Mr. Thomas Hardy
( Originally Published 1919 )
1. His Genius as a Poet
MR. THOMAS HARDY, in the opinion of some, is greater as a poet than as a novelist. That is one of the mild heresies in which the amateur of letters loves to indulge. It has about as much truth in it as the statement that Milton was greater as a controversialist than as a poet, or that Lamb's plays are better than his essays. Mr. Hardy has undoubtedly made an original contribution to the poetry of his time. But he has given us no verse that more than hints at the height and depth of the tragic vision which is expressed in Jude the Obscure. He is not by temperament a singer. His music is a still small voice unevenly matched against his consciousness of midnight and storm. It is a flutter of wings in the rain over a tomb. His sense of beauty is frail and midge-like compared with his sense of ever-lasting frustration. The conceptions in his novels are infinitely more poetic than the conceptions in his verse. In Tess and Jude destiny presides with something of the grandeur of the ancient gods. Except in The Dynasts and a few of the lyrics, there is none of this brooding majesty in his verse. And even in The Dynasts, majestic as the scheme of it is, there seems to me to be more creative imagination in the prose passages than in the poetry.
Truth to tell, Mr. Hardy is neither sufficiently articulate nor sufficiently fastidious to be a great poet. He does not express life easily in beautiful words or in images. There is scarcely a magical image in the hundred or so poems in the book of his selected verse. Thus he writes in I Found Her Out There of one who :
would sigh at the tale Of sunk Lyonesse
There could not be an uglier and more prosaic exaggeration than is contained in the image in the last line. And prose intrudes in the choice of Words as well as in images. Take, for example, the use of the word " domiciled " in the passage in the same poem about:---
that western sea,
There are infelicities of the same kind in the first verse of the poem called At an Inn:---
When we, as strangers, sought
They warmed as they opined
" Catering care " is an appalling phrase.
I do not wish to over-emphasize the significance of flaws of this kind. But, at a time when all the world is eager to do honour to Mr. Hardy's 'poems, it is surely well to refrain from doing equal honour to his faults. We shall not appreciate the splendid interpretation of earth in The Return of the Native more highly for persuading ourselves that : ---
Intermissive aim at the thing sufficeth,
is a line of good poetry. Similarly the critic, if he is to enjoy the best of Mr. Hardy, must also be resolute not to shut his eyes to the worst in such a verse as that with which A Broken Appointment begins : ---
You did not come,
There are hints of the grand style of lyric poetry in these lines, but phrases like " in your make " and " as the hope-hour stroked its sum " are discords that bring it tumbling to the levels of Victorian commonplace. What one does bless Mr. Hardy for, however, both in his verse and in his prose, is his bleak sincerity. He writes out of the reality of his experience. He has a temperament sensitive beyond that of all but a few recent writers to the pain and passion of human beings. Especially is he sensitive to the pain and passion of frustrated lovers. At least half his poems, I fancy, are poems of frustration. And they, hold us under the spell of reality like a tragedy in a neighbour's house, even when. they leave is most mournful over the emptiness of the world. One can see how very mournful Mr. Hardy's genius is if one compares it with that of Browning, his master in the art of the dramatic lyric. Browning is also a poet of frustrated lovers. One can remember poem after poem of his with a theme that might easily have served for Mr. Hardy—Too Late, Cristina, The Lost Mistress, The Last Ride Together, The Statue and the Bust, to name a few. But what a sense of triumph there is in Browning's tragedies I Even when he writes of the feeble-hearted, as in The Statue and the Bust, he leaves us with the feeling that we are in the presence of weakness in a world in which courage prevails. His world is a place of opulence, not of poverty. Compare The Last Ride Together with Mr. Hardy's The Phantom Horsewoman, and you will see a vast energy and beauty issuing from loss in the one, while in the other there is little but a sad shadow. To have loved even for an hour is with Browning to live for ever after in the inheritance of a mighty achievement. To have loved for an hour is, in Mr. Hardy's imagination, to have deepened the sadness even more than the beauty of one's memories.
