Friday, May 20, 2016

Homage To Thomas Hardy

I grow fonder and fonder of Thomas Hardy -- both as a person and as a poet -- with each passing year.  Two or three (or more) times a year I find myself in a Hardy mood.  Given that he wrote more than 900 poems, I am happy to realize that I will never exhaust his riches.  Each time I return to his poetry, I enjoy old favorites, rediscover gems that I had forgotten, and come upon surprises that I had somehow overlooked.

For instance, this past week I discovered the following poem.  How had I missed it all these years?

   The Sun's Last Look on the Country Girl
                                (M. H.)

The sun threw down a radiant spot
        On the face in the winding-sheet --
The face it had lit when a babe's in its cot;
And the sun knew not, and the face knew not,
        That soon they would no more meet.

Now that the grave has shut its door,
        And lets not in one ray,
Do they wonder that they meet no more --
That face and its beaming visitor --
        That met so many a day?

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

"M. H." refers to Mary Hardy, Hardy's sister, who died in November of 1915.  The poem was written in December of that year.  Ten years later, Hardy made the following journal entry:  "December 23.  Mary's birthday. She came into the world . . . and went out . . . and the world is just [the] same . . . not a ripple on the surface left."  Thomas Hardy, The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy (edited by Michael Millgate) (Macmillan 1985), page 464 (ellipses in original).

How like Hardy to notice such a detail and then turn it into something so affecting.  Who but Hardy would have thought to create the lovely relationship between the country girl and the sun?  Too sentimental?  Of course not.  Here is a test:  please read the poem again, and, as you do so, think of someone you have loved who has passed away.

"Such, then, is the tenderness of Thomas Hardy.  I do not know any other English poet who strikes that note of tenderness so firmly and so resonantly.  You must forgive me for using what is called 'emotive language' about his work:  but, when one is deeply touched by a poem, I can see no adequate reason for concealing the fact.
* * * * *
Great poems have been written by immature, flawed, or unbalanced men; but not, I suggest, great personal poetry; for this, ripeness, breadth of mind, charity, honesty are required:  that is why great personal poetry is so rare. It is an exacting medium -- one that will not permit us to feign notable images of virtue.  False humility, egotism, or emotional insincerity cannot be hidden in such poetry:  they disintegrate the poem.  Thomas Hardy's best poems do seem to me to offer us images of virtue; not because he moralises, but because they breathe out the truth and goodness that were in him, inclining our own hearts towards what is lovable in humanity."

C. Day Lewis, The Lyrical Poetry of Thomas Hardy: The Wharton Lecture on English Poetry (The British Academy 1951) (italics in original).

William Anstice Brown, "In Purley Meadow, Sherborne, Dorset" (1979)

Day Lewis's use of the word "feign" in the preceding passage reminds me of a wonderful observation by Edward Thomas on the nature of poetry (an observation that has appeared here on more than one occasion):  "if what poets say is true and not feigning, then of how little account are our ordinary assumptions, our feigned interests, our playful and our serious pastimes spread out between birth and death."  Edward Thomas, Feminine Influence on the Poets (Martin Secker 1910), page 86.

The phrase "true and not feigning" perfectly describes Thomas Hardy's poetry as a whole, both the well-known old chestnuts ("During Wind and Rain," "The Darkling Thrush," "The Convergence of the Twain," "In Time of 'The Breaking of Nations'," "The Oxen," for instance) and the lesser-known, out-of-the-way poems that often go unnoticed.  I believe that, in order to appreciate the truth, beauty, compassion, and charm of Hardy's poetry, one needs to become acquainted with the smaller hidden treasures.

               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.

"Because he was haunted by Time and transience, because he never saw the commonest thing without a vision of what it once had been, of what it one day would be, in return even the commonest things were lit for him with a gleam of tragic poetry.  He saw things as instinctively in three tenses as in three dimensions.  In this way he widened the domain of poetry till it became for him as wide as life itself, a life intensely sad and yet intensely real.  The comfort that religion failed to give, he found and thought that others might find, not necessarily in writing poetry about this world, but in seeing this world poetically, as anyone with an imagination can. . . . Hardy did not simply make poetry out of life; he made life into poetry.
* * * * *
He deliberately took for his subjects the commonest and most natural feelings; but by an unfamiliar side, and with that insight which only sensitiveness and sympathy can possess.  This sympathy is important; for, as I have said, if truthfulness is one main feature of Hardy's work, its compassion is another."

