When, about Christmas time in 1898, Mr. Hardy's admirers, who were expecting from him a new novel, received instead a thick volume of verse, there was mingled with their sympathy and respect a little disappointment and a great failure in apprehension. Those who were not rude enough to suggest that a cobbler should stick to his last, reminded one another that many novelists had sought relaxation by trifling with the Muses. Thackeray had published Ballads, and George Eliot had expatiated in a Legend of Jubal. No one thought the worse of Coningsby because its author had produced a Revolutionary Epic. It took some time for even intelligent criticism to see that the new Wessex Poems did not fall into this accidental category, and still, after twenty years, there survives a tendency to take the verse of Mr. Hardy, abundant and solid as it has become, as a mere subsidiary and ornamental appendage to his novels. It is still necessary to insist on the complete independence of his career as a poet, and to point out that if he had never published a page of prose he would deserve to rank high among the writers of his country on the score of the eight volumes of his verse. It is as a lyrical poet, and solely as a lyrical poet, that I propose to speak of him to-day.
It has been thought extraordinary that Cowper was over fifty when he published his first secular verses, but[Pg 234] Mr. Hardy was approaching his sixtieth year when he sent Wessex Poems to the press. Such self-restraint—"none hath by more studious ways endeavoured, and with more unwearied spirit none shall"—has always fascinated the genuine artist, but few have practised it with so much tenacity. When the work of Mr. Hardy is completed, nothing, it is probable, will more strike posterity than its unity, its consistency. He has given proof, as scarce any other modern writer has done, of tireless constancy of resolve. His novels formed an unbroken series from the Desperate Remedies of 1871 to The Well-Beloved of 1897. In the fulness of his success, and unseduced by all temptation, he closed that chapter of his career, and has kept it closed. Since 1898 he has been, persistently and periodically, a poet and nothing else. That he determined, for reasons best left to his own judgment, to defer the exhibition of his verse until he had completed his work in prose, ought not to prejudice criticism in its analysis of the lyrics and the colossal dramatic panorama. Mr. Hardy, exclusively as a poet, demands our undivided attention.
It is legitimate to speculate on other probable causes of Mr. Hardy's delay. From such information as lies scattered before us, we gather that it was from 1865 to 1867 that he originally took poetry to be his vocation. The dated pieces in the volume of 1898 help us to form an idea of the original character of his utterance. On the whole it was very much what it remains in the pieces composed after a lapse of half a century. Already, as a very young man, Mr. Hardy possessed his extraordinary insight into the movements of human character, and his eloquence in translating what he had observed of the tragedy and pain of rustic lives. No one, for sixty years, had taken so closely to heart the admonitions of Wordsworth in his famous Preface to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Balladsto seek for[Pg 235] inspiration in that condition where "the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful forms of nature." But it may well be doubted whether Mr. Hardy's poems would have been received in the mid-Victorian age with favour, or even have been comprehended. Fifty years ahead of his time, he was asking in 1866 for novelty of ideas, and he must have been conscious that his questioning would seem inopportune. He needed a different atmosphere, and he left the task of revolt to another, and, at first sight, a very unrelated force, that of the Poems and Ballads of the same year. But Swinburne succeeded in his revolution, and although he approached the art from an opposite direction, he prepared the way for an ultimate appreciation of Mr. Hardy.
We should therefore regard the latter, in spite of his silence of forty years, as a poet who laboured, like Swinburne, at a revolution against the optimism and superficial sweetness of his age. Swinburne, it is true, tended to accentuate the poetic side of poetry, while Mr. Hardy drew verse, in some verbal respects, nearer to prose. This does not affect their common attitude, and the sympathy of these great artists for one another's work has already been revealed, and will be still more clearly exposed. But they were unknown to each other in 1866, when to both of them the cheap philosophy of the moment, the glittering femininity of the "jewelled line," the intense respect for Mrs. Grundy in her Sunday satin, appeared trumpery, hateful, and to be trampled upon. We find in Mr. Hardy's earliest verse no echo of the passionate belief in personal immortality which was professed by Ruskin and Browning. He opposed the Victorian theory of human "progress"; the Tennysonian beatific Vision seemed to him ridiculous. He rejected the idea of the sympathy and goodness of Nature, and was in revolt against the self-centredness of the Romantics. We may conjecture that he combined a[Pg 236] great reverence for The Book of Job with a considerable contempt for In Memoriam.
