Heir both to Hardy and—no less—to Pound,
At which address now are you to be found?
—Dick Davis, on Donald Davie
He does not think that I haunt here nightly:
How shall I let him know
That whither his fancy sets him wandering I, too, alertly go?—
—Thomas Hardy, “The Haunter”
A few months after Thomas Hardy’s death in 1928, and only weeks before his own, Sir Edmund Gosse recorded on two gramophone discs a memorial for his nearly lifelong friend. While Hardy lived, Gosse declared, “if an Englishman of culture was asked: ‘Who is the present head of your literature?,’ instinctively, without fear of discussion he would be answered: ‘Why, of course, Thomas Hardy.’” Gosse pronounced the top spot vacant, with no clear successor, though he knew enough of fame to add that any void Hardy left would be quickly filled.
Hardy’s final collection of lyrics, Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres, appearing posthumously that year, delayed the decline of his poetic portfolio, but not for long. Certainly, enough “discussion” of his importance had arisen by the early 1970s to prompt the English poet and critic Donald Davie’s compensatory claim that “in British poetry of the last fifty years (as not in American) the most far-reaching influence, for good and ill, has not been Yeats, still less Eliot or Pound, not Lawrence, but Hardy.” Davie’s assertion must have raised some eyebrows, particularly with those who saw (as many still see) Hardy as primarily a novelist. Even Davie himself, whose fealty was finally to Pound as much as to Hardy, qualified his statement with that deflationary “for good and ill.” In the end, Davie’s taste for modernist experimentalism led him to fault Hardy for the excessive modesty and “diminished expectations” of twentieth-century British poetry, what A. Alvarez in his introduction to The New Poetry (1962) denounced as “the gentility principle.”
Davie’s other telling qualifier, “As not in American [poetry],” suggests that, while the influence of Hardy was, like a river gas, permeating if not wholly salubrious in modern British poetry, it dissipated on its way across the Atlantic. But this fails to take in the entire scene, as Davie, who lived for years in the U.S., was in a position to know. What about Frost and Edwin Arlington Robinson, not to mention John Crowe Ransom, whose edition of Hardy’s poems was a bellwether of increasing American interest? Don’t they bear Hardy’s imprint as fully as Larkin and Auden? Even Davie’s beloved Pound lavishly praised Hardy on several occasions, acknowledging his debt in Guide to Kulchur (1938): “When we, if we live long enough, come to estimate the ‘poetry of the period,’ against Hardy’s 600 pages we will put what? … No thoughtful writer can read this book of Hardy’s without throwing his own work (in imagination) into the test-tube and hunting it for fustian, for the foolish word, the word upholstered.” This unlikely comment astonishes even more when one considers that the period Pound refers to extended well into the postwar years of high modernism. In 1934, Pound wrote in a letter from Italy that “nobody has taught me anything about writing since Thomas Hardy died.”
Davie’s assertion of Hardy’s influence in England served as the opening gambit of his landmark Thomas Hardy and British Poetry (1972), recently reissued, with supplemental essays on Hardy and others. Davie wrote the book in California during his ten-year stint at Stanford University, and his take on U.S. poetry tended to emphasize its break with British practice: “American poetry came to splendid maturity in the present century when American poets, if they needed to look outside America for guidance, at least looked elsewhere than to London,” e.g., to the symbolism and surrealism of Paris or to Freud’s Vienna.
On the whole Davie’s is a slippery book, and a number of the best essays in the new volume—“Hardy’s Virgilian Purples” (1972) and “Hardy and the Avant-Garde” (1961)— were not part of the original edition. While Davie’s remarkable chapter on “Hardy as Technician” makes for essential reading, much of what did appear there revealed Davie’s torn allegiance, which Dick Davis’s epigram above (first told to me by the poet Dana Gioia) deftly lampoons. Of the non-Hardy selections in With the Grain, particularly pungent are Davie’s considerations of Hugh MacDiarmid, David Jones, and a suite of essays on Basil Bunting, which readers of Davie’s fine prose collection Under Briggflatts: A History of Poetry in Great Britain 1960–1985 (1989) will want to savor.
