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The Poetry of Mr Thomas Hardy

by J. Middleton Murry

One meets fairly often with the critical opinion that Mr Hardy's poetry is incidental. It is admitted on all sides that his poetry has curious merits of its own, but it is held to be completely subordinate to his novels, and those who maintain that it must be considered as having equal standing with his prose, are not seldom treated as guilty of paradox and preciousness.

We are inclined to wonder, as we review the situation, whether those of the contrary persuasion are not allowing themselves to be impressed primarily by mere bulk, and arguing that a man's chief work must necessarily be what he has done most of; and we feel that some such supposition is necessary to explain what appears to us as a visible reluctance to allow Mr Hardy's poetry a clean impact upon the critical consciousness. It is true that we have ranged against us critics of distinction, such as Mr Lascelles Abercrombie and Mr Robert Lynd, and that it may savour of impertinence to suggest that the case could have been unconsciously pre-judged in their minds when they addressed themselves to Mr Hardy's poetry. Nevertheless, we find some significance in the fact that both these critics are of such an age that when they came to years of discretion the Wessex Novels were in existence as a corpus. There, before their eyes, was a monument of literary work having a unity unlike that of any contemporary author. The poems became public only after they had laid the foundations of their judgment. For them Mr Hardy's work was done. Whatever he might subsequently produce was an interesting, but to their criticism an otiose appendix to his prose achievement.

It happens therefore that to a somewhat younger critic the perspective may be different. By the accident of years it would appear to him that Mr Hardy's poetry was no less a corpus than his prose. They would be extended equally and at the same moment before his eyes; he would embark upon voyages of discovery into both at roughly the same time; and he might find, in total innocence of preciousness and paradox, that the poetry would yield up to him a quality of perfume not less essential than any that he could extract from the prose.

This is, as we see it, the case with ourselves. We discover all that our elders discover in Mr Hardy's novels; we see more than they in his poetry. To our mind it exists superbly in its own right; it is not lifted into significance upon the glorious substructure of the novels. They also are complete in themselves. We recognise the relation between the achievements, and discern that they are the work of a single mind; but they are separate works, having separate and unique excellences. The one is only approximately explicable in terms of the other. We incline, therefore, to attach a signal importance to what has always seemed to us the most important sentence in Who's Who?—namely, that in which Mr Hardy confesses that in 1868 he was compelled—that is his own word—to give up writing poetry for prose.

For Mr Hardy's poetic gift is not a late and freakish flowering. In the volume into which has been gathered all his poetical work with the exception of 'The Dynasts,'[12] are pieces bearing the date 1866 which display an astonishing mastery, not merely of technique but of the essential content of great poetry. Nor are such pieces exceptional. Granted that Mr Hardy has retained only the finest of his early poetry, still there are a dozen poems of 1866-7 which belong either entirely or in part to the category of major poetry. Take, for instance, 'Neutral Tones':—

  'We stood by a pond that winter day,
  And the sun was white, as though chidden of God,
  And a few leaves lay on the starving sod;
    —They had fallen from an ash, and were gray.

  'Your eyes on me were as eyes that rove
  Over tedious riddles long ago;
  And some winds played between us to and fro
    On which lost the more by our love.

  'The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing
  Alive enough to have strength to die;
  And a grin of bitterness swept thereby
    Like an ominous bird a-wing….

  'Since then keen lessons that love deceives
  And wrings with wrong, have shaped to me
  Your face, and the God-curst sun, and a tree
    And a pond edged with grayish leaves.'

   [Footnote 12: Collected. Poems of Thomas Hardy. Vol. I.

That was written in 1867. The date of Desperate Remedies, Mr Hardy's first novel, was 1871. Desperate Remedies may have been written some years before. It makes no difference to the astonishing contrast between the immaturity of the novel and the maturity of the poem. It is surely impossible in the face of such a juxtaposition then to deny that Mr Hardy's poetry exists in its own individual right, and not as a curious simulacrum of his prose.

