Sunday, June 19, 2011

Philip Larkin On Thomas Hardy: "One Reader At Least Would Not Wish Hardy's Collected Poems A Single Page Shorter"

Philip Larkin said on more than one occasion that his discovery of Thomas Hardy's poetry was a turning point in the writing of his own poetry.  Prior to that time, Larkin's poetry was marked by the influence of Auden and Yeats.  But Hardy's impact on Larkin was not a matter of style.  (Even those of us who love Hardy's poetry must concede that his idiosyncratic style is not amenable to imitation.)

Instead, what drew Larkin to Hardy's poetry was its content.  In a BBC Radio 4 talk given in 1968, Larkin said:

I don't think Hardy, as a poet, is a poet for young people.  I know it sounds ridiculous to say I wasn't young at twenty-five or twenty-six, but at least I was beginning to find out what life was about, and that's precisely what I found in Hardy.  In other words, I'm saying that what I like about him primarily is his temperament and the way he sees life.  He's not a transcendental writer, he's not a Yeats, he's not an Eliot; his subjects are men, the life of men, time and the passing of time, love and the fading of love.
. . . . . . . . . .
When I came to Hardy it was with the sense of relief that I didn't have to try and jack myself up to a concept of poetry that lay outside my own life -- this is perhaps what I felt Yeats was trying to make me do.  One could simply relapse back into one's own life and write from it.  Hardy taught one to feel rather than to write -- of course one has to use one's own language and one's own jargon and one's own situations -- and he taught one as well to have confidence in what one felt.  I have come, I think, to admire him even more than I did then.

Philip Larkin, "The Poetry of Hardy," in Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982 (Faber and Faber 1983), pages 175-176.

                   Evelyn Dunbar, "The Queue at the Fish Shop" (1944)

Larkin also addresses the issue of the volume of Hardy's poetic output.  The Macmillan edition of Hardy's poetry (published in 1976 and edited by James Gibson) contains 947 poems.  (I did not count them!  They are numbered.)  This vast expanse can be daunting.  But I am in complete agreement with Larkin (he was writing in response to two critical studies of Hardy that were, he thought, improperly dismissive of Hardy's poetry):

To these two gentlemen . . . may I trumpet the assurance that one reader at least would not wish Hardy's Collected Poems a single page shorter, and regards it as many times over the best body of poetic work this century so far has to show?

Philip Larkin, "Wanted: Good Hardy Critic" (1966), in Required Writing, page 174.

I have been plugging away at Hardy's poems for decades, and it may be vain to hope that I will be able to read them all.  But I will not give up the attempt.  Larkin is correct (as he said in his BBC talk):  "I like him because he wrote so much. . . . One can read him for years and years and still be surprised."  I have been visiting Hardy recently, and I came upon the following surprise (unknown to me till now).

                         Nobody Comes

     Tree-leaves labour up and down,
          And through them the fainting light
          Succumbs to the crawl of night.
     Outside in the road the telegraph wire
          To the town from the darkening land
Intones to travellers like a spectral lyre
          Swept by a spectral hand.

     A car comes up, with lamps full-glare,
          That flash upon a tree:
          It has nothing to do with me,
     And whangs along in a world of its own,
          Leaving a blacker air;
And mute by the gate I stand again alone,
          And nobody pulls up there.

   9 October 1924

Thomas Hardy, Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs and Trifles (1925).  The date at the end of the poem was included by Hardy in the original printing.

                  Evelyn Dunbar, "A Land Girl and the Bail Bull" (1945)


Fred said...


I have _The Wordsworth Poetry Library_ edition of Hardy's poetry. It doesn't give a count of the number of poems, but the text has some 800+ pages of poems, so I guess it's close to being a comprehensive collection.

I too dip into the volume at odd times and am also surprised at what I find. And, like you, I had not seen "Nobody Comes" either.

Thanks for pointing out this one.

George said...

The American critic Randall Jarrell spoke well of Hardy; he may have learned this from his teacher John Crowe Ransom, who edited the selected Hardy that I have. The one that sticks most in my mind is poem "In the Time of Breaking of Nations", written in August 1914; though I think the last four lines inferior to the first eight.

Stephen Pentz said...

Thanks for stopping by again, Fred. I don't have your edition, but 800 pages sounds like his complete poems. In fact, in the piece by Larkin that I quoted, Larkin says: "I love the great Collected Hardy which runs for something like 800 pages."

I'm pleased that you like "Nobody Comes."

Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

George: thanks for visiting again, and for your thoughts.

As a matter of fact, I first read Hardy in Ransom's selection. It was used, well-thumbed, and battered when I bought it in college, and I wore it out even more. Although I eventually picked up the Collected Poems, I have kept the Ransom for sentimental reasons: you know how certain books evoke certain periods of our lives, I'm sure.

I will have to take a look at what Jarrell said about Hardy. Although I am a great admirer of Jarrell -- particularly his essays on Frost and Stevens -- I don't recall reading his thoughts on Hardy.

