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.
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).
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.