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‘No one wanted to publish his early poems,’ Claire Tomalin wrote in the introduction to her Poems of Thomas Hardy (Penguin Classics, 2006), ‘but he kept writing verse during the three decades in which he worked as a novelist, always considering himself primarily a poet.’
She describes him as ‘essentially a lyric poet, working a great deal in his head’, by which I suppose she means that his poems were short enough to be remembered without being written down. She reminds us ‘that he grew up hearing ballads sung by country people’ and that ‘by the time he was a schoolboy he was going out with his father and uncle to make music for weddings and parties around the local villages’. There is, she says, ‘always an element of song around what Philip Larkin called the little spinal cord of thought.’
So there you have it. Thomas Hardy’s poems in a nutshell. Short songs with ballad-like features and a little spinal cord of thought. You can see why no one wanted to publish them.
Whatever he might have thought, Hardy was not primarily a poet. He was a story teller. Each poem is a story. Or a fragment of a story. An incident. Incidents that gives rise, not to thought, but after-thought, because Hardy’s poems all look back.
Time and place are as important in his poems as they are in his novels and stories. Four in the Morning. An August Midnight. At Castle Boterel. Faint Heart in a Railway Train. Their common theme is love and friendship. ‘We were irked by the scene, by our own selves’ could be a line from a story, but comes from a poem, ‘We Sat at the Window’ (Bournemouth, 1875). Another poem, A Thunderstorm in Town (A Reminiscence: 1893) ends almost prosaically with the words, ‘I should have kissed her if the rain had lasted a minute more’.
There was no knowing what kind of plant the seed, once sown in Hardy’s mind, would grow into – poem, short story or novel. The seed was an incident and the workings of fate (incident, accident) were its flowering.
He wrote of his last novel, Jude the Obscure, that its hostile reception had the effect of ‘completely curing me of further interest in novel-writing’. Poetry was his refuge. Hardy the novelist had never felt comfortable with publishers, editors or, come to that, readers. Grateful to those readers by whom Tess of the D’Urbevilles had been well received, he wrote in a preface to a later edition, ‘For this responsiveness I cannot refrain from expressing my thanks; and my regret is that, in a world where one so often hungers in vain for friendship, where even not to be wilfully misunderstood is felt as a kindness, I shall never meet in person these appreciative readers, male and female, and shake them by the hand.’
Dickens worked his audience as an actor does. He knew how to make them laugh and cry. He would never have been surprised, as Hardy was, by the public reaction to his books. He would never have said about any of his books, as Hardy did about Jude, that ‘there can be more in a book than the author consciously puts there, which will help either to its profit or to its disadvantage as the case may be.’ Dickens rehearsed his stories, reading them aloud. Hardy worked a great deal in his head.
He said that Jude the Obscure, like everything else that he wrote, was ‘simply an endeavour to give shape and coherence to a series of seemings, or personal impressions, the question of their consistency or their discordance, of their permanence or their transitoriness, being regarded as not of the first moment.’ The marriage laws of the time, which the book had seemed to its critics to be attacking, were really no more than ‘a good foundation for the fable of a tragedy, told for its own sake as a presentation of particulars containing a good deal that was universal, and not without a hope that certain cathartic, Aristotelian qualities might be found therein.’
In other words, his aim was to inspire fear and pity, an aim which can only be achieved through a narrative which has the arc of a Greek tragedy. The novel as tragedy was a new departure in Victorian England. The influence of Dickens, who wrote novels of an entirely different kind, was so pervasive as to define in the minds of critics and readers what a novel should be. Dickens was a humourist, Hardy a tragedian. Dickens was theatrical, Hardy was dramatic. Dickens was historical, Hardy was pastoral. ‘A novel,’ Hardy said, ‘is an impression, not an argument.’e would He
Poetry rarely commands a large audience and poets do not seek one. It is easy to see why someone like Hardy, who ‘hungers in vain for friendship’, would rather think of himself as a poet than a novelist. Any writer who regrets so deeply not being able to meet his readers in person and shake their hands would be well advised to stick to poetry. But that is a question of temperament, not talent.
The irony is that Hardy’s ‘seemings or personal impressions’ is a more apt description of novels by writers who came after him than it is of his own. He was too much of a story-teller to give up on narrative altogether. That was for others to do and for him to anticipate (as Flaubert anticipated the novel about nothing). But what was most distinctive about his own novels, most Hardy-esque, was what he called the ‘fable of a tragedy’. There can be no tragedy without narrative. One thing leads to another.
What kind of novel Hardy might have written next, if he had not been cured of novel-writing, is a moot point. After Jude, perhaps there was nowhere else for him to go. After Hardy, the English novel went in two directions, led in one by Virginia Woolf, in the other by H.G.Wells. Stream of consciousness and science fiction, introspection and social comment, psychology and sociology, poetry and politics. Every English novelist since Hardy belongs to one of those two camps.
It is not to England but America that we must turn to find writers who carried on where Hardy left off. Willa Cather in O Pioneers! and My Antonia, Edith Wharton in Ethan Frome and Summer, John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, told stories that were ‘a good foundation for the fable of a tragedy’, a foundation laid, as all Hardy’s poems, stories and novels were, in time and place.
America was the right place at the right time. Hardy had to invent Wessex as the setting for his tragedies, America was already there. Hardy looked back, the Americans looked forward. Hardy’s tragic vision became in the end a poetry of regret. The story of a story-teller who thought he was a poet.