All three of these authors may be found on the Poundian side of the Davie dichotomy. Ultimately, one is tempted to locate Davie’s address closer to Rapallo than to Wessex; for him, the lineage of Pound proved most vital for the future of Eng- lish verse. Briggflatts, Bunting’s extremely Poundian poem, Davie once argued, “is where English poetry has got to, it is what English poets must assimilate and go on from.” The same, I think, could not be said for American poetry, in which the modernism of Eliot and Pound—for good and ill —has been run by subsequent generations in all sorts of unforeseen directions.
The general aptness of Davie’s formulation notwithstanding, one spots immediately a number of important exceptions. Clearly, Hardy’s hold on later British poets was not exclusive. Doesn’t an insistent strain of modernism resound in not just Bunting but also the later, fractured sonnets and the Mercian Hymns of Geoffrey Hill, who is arguably the greatest living English poet? Conversely, if, as Davie implies, modernism has dominated the American scene, what first-rate poets has it influenced beyond, say, Berryman and maybe Lowell? Zukofsky? Olson? Cummings? Snyder? Duncan? Charles Wright? John Ashbery? One hundred years after Thomas Hardy confounded his readership by abandoning in mid-career novels for poems, it is clear, pace Davie, that in America Hardy has given rise to a parallel tradition.
Seen from some vantage point in the future, modernism—certainly the greatest experimental movement of the last hundred years—will loom large on the landscape of twentieth-century poetry, with The Waste Land among its High Sierras. But seen in the light of where it has led, namely to a cult of the avant-garde and to soulless postmodern blague, modernism, for all its greatness, has proven an end in poetry, not a beginning. If Bunting was Davie’s prescription for the ills of contemporary British verse, perhaps what American poetry most needs at the moment is a horse dose of Thomas Hardy.
For those intent on total immersion, the salmon-colored paperback of Hardy’s complete poems edited by James Gibson (Macmillan, 1982) may be easily acquired. Undoubtedly, not everyone will want to wade through the entire thousand pages, though I would agree with Philip Larkin that one can browse in Hardy “for years and years and still be surprised.” Despite its bulk, Larkin did not “wish Hardy’s Collected Poems a single page shorter.” From the walks of Columbia University, Mark Van Doren lobbed a similar caution to would-be anthologists, asserting that “no poet more stubbornly resists selection… . There is no core of pieces, no inner set of classic or perfect poems, which would prove his rank. … It is the whole of him that registers and counts.” Gosse, the first important critic to champion Hardy’s verse, disagreed, arguing that to present the poems in their best light would require an editor’s dry-eyed sifting and sorting.
The most prominent American selection of the poems appeared in 1960, under the stewardship of John Crowe Ransom. He had long been an admirer of Hardy’s poetry, contributing an essay to the special “Hardy Centennial” issue of The Southern Review (Summer 1940), which included pieces by Auden, R. P. Blackmur, Delmore Schwartz, F. R. Leavis, and Allen Tate. Ransom, whose own poetry so closely recalls Hardy’s, seemed the ideal conservator. The exchange of colloquial voices in “Eclogue,” the ballad-like music of “Captain Carpenter,” the wry tweaking of the divine in “Armageddon,” all flow seamlessly down from Hardy’s south of England to the American South. Take as one further example of kinship these stanzas from Ransom’s “Parting, Without a Sequel,” in which the envelope stanzas, rhymed abba, are a prosodist’s nod to the letter at the center of the action:
She has finished and sealed the letter
At last, which he so richly has deserved,
With characters venomous and hatefully
And nothing could be better.
But even as she gave it
Saying to the blue-capped functioner of doom,
“Into his hands,” she hoped the leering groom
Might somewhere lose and leave it.