Yes, "Breaking of Nations" is fine. I believe that I've touched upon it at least once in my posts.

Thank you again.

zmkc said...

Especially interesting that distinction Larkin makes between transcendental writing and that dealing with men and the lives of men. A beautiful poem too.

Stephen Pentz said...

As always, thank you for visiting, zmkc.

Yes, I like the distinction made by Larkin. I realize that Larkin is not everyone's cup of tea, but he was always (I think) intent on trying to articulate how it is to live one's daily life, rather than manufacturing philosophical/metaphysical/whatever systems. In an interview, Larkin said: "Hardy knew what it was all about." I think that the same can be said of Larkin. (But I am biased.)

Julie Whitmore Pottery said...

Stephen, I've just started reading "The Return of the Native" (Penquin 1978) and there's a preface which includes reference to his poems. Apparantly he stopped writing novels about 1912 and thats when his real output of poetry began. Also that his critical stock has fluctuated concerning his novels, but his poetry has always been praised by critics. His novels have continually drawn in 'common' readers.
Like me!

Stephen Pentz said...

Julie: I came to Hardy through his poetry, and I confess that my reading of his fiction is limited to Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. His poetry has been enough to keep me occupied, I'm afraid.

The critical reception of Jude may have soured Hardy on novel-writing. However, it is also said that he used that criticism merely as a pretext for abandoning fiction, and that he always thought of himself primarily as a poet. His first volume of poems (Wessex Poems) was published in 1898, when he was 58.

Actually, many of the early critics were not kind to Hardy's poetry. He was often criticized for being too gloomy, too pessimistic, et cetera, and for having (as I said in my post) an idiosyncratic style. Many of those criticisms still persist. But there are other views, of course!

As always, thanks for stopping by.

Alex Noel-Tod said...

Dear Stephen Pentz
I was glad that you had lighted on Hardy's poem 'Nobody Comes' for your blog. I've known it for a few years, and I find it a fine example of TH's powers of evocation in his later poems. Typically for TH, he finds a word to jump out at you – 'whangs'; few poets are better at picking appropriately strange words or using neologisms. Though not the earliest instance of the word as recorded by the OED (I give their entry at the foot of this comment) it is much earlier than the 1977 reference they use for the effect of a passing motor car. Being a keen cyclist, Hardy would have experienced the ‘whanging’ effect of overtaking motor trafic (sedate and infrequent as it was in those days), and his house, Max Gate, was built on the edge of one of the main roads out of Dorchester (nowadays Max Gate is in a bypassed cul-de-sac). It is more than likely that the poem was occasioned by a particular event – as is explained in the Thomas Hardy section of the excellent website ‘The Victorian Web’.
Alex Noel-Tod

From: Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. (online ed)

whang / wang
a. intr. To make a loud resounding noise, as of a heavy blow or explosion, of shot flying through the air, of a loudspeaker, of a speeding car, etc.
1875 A. W. Kinglake Invasion of Crimea V. vi. 426 Another of the mighty 18-pounder shot flew whanging over the heads of our soldiery.
1912 J. Masefield Widow in Bye St. ii. liv, The organ whangs, the giddy horses reel.
1952 Observer 2 Nov. 3/5 The words from the loudspeaker wang back from the quiet village houses, but the doors remain closed.
1977 Motor 19 Feb. 24/1 You rush from the pits just as the leading Porsches wang past.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Noel-Tod: thank you very much for visiting and commenting. Your point about Hardy's use of neologisms or "appropriately strange words" is an excellent one. He was, and still is, criticized for this, but his words are, as you say, calculated to "jump out at you."

And thank you for the OED definition of "whang." This prompted me to visit OED online, where I discovered that quotations from Hardy (1) provide the "first evidence of a word" in 85 cases, and (2) provide the "first evidence of a particular meaning" in 327 cases. Hardy is "the 155th most quoted source in the OED."

Thank you for the Hardy reference in The Victorian Web as well. I will track it down.

Alex Noel-Tod said...

Dear Stephen Pentz: as the Victorian Web is rather a sprawling website, I should have been more helpful and given you the URL for the commentary on 'Nobody Comes':
Alex Noel-Tod

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Noel-Tod: thank you very much for the link. I am familiar with The Victorian Web, but I had never visited the Hardy pages before. You are right: the material on "Nobody Comes" does provide an excellent context for the poem, and may explain why Hardy included a specific date for the poem when it was published. There is a great deal of interest with respect to a number of his other poems as well.

Again, thank you.

Anonymous said...

It's all about that rural idyl isn't it? And, since you 'draw on' the artist Evelyn Dunbar it's known in certain 'fields' there's another less documented side to Evelyn Dunbar artist as "Mrs. Folley" the foster mother to two boys during school holidays who were, otherwise, in the term-time resident at The Caldecott Community residential school which was founded and run by Leila Rendel OBE for 'the maladjusted'.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: thank you very much for visiting and commenting. Thank you as well for the information about Evelyn Dunbar -- I was not aware of that part of her life. It is a pity that she died so young.

Thanks again.