Not that Mr. Hardy's is quite so miserable a genius as is commonly supposed. It is false to picture him as always on his knees before the grave-worm. His faith in beauty and joy may be only a thin flame, but it is never extinguished. His beautiful lyric, I Look into my Glass, is the cry of a soul dark but not utterly darkened :-
I look into my glass,
For then, I, undistrest,
But Time, to make me grieve,
That is certainly worlds apart from the unquenchable joy of Browning's " All the breath and the bloom of the world in the bag of one bee " 'but it is also far removed from the " Lo ! you may always end it where you will " of The City of Dreadful Night. And despair is by no means triumphant in what is perhaps the most attractive of all Mr. Hardy's poems, The Oxen : ---
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock,
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
So fair a fancy few would weave
In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
The mood of faith, however—or, rather, of delight in the memory of faith—is not Mr. Hardy's prevailing mood. At the same time, his unfaith relates to the duration of love rather than to human destiny. He believes in " the world's amendment. He can enter upon a war without ironical doubts, as we see in the song Men who March Away. More than this, he can look forward beyond war to the coming of a new patriotism of the world. " How long," he cries, in a poem written some years ago : ---
How long, O ruling Teutons, Slays, and Gaels,
But, perhaps, his characteristic attitude to war is to be found, not in lines like these, but in that melancholy poem, The Souls of the Slain, in which the souls of the dead soldiers return to their country and question a " senior soul-flame " as to how their friends and relatives have kept their doughty deeds in remembrance:---
" And, General, how hold out our sweethearts,
" And our wives ? " quoth another, resignedly,
Mr. Hardy has too bitter a sense of reality to believe much in the glory of war. His imagination has always been curiously interested in soldiers, but that is more because they have added a touch of colour to the tragic game of life than because he is on the side of the military show. One has only to read The Dynasts along with 'Barrack-room Ballads to see that the attitude of Mr. Hardy to war is the attitude of the brooding artist in contrast with that of the music-hall politician. Not that Mr. Kipling did not tell us some truths about the fate of our fellows, but he related them to an atmosphere that savoured of beer and tobacco rather than of eternity. The real world to Mr. Hardy is the world of ancient human things, in which war has come to be a hideous irrelevance. That is what he makes emphatically clear in In the Time of the' Breaking of Nations : ---
Only a man harrowing clods
Only thin smoke without flame
Yonder a maid and her wight
It may be thought, on the other hand, that Mr. Hardy's poems about war are no more expressive of tragic futility than his poems about love. Futility and frustration are ever-recurring themes in both. His lovers, like his soldiers, rot in the grave defeated of their glory. Lovers are always severed both in life and in death : ---
Rain on the windows, creaking doors,
In Beyond the Last Lamp we have the same mournful cry over severance. There are few sadder poems than this with its tristful refrain, even in the works of Mr. Hardy. It is too long to quote in full, but one may give the last verses of this lyric of lovers in a lane :
When I retrod that watery way
Though thirty years of blur and blot
Whither ? Who knows, indeed. . . . And yet
And death is no kinder than life to lovers ;--
I shall rot here, with those whom in their day
No shade of pinnacle or tree or tower,
Mr. Hardy, fortunately, has the genius to express the burden and the mystery even of a world grey with rain and commonplace in achievement. There is a beauty of sorrow in these poems in which " life with the sad, seared face " mirrors itself without disguise. They bring us face to face with an experience intenser than our own. There is nothing common in the tragic image of dullness in A Common-place Day : ---
The day is turning ghost,
Nothing of tiniest worth
Wanly upon the panes
In the poem which contains these verses the emotion of the poet gives words often undistinguished an almost Elizabethan rhythm. Mr. Hardy, indeed, is a poet who often achieves music of verses, though he seldom achieves music of phrase.
We must, then, be grateful without niggardliness for the gift of his verse. On the larger canvas of his prose we find a vision more abundant, more varied, more touched with humour. But his poems are the genuine confessions of a soul, the meditations of a man of genius, brooding not without bitterness but with pity on the paths that lead to the grave, and the figures that flit along them so solitarily and so ineffectually.
2. A Poet in Winter
In the last poem in his last book, Moments of Vision; Mr. Hardy meditates on his own immortality, as all men of genius probably do at one time or another. Afterwards, the poem in `which he does so, is interesting, not only for this reason, but because it contains implicitly a definition and a defence of the author's achievement in literature. The poem is too long to quote in full, but the first three verses will be sufficient to illustrate what I have said :
When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid's soundless blink,
If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
Even without the two other verses, we have here a remarkable attempt on the part of an artist to paint a portrait, as it were, of his own genius.