That “blue-capped functioner of doom” is perfect Hardy, though Ransom has taken it out of the abstract and given it the face of a messenger. Hardy used different names for the same phenomenon: “Crass Casualty,” “purblind Doomsters,” “Spinner of the Years,” the “Immanent Will.” These impersonal forces wielded the scythe in Hardy’s world, often lopping off hopes and ruining lives. Ransom and his fellow New Critics identified Hardy’s preoccupation with “the irony of life,” finding something sustaining in him as well. “There is a Spirit beyond the Spirit of Irony,” Ransom wrote, “which we had best call the Classical Spirit. It is strong enough and wise enough to acknowledge the tragic event serenely because this bad luck has already been allowed for.” Yet as Davie points out, Ransom failed to avoid certain pitfalls bedeviling an editor of that strangely irreducible body of work. Inevitably, a selection can never be all Hardys to all readers. Where among the 125 poems Ransom included are “After a Journey,” “My Spirit Will Not Haunt the Mound,” or “At Castle Boterel”? How did “The Voice”— possibly Hardy’s greatest poem, certainly one of his best—slip so far in Ransom’s estimation as to warrant exclusion?
Despite such odd omissions, Ransom’s Hardy comes off winningly, due in no small part to the introduction. In it, Ransom makes clear his editorial slant: the poems, as he sees them, “are like quick but sure little dramas; or in their folkways they make us think of epics in miniature. But if we look for the genre which seems most likely to describe them we may call them fables.” Thom Gunn, another British poet transplanted to the Bay Area, elaborates on this dramatic strain in “Hardy and the Ballads” (1972). As Gunn points out, a fair majority of Hardy’s poems employs music derived from the ballad tradition. Of the mini-epic “During Wind and Rain,” he notes that “the genuine ballad mystery is its life blood,” that what has been elided from the narrative as it moves from point to point accounts for its peculiar power:
They clear the creeping moss—
Elders and juniors—aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat....
Ah, no; the years, the years;
See, the white storm-birds wing across.
Each stanza of the poem, which describes the inability of a family to fend off the depredations of time, begins hopefully and ends in foreboding, until the last, which ends in death:
They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them—aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And the brightest things that are theirs....
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the rain-drop
Tempus edax rerum. It is an old theme freshly handled here. “The years,” serving as a refrain in the poem’s four stanzas, press on as years are wont to do. And as they pass, wrenching changes occur, as above in the compressed move from the new beginning of furniture gleaming on moving day to the granitic finality of a tombstone streaked with rain. (It is worth noting that Davie saw this poem as essentially imagist in technique.)
Compare Hardy’s ballad music with that of another melancholy fable, “Eros Turannos” by E. A. Robinson (1869–1935):
She fears him, and will always ask
What fated her to choose him;
She meets in his engaging mask
All reasons to refuse him;
But what she meets and what she fears
Are less than are the downward years,
Drawn slowly to the foamless weirs
Of age, were she to lose him.
For Robinson, too, the years are a corrosive force, and it is his heroine’s fear of them and what she “knows of days” that lead her to choose badly in marriage. “Fate” makes an appearance; so do “the downward years.” “Foamless” recalls Hardy’s fondness for negatives such as “feverless” and “listlessness/ wistlessness.” (A telling exercise would be to tally Hardy’s use of words beginning with un-.) As in the Hardy, Robinson’s story ends on a dolorous note. Hardy received criticism for his relentless sadness, though for him the truth of things could only be got at through an unflinching look at the worst. The result, however, was often marked by what Larkin called “buoyancy and relish and toughness.” And in the man as in the poems, it turns out. Hardy’s second wife, Florence, once confided to a friend: “Hardy is now, this afternoon, writing a poem with great spirit: always a sign of well-being with him. Needless to say, it is an intensely dismal poem.”
Something in the music and muscle of Robinson’s poem enlivens it and draws us in. (Frost divined in Robinson a sense of play beneath “woes flat and final.”) The poem echoes Hardy, with an added lilt from W. M. Praed’s early nineteenth-century vers de société. Commenting on the ill-fated couple is a chorus of hard-bitten New Englanders, who observe the pair’s decline with a chilly stoicism:
Meanwhile we do no harm; for they
That with a god have striven,
Not hearing much of what we say,
Take what the god has given;
Though like waves breaking it may be,
Or like a changed familiar tree,
Or like a stairway to the sea
Where down the blind are driven.