This was not a mere rebellious fancy which passed off; it was something inherent that remained, and gives to-day their peculiar character to Mr. Hardy's latest lyrics. But before we examine the features of this personal mode of interpreting poetry to the world, we may collect what little light we can on the historic development of it. In the pieces dated between 1865 and 1867 we find the germ of almost everything which has since characterised the poet. In "Amabel" the ruinous passage of years, which has continued to be an obsession with Mr. Hardy, is already crudely dealt with. The habit of taking poetical negatives of small scenes—"your face, and the God-curst sun, and a tree, and a pond edged with grayish leaves" ("Neutral Times")—which had not existed in English verse since the days of Crabbe, reappears. There is marked already a sense of terror and resentment against the blind motions of chance—In "Hap" the author would positively welcome a certainty of divine hatred as a relief from the strain of depending upon "crass casualty." Here and there in these earliest pieces an extreme difficulty of utterance is remarkable in the face of the ease which the poet attained afterwards in the expression of his most strange images and fantastic revelations. We read in "At a Bridal":—
"Should I, too, wed as slave to Mode's decree,And each thus found apart, of false desireA stolid line, whom no high aims will fireAs had fired ours could ever have mingled we!"
This, although perfectly reducible, takes time to think out, and at a hasty glance seems muffled up in obscurity beyond the darkness of Donne; moreover, it is scarcely worthy in form of the virtuoso which Mr. Hardy was presently to become. Perhaps of the poems certainly[Pg 237] attributable to this earliest period, the little cycle of sonnets called "She to Him" gives clearest promise of what was coming. The sentiment is that of Ronsard's famous "Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle," but turned round, as Mr. Hardy loves to do, from the man to the woman, and embroidered with ingenuities, such as where the latter says that as her temperament dies down the habit of loving will remain, and she be
"Numb as a vane that cankers on its point,True to the wind that kissed ere canker came,"
which attest a complexity of mind that Ronsard's society knew nothing of.
On the whole, we may perhaps be safe in conjecturing that whatever the cause, the definite dedication to verse was now postponed. Meanwhile, the writing of novels had become the business of Mr. Hardy's life, and ten years go by before we trace a poet in that life again. But it is interesting to find that when the great success of Far from the Madding Crowd had introduced him to a circle of the best readers, there followed an effect which again disturbed his ambition for the moment. Mr. Hardy was once more tempted to change the form of his work. He wished "to get back to verse," but was dissuaded by Leslie Stephen, who induced him to start writing The Return of the Native instead. On March 29th, 1875, Coventry Patmore, then a complete stranger, wrote to express his regret that "such almost unequalled beauty and power as appeared in the novels should not have assured themselves the immortality which would have been conferred upon them by the form of verse." This was just at the moment when we find Mr. Hardy's conversations with "long Leslie Stephen in the velveteen coat" obstinately turning upon "theologies decayed and defunct, the origin of things, the constitution of matter, and the unreality of time."[Pg 238] To this period belongs also the earliest conception of The Dynasts, an old note-book containing, under the date June 20th, 1875, the suggestion that the author should attempt "An Iliad of Europe from 1789 to 1815."
To this time also seems to belong the execution of what has proved the most attractive section of Mr. Hardy's poetry, the narratives, or short Wessex ballads. The method in which these came into the world is very curious. Many of these stories were jotted down to the extent of a stanza or two when the subject first occurred to the author. For instance, "The Fire at Tranter Sweatley's," first published by Lionel Johnson in 1894, had been begun as early as 1867, and was finished ten years later. The long ballad of "Leipzig" and the savage "San Sebastian," both highly characteristic, were also conceived and a few lines of each noted down long before their completion. "Valenciennes," however, belongs to 1878, and the "Dance at the Phœnix," of which the stanza beginning "'Twas Christmas" alone had been written years before, seems to have been finished about the same time. What evidence is before us goes to prove that in the 'seventies Mr. Hardy became a complete master of the art of verse, and that his poetic style was by this time fixed. He still kept poetry out of public sight, but he wrote during the next twenty years, as though in a backwater off the stream of his novels, the poems which form the greater part of the volume of 1898. If no other collection of his lyrical verse existed, we should miss a multitude of fine things, but our general conception of his genius would be little modified.
We should judge carelessly, however, if we treated the subsequent volumes as mere repetitions of the original Wessex Poems. They present interesting differences, which I may rapidly note before I touch on the features which characterise the whole body of Mr. Hardy's verse. Poems of the Past and Present, which came out in the first[Pg 239] days of 1902, could not but be in a certain measure disappointing, in so far as it paralleled its three years' product with that of the thirty years of Wessex Poems. Old pieces were published in it, and it was obvious that in 1898 Mr. Hardy might be expected to have chosen from what used to be called his "portfolio" those specimens which he thought to be most attractive. But on further inspection this did not prove to be quite the case. After pondering for twelve years on the era of Napoleon, his preoccupation began in 1887 to drive him into song:—
"Must I pipe a palinody,Or be silent thereupon?"
He decides that silence has become impossible:—
"Nay; I'll sing 'The Bridge of Lodi'—That long-loved, romantic thing,Though none show by smile or nod, heGuesses why and what I sing!"
