Friday, October 17, 2014

"An Honest Man Who Will Never Lie To Me"

"The most prosaic man becomes a poem when you stand by his grave at his funeral and think of him."  Thomas Hardy (notebook entry, May 29, 1871), in Richard Taylor (editor), The Personal Notebooks of Thomas Hardy (Macmillan 1978).

Perhaps this will sound hyperbolic, but I believe that what distinguishes Thomas Hardy's poetry from that of any other poet is its humanity.  No poet has ever written with such honesty, fellow-feeling, and compassion about what it means to make one's way through life, and to confront one's mortality.

These qualities do not become truly evident until one moves beyond the well-known anthology pieces and immerses oneself in Hardy's poetry as a whole.  I have been reading his poetry for nearly forty years, and I will probably never work my way through all of his 900 or so poems.  But, over time, my admiration for him, both as a poet and as a human being, continues to deepen.

Hardy's genius (there is no other word for it) is often best revealed in the small, out-of-the-way poems one unexpectedly encounters while, say, searching out an old favorite.

       The Peace-Offering

It was but a little thing,
Yet I knew it meant to me
Ease from what had given a sting
To the very birdsinging

But I would not welcome it;
And for all I then declined
O the regrettings infinite
When the night-processions flit
        Through the mind!

Thomas Hardy, Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (1917).

I will go out on a limb and suggest that most of us have experienced the feelings expressed by Hardy in this poem.  Perhaps we have experienced them from both sides at different times in our lives.  Although I have read this poem many times, part of me still shies away from reading it because of the feelings I know it will evoke.  "O the regrettings infinite/When the night-processions flit/Through the mind!"  Enough said.

James Paterson, "Moniaive" (1885)

Of Hardy, Thom Gunn writes:

"[T]hroughout, there is always the feeling that he is trying to see things as they are, whether it is an abstract term like Pity or a physical thing like the way the heat of noon breathes out from old walls at midnight; he is never trying to falsify either them or his emotion about them -- and so much the worse if the poem ends up in bathos or flatness.  Ezra Pound more than once praises Hardy for his insistence on immersing himself in his subject. And this is well said, for the immersion leaves him no room for pretence, or for anything other than honesty.  Much of what sustains me through the flatter parts of the Collected Poems is this 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 1985), page 105.

          Just the Same

I sat.  It all was past;
Hope never would hail again;
Fair days had ceased at a blast,
The world was a darkened den.

The beauty and dream were gone,
And the halo in which I had hied
So gaily gallantly on
Had suffered blot and died!

I went forth, heedless whither,
In a cloud too black for name:
-- People frisked hither and thither;
The world was just the same.

Thomas Hardy, Late Lyrics and Earlier, with Many Other Verses (1922).

Hardy's poem was no doubt prompted by a specific experience in his life, which we could perhaps tease out (as critics have tried to do) by examining the biographical details.  But that is not what makes the poem resonate with us.  Once more, I would suggest that most of us have experienced in our own lives exactly what Hardy relates in the poem.  Consider one possible instance among many:  have you ever walked out from a hospital into the sunlight after someone you love has died?

James Paterson, "Autumn in Glencairn, Moniaive" (1887)

Thom Gunn again:

"[W]e never for a moment doubt that Hardy means what he says.  We make much of 'sincerity' nowadays . . . And clearly sincerity is a value, even though one rather difficult to define -- maybe it is one of the ultimate values in literature.  But there are different ways of being sincere, and I suggest that Hardy's is a supremely successful one.
     The critics who have written on Hardy's poetry spend an inordinate time in complaining about the badness of his bad poems.  The bad poems are certainly there, but though they may be boring or ridiculous they are never pretentious.  By contrast, if you take the collected Yeats, you feel the strain of all that rhetorical striving in the minor poems, and it is only in the best of Yeats, and not always then, that he is able to free himself from the rhetoric.  Rhetoric is a form of pretence, of making something appear bigger or more important than you know it is.  Well, you never feel, even in Hardy's most boring and ridiculous poetry, that he is pretending -- he is never rhetorical.  And there are not many poets of whom this can be said."

Thom Gunn, "Hardy and the Ballads," The Occasions of Poetry, pages 104-105.

       Waiting Both

A star looks down at me,
And says:  "Here I and you
Stand, each in our degree:
What do you mean to do, --
          Mean to do?"

I say:  "For all I know,
Wait, and let Time go by,
Till my change come." -- "Just so,"
The star says:  "So mean I: --
          So mean I."

Thomas Hardy, Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs, and Trifles (1925).