The same weighing of alternate fates takes place in Hardy’s moving elegy to his (kissing?) cousin Tryphena Sparks, “Thoughts of Phena.” As Yvor Winters establishes in Edwin Arlington Robinson (1947), Robinson read and admired Hardy. Like Robinson, “Hardy wrote of the common life of his native region; his outlook was tragic; his style was both plain and powerful.” How fitting that Hardy, England’s first modern poet, should be admired by Robinson, the first modern American poet. Winters goes on to point out that while Hardy tended to describe the landscape and imply the situation, Robinson studied the situation and implied the landscape. This difference in method, however, does not obviate the affinity. Certainly the two poets had achieved the elusive combination of “plain and powerful.” Hardy the plain-stylist, just one of the poet’s many guises, takes a place alongside Hardy the imagist of “During Wind and Rain” (as described by Davie), Hardy the fabulist (Ransom), Hardy the balladeer (Gunn), and Hardy the epic poet of the Napoleonic Wars in The Dynasts (Gosse).
The unadorned, plain-spoken Hardy now serves as the basis for a new selection of the poems undertaken by the poet Robert Mezey, a former student of Ransom. Mezey, whose introductory essay provides an exemplary overview, understands thoroughly the difficulties of paring the works of this particular poet. Bemoaning the limitations of space which forced out poems not of the first water yet which contained some line or passage worth preserving, Mezey makes clear his criteria for those he does include: “for me, the essential Hardy is a master of the plain style,” and his best poems are “for the most part free of his more striking idiosyncrasies. Although a number of his finest poems are admittedly eccentric in style, he is generally at his best when his diction is most direct and simple.”
In this, Mezey follows Winters, who in Forms of Discovery (1967) showed how Hardy “with a procedure which appears to be that of utter simplicity, … achieves great poetry” in such soft-spoken poems as “In the Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations,’” and “The Wind’s Prophecy,” both of which Mezey reprints. This edition also includes useful notes to the poems and a valuable appendix featuring Hardy’s miscellaneous writing on poetry culled from his autobiography and letters. From Mezey’s anecdotal résumé of Hardy’s life, we learn a number of interesting biographical details, including the fact that he visited a phrenologist and the bizarre circumstances surrounding his burial (his body was laid in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey, but his heart was removed and interred in Dorset). For readers coming to Hardy for the first time, and for those established fans who want a more portable edition of many of their favorite poems, Mezey’s selection will be the one to have for some time to come.
Mezey includes another poem singled out by Winters (also Mezey’s teacher, briefly)— “My Spirit Will Not Haunt the Mound,” which the jacket copy lists as a “less-celebrated” work. Like Winters’s other picks it lies firmly within the plain-style tradition:
My spirit will not haunt the mound
Above my breast,
But travel, memory-possessed,
To where my tremulous being found
Life largest, best.
My phantom-footed shape will go
When nightfall grays
Hither and thither along the ways
I and another used to know
In backward days.
And there you’ll find me, if a jot
You still should care
For me, and for my curious air;
If otherwise, then I shall not,
For you, be there.
The poem made Robert Frost’s hit-list as well (if not Ransom’s). Next to it as it appeared in an anthology, Frost wrote, “[Hardy] is an excellent poet.” No one else in Frost’s marginalia for the book fared so well. Frost’s letters contain such homey encomia as “Thomas Hardy’s my man,” and he “has taught me the good use of a few words.” Joseph Brodsky comments on the presence of Hardy’s influence on Frost in his essays “Wooing the Inanimate” and “On Grief and Reason.” As only one example, he notes how Frost’s “Come In” revisits Hardy’s “Darkling Thrush”—“Far in the pillared dark/ Thrush music went.” (Brodsky wryly adds that like Frost “Hardy was also very fond of lonely strolls.” Fair enough.) One sees Hardy distantly haunting such colloquial tragedies as Frost’s “Home Burial,” and more nearly in the music of “Reluctance” and “The Hill Wife.” Hardy lurks, too, in the natural descriptions that barely mask Frost’s dark and indifferent world. Such Hardian notes harmonize with Frost’s particular fierceness, lending the poems a rueful charge. Consider these stanzas from “Desert Places”:
Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.