Here is the germ of The Dynasts. But in the meantime the crisis of the Boer War had cut across the poet's dream of Europe a hundred years ago, and a group of records of the Dorsetshire elements of the British army at the close of 1899 showed in Mr. Hardy's poetry what had not been suspected there—a military talent of a most remarkable kind. Another set of pieces composed in Rome were not so interesting; Mr. Hardy always seems a little languid when he leaves the confines of his native Wessex. Another section of Poems of the Past and Present is severely, almost didactically, metaphysical, and expands in varied language the daring thought, so constantly present in Mr. Hardy's reverie, that God Himself has forgotten the existence of earth, this "tiny sphere," this "tainted ball," "so poor a thing," and has left all human life to be the plaything of blind chance. This sad conviction is hardly ruffled by "The Darkling Thrush," which goes as far towards[Pg 240] optimism as Mr. Hardy can let himself be drawn, or by such reflections as those in "On a Fine Morning":—
"Whence comes Solace? Not from seeingWhat is doing, suffering, being;Not from noting Life's conditions,Not from heeding Time's monitions;But in cleaving to the Dream,And in gazing on the gleamWhereby gray things golden seem."
Eight years more passed, years marked by the stupendous effort of The Dynasts, before Mr. Hardy put forth another collection of lyrical poems. Time's Laughingstocks confirmed, and more than confirmed, the high promise of Wessex Poems. The author, in one of his modest prefaces, where he seems to whisper while we bend forward in our anxiety not to miss one thrifty sentence, expresses the hope that Time's Laughingstocks will, as a whole, take the "reader forward, even if not far, rather than backward."
The book, indeed, does not take us "far" forward, simply because the writer's style and scope were definitely exposed to us already, and yet it does take us "forward," because the hand of the master is conspicuously firmer and his touch more daring. The Laughingstocks themselves are fifteen in number, tragical stories of division and isolation, of failures in passion, of the treason of physical decay. No landscape of Mr. Hardy's had been more vivid than the night-pictures in "The Revisitation," where the old soldier in barracks creeps out on to the gaunt down, and meets (by one of Mr. Hardy's coincidences) his ancient mistress, and no picture more terrible than the revelation of each to the other in a blaze of sunrise. What a document for the future is "Reminiscences of a Dancing Man"? If only Shakespeare could have left us such a song of the London in 1585! But the power of the poet culminates in the pathos of "The Tramp Woman"—perhaps the[Pg 241] greatest of all Mr. Hardy's lyrical poems—and in the horror of "A Sunday Morning's Tragedy."
It is noticeable that Time's Laughingstocks is, in some respects, a more daring collection than its predecessors. We find the poet here entirely emancipated from convention, and guided both in religion and morals exclusively by the inner light of his reflection. His energy now interacts on his clairvoyance with a completeness which he had never quite displayed before, and it is here that we find Mr. Hardy's utterance peculiarly a quintessence of himself. Especially in the narrative pieces—which are often Wessex novels distilled into a wine-glass, such as "Rose-Ann," and "The Vampirine Fair"—he allows no considerations of what the reader may think "nice" or "pleasant" to shackle his sincerity or his determination; and it is therefore to Time's Laughingstocks that the reader who wishes to become intimately acquainted with Mr. Hardy as a moralist most frequently recurs. We notice here more than elsewhere in his poems Mr. Hardy's sympathy with the local music of Wessex, and especially with its expression by the village choir, which he uses as a spiritual symbol. Quite a large section of Time's Laughingstocks takes us to the old-fashioned gallery of some church, where the minstrels are bowing "New Sabbath" or "Mount Ephraim," or to a later scene where the ghosts, in whose melancholy apparition Mr. Hardy takes such pleasure, chant their goblin melodies and strum "the viols of the dead" in the moonlit churchyard. The very essence of Mr. Hardy's reverie at this moment of his career is to be found, for instance, in "The Dead Quire," where the ancient phantom-minstrels revenge themselves on their gross grandsons outside the alehouse.
Almost immediately after the outbreak of the present war Mr. Hardy presented to a somewhat distraught and inattentive public another collection of his poems. It[Pg 242] cannot be said that Satires of Circumstance is the most satisfactory of those volumes; it is, perhaps, that which we could with the least discomposure persuade ourselves to overlook. Such a statement refers more to the high quality of other pages than to any positive decay of power or finish here. There is no less adroitness of touch and penetration of view in this book than elsewhere, and the poet awakens once more our admiration by his skill in giving poetic value to minute conditions of life which have escaped less careful observers. But in Satires of Circumstance the ugliness of experience is more accentuated than it is elsewhere, and is flung in our face with less compunction. The pieces which give name to the volume are only fifteen in number, but the spirit which inspires them is very frequently repeated in other parts of the collection. That spirit is one of mocking sarcasm, and it acts in every case by presenting a beautifully draped figure of illusion, from which the poet, like a sardonic showman, twitches away the robe that he may display a skeleton beneath it. We can with little danger assume, as we read the Satires of Circumstance, hard and cruel shafts of searchlight as they seem, that Mr. Hardy was passing through a mental crisis when he wrote them. This seems to be the Troilus and Cressida of his life's work, the book in which he is revealed most distracted by conjecture and most overwhelmed by the miscarriage of everything. The wells of human hope have been poisoned for him by some condition of which we know nothing, and even the picturesque features of Dorsetshire landscape, that have always before dispersed his melancholy, fail to win his attention:—
"Bright yellowhammersMade mirthful clamours,And billed long straws with a bustling air,And bearing their load,Flew up the roadThat he followed alone, without interest there."