F. L. Lucas, Ten Victorian Poets (Cambridge University Press 1940).

Henry Justice Ford (1860-1941)
"A View of Church Hill from the Mill Pond, Old Swanage, Dorset" (1931)

Ah, the things we see in this world!  Sights that cause us to catch our breath, and that return to haunt us at unexpected times.  Speaking for myself, I can testify to the urge to look away in order to avoid future hauntings.  Thomas Hardy never averted his eyes.

               At a Country Fair

At a bygone Western country fair
I saw a giant led by a dwarf
With a red string like a long thin scarf;
How much he was the stronger there
          The giant seemed unaware.

And then I saw that the giant was blind,
And the dwarf a shrewd-eyed little thing;
The giant, mild, timid, obeyed the string
As if he had no independent mind,
          Or will of any kind.

Wherever the dwarf decided to go
At his heels the other trotted meekly,
(Perhaps -- I know not -- reproaching weakly)
Like one Fate bade that it must be so,
          Whether he wished or no.

Various sights in various climes
I have seen, and more I may see yet,
But that sight never shall I forget,
And have thought it the sorriest of pantomimes,
          If once, a hundred times!

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

What are we to make of this poem?  Is it merely another example of Hardy the purported pessimist?  No, this is simply Hardy doing what he always does:  reporting what he sees.  What is the poem "about"?  Long-time readers of this blog will know my response:  explanation and explication are the death of poetry.

The most you will get from me is this:  the poem is about seeing a sight that forever haunts you.  Does such an experience change the world?  No.  Why should it?  Does such an experience change your soul?  We each have to answer that question for ourselves.

Eric Bray, "Allington, Dorset, from Victoria Grove" (1975)

The following passage by David Cecil articulates far better than I can what draws me to Hardy.  Cecil's remarks about Hardy are remarkably similar to those of C. Day Lewis and F. L. Lucas.  They all have their source, I think, in a great love for the man.

"His poems bear the recognisible 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.  It combines a special charm, a special nobility.  The charm unites unexpectedly the naïve and the sensitive.  Hardy addresses us directly, unreservedly, unselfconsciously; yet he is not unsubtle or imperceptive.  On the contrary he shows himself exquisitely appreciative of delicate shades of feeling and of fleeting nuances of beauty.  Similarly his nobility of nature fuses tenderness and integrity. 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 (Thomas Hardy Society 1974).

Thomas Hardy is a human being (a lovable, sensitive, compassionate human being) speaking directly and without guile to other human beings. He is unfailingly honest.  This means that the truths he tells you will be both beautiful and harrowing by turns (or at the same time).  But he will never lie to you.  He knows that we are all in this together.  And he knows that our time is short.

   The Comet at Yalbury or Yell'ham

It bends far over Yell'ham Plain,
        And we, from Yell'ham Height,
Stand and regard its fiery train,
        So soon to swim from sight.

It will return long years hence, when
        As now its strange swift shine
Will fall on Yell'ham; but not then
        On face of mine or thine.

Thomas Hardy, Poems of the Past and the Present (Macmillan 1901).

"May.  In an orchard at Closeworth.  Cowslips under trees.  A light proceeds from them, as from Chinese lanterns or glow-worms."

Thomas Hardy, journal entry for May, 1876, in Thomas Hardy, The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy (edited by Michael Millgate) (Macmillan 1985), page 112.

Alfred Egerton Cooper (1883-1974), "Dorset Landscape"


Fred said...

A beautiful tribute to an extraordinary poet.

"Just the Same" Bleak, yet in spite of everything, he tells us, "I went forth. . ." And, so must we all.

"At a County Fair" Does he regret seeing the dwarf and the giant?

Parallelism: the light of the sun in the first poem and the light of the comet in the last.

Anonymous said...

