Sunday, July 3, 2011

Edward Thomas On Thomas Hardy: "Ninety-Nine Reasons For Not Living"

As I have noted before, Edward Thomas knew English poetry backwards and forwards.  Not surprisingly, therefore, his comments on particular poets are very perceptive.  When it comes to the poetry of Thomas Hardy, Thomas (as is the case with anyone who reads the poems) is bound to remark upon Hardy's pessimism.  Who wouldn't?  Consider, for instance, "Hap," the fourth poem in Hardy's first collection.  With its references to "Crass Casualty," "dicing Time," and "purblind Doomsters," the poem establishes a theme that occurs again and again in Hardy's poetry.

In his review of Hardy's 1909 collection Time's Laughingstocks and Other Poems, Thomas memorably acknowledges the conventional wisdom about Hardy's pessimism:  "The book contains ninety-nine reasons for not living."  (Despite his melancholy, Thomas did have a sly and dry sense of humor.  One can see why he and Robert Frost got along so well together.)  But Thomas wisely recognizes that there is much more to Hardy:

"The book contains ninety-nine reasons for not living.  Yet it is not a book of despair.  It is a book of sincerity . . . Mr. Hardy looks at things as they are, and what is still more notable he does not adopt the genial consolation that they might be worse, that in spite of them many are happy, and that the unhappy live on and will not die.  His worst tragedies are due as much to transient and alterable custom as to the nature of things.  He sees this, and he makes us see it.  The moan of his verse rouses an echo that is as brave as a trumpet."

Edward Thomas, review of Time's Laughingstocks and Other Poems, in The Daily Chronicle (December 7 1909), reprinted in Edna Longley (editor), A Language Not To Be Betrayed: Selected Prose of Edward Thomas (1981).

Hardy's poem "Going and Staying" is, I think, a good illustration of the point that Thomas makes.  It first appeared in the inaugural issue of The London Mercury (edited by J. C. Squire, the bane of T. S. Eliot and other "Modernists") in November of 1919 as follows:

                    Going and Staying

The moving sun-shapes on the spray,
The sparkles where the brook was flowing,
Pink faces, plightings, moonlit May,
These were the things we wished would stay;
          But they were going.

Seasons of blankness as of snow,
The silent bleed of a world decaying,
The moan of multitudes in woe,
These were the things we wished would go;
          But they were staying.

One would think that, after making these jolly observations, Hardy had said enough.  But he could not leave well enough alone.  Hence, when the poem was published in book form in 1922, Hardy (a clever lad at the age of 82) added a third stanza:

Then we looked closelier at Time,
And saw his ghostly arms revolving
To sweep off woeful things with prime,
Things sinister with things sublime
          Alike dissolving.

Thomas Hardy, Late Lyrics and Earlier (1922).  Now, whether this third stanza is calculated to make us feel better or worse, I cannot say.  I also cannot say whether it makes this particular reader feel better or worse.  But one thing is certain:  it is classic Hardy.

                                       Charles Mahoney (1903-1968)
           "Woodburner with Pink, Violet, and Red Flowers in a Vase"


Mary F. C. Pratt said...

Better or worse indeed! Thanks, as always.

Fred said...

I like the third stanza; to me, it completes the thought. Even though good things seem to go, and the bad stay, in the end all have the same end.

Very Taoist in spirit. All things change; neither good nor bad remain forever.

Julie Whitmore Pottery said...

Stephen this is an insightful introduction to Hardy's poetry. I like the third stanza, as it adds at least justice if not hope!

Alex Noel-Tod said...

That's a very interesting post on both Hardy and Thomas; Thomas was indeed right to see how Hardy's poetry almost always manages to redress the balance away from pure gloom (as opposed to his interest in Doom,which is another matter). Reviewing A.E.Housman's posthumous collection, More Poems (1936) a critic described AEH as 'a poet with seemingly an equal zest for life and the grave' (Guy Boas). While that can be applied to Hardy as well, somehow Hardy manages to avoid the fault of Housman's fatalistic scenarios, which were parodied brilliantly by Hugh Kingsmill:

What - still alive at twenty-two,
A clean, upstanding chap like you?
Sure, if your throat is hard to slit,
Slit your girl's, and swing for it.

Like enough you won't be glad,
When they come to hang you, lad:
But bacon's not the only thing
That's cured by hanging from a string.

So, when the spilt ink of the night
Spreads o'er the blotting-pad of light,
Lads whose job is still to do
Shall whet their knives, and think of you.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mary F. C. Pratt: thank you for stopping by again. Yes, Hardy is what he is -- but I still love him!

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: as always, I appreciate hearing your thoughts. I understand what you are saying. I have sometimes read the third stanza the way that you do -- and Hardy begins to sound, as you say, like a Taoist (or like a Buddhist -- Ryokan perhaps). But at other times I think of Hardy's "purblind Doomsters," and I don't see the Taoist/Buddhist in Hardy. But I certainly agree with you that the third stanza does have that possibility in it.

Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Julie: it sounds as though you interpret the third stanza in a manner similar to Fred (see above). As I noted in my response to Fred, I sometimes read the stanza in that fashion as well. As you say, at least it has the virtue of rough justice: "everything passes and vanishes" as William Allingham once wrote.

Thank you for visiting again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Noel-Tod: thank you for visiting and commenting again. And thank you as well for the Kingsmill parody of Housman. (I seem to recall that Ezra Pound and Humbert Wolfe did parodies of Housman as well, although I can't recall the titles or any of the lines at the moment.)

I agree with you about the distinction between Hardy and Housman. Off the top of my head, I would say that Hardy has an empathy for others that Housman seems not to have. As gloomy as Hardy can be, I feel more warmth in him than I do in Housman. (Although I do like Housman's poetry.) But perhaps I am being unfair to Housman.

Again, thank you.

Fred said...


Yes, I would agree here. I wouldn't call Hardy a Taoist overall, either. It was just that particular stanza that really came home.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: you and I are on the same page. I apologize if it seemed that I was suggesting that you thought Hardy was a Taoist -- that wasn't my intention. As you said, the third stanza is definitely "very Taoist in spirit." We both agree, I'm sure, that he was no Han Shan!

Fred said...

Chuckle . . .

Hardy is a favorite of mine, but, as you say, he is no Han Shan.

Stephen Pentz said...

Thanks again, Fred.

Bovey Belle said...

I am late on the scene here, but in the light of a more recent post, this has relevance.

I do wonder if Hardy's (true?) pessimism/realism, stems from his loss of Faith (I feel that the capital is justified). His jottings in the margins of his bible signifying how his former prop had collapsed?

At any event, I have much more poetry to read - Houseman, Pound, Wolfe - and yet more Hardy and Thomas . . . and they are just the tip of the iceberg.

Bovey Belle said...

Not to mention T S Eliot . . .

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: I think that you are correct. Loss of faith was a large issue among the Victorians, wasn't it? But I also think that one's world-view is congenital to some degree, don't you think?

And, perhaps most importantly in TH's case, he didn't (as you know) miss a thing and his memory seems to have been photographic. I recall reading somewhere that he said (or wrote) that he could recall an event that took place 40 years ago (including the emotions associated with it) as clearly as if it had happened yesterday. He carried all of this around with him, and it was bound to shape the way he saw the world.

As always, I greatly appreciate hearing your thoughts.