Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Christmas, Part Four: "The Reminder"

Thomas Hardy is often described as a pessimist.  But, as I have noted before, one person's pessimism is another person's realism.  The way I see it, Hardy did not avert his eyes and he faithfully reported what he saw.

Moreover, Hardy was neither a cynic nor a misanthrope.  Yes, he may have come to gloomy conclusions about how Life and the Universe run their course.  However, his empathy and his fellow-feeling (a phrase that seems quaint in these times) are apparent throughout his poetry.

                Elizabeth Kenyon, "The River Stour from Stratford St. Mary"

            The Reminder

While I watch the Christmas blaze
Paint the room with ruddy rays,
Something makes my vision glide
To the frosty scene outside.

There, to reach a rotting berry,
Toils a thrush, -- constrained to very
Dregs of food by sharp distress,
Taking such with thankfulness.

Why, O starving bird, when I
One day's joy would justify,
And put misery out of view,
Do you make me notice you!

Thomas Hardy, Time's Laughingstocks and Other Verses (1909).

The following passage by David Cecil is apt:

"Summarised in cold print, Hardy's view of life would suggest that his poems are depressing reading.  Perhaps they ought to be; but they are not. Books that depress are written by those who do not respond to life, who are unable to enjoy or appreciate or love.  Hardy on the contrary was unusually able to enjoy and appreciate and love.  Indeed his tragic sense comes from the tension he feels between his sense of man's capacity for joy and his realisation that this is all too often disastrously thwarted.
. . . . .
His poems bear the recognisable stamp of his personality, simple, sublime, lovable.  Here we come to the central secret of the spell he casts.  It compels us because it brings us into immediate contact with a spirit that commands our hearts as well as our admiration. . . . His integrity is absolute.  He faces life at its darkest, he is vigilant never to soften or to sentimentalise; yet he never strikes a note of hardness or brutality.  His courage in facing hard facts is equalled by his capacity to pity and sympathise."

David Cecil, "The Hardy Mood," in F. B. Pinion (editor), Thomas Hardy and the Modern World (1974).

                   Elizabeth Kenyon, "Kennels Corner, Stratford St. Mary"

Cecil's remarks about Hardy's "integrity" bring to mind Thom Gunn's comment (which I have previously posted here) that, when reading Hardy's poetry, he had a "feeling of contact with an honest man who will never lie to me."  Thom Gunn, "Hardy and the Ballads," The Occasions of Poetry: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography (North Point Press 1982), page 105.

I am also reminded of Kingsley Amis's comment on Edward Thomas, which has also appeared here before, but is worth revisiting:

"How a poet convinces you he will not tell you anything he does not think or feel, since you have only his word for it, is hard to discover, but Edward Thomas is one of those who do it."

Kingsley Amis, The Amis Anthology: A Personal Choice of English Verse (1988), page 339.

Thomas Hardy and Edward Thomas are, I think, two of a kind.

                         Elizabeth Kenyon, "The Meadows, Higham Church"


Bovey Belle said...

Well, you and I were on the same wavelength today as whilst I was reading the first part of your post, I was thinking that Thomas Hardy and Edward Thomas were very alike in that they wrote about what they SAW and both were men who noticed a very great deal indeed, and committed it to memory or jotted it down for later perusal. The minutiae of a summer afternoon concentrated in the memories of that short stop in "Adlestrop" are witness to this, for example. Hardy was, of course, "one who noticed such things" and I love the similarities between Hardy's "The Reminder" and "The Darkling Thrush", as he captures a winter moment and a frail bird so completely.

His integrity and honesty shows across the breadth of his writing, though some would cricitize his - as we used to say when I was younger - "telling it like it is." No happy endings with Hardy, nor indeed, with Edward Thomas.

I think Edward Thomas perhaps understood Hardy's poetry as well as Hardy himself, perhaps because each found it hard to believe in themselves. Like Dickens who found it necessary to comb his hair in public so he looked dapper (!), Hardy was always forced to tidy up his family skeletons because he feared his humble origins like some sad and scrofulous affliction. Edward Thomas, of course, spent a lifetime running away from himself.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: If you haven't come across it before, you may wish to have a look at my post for July 3, 2011, in which I quote from ET's review of TH's "Time's Laughingstocks." ET writes: "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."

I agree with all of your thoughts on the two of them. You probably know that Helen Thomas gave a copy of ET's poems to TH after ET's death, and Hardy responded with a nice letter praising ET's poems, and expressing sympathy for her loss.

As you have probably seen me say before on the blog, I believe that the vital line of English poetry in the 20th century runs from TH through ET to Philip Larkin. Like the other two, Larkin has similar integrity and honesty and does not look away.

Your phrase "no happy endings" fits all three of them, I think. I suspect that you and I agree that happy endings are not what poets owe to us.

As ever, thank you very much for your thoughts.

Bovey Belle said...

Stephen - may I thank YOU for getting my brain working again, and for causing me to blow the dust off several books of Hardy's and jiggling the Edward Thomas books downstairs to the top of the heap again!

Next . . . Larkin!

Anonymous said...

Amazing pictures by Elizabeth Kenyon. I can't find anything about her -- too much listening to Buzzcocks has dulled my research skills, perhaps -- so are you able to throw any light on her?

Bovey Belle said...

I think we can rise above happy endings at our time of life . . .

I have left a comment on you July 3 2011 posting. I have so much to learn, but life, surely, would be so bleak if we knew it all? Not nearly as satisfying as one thinks it ought to be . . .

I had a vague inkling of Helen Thomas giving a copy of ET's poems to TH - such a pity they never met as I am sure they were - each in their way - soul mates - though ET's tortured soul took not the solace in nature that TH's did, despite his deep observations. I fear ET fought against everything, especially the fetters of love and the beauty of the countryside, both of which seemed to ensnare him when he desired freedom. It seems to me that he could only prove his love of both by the forfeiture of his own life.

Gosh, getting a bit deep - it must be time for sleep!

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Yes, they are nice, aren't they? I'm afraid that I don't know anything about Elizabeth Kenyon. I discovered her work at the website for The Victor Batte-Lay Trust Collection (Colchester). However, there is no biographical information available for her -- only images of her work.

Thank you for stopping by again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: thank you for your follow-up comments. I agree with what you say about ET and TH. I reread ET's reviews of TH's poetry today as a result of receiving your comments, and it is clear that he understood and appreciated what TH was doing in his poetry.

Thomas's literary criticism has not received as much attention as it should: I find that his remarks are always perceptive and stand the test of time. For instance, his appreciation of TH's poetry was prescient. As I'm sure you know, much contemporary criticism of TH's poetry was very dismissive. To his credit, Thomas got right to the heart of the matter.

Thank you again for your thoughts.