These early poems have other points of deep interest, of which one of the chief is in a sense technical. One can trace a quite definite influence of Shakespeare's sonnets in his language and imagery. The four sonnets, 'She to Him' (1866), are full of echoes, as:—

  'Numb as a vane that cankers on its point
  True to the wind that kissed ere canker came.'

or this from another sonnet of the same year:—

  'As common chests encasing wares of price
  Are borne with tenderness through halls of state.'

Yet no one reading the sonnets of these years can fail to mark the impress of an individual personality. The effect is, at times, curious and impressive in the extreme. We almost feel that Mr Hardy is bringing some physical compulsion to bear on Shakespeare and forcing him to say something that he does not want to say. Of course, it is merely a curious tweak of the fancy; but there comes to us in such lines as the following an insistent vision of two youths of an age the one masterful, the other indulgent, and carrying out his companion's firm suggestion:—

  'Remembering mine the loss is, not the blame
  That Sportsman Time rears but his brood to kill,
  Knowing me in my soul the very same—
  One who would die to spare you touch of ill!—
  Will you not grant to old affection's claim
  The hand of friendship down Life's sunless hill?'

But, fancies aside, the effect of these early poems is twofold. Their attitude is definite:—

  'Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain
  And dicing time for gladness calls a moan …
  These purblind Doomsters had as readily thrown
  Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.'

and the technique has the mark of mastery, a complete economy of statement which produces the conviction that the words are saying only what poet ordained they should say, neither less nor more.

The early years were followed by the long period of the novels, in which, we are prepared to admit, poetry was actually if not in intention incidental. It is the grim truth that poetry cannot be written in between times; and, though we have hardly any dates on which to rely, we are willing to believe that few of Mr Hardy's characteristic poems were written between the appearance ofDesperate Remedies and his farewell to the activity of novel-writing with The Well-Beloved (1897). But the few dates which we have tell us that 'Thoughts of Phena,' the beautiful poem beginning:—

  'Not a line of her writing have I,
  Not a thread of her hair….'

which reaches forward to the love poems of 1912-13, was written in 1890.

Whether the development of Mr Hardy's poetry was concealed or visible during the period of the novels, development there was into a maturity so overwhelming that by its touchstone the poetical work of his famous contemporaries appears singularly jejune and false. But, though by the accident of social conditions—for that Mr Hardy waited till 1898 to publish his first volume of poems is more a social than an artistic fact—it is impossible to follow out the phases of his poetical progress in the detail we would desire, it is impossible not to recognise that the mature poet, Mr Hardy, is of the same poetical substance as the young poet of the 'sixties. The attitude is unchanged; the modifications of the theme of 'crass casualty' leave its central asseveration unchanged. There are restatements, enlargements of perspective, a slow and forceful expansion of the personal into the universal, but the truth once recognised is never suffered for a moment to be hidden or mollified. Only a superficial logic would point, for instance, to his

  'Wonder if Man's consciousness
  Was a mistake of God's,'

as a denial of 'casualty.' To envisage an accepted truth from a new angle, to turn it over and over again in the mind in the hope of finding some aspect which might accord with a large and general view is the inevitable movement of any mind that is alive and not dead. To say that Mr Hardy has finally discovered unity may be paradoxical; but it is true. The harmony of the artist is not as the harmony of the preacher or the philosopher. Neither would grant, neither would understand the profound acquiescence that lies behind 'Adonais' or the 'Ode to the Grecian Urn.' Such acquiescence has no moral quality, as morality is even now understood, nor any logical compulsion. It does not stifle anger nor deny anguish; it turns no smiling face upon unsmiling things; it is not puffed up with the resonance of futile heroics. It accepts the things that are as the necessary basis of artistic creation. This unity which comes of the instinctive refusal in the great poet to deny experience, and subdues the self into the whole as part of that which is not denied, is to be found in every corner of Mr Hardy's mature poetry. It gives, as it alone can really give, to personal emotion what is called the impersonality of great poetry. We feel it as a sense of background, a conviction that a given poem is not the record, but the culmination of an experience, and that the experience of which it is the culmination is far larger and more profound than the one which it seems to record.