James Paterson, "Borderland" (c. 1896)

The cumulative impact of Hardy's poetry is expressed well by C. H. Sisson:

"No single poem, and no short selection, can give an adequate impression of the weight of Hardy's achievement as a poet.  The sheer bulk of closely-felt impressions, covering sixty years or more of his writing life, is without parallel in our literature.  He is no Wordsworth, hardening as the years go on, and the last poems are as lively as, and deeper than, the first.  The whole oeuvre is united by temperament and by a style which did not harden simply because it was nothing more than the words and rhythms that it was natural for Hardy to use, in his persistent impulse to set down the truth as he saw it."

C. H. Sisson, English Poetry 1900-1950: An Assessment (Methuen 1981; first published in 1971), page  30.

                       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.

Thomas Hardy, Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs, and Trifles (1925).

James Paterson, "The Last Turning, Winter, Moniaive" (1885)


Fred said...


Thanks for posting these hidden gems, none of which I had encountered in my brief browsings through Hardy's poems.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: You're very welcome. My pleasure. As I suggest in the post, there are many more like this hidden away in his Collected Poems, and they are easy to miss. One of the delights in reading Hardy is that you always have the feeling that something may be just around the corner.

It's good to hear from you again. As ever, thank you very much for visiting. I hope that you have gotten up into the mountains to see some autumn leaves.

Edward Bauer said...

Dear Mr. Pentz. I haven't commented in many months, but continue to visit here several times a week, always finding a few moments of peace, good pictures, and poetry. It has been a crazy couple of years, and that will continue for a few more. So please keep up the good work. It is appreciated more than you know. Thank you. Edward Bauer

Fred said...


I haven't been up there yet, as I've just returned from a visit to the Chicago area to visit a brother. The leaves were just beginning to turn at that time. I plan on going to the Catalinas next week to see what's happening there.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Bauer: I'm happy to hear from you again. Thank you very much for the kind words. Please don't worry about not commenting! I fully understand. The fact that you are stopping by -- with or with out commenting -- is greatly appreciated.

I hope that all is well. Thank you again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Thanks for the follow-up comment. It should be nice up there this time of year. I had hoped to make a trip to the Midwest (Minnesota) this year to enjoy the autumn color, but I won't be able to do so.

Sam Vega said...

Just like Fred, I hadn't read any of these before. Thank you for taking the trouble to find and present them - although I suspect such work is not too onerous!

Just a couple of little points. In "Just the Same", the term "frisked" is interesting. Nobody would believe that it would work in that context, but it does. The same applies to "whangs along" in "Nobody Comes". Edwardian slang, I suppose. But it sits nicely with the lamps and the telegraph wire. Things which suggest modernity and raciness are no shield against this type of sadness.

I have fallen into a habit (or trap) of seeing a lot of Hardy's poems as being about missing one particular person. Someone who rejects him, or is lost because of illness or death. "Nobody Comes" can be read in this way: the promised or imagined visit which did not materialise. But it is possible that this is about a more diffuse and subtly existential pain. That of ageing, and loneliness in general. The comfortably well-off elderly man who walks to the end of his drive and briefly waits, because of the emptiness of his domestic life. Again, almost unbearable.

Stephen Pentz said...

Sam Vega: As ever, thank you for visiting, and for your observations.

I agree with you about "frisked" and "whangs." I recall someone commenting (at the moment, I can't remember who -- it may have been Philip Larkin or C. Day Lewis) that these words chosen by Hardy that may seem odd at first blush usually turn out to be perfect, and often make the entire poem come together.

By the way, with respect to "frisked," you may recall that Hardy uses it in another poem, which is why the word has always stuck in my mind: "I was the midmost of my world/When first I frisked me free." Both poems appear in Late Lyrics and Earlier. I don't have a concordance of Hardy's poetry (or his fiction), so I don't know if he uses it anywhere else.

Your observations on "Nobody Comes" are excellent and thought-provoking. I, like you, tend to think that most of Hardy's poems come from direct personal experience. And I think that this is in fact the case. But I also agree with you that in "Nobody Comes" (and there are other poems of this sort) there is a more general philosophizing (although I am not sure that that is the correct word) present as well.

As for "finding" the poems: as I suggested in my post, they "found" me by happy accident. No "work" was required. They have long been favorites of mine.

Thanks again. I always appreciate hearing from you.

Anonymous said...

You asked,"[H]ave you ever walked out from a hospital into the sunlight after someone you love has died?"

Yes, I have. My mother died one bright July morning. I had followed the ambulance to the ER. I paced in the cheerless waiting room. After the doctor came to me, told me the sad news, I walked out into sheets of light falling prodigally from a cloudless sky. The heavens were afire. The world had not changed at all. I rode home through a world going about its business. I had business to do: grandchildren to inform, siblings to call, relative to notify, and in a short time a funeral to prepare. And I had to do these things in summer world full of sunlight and birdsong and trees rioting with greenery. Why couldn't the world apprehend? That's one of those questions we hurl into eternal darkness, from which no answer ever returns.