Mr. Hardy's genius is essentially that of a man who " used to notice such things " as the fluttering of the green leaves in May, and to whom the swift passage of a night-jar in the twilight has " been a familiar sight." He is one of the most sensitive observers of nature who have written English prose. It may !even be that he will be remembered longer for his studies of nature than for his studies of human nature. His days are among his greatest characters, as in the wonderful scene on the heath in the opening of The Return of the Native. He would have written well of the world, one can imagine, even if he had found it un-inhabited. But his sensitiveness is not merely sensitiveness of the eye : it is also sensitiveness of the heart. He has, indeed, that hypersensitive sort of temperament, as the verse about the hedgehog suggests, which is the victim at once of pity and of a feeling of hopeless helplessness. Never anywhere else has there been such a world of pity put into a quotation as Mr. Hardy has put into that line and a half from The Two Gentle-men of Verona, which he placed on the title-page of Tess of the D'Urbervilles :---
Poor wounded name, my bosom as a bed!
Shall lodge thee!
In the use to which he put these words Mr. Hardy, may be said to have added to the poetry of Shakespeare. He gave them a new imaginative context, and poured his own heart into them. For the same helpless pity which he feels for dumb creatures he feels for men and women :
He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
It is the spirit of pity brooding over the landscape in Mr. Hardy's books that makes them an original and beautiful contribution to literature, in spite of his endless errors as an artist.
His last book is a reiteration both of his genius and of his errors. As we read the hundred and sixty or so poems it contains we get the impression of genius presiding over a multitude of errors. There are not half a dozen poems in the book the discovery of which, should the author's name be forgotten, would send the critics in quest of other work from the same magician's hand. One feels safe in prophesying immortality for only two, The. Oxen and In Time of "the Breaking of Nations ", ; and these have already appeared in the selection of the author's poems published in the Golden Treasury Series. The fact that the entirely new poems contain nothing on the plane of immortality, however, does not mean that Moments of Vision is a book of verse about which one has the right to, be indifferent. No writer who is so concerned as Mr. Hardy with setting down 'what his eyes and heart have told him can be regarded with indifference. Mr. Hardy's art is lame, but it carries the burden of genius. He may be a stammerer ,as a poet, but he stammers in words of his own concerning a vision of his own. When he notes. the bird flying past in the dusk, " like an eye-lid's soundless blink," he does not achieve music, but he chronicles an experience, not merely echoes one, with such exact truth as to make it immortally a part of all experience. There is nothing borrowed or secondhand, again, in Mr. Hardy's grim vision of the yew-trees in the churchyard by moonlight in Jubilate :
The yew-tree arms, glued hard to the stiff, stark air, Hung still in the village sky as theatre-scenes.
Mr. Hardy may not enable us to hear the music which is more than the music of the earth, but he enables us to see what he saw. He communicates his spectacle of the world. He builds his house lopsided, harsh, and with the windows in unusual places ; but it is his own house, the house of a seer, of a personality. That is what we are aware of in such a poem as On Sturminster Foot Bridge, in which perfect and precise observation of nature is allied to intolerably prosaic, utterance. The first verse of this poem runs : ---
Reticulations creep upon the slack stream's face
One could make as good music as that out of a milk-cart. One would accept such musicless verse only from a man of genius. But even here Mr. Hardy takes us home with him and makes us stand by his side and listen to the clucking stream. He takes us home with him again in the poem called Overlooking the 'River Stour, which begins :
The swallows flew in the curves of an eight
Planing up shavings made of spray,
In this poem we find observation leaping into song in one line and hobbling into a hard-wrought image in another. Both the line in which the first appears, however ---
Like little crossbows animate,
and the line in which the second happen---
Planing up shavings made of spray,
equally make us feel how watchful and earnest an observer is Mr. Hardy. He is a man, we realize, to whom bird and river, heath and stone, road and field and tree, mean immensely more than to his fellows. I do not suggest that he observes nature without bias--that he mirrors the procession of visible things with the delight of a child or a lyric poet. He makes nature his mirror as well as himself a mirror of nature. He colours it with all his sadness, his helplessness, his (if one may invent the word and use it without offence) warpedness. If I am not mistaken, he once compared a bleak morning in The Woodlanders to the face of a still-born baby. He loves to dwell on the uncomfortable moods of nature—on such things as:---
. . . the watery light
concerning which moon he goes on to describe how :
Green-rheumed clouds were hurrying past where mute and cold it globed
This, I fear, is a failure, but it is a failure in a common mood of the"author's. It is a mood in which nature looks out at us, almost ludicrous in its melancholy. In such a poem as that from which I have quoted, it is as though we saw nature with a drip on the end of its nose. Mr. Hardy's is something different from a tragic vision. It is a desolate, disheartening, and, in a way, morbid vision. We wander with him too often under---
Gaunt trees that interlace,
And Mr. Hardy's vision of the life of men and women transgresses similarly into a denial of gladness. His gloom, we feel, goes too far. It goes so far that we are tempted at times to think of it as a factitious gloom. He writes a poem called Honeymoon Time at an Inn, and this is the characteristic atmosphere in which he introduces us to the bridegroom and bride :
At the shiver of morning, a little before the false dawn,
There are no happy lovers or happy marriages in Mr. Hardy's world. Such people as are happy, would not be happy if only they knew the truth. Many of Mr.