[Pg 243]The strongest of the poems of disillusion which are the outcome of this mood, is "The Newcomer's Wife," with the terrible abruptness of its last stanza. It is not for criticism to find fault with the theme of a work of art, but only to comment upon its execution. Of the merit of these monotonously sinister Satires of Circumstance there can be no question; whether the poet's indulgence in the mood which gave birth to them does not tend to lower our moral temperature and to lessen the rebound of our energy, is another matter. At all events, every one must welcome a postscript in which a blast on the bugle of war seemed to have wakened the poet from his dark brooding to the sense of a new chapter in history.
In the fourth year of the war the veteran poet published Moments of Vision. These show a remarkable recovery of spirit, and an ingenuity never before excelled. With the passage of years Mr. Hardy, observing everything in the little world of Wessex, and forgetting nothing, has become almost preternaturally wise, and, if it may be said so, "knowing," with a sort of magic, like that of a wizard. He has learned to track the windings of the human heart with the familiarity of a gamekeeper who finds plenty of vermin in the woods, and who nails what he finds, be it stoat or squirrel, to the barn-door of his poetry. But there is also in these last-fruits of Mr. Hardy's mossed tree much that is wholly detached from the bitterness of satire, much that simply records, with an infinite delicacy of pathos, little incidents of the personal life of long ago, bestowing the immortality of art on these fugitive fancies in the spirit of the Japanese sculptor when he chisels the melting of a cloud or the flight of an insect on his sword hilt:—
"I idly cut a parsley stalkAnd blew therein towards the moon;I had not thought what ghosts would walkWith shivering footsteps to my tune.
[Pg 244]"I went and knelt, and scooped my handAs if to drink, into the brook,And a faint figure seemed to standAbove me, with the bye-gone look.
"I lipped rough rhymes of chance not choice,I thought not what my words might be;There came into my ear a voiceThat turned a tenderer verse for me."
We have now in brief historic survey marshalled before us the various volumes in which Mr. Hardy's lyrical poetry was originally collected. Before we examine its general character more closely, it may be well to call attention to its technical quality, which was singularly misunderstood at first, and which has never, we believe, been boldly faced. In 1898, and later, when a melodious falsetto was much in fashion amongst us, the reviewers found great fault with Mr. Hardy's prosody; they judged him as a versifier to be rude and incorrect. As regards the single line, it may be confessed that Mr. Hardy, in his anxiety to present his thought in an undiluted form, is not infrequently clogged and hard. Such a line as
"Fused from its separateness by ecstasy"
hisses at us like a snake, and crawls like a wounded one. Mr. Hardy is apt to clog his lines with consonants, and he seems indifferent to the stiffness which is the consequence of this neglect. Ben Jonson said that "Donne, for not keeping of accent, deserved hanging"; perhaps we may go so far as to say that Mr. Hardy, for his indifference to a mellifluous run lays himself open to a mild rebuke. He is negligent of that eternal ornament of English verse, audible intricacy, probably because of Swinburne's abuse of it. But most of what is called his harshness should rather be called bareness, and is the result of a revolt, conscious or unconscious, against Keats' prescription of "loading the rifts with ore."[Pg 245]
In saying this, all has been said that an enemy could in justice say in blame of his metrical peculiarities. Unquestionably he does occasionally, like Robert Browning, err in the direction of cacophony. But when we turn to the broader part of prosody, we must perceive that Mr. Hardy is not only a very ingenious, but a very correct and admirable metricist. His stanzaic invention is abundant; no other Victorian poet, not even Swinburne, has employed so many forms, mostly of his own invention, and employed them so appropriately, that is to say, in so close harmony with the subject or story enshrined in them. To take an example from his pure lyrics of reflection first, from "The Bullfinches":—
"Brother Bulleys, let us singFrom the dawn till evening!For we know not that we go notWhen the day's pale visions foldUnto those who sang of old,"
in the exquisite fineness and sadness of the stanza we seem to hear the very voices of the birds warbling faintly in the sunset. Again, the hurried, timid irresolution of a lover always too late is marvellously rendered in the form of "Lizbie Browne":—
"And Lizbie Browne,Who else had hairBay-red as yours,Or flesh so fairBred out of doors,Sweet Lizbie Browne?"
On the other hand, the fierceness of "I said to Love" is interpreted in a stanza that suits the mood of denunciation, while "Tess's Lament" wails in a metre which seems to rock like an ageing woman seated alone before the fire, with an infinite haunting sadness.
