Thursday, June 25, 2015

"That Man Couldn't Look Out Of A Window Without Seeing Something That Had Never Been Seen Before"

To state the obvious (and to sound high-falutin' at the same time):  a successful work of art is the product of the keen observation of minute particulars transformed by a receptive, contemplative imagination.  This thought is prompted by a visit to Thomas Hardy's poetry this past week.

People who met him, and recorded their impressions, nearly always mention two things:  his eyes and his quiet, kind, and diffident manner.

"I could scarcely imagine those steady eyes 'in a fine frenzy rolling'; nor would I have expected their calm gaze either to conjure up the beauty of Tess or to read the mind of Napoleon.  But if Hardy did not wear his Muse upon his sleeve, there was yet in the very inconspicuousness of his appearance something unobtrusively impressive.  This impression deepened as I watched him.  The high, broad forehead was very fine; the expression in the initiated, resigned eyes, unforgettable.  They looked as if nothing could ever surprise them again.  They were sad eyes -- very sad -- but unflinching, as though, after long sorrow, a certain serenity had been arrived at.

It was about four o'clock when [J. M.] Barrie and I arrived at Max Gate, and we sat talking over the tea-table until seven.  I had been told that Hardy was the most unassuming, the least pretentious of talkers.  He certainly was an uncompetitive talker.  He seemed to have no desire to impress, persuade, or even amuse, but just to like uncontentiously to exchange ideas in the simplest possible words.  Yet he never said anything that was not to the point, and you could not fail to become more and more aware of his extraordinary perceptivity.  'That man,' Barrie had said of him on our journey down, 'couldn't look out of a window without seeing something that had never been seen before.'"

Cynthia Asquith, "Thomas Hardy at Max Gate," quoted in Martin Ray (editor), Thomas Hardy Remembered (Ashgate 2007), pages 243-244.

                                        Lying Awake

You, Morningtide Star, now are steady-eyed, over the east,
     I know it as if I saw you;
You, Beeches, engrave on the sky your thin twigs, even the least;
     Had I paper and pencil I'd draw you.

You, Meadow, are white with your counterpane cover of dew,
     I see it as if I were there;
You, Churchyard, are lightening faint from the shade of the yew,
     The names creeping out everywhere.

Thomas Hardy, Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres (1928).

Henry Justice Ford (1860-1941)
"A View of Church Hill from the Mill Pond, Old Swanage, Dorset"

When it comes to Hardy, I am wholeheartedly with Philip Larkin:  "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," Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982 (Faber and Faber 1983), page 174.

Make that two readers (at least).  Larkin wrote those words in 1966.  Time has now shown that his final comment holds true for the 20th century as a whole.

"He was a great man, if a sign of that is simplicity and modesty so surprising that they might be childish innocence. . . .[T]he little old man himself, as he entertained us, might have been the youngest and most innocent of us all.  He appeared content to talk of the habits of owls, and of the signs of the weather, of local inns and queer characters, and of the strangeness of hearing in Dorchester by wireless telephony the dancers' feet when an orchestra was playing at a London festival.  Trivial life interested him.  Little things amused him.  Little things, you could see, often had for him a significance which a clever listener failed to grasp.
* * *
Hardy, too, had so innocent a guess into people and their motives that sometimes when talking to him you felt this child was as old as humanity and knew all about us, but that he did not attach importance to his knowledge because he did not know he had it.  Just by chance, in the drift of the talk, there would be a word by Hardy, not only wide of the mark, but apparently not directed to it.  Why did he say it?  On the way home, or some weeks later, his comment would be recalled, and with the revealing light on it.
* * *
If our talk gave out, then there were the reflections of the lively fire playing on the face of the old poet, who contemplated the bright logs, his eyebrows raised, his legs stretched out, his hands between his knees.  That seamed face lost sight of the visitors for a while, and its nervous interest in the gossip changed to the compassionate look of a man who had brooded for long on the world, but was not sure he had made out what it all meant, or could do it the good he desired for it.  It may be true that as a man thinks so is he, and that may be why Hardy's head was satisfying with expected beauty. . . . [W]hen Hardy was in repose his face was that of a seer.  There was no doubt then, no need to wonder what special privilege had admitted him to so close a knowledge of his fellows."

H. M. Tomlinson, "One January Morning," Out of Soundings (1931).

                 Paying Calls

I went by footpath and by stile
     Beyond where bustle ends,
Strayed here a mile and there a mile
     And called upon some friends.

On certain ones I had not seen
     For years past did I call,
And then on others who had been
     The oldest friends of all.

It was the time of midsummer
     When they had used to roam;
But now, though tempting was the air,
     I found them all at home.

I spoke to one and other of them
     By mound and stone and tree
Of things we had done ere days were dim,
     But they spoke not to me.

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

Ernest Waterlow (1850-1919), "On the Dorset Coast"

Is each of Hardy's 900-plus poems a masterpiece?  Of course not.  But each of them tells a truth -- however small, however humble -- about what it means to be a human being and about how we make our way through the world.  Call me old-fashioned, but what I find in Hardy's poetry is that rare thing:  wisdom combined with compassion.

"Presently I found myself seated near a good log fire.  A little white dog lay stretched on the hearthrug. Near the chimney-piece I noticed the portrait of Shelley, and on the top of the bookshelf a small bust of Sir Walter Scott.  He came in at last, a little old man (dressed in tweeds after the manner of a country squire) with the same round skull and the same goblin eyebrows and the same eyes keen and alert.  What was it that he reminded me of?  A night hawk? a falcon owl? for I tell you the eyes that looked out of that century-old skull were of the kind that see in the dark."