The woods around it have it—it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.
In the first line alone, the repetition and the vocative announce Hardy to the ear. The multiple “it”s worked into the opening of the second stanza, and the chunky rhythm of the compound “absent-spirited” do likewise. (Frost admired Robinson, as well, and his famous words about “the highest ambition” being “to lodge a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of” were used in reference to Robinson, who “lodged more than his share.”) Like Hardy and Robinson, Frost knew well how harsh landscapes, conveyed through rhyme and ballad-like cadences, could resonate with dire human situations.
As Mezey’s edition demonstrates, Hardy’s poems have real legs almost a century on, and much has been made of their modernity. Even so, Hardy suffers under some rather widely held misapprehensions. While he may have been a Victorian novelist, he was a modern poet—almost all of his poetry was published after Victoria’s death in 1901. But Hardy’s long life—and Victoria’s— tends to confuse matters.
Shortly before his birth in rural Dorset in 1840, the Greek words for “light” and “writing” were first combined to describe the silver images of Louis Daguerre. By Hardy’s funeral in Westminster Abbey eighty-eight years later, New Yorkers had seen television. In literary terms, Hardy’s life spanned from Oliver Twist to Orlando, from “My Last Duchess” to well after “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Hardy corresponded with both Patmore and Pound. He adored Swinburne, and copied bits of Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Waste Land into his notebooks. (In fact, as Christopher Ricks asserts, the diction of Hardy’s “Spellbound Castle” may have been influenced by Eliot’s earlier “Sweeney Erect.” Also Eliotic in both diction and subject matter is the second part of Hardy’s “Coming Up Oxford Street: Evening.”)
Interestingly, Arthur Symons, whose book on symbolism created a bridge between French poetry and Eliotic modernism, also wrote A Study of Thomas Hardy (1927). In it, he isolates Hardy’s technical control and abiding melancholy: “In his verse, there is something brooding, obscure, tremulous, half inarticulate, as he meditates over men, nature, and destiny: nature, ‘waking by sounds alone’ and Fate, who sees and feels… . Blind and dumb forces conjecture, speak, half awakening out of sleep.” One critic from Hardy’s novel-writing days called this dark quality “Tessimism,” after his ill-fated heroine. But pessimism was a label Hardy disliked, explaining in his autobiography that, while he had no faith in a benevolence underlying the workings of nature, he took great stock in the meliorating force of human “loving-kindness, operating through scientific knowledge.”
Hardy’s vast empathy for all living things led him to some rather strange behavior. Max Gate, his self-designed house in Dorset, grew increasingly dark over the years because Hardy refused to trim back the encroaching trees for fear of harming them. Childless, he developed an excessive love of pets, laying boards from chair to chair so that his cats could climb about without touching the floor. The infamous dog Wessex (named for the region Hardy made famous in his novels and poems) was given such latitude at dinner that one guest, Lady Cynthia Asquith, later griped that she had to fight the beast for every scrap of food. Still, Hardy’s great sympathy for nature’s creatures (“What feeling do we ever find/ To equal among human kind/ A dog’s fidelity!”) extended most movingly to the characters of his tragic fables, if not always to the people in his life.
Hardy seems to have suffered a great disappointment in connection with his first wife, Emma Gifford. After a few years of happiness, their relationship descended into a barely tolerable modus vivendi of avoidance and silence. Hardy apparently fell for a number of other women; during their long marriage, in fact, according to his biographer Michael Millgate, Hardy was rarely out of love. The string of infatuations, which stretched from boyhood, included his cousin Tryphena Sparks, his neighbors Eliza and Jane Nicholls and Louisa Harding, the society wife Florence Henniker, the sculptor’s wife Agatha Thornycroft, and the woman who was to become Hardy’s second wife, Florence Dugdale. Millgate finds no evidence that Hardy was ever unfaithful to Emma, though Hardy seems to have made overtures on a few of occasions and been rebuffed.