It is, however, in the narrative pieces, the little Wessex[Pg 246] Tales, that Mr. Hardy's metrical imagination is most triumphant. No two of these are identical in form, and for each he selects, or more often invents, a wholly appropriate stanza. He makes many experiments, one of the strangest being the introduction of rhymeless lines at regular intervals. Of this, "Cicely" is an example which repays attention:—
"And still sadly onward I followed,That Highway the IcenWhich trails its pale riband down WessexO'er lynchet and lea.
"Along through the Stour-bordered Forum,Where legions had wayfared,And where the slow river up-glassesIts green canopy";
and one still more remarkable is the enchanting "Friends Beyond," to which we shall presently recur. The drawling voice of a weary old campaigner is wonderfully rendered in the stanza of "Valenciennes":—
"Well: Heaven wi' its jasper hallsIs now the on'y town I care to be in..Good Lord, if Nick should bomb the wallsAs we did Valencieën!"
whereas for long Napoleonic stories like "Leipzig" and "The Peasant's Confession," a ballad-measure which contemporaries such as Southey or Campbell might have used is artfully chosen. In striking contrast we have the elaborate verse-form of "The Souls of the Slain," in which the throbbing stanza seems to dilate and withdraw like the very cloud of moth-like phantoms which it describes. It is difficult to follow out this theme without more frequent quotation than I have space, for here, but the reader who pursues it carefully will not repeat the rumour that Mr. Hardy is a careless or "incorrect" metricist. He is, on the contrary, a metrical artist of great accomplishment.[Pg 247]
The conception of life revealed in his verses by this careful artist is one which displays very exactly the bent of his temperament. During the whole of his long career Mr. Hardy has not budged an inch from his original line of direction. He holds that, abandoned by God, treated with scorn by Nature, man lies helpless at the mercy of "those purblind Doomsters," accident, chance, and time, from whom he has had to endure injury and insult from the cradle to the grave. This is stating the Hardy doctrine in its extreme form, but it is not stating it too strongly. This has been called his "pessimism," a phrase to which some admirers, unwilling to give things their true name, have objected. But, of course, Mr. Hardy is a pessimist, just as Browning is an optimist, just as white is not black, and day is not night. Our juggling with words in paradox is too often apt to disguise a want of decision in thought. Let us admit that Mr. Hardy's conception of the fatal forces which beleaguer human life is a "pessimistic" one, or else words have no meaning.
Yet it is needful to define in what this pessimism consists. It is not the egotism of Byron or the morbid melancholy of Chateaubriand. It is directed towards an observation of others, not towards an analysis of self, and this gives it more philosophical importance, because although romantic peevishness is very common among modern poets, and although ennui inspires a multitude of sonnets, a deliberate and imaginative study of useless suffering in the world around us is rare indeed among the poets. It is particularly to be noted that Mr. Hardy, although one of the most profoundly tragic of all modern writers, is neither effeminate nor sickly. His melancholy could never have dictated the third stanza of Shelley's "Lines written in Dejection in the Bay of Naples." His pessimism is involuntary, forced from him by his experience and his constitution, and no analysis could give a better definition[Pg 248] of what divides him from the petulant despair of a poet like Leopardi than the lines "To Life":—
"O life, with the sad scared face,I weary of seeing thee,And thy draggled cloak, and thy hobbling pace,And thy too-forced pleasantry!
"I know what thou would'st tellOf Death, Time, Destiny—I have known it long, and know, too, wellWhat it all means for me.
"But canst thou not arrayThyself in rare disguise,And feign like truth, for one mad day,That Earth is Paradise?
"I'll tune me to the mood,And mumm with thee till eve,And maybe what as interludeI feign, I shall believe!"
But the mumming goes no deeper than it does in the exquisite poem of "The Darkling Thrush," where the carolings of an aged bird, on a frosty evening, are so ecstatic that they waken a vague hope in the listener's mind that the thrush may possibly know of "some blessed hope" of which the poet is "unaware." This is as far as Mr. Hardy ever gets on the blest Victorian pathway of satisfaction.
There are certain aspects in which it is not unnatural to see a parallel between Mr. Hardy and George Crabbe. Each is the spokesman of a district, each has a passion for the study of mankind, each has gained by long years of observation a profound knowledge of local human character, and each has plucked on the open moor, and wears in his coat, the hueless flower of disillusion. But there is a great distinction in the aim of the two poets. Crabbe, as he describes himself in The Parish Register, was "the true physician" who "walks the foulest ward." He was utilitarian in his morality; he exposed the pathos of tragedy by dwelling on the faults which led to it, forgetful of the[Pg 249] fatality which in more consistent moments he acknowledged. Crabbe was realistic with a moral design, even in the Tales of the Hall, where he made a gallant effort at last to arrive at a detachment of spirit. No such effort is needed by Mr. Hardy, who has none of the instinct of a preacher, and who considers moral improvement outside his responsibility. He admits, with his great French contemporary, that
"Tout désir est menteur, toute joie éphémère,Toute liqueur au fond de la coupe est amère,"
but he is bent on discovering the cause of this devastation, and not disposed to waste time over its consequences. At the end he produces a panacea which neither Crabbe nor Byron dreamed of—resignation.