At the basis of great poetry lies an all-embracing realism, an adequacy to all experience, a refusal of the merely personal in exultation or dismay. Take the contrast between Rupert Brooke's deservedly famous lines: 'There is some corner of a foreign field …' and Mr Hardy's 'Drummer Hodge':—

  'Yet portion of that unknown plain
    Will Hodge for ever be;
  His homely Northern heart and brain
    Grow to some Southern tree,
  And strange-eyed constellations reign
    His stars eternally.'

We know which is the truer. Which is the more beautiful? Is it not Mr Hardy? And which (strange question) is the more consoling, the more satisfying, the more acceptable? Is it not Mr Hardy? There is sorrow, but it is the sorrow of the spheres. And this, not the apparent anger and dismay of a self's discomfiture, is the quality of greatness in Mr Hardy's poetry. The Mr Hardy of the love poems of 1912-13 is not a man giving way to memory in poetry; he is a great poet uttering the cry of the universe. A vast range of acknowledged experience returns to weight each syllable; it is the quality of life that is vocal, gathered into a moment of time with a vista of years:—

  'Ignorant of what there is flitting here to see,
    The waked birds preen and the seals flop lazily,
  Soon you will have, Dear, to vanish from me,
    For the stars close their shutters and the
        Dawn whitens hazily.
  Trust me, I mind not, though Life lours
    The bringing me here; nay, bring me here again!
      I am just the same as when
  Our days were a joy and our paths through flowers.'

[NOVEMBER, 1919.

We have read these poems of Thomas Hardy, read them not once, but many times. Many of them have already become part of our being; their indelible impress has given shape to dumb and striving elements in our soul; they have set free and purged mute, heart-devouring regrets. And yet, though this is so, the reading of them in a single volume, the submission to their movement with a like unbroken motion of the mind, gathers their greatness, their poignancy and passion, into one stream, submerging us and leaving us patient and purified.

There have been many poets among us in the last fifty years, poets of sure talent, and it may be even of genius, but no other of them has this compulsive power. The secret is not hard to find. Not one of them is adequate to what we know and have suffered. We have in our own hearts a new touchstone of poetic greatness. We have learned too much to be wholly responsive to less than an adamantine honesty of soul and a complete acknowledgment of experience. 'Give us the whole,' we cry, 'give us the truth.' Unless we can catch the undertone of this acknowledgment, a poet's voice is in our ears hardly more than sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.

Therefore we turn—some by instinct and some by deliberate choice—to the greatest; therefore we deliberately set Mr Hardy among these. What they have, he has, and has in their degree—a plenary vision of life. He is the master of the fundamental theme; it enters into, echoes in, modulates and modifies all his particular emotions, and the individual poems of which they are the substance. Each work of his is a fragment of a whole—not a detached and arbitrarily severed fragment, but a unity which implies, calls for and in a profound sense creates a vaster and completely comprehensive whole His reaction to an episode has behind and within it a reaction to the universe. An overwhelming endorsement descends upon his words: he traces them as with a pencil, and straightway they are graven in stone.

Thus his short poems have a weight and validity which sets them apart in kind from even the very finest work of his contemporaries. These may be perfect in and for themselves; but a short poem by Mr Hardy is often perfect in a higher sense. As the lines of a diagram may be produced in imagination to contain within themselves all space, one of Mr Hardy's most characteristic poems may expand and embrace all human experience. In it we may hear the sombre, ruthless rhythm of life itself—the dominant theme that gives individuation to the ripple of fragmentary joys and sorrows. Take 'The Broken Appointment':—

      'You did not come,
  And marching Time drew on, and wore me numb.—
  Yet less for loss of your dear presence there
  Than that I thus found lacking in your make
  That high compassion which can overbear
  Reluctance for pure lovingkindness' sake
  Grieved I, when, as the hope-hour stroked its sum,
      You did not come.

  'You love not me,
  And love alone can lend you loyalty
  —I know and knew it. But, unto the store
  Of human deeds divine in all but name,
  Was it not worth a little hour or more
  To add yet this: Once you, a woman, came
  To soothe a time-torn man; even though it be
      You love not me?'

On such a seeming fragment of personal experience lies the visible endorsement of the universe. The hopes not of a lover but of humanity are crushed beneath its rhythm. The ruthlessness of the event is intensified in the motion of the poem till one can hear the even pad of destiny, and a moment comes when to a sense made eager by the strain of intense attention it seems to have been written by the destiny it records.

