A British novelist, short story writer, and poet of the naturalist movement.. English novelist and poet
Thomas Hardy, OM (2 June 1840 – 11 January 1928) was a British novelist, short story writer, and poet of the naturalist movement, who delineated characters struggling against their passions and circumstances. The bulk of his work, set mainly in the semi-imaginary county of Wessex, is marked by poetic descriptions, and fatalism.
Thomas Hardy was born at Higher Bockhampton, a hamlet in the parish of Stinsford to the east of Dorchester in Dorset. His father was a stonemason and local builder. His mother was ambitious and well-read, supplementing his formal education, which ended at the age of 16 when he became apprenticed to John Hicks, a local architect. Hardy trained as an architect in Dorchester before moving to London in 1862. Five years later he returned to Dorset to work as Hick's assistant. He won prizes from the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Architectural Association.
In 1870, Hardy met Emma Lavinia Gifford, whom he married in 1874. Although he later became estranged from his wife, her death in 1912 had a traumatic effect on him. He made a trip to Cornwall to revisit places linked with her, and with their courtship, and wrote a series, Poems of 1912-13, exploring his grief. While he married his secretary Florence Dugdale in 1914, who was 40 years his junior and whom he had met in 1905, Hardy remained preoccupied with Emma's sudden death, trying to overcome his remorse by creating poetry.
The writer Robert Graves, in his autobiography Goodbye to All That, recalls meeting Hardy in Dorset in the early 1920s. Hardy received Graves and his newly married wife warmly, and was encouraging about the younger author's work.
Hardy's religious life seems to have been a mixture of agnosticism and spiritism. Once when asked in correspondence by a clergyman about the question of reconciling the horrors of pain with the goodness of a loving God Hardy replied,
"Mr. Hardy regrets that he is unable to offer any hypothesis which would reconcile the existence of such evils as Dr. Grosart describes with the idea of omnipotent goodness. Perhaps Dr. Grosart might be helped to a provisional view of the universe by the recently published Life of Darwin, and the works of Herbert Spencer, and other agnostics."
Nevertheless, Hardy frequently conceived of, and wrote about, spiritual forces that control the universe, more through indifference or caprice than any firm will. Also, Hardy showed in his writing some degree of fascination with ghosts and spirits. Despite these sentiments, Hardy retained a strong emotional attachment to the Christian liturgy and church rituals, particularly as manifested in rural communities, that had been such a formative influence in his early years. Some attributed the bleak outlook of many of his novels as reflecting his view of the absence of God.
Hardy fell ill with pleurisy in December 1927 and died in January 1928, having dictated his final poem to his wife on his deathbed. His funeral, on 16 January at Westminster Abbey, was a controversial occasion: his family and friends had wished him to be buried at Stinsford but his executor, Sir Sydney Carlyle Cockerell, had insisted he should be placed in Poets' Corner. A compromise was reached whereby his heart was buried at Stinsford with Emma and his ashes were interred in Poets' Corner in the abbey. Hardy's cottage at Bockhampton and Max Gate in Dorchester are owned by the National Trust. Hardy's work was admired by many authors, amongst them D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. In 1910 he was awarded the Order of Merit.
Shortly after Hardy's death, his letters and notebooks were burnt by the executors of his estate. Twelve records survived, one of them containing notes and extracts of newspaper stories from the 1820s. Research into these provided clever insight in how Hardy kept track of them and how he used them in his later work.
In 1898 Hardy published his first volume of poetry, Wessex Poems, a collection of poems written over 30 years. Hardy claimed poetry was his first love, and published collections until his death in 1928. Although not as well received by his contemporaries as his novels had been, Hardy's poetry has been applauded considerably in recent years, in part because of the influence of Philip Larkin. However, critically it is still not considered as highly as his prose.
Most of his poems deal with themes of disappointment in love and life, and mankind's long struggle against indifference to human suffering. Some, like The Darkling Thrush and An August Midnight are thought of as poems about writing poetry, because the nature mentioned in them gives Hardy the inspiration to write those. A vein of regret tinges his often seemingly banal themes. His compositions range in style from the three-volume epic closet drama Dynasts to smaller, and often hopeful or even cheerful ballads of the moment such as the little-known The Children and Sir Nameless, a comic poem inspired by the tombs of the Martyns, builders of Athelhampton. Here is The Darkling Thrush dated 31 December 1900:
- I leant upon a coppice gate
- When Frost was spectre-grey,
- 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 agèd 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 blessèd Hope, whereof he knew
- And I was unaware.
This has elements typical of Hardy's work. The first person voice; an incident in nature triggering deep reflections; the bucolic setting; the desolate landscape; the struggle of small forces against inimical nature; the possibility of redemption. Note the formal rhythm and rhyme, the high poetic tone, and simple phrases such as "happy good-night air".
Composer Lee Hoiby's setting of this song is the basis of the multimedia opera "Darkling." Other composers who set Hardy's text to music include Gerald Finzi, who produced 6 song-cycles for poems by Hardy, and Benjamin Britten, whose song cycle Winter Words is based on Hardy's poetry.