But the poet has not reached the end of his disillusion. He thinks to secure repose on the breast of Nature, the alma mater, to whom Goethe and Wordsworth and Browning each in his own way turned, and were rewarded by consolation and refreshment. We should be prepared to find Mr. Hardy, with his remarkable aptitude for the perception of natural forms, easily consoled by the influences of landscape and the inanimate world. His range of vision is wide and extremely exact; he has the gift of reproducing before us scenes of various character with a vividness which is sometimes startling. But Mr. Hardy's disdain of sentimentality, and his vigorous analysis of the facts of life, render him insensible not indeed to the mystery nor to the beauty, but to the imagined sympathy, of Nature. He has no more confidence in the visible earth than in the invisible heavens, and neither here nor there is he able to persuade himself to discover a counsellor or a friend. In this connection, we do well to follow the poet's train of thought in the lyric called "In a Wood," where he enters a copse dreaming that, in that realm of "sylvan peace," Nature[Pg 250] would offer "a soft release from man's unrest." He immediately observes that the pine and the beech are struggling for existence, and trying to blight each other with dripping poison. He sees the ivy eager to strangle the elm, and the hawthorns choking the hollies. Even the poplars sulk and turn black under the shadow of a rival. In the end, filled with horror at all these crimes of Nature, the poet flees from the copse as from an accursed place, and he determines that life offers him no consolation except the company of those human beings who are as beleaguered as himself:—
"Since, then, no grace I findTaught me of trees,Turn I back to my kindWorthy as these.There at least smiles abound,There discourse trills around,There, now and then, are found,Life-loyalties."
It is absurd, he decides, to love Nature, which has either no response to give, or answers in irony. Let us even avoid, as much as we can, deep concentration of thought upon the mysteries of Nature, lest we become demoralised by contemplating her negligence, her blindness, her implacability. We find here a violent reaction against the poetry of egotistic optimism which had ruled the romantic school in England for more than a hundred years, and we recognise a branch of Mr. Hardy's originality. He has lifted the veil of Isis, and he finds beneath it, not a benevolent mother of men, but the tomb of an illusion. One short lyric, "Yell'ham-Wood's Story," puts this, again with a sylvan setting, in its unflinching crudity:—
"Coomb-Firtrees say that Life is a moan,And Clyffe-hill Clump says 'Yea!'But Yell'ham says a thing of its own:It's not, 'Gray, gray,Is Life alway!'That Yell'ham says,Nor that Life is for ends unknown.
[Pg 251]"It says that Life would signifyA thwarted purposing:That we come to live, and are called to die.Yes, that's the thingIn fall, in spring,That Yell'ham says:—Life offers—to deny!'"
It is therefore almost exclusively to the obscure history of those who suffer and stumble around him, victims of the universal disillusion, men and women "come to live but called to die," that Mr. Hardy dedicates his poetic function. "Lizbie Browne" appeals to us as a typical instance of his rustic pathos, his direct and poignant tenderness, and if we compare it with such poems of Wordsworth's as "Lucy Gray" or "Alice Fell" we see that he starts by standing much closer to the level of the subject than his great predecessor does. Wordsworth is the benevolent philosopher sitting in a post-chaise or crossing the "wide moor" in meditation. Mr. Hardy is the familiar neighbour, the shy mourner at the grave; his relation is a more intimate one: he is patient, humble, un-upbraiding. Sometimes, as in the remarkable colloquy called "The Ruined Maid," his sympathy is so close as to offer an absolute flout in the face to the system of Victorian morality. Mr. Hardy, indeed, is not concerned with sentimental morals, but with the primitive instincts of the soul, applauding them, or at least recording them with complacency, even when they outrage ethical tradition, as they do in the lyric narrative called "A Wife and Another." The stanzas "To an Unborn Pauper Child" sum up what is sinister and what is genial in Mr. Hardy's attitude to the unambitious forms of life which he loves to contemplate.
His temperature is not always so low as it is in the class of poems to which we have just referred, but his ultimate view is never more sanguine. He is pleased sometimes to act as the fiddler at a dance, surveying the hot-blooded[Pg 252] couples, and urging them on by the lilt of his instrument, but he is always perfectly aware that they will have "to pay high for their prancing" at the end of all. No instance of this is more remarkable than the poem called "Julie-Jane," a perfect example of Mr. Hardy's metrical ingenuity and skill, which begins thus:—
"Sing; how 'a would sing!How 'a would raise the tuneWhen we rode in the waggon from harvestingBy the light o' the moon!
"Dance; how 'a would dance!If a fiddlestring did but soundShe would hold out her coats, give a slanting glance,And go round and round.
"Laugh; how 'a would laugh!Her peony lips would partAs if none such a place for a lover to quaffAt the deeps of a heart,"
and which then turns to the most plaintive and the most irreparable tragedy, woven, as a black design on to a background of gold, upon this basis of temperamental joyousness.