What is the secret of poetic power like this? We do not look for it in technique, though the technique of this poem is masterly. But the technique of 'as the hope-hour stroked its sum' is of such a kind that we know as we read that it proceeds from a sheer compulsive force. For a moment it startles; a moment more and the echo of those very words is reverberant with accumulated purpose. They are pitiless as the poem; the sign of an ultimate obedience is upon them. Whence came the power that compelled it? Can the source be defined or indicated? We believe it can be indicated, though not defined. We can show where to look for the mystery, that in spite of our regard remains a mystery still. We are persuaded that almost on the instant that it was felt the original emotion of the poem was endorsed Perhaps it came to the poet as the pain of a particular and personal experience; but in a little or a long while—creative time is not measured by days or years—it became, for him, a part of the texture of the general life. It became a manifestation of life, almost, nay wholly, in the sacramental sense, a veritable epiphany. The manifold and inexhaustible quality of life was focused into a single revelation. A critic's words do not lend themselves to the necessary precision. We should need to write with exactly the same power as Mr Hardy when he wrote 'the hope-hour stroked its sum,' to make our meaning likewise inevitable. The word 'revelation' is fertile in false suggestion; the creative act of power which we seek to elucidate is an act of plenary apprehension, by which one manifestation, one form of life, one experience is seen in its rigorous relation to all other and to all possible manifestations, forms, and experiences. It is, we believe, the act which Mr Hardy himself has tried to formulate in the phrase which is the title of one of his books of poems—Moments of Vision.

Only those who do not read Mr Hardy could make the mistake of supposing that on his lips such a phrase had a mystical implication. Between belief and logic lies a third kingdom, which the mystics and the philosophers alike are too eager to forget—the kingdom of art, no less the residence of truth than the two other realms, and to some, perhaps, more authentic even than they. Therefore when we expand the word 'vision' in the phrase to 'æsthetic vision' we mean, not the perception of beauty, at least in the ordinary sense of that ill-used word, but the apprehension of truth, the recognition of a complete system of valid relations incapable of logical statement. Such are the acts of unique apprehension which Mr Hardy, we believe, implied by his title. In a 'moment of vision' the poet recognises in a single separate incident of life, life's essential quality. The uniqueness of the whole, the infinite multiplicity and variety of its elements, are manifested and apprehended in a part. Since we are here at work on the confines of intelligible statement, it is better, even at the cost of brutalising a poem, to choose an example from the book that bears the mysterious name. The verses that follow come from 'Near Lanivet, 1872.' We choose them as an example of Mr Hardy's method at less than its best, at a point at which the scaffolding of his process is just visible.

  'There was a stunted hand-post just on the crest.
    Only a few feet high:
  She was tired, and we stopped in the twilight-time for her rest,
    At the crossways close thereby.

  'She leant back, being so weary, against its stem,
    And laid her arms on its own,
  Each open palm stretched out to each end of them,
    Her sad face sideways thrown.

  'Her white-clothed form at this dim-lit cease of day
    Made her look as one crucified
  In my gaze at her from the midst of the dusty way,
    And hurriedly "Don't," I cried.

  'I do not think she heard. Loosing thence she said,
    As she stepped forth ready to go,
  "I am rested now.—Something strange came into my head;
    I wish I had not leant so!'…

  'And we dragged on and on, while we seemed to see
    In the running of Time's far glass
  Her crucified, as she had wondered if she might be
    Some day.—Alas, alas!'