Splendid post on Hardy. Like you, I find him a great poet, and for all the reasons you provide. It's true that one of the great pleasures of Hardy is leafing through a collection of his poems.

As you say, one always finds a gem one had somehow missed before. After reading your post I reached over to my book case and fetched the Penguin Classics edition of Hardy's "Selected Poems." Leafing through it, pausing to read once more the more-known great poems, I came across the below poem.

Perhaps you are familiar with it. This little poem, it seems to me, is one of those Hardy poems that captures the essence of the man and his examination of life. I find the first line of the poem sublime.

For some reason this Hardy poem reminds me of what Prospero says in "The Tempest." "Yea, all which it inherit shall dissolve / And like this insubstantial pageant faded, / Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and out little life / Is rounded with a sleep."

I imagine that did I concentrate with all my power I could hear the ghostly arms of time moaning as it gathers up, eventually, the world and leaves not a flower remaining--or a woeful thing either. Yeats says, " All that's beautiful drifts away with the waters." True enough--but, then, all, whether some of it be beautiful or not, drifts away. I don't know that time is blind, but certainly it is impartial.

Again, this post of yours on Hardy as superb as any you have posted, and you have posted many magnificent posts.

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.


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.

Sam Vega said...

The image in "At a Country Fair" is indeed very striking and moving, but I wonder whether Hardy actually witnessed this, or whether he was adapting something he had read about. In Buddhist scriptures there is the story of a blind strong man who carries a disabled man with clear sight upon his shoulders. It is found in many accounts, e.g.

although I have never been able to find an original sutta or other canonical source for this. It is supposed to be an analogy for the relationship between faith (which is strong, but blind) and wisdom (which sees clearly, but lacks the power to go anywhere on its own). It is possible that Hardy had read some such account, as various collections of stories and sayings exemplifying "The Wisdom of the East" were available in Victorian Britain. But it's certainly a lovely image of mutual dependency and trust, as likely to be revealed in Dorset as anywhere else on the planet.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: I'm happy to hear from you again. Thank you very much for your thoughts on the poems.

Yes, it has to be admitted that there is a fair amount of bleakness in Hardy's poetry -- but I think things balance out in the end (like life?). And, as you say, "I went forth" is our recourse in any event. "Does he regret seeing the dwarf and the giant?" Few of us like to see such sights (hence my comment about the urge to turn away), so I would hazard to say that, like most of us, Hardy's heart dropped at seeing such a sight. But I'm not sure about "regret." He was too keen and avid an observer of the world. I hadn't noticed the parallelism in the sun and the comet -- thanks for pointing that out.

As always, thank you very much for stopping by.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much for your kind words, and for your thoughts on Hardy.

Coincidentally, the poem of his that you quote ("Going and Staying") is actually of favorite of mine. (I agree with you that the opening line is lovely.) I posted the poem here back on July 3, 2011, where I pointed out something interesting about the poem's development: when it was originally published (in November of 1919 in The London Mercury) it only included the first two stanzas; when it was published in book form (in Late Lyrics and Earlier in 1922) Hardy added the third stanza. I pondered in the post whether the addition of the third stanza heightened or lessened the implications of the original two stanzas. I still don't know the answer to that.

Thank you again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Sam Vega: Thank you for that interesting thought -- and for the link to the discussion of the story/parable, which is lovely. I agree that it is possible that Hardy may have been familiar with the Buddhist story -- as you know, he was extremely well-read. (Although, as I'm sure you also know, his taste in philosophy -- not surprisingly -- ran more towards Schopenhauer!) Who knows? The details -- "shrewd-eyed"; "a red string like a long thin scarf" -- suggest personal observation. But, after all, Hardy spent much of his time in his imagination, didn't he?

In any event, the image is, as you say, "striking and moving," and the thought that it crosses boundaries such as those you suggest is wonderful and intriguing.

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

mary f.ahearn said...