Alphonse Daudet once said that the great gift of Edmond de Goncourt was to, "rendre l'irrendable." This is much more true of Mr. Hardy than it was of Goncourt, and more true than it is of any other English poet except Donne. There is absolutely no observation too minute, no flutter of reminiscence too faint, for Mr. Hardy to adopt as the subject of a metaphysical lyric, and his skill in this direction has grown upon him; it is nowhere so remarkable as in his latest volume, aptly termed Moments of Vision. Everything in village life is grist to his mill; he seems to make no selection, and his field is modest to humility and yet practically boundless. We have a poem on the attitude of two people with nothing to do and no book to read, waiting in the parlour of an hotel for the rain to stop, a[Pg 253] recollection after more than forty years. That the poet once dropped a pencil into the cranny of an old church where he was sketching inspires an elaborate lyric. The disappearance of a rotted summer-house, the look of a row of silver drops of fog condensed on the bar of a gate, the effect of candlelight years and years ago on a woman's neck and hair, the vision of a giant at a fair, led by a dwarf with a red string—such are amongst the subjects which awaken in Mr. Hardy thoughts which do often lie too deep for tears, and call for interpretation in verse. The skeleton of a lady's sunshade, picked up on Swanage Cliffs, the pages of a fly-blown Testament lying in a railway waiting-room, a journeying boy in a third-class carriage, with his ticket stuck in the band of his hat—such are among the themes which awake in Mr. Hardy's imagination reveries which are always wholly serious and usually deeply tragic.
Mr. Hardy's notation of human touches hitherto excluded from the realm of poetry is one of the most notable features of his originality. It marked his work from the beginning, as in the early ballad of "The Widow," where the sudden damping of the wooer's amatory ardour in consequence of his jealousy of the child is rendered with extraordinary refinement. The difficulty of course is to know when to stop. There is always a danger that a poet, in his search after the infinitely ingenious, may lapse into amphigory, into sheer absurdity and triviality, which Cowper, in spite of his elegant lightness, does not always escape. Wordsworth, more serious in his intent, fell headlong in parts of Peter Bell, and in such ballads as "Betty Foy." Mr. Hardy, whatever the poverty of his incident, commonly redeems it by the oddity of his observation; as in "The Pedigree":—
"I bent in the deep of nightOver a pedigree the chronicler gaveAs mine; and as I bent there, half-unrobed,[Pg 254]The uncurtained panes of my window-squareLet in the watery lightOf the moon in its old age:And green-rheumed clouds were hurrying pastWhere mute and cold it globedLike a dying dolphin's eye seen through a lapping wave."
Mr. Hardy's love of strange experiences, and of adventures founded on a balance of conscience and instinct, is constantly exemplified in those ballads and verse-anecdotes which form the section of his poetry most appreciated by the general public. Among these, extraordinarily representative of the poet's habit of mind, is "My Cicely," a tale of the eighteenth century, where a man impetuously rides from London through Wessex to be present at the funeral of the wrong woman; as he returns, by a coincidence, he meets the right woman, whom he used to love, and is horrified at "her liquor-fired face, her thick accents." He determines that by an effort of will the dead woman (whom he never saw) shall remain, what she seemed during his wild ride, "my Cicely," and the living woman be expunged from memory. A similar deliberate electing that the dream shall hold the place of the fact is the motive of "The Well-Beloved." The ghastly humour of "The Curate's Kindness" is a sort of reverse action of the same mental subtlety. Misunderstanding takes a very prominent place in Mr. Hardy's irony of circumstance; as, almost too painfully, in "The Rash Bride," a hideous tale of suicide following on the duplicity of a tender and innocent widow.
The grandmother of Mr. Hardy was born in 1772, and survived until 1857. From her lips he heard many an obscure old legend of the life of Wessex in the eighteenth century. Was it she who told him the terrible Exmoor story of "The Sacrilege;" the early tale of "The Two Men," which might be the skeleton-scenario for a whole elaborate novel; or that incomparable comedy in verse, "The Fire at Tranter Sweatley's," with its splendid human[Pg 255] touch at the very end? We suspect that it was; and perhaps at the same source he acquired his dangerous insight into the female heart, whether exquisitely feeble as in "The Home-coming" with its delicate and ironic surprise, or treacherous, as in the desolating ballad of "Rose-Ann." No one, in prose or verse, has expatiated more poignantly than Mr. Hardy on what our forefathers used to call "cases of conscience." He seems to have shared the experiences of souls to whom life was "a wood before your doors, and a labyrinth within the wood, and locks and bars to every door within that labyrinth," as Jeremy Taylor describes that of the anxious penitents who came to him to confession. The probably very early story of "The Casterbridge Captains" is a delicate study in compunction, and a still more important example is "The Alarm," where the balance of conscience and instinct gives to what in coarser hands might seem the most trivial of actions a momentous character of tragedy.