Hardy's poems are, as I have already said, dramatic lyrics on the pattern invented by Robert Browning short stories in verse. But there is a certain air of triumph even in Browning's tragic figures. Mr. Hardy's figures are the inmates of despair. Browning's love-poems belong to heroic literature. Mr. Hardy's love-poems belong to the literature of downheartedness. Browning's men and women are men and women who have had the courage of their love, or who are shown at least against a background of Browning's own courage. Mr. Hardy's men and women do not know the wild faith of love. They have not the courage even of their sins. They are helpless as fishes in a net—a scarcely rebellious population of the ill-matched and the ill-starred.
Many of the poems in his last book fail through a lack of imaginative energy. It is imaginative energy that makes the reading of a great tragedy like King Lear not a depressing, but an exalting experience. But is there anything save depression to be got from reading such a poem as A Caged Goldfinch ; ---
Within a churchyard, on a recent grave,
There was inquiry in its wistful eye,
True, a woman was found drowned the day ensuing,
Apart even from the ludicrous associations which modern slang has given the last phrase, making it look like a queer pun, this poem seems to one to drive sorrow over the edge of the ridiculous. That goldfinch has surely escaped from a Max-Beerbohm parody. The ingenuity with which Mr. Hardy plots tragic situations for his characters in some of his other poems is, indeed, in repeated danger of misleading him into parody. One of his poems tells, for instance, how a stranger finds an old man scrubbing a Statue of Liberty in a city square, and, hearing he does it for love, hails him as " Liberty's knight divine." The old man confesses that he does not care twopence for Liberty, and declares that he keeps the statue clean in memory of his beautiful daughter, who had sat as a model for it —a girl fair in fame as in form. In the interests of his plot and his dismal philosophy, Mr. Hardy identifies the stranger with the sculptor of the statue, and dismisses us with his blighting aside on the old man's credulous love of his dead daughter :
Answer I gave not. Of that form
This is worse than optimism.
It is only fair to say that, though poem after poem including the one about the fat young man whom the doctors gave only six months to live unless he walked a great deal, and who therefore was compelled to refuse a drive in the poet's phaeton, though night was closing over the heath—dramatizes the meaningless miseries of life, there is also to be found in some of the poems a faint sunset-glow of hope, almost of faith. There have been compensations, we realize in I Travel as a Phantom Now, even in this world of skeletons. Mr. Hardy's fatalism concerning God seems not very far from faith in God in that beautiful Christmas poem, The Oxen. Still, the ultimate mood of the poems is not faith. It is one of pity, so despairing as to be almost nihilism. There is mockery in it without the merriment of mockery. The general atmosphere of the poems, it seems to me, is to be found perfectly expressed in the last three lines of one of the poems, which is about a churchyard, a dead woman, a living rival, and the ghost of a soldier :
There was a cry by the white-flowered mound,
How much of the art of Thomas Hardy is suggested in those lines ! The laugh from underground, the deeper gloom—are they not all but omnipresent throughout his later and greatest work? The war could not deepen such pessimism. As a matter of fact, Mr. Hardy's war poetry is more cheerful, because more heroic, than his poetry about the normal world. Destiny was already crueller than any war-lord. The Prussian, to such an imagination, could be no more than a fly—a poisonous fly—on the wheel of destiny's disastrous car.
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