When Emma died in 1912, a strange thing happened. Hardy repented his ill treatment of her, made a pilgrimage to the place of their first meeting, and began writing perhaps his most beautiful sequence of poems in her memory, the “Poems of 1912–13.” Hardy had already featured ghosts in his poems. Now he returned to them with new intensity, and it was Emma’s ghost in particular that refused to let him go, in such poems as “The Haunter”:
Yes, I companion him to places
Only dreamers know,
Where the shy hares print long paces,
Where the night rooks go;
Into old aisles where the past is all to him,
Close as his shade can do,
Always lacking the power to call to him,
Near as I reach thereto!
The realm of shades became for him the clearest vantage point from which to observe the pitiable plight of man, who despite all efforts was in thrall to the flukes of random “hap.” It is in this regard that Hardy, by all accounts a reasonable and often retiring presence, most resembled the eccentricities kept in circulation by visionaries such as Yeats. “For my part,” Hardy wrote, “if there is any way of getting a melancholy satisfaction out of life, it lies in dying, so to speak, before one is out of the flesh; by which I mean putting on the manners of ghosts, wandering in their haunts, and taking their views of surrounding things. To think of life as passing away is a sadness; to think of it as past is at least tolerable.” As much as Hardy longed to see an actual specter (“I would have given ten years of my life”), he never did. But, if they failed to reveal themselves in life, they rattled about his “Souls of the Slain,” “In the Night She Came,” “Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?,” “Something Tapped,” and “Voices from Things Growing in a Churchyard,” among many others.
The same ghostly nostalgia haunts the work of the contemporary American poet Donald Justice in such poems as “Time and the Weather” (“And still sometimes these tired shapes/ Haunt the damp parlors of the heart”) and “A Winter Ode to the Old Men of Lummus Park, Miami, Florida” (“Risen from rented rooms, old ghosts/ Come back to haunt our parks by day”). In “Hell,” the ghost of the poet R. B. Vaughn speaks to Justice, just as Hardy overhears spirits in so many poems. In “Invitation to a Ghost,” for the poet Henri Coulette, Justice himself addresses the recently deceased:
I ask you to come back now as you were in
Confident, eager, and the silver brushed from
Let it be as though a man could go
backwards through death,
Erasing the years that did not much count,
Or that added up perhaps to no more than
a single brilliant forenoon.
Again, “the years” present an eroding force that can be contravened only in imagination. Compare Hardy’s “The Voice,” another poem from 1912–13 in which the ghost of Emma appears, this time as a distant call on the wind:
Woman much missed, how you call to me,
call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who
was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.
Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew
Even to the original air-blue gown.
Hardy excelled at the backward glance and suffered Orpheus-like the frustrations of watching his loved one repeatedly evanesce. As in “After Wind and Rain,” time dons the robes of grim fate. Look again at the temporal pretzel Hardy makes of the lines “Saying that now you are not as you were/ When you had changed from the one who was all to me,/ But as at first, when our day was fair,” i.e., you were not as you were when you were not as you were. The poem looks back past these mutations to a time of first love. Justice arrives at the same wish, “to go backwards through death” to that “single bright forenoon.”
Such past-tense poetry as Hardy’s must have been what D. H. Lawrence had in mind when he penned “Poetry of the Present,” published as the introduction to the American edition of his New Poems in 1918: “The poetry of the beginning and the poetry of the end must have that exquisite finality, perfection which belongs to all that is far off. It is in the realm of all that is perfect. It is of the nature of all that is complete and consummate. This completeness, this consummateness, the finality and the perfection are conveyed in exquisite form.” Exquisite form, that shining characteristic of Hardy, who mastered so many of the sounds of sense, was for Lawrence an object of derision, a veil over the raw experience of life unfolding in the eternal present of the poem. Just before Lawrence’s manifesto lurches into vatic rant and utter blather, he makes his case for the function of free verse in his present-tense poetry:
Free verse is, or should be, direct utterance from the instant, whole man. It is the soul and the mind and the body surging at once, nothing left out. They speak all together. There is some confusion, some discord. But the confusion and discord only belong to the reality as noise belongs to the plunge of water… . In free verse we look for the insurgent naked throb of the instant moment.