Llewelyn Powys, in Edmund Blunden, Thomas Hardy (1941), page 159.

  In Time of "The Breaking of Nations"

Only a man harrowing clods
     In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
     Half asleep as they stalk.

Only thin smoke without flame
     From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
     Though Dynasties pass.

Yonder a maid and her wight
     Come whispering by:
War's annals will cloud into night
     Ere their story die.

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

Hardy dated the poem "1915," but it had its genesis in something that Hardy had observed, and felt, 45 years earlier.

"I believe it would be said by people who knew me well that I have a faculty (possibly not uncommon) for burying an emotion in my heart or brain for forty years, and exhuming it at the end of that time as fresh as when interred.  For instance, the poem entitled 'The Breaking of Nations' contains a feeling that moved me in 1870, during the Franco-Prussian war, when I chanced to be looking at such an agricultural incident in Cornwall. But I did not write the verses till during the war with Germany of 1914, and onwards.  Query:  where was that sentiment hiding itself during more than 40 years?"

Thomas Hardy, The Life and Work and Thomas Hardy (edited by Michael Millgate) (Macmillan 1985), page 408.

"I loved a thing he told about young trees when first planted -- how, the instant their roots came in contact with the ground, they begin to sigh."

William Rothenstein, Men and Memories: Recollections of William Rothenstein 1872-1900 (1931), quoted in Martin Ray (editor), Thomas Hardy Remembered, page 109.

Bernard Priestman, "Wareham Channel, Dorset" (1910)


Anonymous said...

--Thomas Hardy

When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say,
'He was a man who used to notice such things'?

If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid's soundless blink,
The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn, a gazer may think,
'To him this must have been a familiar sight.'

If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One may say, 'He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone.'

If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the door,
Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees
Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,
'He was one who had an eye for such mysteries'?

And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom
And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell's boom,
'He hears it not now, but used to notice such things'?

Seamus Heaney in the introduction to his book "The Redress of Poetry" comes as close as anyone else in explaining the genius of Hardy. Heaney speaks of "the frontier of writing," which he explains is "the line that divides the actual daily lives from the imaginative representation of those conditions in literature, and divides also the world of social speech from the world of poetic language."

Heaney goes on to say that this "dividing line is the real subject of Thomas Hardy's bewitching poem 'Afterwards.' Hardy may have begun this poem with the intention of writing about his imminent disappearance from the familiar world, but his ultimate achievement was to transform the familiar into something rich and strange."

Heaney says that Hardy's poem "is a showing forth of the way that poetry brings human existence into a fuller life."

Stevens says pretty much the same thing (see part II of "Sunday Morning").

To take the familiar and transform it into something rich and strange--yes, I think this can describe Hardy. He teaches us to see anew.

Sam Vega said...

Thank you for the three beautiful paintings of Dorset. Hardy would have known all three scenes very well. The Priestman one, by the way, is Wareham, rather than Warham.

Fred said...


Beautiful. Simply beautiful.

The mystics, the world over, regardless of creed, be they Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist, Taoist, Hindi. . . say the same thing: to perceive the deity one must empty oneself and be receptive, be open, and above all, be quiet.

I never realized it before, but thanks for pointing it out--Hardy is a mystic, but of the natural, human world.

Thanks for the post.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much for "Afterwards," for Heaney's thoughts on Hardy, and, of course, for your own thoughts. Actually, I had considered including "Afterwards" in the post, because I thought it was apt, but the post was getting too lengthy, so I left it out. But now it is here, which is good. Heaney has a knack for getting to the heart of the matter in his criticism, doesn't he? I am also reminded of his essay on Larkin, which is similarly acute. I think that he and Larkin were probably the finest critics of poetry in their times.

Thank you again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Thank you very much for your kind words. I'm happy you liked the post. Over the years, you and I have talked a few times about the joy of returning to Hardy, and of the surprises that always await. It seems that each time I return to him as I get older more admiration for him and for his poetry grows deeper and deeper.

I recommend having a look at Martin Ray's Hardy Remembered, and also James Gibson's Thomas Hardy: Interviews and Recollections. They are both wonderful collections of impressions of Hardy by those who met him. Of course, one has to make allowance for the fact that the people who wrote these accounts were often expecting to meet "a great man," and, hence, that could prompt some inflation in their accounts. However, one finds that the impressions are remarkably consistent, which is what prompted my post.

I hadn't thought of Hardy as a mystic, so I appreciate your making that suggestion. I can see what you are getting at: especially in his later years, he seems to have taken on some of those qualities, although his feet were always on the ground. I agree with your point that, if he was a mystic, it was of "the natural, human world," and there was no deity involved (e.g., "Crass Casualty" and purblind Doomsters"!).

Thank you very much for your thoughts, and for stopping by again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Sam Vega: You're welcome. I'm pleased you liked the paintings. I was attempting to find something that evoked Hardy and his background. Thank you for pointing out the typo in the title of Priestman's painting, which I failed to catch. I have corrected the name in the post.

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

Fred said...


I'll keep those names in mind. Thanks.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: I think you'll enjoy them. They are the sort of books you can dip into, since they are collections of various short reminiscences. Thanks again.