This is one of Mr. Hardy's studies in military history, where he is almost always singularly happy. His portraits of the non-commissioned officer of the old service are as excellent in verse as they are in the prose of The Trumpet-Major or The Melancholy Hussar. The reader of the novels will not have to be reminded that "Valenciennes" and the other ballads have their prose-parallel in Simon Burden's reminiscences of Minden. Mr. Hardy, with a great curiosity about the science of war and a close acquaintance with the mind of the common soldier, has pondered on the philosophy of fighting. "The Man he Killed," written in 1902, expresses the wonder of the rifleman who is called upon to shoot his brother-in-arms, although
"Had he and I but met,By some old ancient inn,We should have set us down to wetRight many a nipperkin."
[Pg 256]In this connection the Poems of War and Patriotism, which form an important part of the volume of 1918, should be carefully examined by those who meditate on the tremendous problems of the moment.
A poet so profoundly absorbed in the study of life could not fail to speculate on the probabilities of immortality. Here Mr. Hardy presents to us his habitual serenity in negation. He sees the beautiful human body "lined by tool of time," and he asks what becomes of it when its dissolution is complete. He sees no evidence of a conscious state after death, of what would have to be, in the case of aged or exhausted persons, a revival of spiritual force, and on the whole he is disinclined to cling to the faith in a future life. He holds that the immortality of a dead man resides in the memory of the living, his "finer part shining within ever-faithful hearts of those bereft." He pursues this theme in a large number of his most serious and affecting lyrics, most gravely perhaps in "The To-be-Forgotten" and in "The Superseded." This sense of the forlorn condition of the dead, surviving only in the dwindling memory of the living, inspires what has some claims to be considered the loveliest of all Mr. Hardy's poems, "Friends Beyond," which in its tenderness, its humour, and its pathos contains in a few pages every characteristic of his genius.
His speculation perceives the dead as a crowd of slowly vanishing phantoms, clustering in their ineffectual longing round the footsteps of those through whom alone they continue to exist. This conception has inspired Mr. Hardy with several wonderful visions, among which the spectacle of "The Souls of the Slain" in the Boer War, alighting, like vast flights of moths, over Portland Bill at night, is the most remarkable. It has the sublimity and much of the character of some apocalyptic design by Blake. The volume of 1902 contains a whole group of phantasmal[Pg 257] pieces of this kind, where there is frequent mention of spectres, who address the poet in the accents of nature, as in the unrhymed ode called "The Mother Mourns." The obsession of old age, with its physical decay ("I look into my glass"), the inevitable division which leads to that isolation which the poet regards as the greatest of adversities ("The Impercipient"), the tragedies of moral indecision, the contrast between the tangible earth and the bodyless ghosts, and endless repetition of the cry, "Why find we us here?" and of the question "Has some Vast Imbecility framed us in jest, and left us now to hazardry?"—all start from the overwhelming love of physical life and acquaintance with its possibilities, which Mr. Hardy possesses to an inordinate degree.
It would be ridiculous at the close of an essay to attempt any discussion of the huge dramatic panorama which many believe to be Mr. Hardy's most weighty contribution to English literature. The spacious theatre of The Dynasts with its comprehensive and yet concise realisations of vast passages of human history, is a work which calls for a commentary as lengthy as itself, and yet needs no commentary at all. No work of the imagination is more its own interpreter than this sublime historic peep-show, this rolling vision of the Napoleonic chronicle drawn on the broadest lines, and yet in detail made up of intensely concentrated and vivid glimpses of reality. But the subject of my present study, the lyrical poetry of Mr. Hardy, is not largely illustrated in The Dynasts, except by the choral interludes of the phantom intelligences, which have great lyrical value, and by three or four admirable songs.
When we resume the effect which the poetry of Mr. Hardy makes upon the careful reader, we note, as I have indicated already, a sense of unity of direction throughout. Mr. Hardy has expressed himself in a thousand ways, but[Pg 258] has never altered his vision. From 1867 to 1917, through half a century of imaginative creation, he has not modified the large outlines of his art in the smallest degree. To early readers of his poems, before the full meaning of them became evident, his voice sounded inharmonious, because it did not fit in with the exquisite melodies of the later Victorian age. But Mr. Hardy, with characteristic pertinacity, did not attempt to alter his utterance in the least, and now we can all perceive, if we take the trouble to do so, that what seemed harsh in his poetry was his peculiar and personal mode of interpreting his thoughts to the world.
As in his novels so in his poems, Mr. Hardy has chosen to remain local, to be the interpreter for present and future times of one rich and neglected province of the British realm. From his standpoint there he contemplates the wide aspect of life, but it seems huge and misty to him, and he broods over the tiny incidents of Wessex idiosyncracy. His irony is audacious and even sardonic, and few poets have been less solicitous to please their weaker brethren. But no poet of modern times has been more careful to avoid the abstract and to touch upon the real.