I was very much moved by these poems and found the connection with the Buddhist parable very interesting. As you may know, a thin red string, in Chinese mythology, is what connects two persons, their fate or destiny.
Thanks to you for this posting and to those who respond as well.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mary: Thank you for the reference to the "red string" of fate or destiny -- I hadn't heard of that. It appears that I am going to have to do some further digging on possible sources for the poem. Even if it turns out that Hardy in fact saw the scene at an English country fair, the connections with Buddhism and Chinese tradition are wonderful, and provide more evidence of what we all know: these basic themes recur through the ages, and across all cultures.

I'm pleased you liked the post, and the accompanying comments. As always, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you for stopping by again.

Bovey Belle said...

What a lovely post, and a fresh insight into a man I thought I knew quite well. It's always good to see things through fresh eyes. Where I might have suggested that the red string linking the blind giant and his diminutive keeper was symbolic (as Tess's scarlet ribbons were at the May Day dance) I am intrigued by the connection to the Buddhist scriptures. He was, as has been said, very well read and he liked others to know that he was by dropping such motifs into his work. That "red string" of fate or destiny would definitely prove his learning . . .

That said, I still wonder whether he based this parable on something he had seen himself, and substituted the red string for a length of rustic twine! Having lived in Dorset, I can see clearly in my mind's eye the hill at Bere Regis where Woodbury Hill Fair was held in his time ("Kingsbere sub Greenhill" where Tess's T'Urberville ancestors were laid). Whilst "dwarf" and "giant" suggest a more mythical inclination, it would not have been beyond the realms of possibility for a strong but maimed worker to be controlled by a more diminutive and exploitative "friend", especially on a day out.

Thank you again for such a stimulating post.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: Thank you very much for the kind words about the post. I'm happy you saw it: I know how much you like Hardy, but, because you are always so busy, I was afraid you might miss it.

I agree: the thoughts about Buddhist parables and Chinese traditions do add another possible level to the poem, and I also agree with you that Hardy might well have been aware of such things. As I said in my response to Mary's comment, all of this is prompting me to do further digging into Hardy's reading. On the other hand, as you say, it may well have been a true Dorset sight. As you know, there was very little that escaped Hardy's eye, and what he did see he seems never to have forgotten.

As always, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you for visiting again.

Bovey Belle said...

Busy is the understatement Mr Pentz (remind me never to retire again!) and it took THREE evenings of reading and re-reading your post to find a moment of quiet to sit down and answer it. I have a whole new angle to Hardy to explore now. It will adjust my comprehension of him entirely.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: As you said in your first comment, it is nice to have "fresh insight[s]" and "to see things through fresh eyes."

If I may, I have a suggestion with respect to exploring Hardy's reading and intellectual interests further (although I strongly suspect that you have already "been there, done that," as the saying goes): the "biography" of Hardy by Florence Hardy (which, as you know, is actually an autobiography written by Hardy himself) contains a wealth of material along these lines. I have only been digging into it within the past few years, and it has greatly deepened my knowledge of, and respect for, Hardy. The best edition to obtain (you may already have a copy) is titled "The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy." It was edited by Michael Millgate and was published by Macmillan in 1985. Millgate's editing recovers the original text as written by Hardy before his death, without Florence Hardy's alterations and additions.

I suspect that you could find a copy on one of your trips to Hay-on-Wye. Again, I apologize if you have already been down this path.

Thank you very much for your follow-up thoughts.

Unknown said...

Thank you, Stephen, what a coincidence, I have just bought the Wordsworth edition of Hardy's collected poems. So many poems, just found the the The Wind Blew Words alongside the skies.........., your words will help. Do hope your recovery is complete.
Kind regards

Stephen Pentz said...

Bernadette: That's a nice coincidence, isn't it? I think the comments on Hardy by Day Lewis, Lucas, and Cecil provide a fine accompaniment to reading Hardy's poems. Thank you for the reference to "The Wind Blew Words," which is new to me. (Another example of always discovering something new when it comes to Hardy's poetry!) It shows both sides of Hardy, I think: the tender man and the man who is ever aware of the World's woes. But, overarching all, there is the beauty of his writing: "The wind blew words along the skies,/And these it blew to me/Through the wide dusk." Lovely.

Thank you for asking about my recovery. Things are going very well: I am up to 50 minutes on my walks, which makes me very happy.

As ever, thank you for stopping by.