Superstition and symbolism, some may say; but they mistakenly invert the order of the creative process. The poet's act of apprehension is wholly different from the lover's fear; and of this apprehension the chance-shaped crucifix is the symbol and not the cause. The concentration of life's vicissitude upon that white-clothed form was first recognised by a sovereign act of æsthetic understanding or intuition; the seeming crucifix supplied a scaffolding for its expression; it afforded a clue to the method of transposition into words which might convey the truth thus apprehended; it suggested an equivalence. The distinction may appear to be hair-drawn, but we believe that it is vital to the theory of poetry as a whole, and to an understanding of Mr Hardy's poetry in particular. Indeed, in it must be sought the meaning of another of his titles, 'Satires of Circumstance,' where the particular circumstance is neither typical nor fortuitous, but a symbol necessary to communicate to others the sense of a quality in life more largely and variously apprehended by the poet. At the risk of appearing fantastic we will endeavour still further to elucidate our meaning. The poetic process is, we believe, twofold. The one part, the discovery of the symbol, the establishment of an equivalence, is what we may call poetic method. It is concerned with the transposition and communication of emotion, no matter what the emotion may be, for to poetic method the emotional material is, strictly, indifferent. The other part is an esthetic apprehension of significance, the recognition of the all in the one. This is a specifically poetic act, or rather the supreme poetic act. Yet it may be absent from poetry. For there is no necessary connection between poetic apprehension and poetic method. Poetic method frequently exists without poetic apprehension; and there is no reason to suppose that the reverse is not also true, for the recognition of greatness in poetry is probably not the peculiar privilege of great poets. We have here, at least a principle of division between major and minor poetry.

Mr Hardy is a major poet; and we are impelled to seek further and ask what it is that enables such a poet to perform this sovereign act of apprehension and to recognise the quality of the all in the quality of the one. We believe that the answer is simple. The great poet knows what he is looking for. Once more we speak too precisely, and so falsely, being compelled to use the language of the kingdom of logic to describe what is being done in the kingdom of art. The poet, we say, knows the quality for which he seeks; but this knowledge is rather a condition than a possession of soul. It is a state of responsiveness rather than a knowledge of that to which he will respond. But it is knowledge inasmuch as the choice of that to which he will respond is determined by the condition of his soul. On the purity of that condition depends his greatness as a poet, and that purity in its turn depends upon his denying no element of his profound experience. If he denies or forgets, the synthesis—again the word is a metaphor—which must establish itself within him is fragmentary and false. The new event can wake but partial echoes in his soul or none at all; it can neither be received into, nor can it create a complete relation, and so it passes incommensurable from limbo into forgetfulness.

Mr Hardy stands high above all other modern poets by the deliberate purity of his responsiveness. The contagion of the world's slow stain has not touched him; from the first he held aloof from the general conspiracy to forget in which not only those who are professional optimists take a part. Therefore his simplest words have a vehemence and strangeness of their own:—

      'It will have been:
  Nor God nor Demon can undo the done,
      Unsight the seen
  Make muted music be as unbegun
      Though things terrene
  Groan in their bondage till oblivion supervene.'

What neither God nor Demon can do, men are incessantly at work to accomplish. Life itself rewards them for their assiduity, for she scatters her roses chiefly on the paths of those who forget her thorns. But the great poet remembers both rose and thorn; and it is beyond his power to remember them otherwise than together.

It was fitting, then, and to some senses inevitable, that Mr Hardy should have crowned his work as a poet in his old age by a series of love poems that are unique for power and passion in even the English language. This late and wonderful flowering has no tinge of miracle; it has sprung straight from the main stem of Mr Hardy's poetic growth. Into 'Veteris Vestigia Flammas' is distilled the quintessence of the power that created the Wessex Novels and 'The Dynasts'; all that Mr Hardy has to tell us of life, the whole of the truth that he has apprehended, is in these poems, and no poet since poetry began has apprehended or told us more. Sunt lacrimæ rerum.

[NOVEMBER, 1919.

* * * * *


Three months after this essay was written the first volume of the long awaited definitive edition of Mr Hardy's works (the Mellstock Edition) appeared. It was with no common thrill that we read in the precious pages of introduction the following words confirming the theory upon which the first part of the essay is largely based.

'Turning now to my verse—to myself the more individual part of my literary fruitage—I would say that, unlike some of the fiction, nothing interfered with the writer's freedom in respect of its form or content. Several of the poems—indeed many—were produced before novel-writing had been thought of as a pursuit; but few saw the light till all the novels had been published….

'The few volumes filled by the verse cover a producing period of some eighteen years first and last, while the seventeen or more volumes of novels represent correspondingly about four-and-twenty years. One is reminded by this disproportion in time and result how much more concise and quintessential expression becomes when given in rhythmic form than when shaped in the language of prose.'