnet, “Design.”

In “Hap,” Hardy concludes that the Fates could as easily have sent him happiness as sorrow in his life. In poem after poem in this volume, Hardy writes of frustration, loss, grief, and suffering. The loss of love brings pain; the loss of faith brings only regret; death brings grief. Even history is loss—of past achievement—provoking nostalgia that is as bitter as it is sweet. Perhaps the single most critically admired poem in Wessex Poems is the little lyric “Neutral Tones,” in which Hardy’s vivid description of the bleak setting of a meeting between disillusioned former lovers effectively conveys the emotion of the meeting. Another critically praised poem—one among many more—is “Nature’s Questioning,” in which ambiguity, complexity, and the open ending are characteristic of modern sensibilities. “The Dance at the Phoenix” uses ballad form effectively to trace the life of a woman from her uninhibited youth through her long and responsible marriage to one last revel before her death. “Thoughts of Phena” is Hardy’s deeply personal meditation on the death of a cousin who had once been close to him. Some critics in 1898 complained of the pervasive pessimism of the volume, but time has shown that in theme and tone Hardy’s Wessex Poems were better attuned to the direction poetry was to take, even before World War I.

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