The goal was “to break the lovely form of metrical verse, and dish up fragments as a new substance.” Lawrence called this new substance vers libre, but, in view of all the atrocious writing this view has sponsored, I’m tempted to lend it a less generous designation. Hardy put little faith in the power of free verse, predicting in a letter to Robert Graves that it would never catch on in England (the Immanent Will seems to have had the last laugh on this point).
Not surprisingly, Eliot, a naturalized Englishmen with whom free verse had clearly caught on, disagreed. Eliot wrote little on Hardy, and what he did write was not favorable. Hardy, he argued in “After Strange Gods” (1934),
seems to have written as nearly for the sake of “self-expression” as a man well can; and the self which he had to express does not strike me as a particularly wholesome or edifying matter of communication. He was indifferent even to the prescripts of good writing: he wrote sometimes overpoweringly well, but always very carelessly; at times his style touches sublimity without ever having passed through the stage of being good… . [Hardy’s] extreme emotionalism seems to me a symptom of decadence; it is a cardinal point of faith in a romantic age, to believe that there is something admirable in violent emotion for its own sake, whatever the emotion and whatever its object.
Eliot’s point is well taken with regard to emotion in literature, yet considered from this side of confessionalism it could hardly seem to apply to Hardy. While accusations of verbal clumsiness were often made against Hardy, it is important to understand that Eliot is directing his comments here at Hardy the novelist, not Hardy the poet, in whom one presumes Eliot might have divined a greater reserve. Eliot’s remarks are indeed prescient, when one considers the excesses that came after him in the name of “honesty” and in the unmediated emotionalism of much current poetry. But Hardy should not be blamed for this any more than Eliot himself. As Thom Gunn wrote, Hardy’s “first person speaks as a sample human being, with little personality displayed and with no claims for uniqueness —with as little distinguishing him beyond his subject matter, in fact, as distinguishes the personages of the Ballads beyond their actions.” Though nowhere does Gunn mention it, his reference to “personality” suggests that he is writing in direct response to Eliot.
Apparently, Eliot and Hardy were destined to disagree on a number of subjects. For Eliot it was “exactly as wasteful for a poet to do what has been done already as for a biologist to rediscover Mendel’s discoveries.” For Hardy, though, the object was “to write on the old themes in the old styles, but to try to do a little better than those who went before us.” As he says elsewhere, “What made poetry 2000 years ago makes poetry now.” (Frost wrote that Robinson, too, “was content with the old-fashioned way to be new.”)
Questions of influence are slippery. Certainly, modernism has left no contemporary writer untouched, and there are the fruitful legacies of Stevens and Moore not treated here. Yet poets in the vein of Hardy have provided valuable resistance to the poachings of “postmodernism,” and its thin gruel of warmed-over modernism. It is the postmoderns who have exhausted—as the bedizened conceits of John Cleveland played out the techniques of Donne—the original and the authentic in modernism and replaced it with the derivative and the ersatz. The few poets I have mentioned here constitute the sketch of an alternate heredity, the lines of which may be deepened by the addition of others such as Weldon Kees, Elizabeth Bishop, and a number that Mezey mentions—Robinson Jeffers, Louise Bogan, Yvor Winters, Robert Penn Warren, Edgar Bowers, and David Ferry. Randall Jarrell supplied the answer to his own question in “The End of the Line”: “Who could have believed that modernism would collapse so fast? Only someone who realized that modernism is a limit which it is impossible to exceed.” It’s something Hardy must have known.
- With the Grain: Essays on Thomas Hardy and Modern British Poetry by Donald Davie, edited with an introduction by Clive Wilmer (Carcanet Press, 366 pages, $29.95), is part of the projected Complete Works of Donald Davie. Go back to the text.
- Selected Poems, by Thomas Hardy, edited with an introduction and notes by Robert Mezey; Penguin, 255 pages, $8.95 paper. Go back to the text.
- Robert Mezey is also the editor of a new selection of The Poetry of E. A. Robinson (Modern Library, 256 pages, $19.95). Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 18 Number 4, on page 17
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