In his poem "A Death-Day Recalled," Hardy wonders, though of course he knows better, why the natural world does not lament that one who loved this world has died. His asking the question makes his point better than if he had said, "We die and the world does not notice our going, does not care, is indifferent to the love and hopes of humanity."

Beeny did not quiver,
Juliot grew not gray,
Thin Valency's river
Held its wonted way.
Bos seemed not to utter
Dimmest note of dirge,
Targan mouth a mutter
To its creamy surge.

Yet though these, unheeding,
Listless, passed the hour
Of her spirit's speeding,
She had, in her flower,
Sought and loved the places -
Much and often pined
For their lonely faces
When in towns confined.

Why did not Valency
In his purl deplore
One whose haunts were whence he
Drew his limpid store?
Why did Bos not thunder
Targan apprehend
Body and breath were sunder
Of their former friend?

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much for sharing "A Death-Day Recalled": it is, I think, one of Hardy's most moving poems in the aftermath of his wife's death, and it fits perfectly here. It also brings to mind the line from "Autumn in King's Hintock Park" that I singled out in a recent post: "Earth never grieves."

I apologize for having brought to mind a sad memory for you. But I appreciate your sharing it in such a thoughtful manner.

Thank you very much.

John Ashton said...

Mr Pentz, I have been reading a Hardy poem each morning before I leave for work over the past few weeks. Randomly opening the volume of Collected Poems and reading one of the poems on the pages open before me, and yet as others have commented, I had'nt come across any of the poems you've posted before either. There is such a wealth of poetry contained in that one book.
This morning, appropriately it was Autumn in King's Hintock Park.
Thank you for your own observations of Hardy and for the insightful comments of Thom Gunn
I find increasingly with the years Hardy has come to mean more and more to me.
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Your point about Hardy's never resorting to histrionics or soaring rhetoric in his poetry, unlike some of the poetry of Yeats, is well made--and it's true. (Larkin could put Yeats and Hardy on the scale and find Hardy "heavier.") It's true, as you note fairly, without equivocation, that Hardy wrote some bad poems, but he never wrote a pretentious one, a phony one. He is, no matter the rhyme or meter, always simple and direct and sincere. Take this poem about the hearse carrying away Emma's body from Max Gate:

Knowing what it bore
I watched the rain-smitten back of the car-
(Brown-curtained, such as old ones were)--
When it started forth for a journey afar
Into the sullen November air,
And passed the glistening laurels and round the bend.

I have seen many gayer vehicles turn that bend
In autumn, winter, and summer air,
Bearing for journeys near or afar
Many who now or not, but were,
But I don't forget that rain-smitten car.
Knowing what it bore.

The poem is devoid of sentimentality, meaning we can respond to it honestly, without Hardy holding our arm behind us. Not a maudlin tone does the poem contain.

If one doesn't play close attention, one fails to notice that the end words for the second stanza are those of the first stanza, only in reverse.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: Yes, I've used that method of reading Hardy's poetry as well. And, as you suggest, it is always rewarding, whether you discover something new, or encounter something you may have read before, but haven't read in a while. I have James Gibson's 1976 edition in front of me, in which the poems are numbered. There are 947 of them. Hence, as you say, there is a wealth there that will never be exhausted.

I have been reading Hardy the past month, and the phrase you use applies quite strongly to my feelings about him this time around: "I find increasingly with the years Hardy has come to mean more and more to me." For instance, poems that I may not have noticed as much when I was younger now take on an entirely different cast.

As always, thank you very much for your thoughts, and for visiting.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much for your thoughts, and for sharing "A Leaving."

I think that Gunn's remarks are some of the acutest that have ever been written about Hardy. When it comes to Hardy's poetry (like, say, Larkin's and Edward Thomas's), it pretty much is what it is in terms of what he is saying. Thus, modern critics cannot play their usual explicating games with him (which one senses is frustrating to them). Gunn gets to the heart of what makes Hardy timeless. (And Larkin, as you suggest, made similar observations, particularly when contrasting, as Gunn does as well, Hardy with Yeats.)

Your sharing "A Leaving" is a perfect example. There is no "rhetoric" (to use Gunn's word), but the emotion is searing. (I shouldn't pick on Yeats so much, but think of all the histrionic, self-dramatizing poems that he wrote about Maud Gonne, Lady Gregory, and his friends.)

Thank you for pointing out the unobtrusive craft in the poem -- i.e., the repetition of "knowing what it bore." This, as you know, happens again and again in Hardy. Which is one reason why revisiting his poetry offers such great rewards. I am always noticing new things in poems I thought I knew. (I am also fond of the accompanying repetition of "rain-smitten" in the second line of the first stanza and the penultimate line of the second stanza.)

Again, thank you for visiting, and for your comments.