What we can learn from Thomas Hardy. His unpretentious poetry still teaches lessons of directness and balance
The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, Volume Five: 1914-1919, edited by Richard Little Purdy and Michael Millgate. New York: Oxford University Press. 357 pp. $37. The Complete Poetical Works of Thomas Hardy, Volume Three. New York: Oxford University Press. 390 pp. $49. If I ever got mugged because of a thickness inside my coat pocket, the guy would be sorely disappointed. It's not a fat wallet but a paperback ``Selected Poems of Thomas Hardy.'' It's part of my viaticum, my survival kit for bus rides and lonely diners. It's replete with what Hardy himself called, during World War I, ``the sustaining power of poetry.''
I'm not alone in liking Hardy.
True, the TV generation knows him, if at all, as the author of a TV movie called ``The Mayor of Casterbridge.'' Still, the novels Hardy wrote to make money still sell, and make the paperback publishers money. The poems, too, are popular, in a sense. Well represented in anthologies of modern verse, the poems are frequently collected into volumes and introduced by professors and poets.
On the scholarly front, Samuel Hynes has been editing the poems, Richard Purdy and Michael Millgate the letters, for Oxford University Press. Far too expensive for the general reader, these volumes contain knowledge that, once it becomes widely known (Hynes's Oxford Author paperback edition of Hardy's poems, not yet available in the United States, shows the trickle-down theory at work), will make it easier for those of us who do like Hardy to understand why we like him so much.
Scholarly scruples and deep understanding help make Hynes's edition what he said he was aiming at, the edition Hardy himself would have wished. Hardy never stopped revising his poems; the kind and number of variants, and the process of revision -- ideally one of refinement -- are well documented by Hynes and make his work invaluable.
So what makes a Hardy poem? Is there a Hardy tradition? Is Hardy imitable? Does he speak to us today?
Looking at the lifework of the poet, we can say it has certain qualities which, in combination, make it unique -- and uniquely attractive. To wit: variety, music, and power.
Variety: Among the almost 1,000 poems Hardy published, it is hard to find two that look alike. As he said in one of his letters, ``poetry must have symmetry in its form, & meaning in its content.'' But not the same symmetry, not the same meaning. Hardy's poems reflect the wide variety of the real world, not the narrow confines of the thinker's schemes.
Music: Hardy had music in his blood. His father and grandfather were bandsmen; his first wife played the harmonium; Hardy lived music. Country music, true, but real tunes and rhythms, beats. His best poems have the anonymity and poignant universality of song. He was especially adept at refrains and mixing lines of different lengths. He measured time by syllables and refined the music until it seemed to be the sound of thought and perception.
Power: Like Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy is a poet of the heart. He had great fellow-feeling for animals, great powers of natural description, great dramatic instinct. Many of his poems tell stories. Unlike other modern poets -- Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Auden -- he did not traffic in esoteric symbols. He had a few ideas about fate and chance, but they are not profound and only occasionally distracting: As a rule, they occasion sympathy, suffering, understanding.
Hardy's peculiar qualities -- the variety, music, and power of his verse -- are known by us through his words. And Hardy got words from all over, including rural England, and combined them skillfully and oddly, with great love for their particularity. His style was unpretentious, casual. ``The rhythm of his verse,'' writes C. H. Sisson, ``with its hesitations, sudden speeds, and pauses which are almost silences, is the very rhythm of thought.''
In one letter (March 4, 1917), we read that ``When I set out for Lyonnesse'' was Hardy's favorite poem, ``as it has the qualities one should find in a lyric.'' (See text, next page.)
Notice that the poem is dated 1870. It recalls Hardy's first visit to St. Juliot on March 7, 1870. He was 30 years old, had written (not published) one novel and a little of another one, and was employed as an assistant architect. His employer was to rebuild the church there and had sent Thomas to take a plan. While there, Thomas met the sister-in-law of the vicar. Emma Gifford became his wife four years later. In a letter dated Dec. 23, 1914, Hardy wrote about the poem: ``It is exactly what happened 44
Exactly what happened. This is characteristic, and important. For Hardy, lyric needn't depart from what really happened to fulfill its purpose.
What purpose is suggested when, about a year later, he wrote to a friend: ``A curious thing, in a small way, has come to my knowledge. You know I have no high opinion of American literary criticism, yet I learn from their newspapers that the verses I copied out for you -- `When I set out for Lyonnesse' -- because I fancied they showed something of the song-ecstasy that a lyric should have (other than an elegiac lyric) have become quite well known in the U. States & much quoted. Isn't it heaping coals of
fire on my head! Not a soul in England -- neither bishops, clerk, nor people of the critical hierarchy -- has thought anything of them, so far as I know. Perhaps they are right, alas.''
That was 1918. Hardy is now recognized as one of the founders of modern poetry. But if we have learned the lesson of directness and colloquialism, we have yet to learn the lesson of form. Symmetry of form and meaning in content are still a good recipe for verse. There's no ``ecstasy'' without the combination. Until we learn the lesson of that balance, that fusion, Thomas Hardy will remain the most important 20th-century poet, the one we have most reason to love.
Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor. When I set out for Lyonnesse (1870)
When I set out for Lyonnesse,
A hundred miles away,
The rime was on the spray,
And starlight lit my lonesomeness
When I set out for Lyonnesse
A hundred miles away.
What would bechance at Lyonnesse
While I should sojourn there
No prophet durst declare,
Nor did the wisest wizard guess
What would bechance at Lyonnesse
While I should sojourn there.
When I came back from Lyonnesse
With magic in my eyes,
All marked with mute surmise
My radiance rare and fathomless,
When I came back from Lyonnesse
With magic in my eyes!
-- Thomas Hardy