I am afraid my column for this issue may turn out to be a lecture. It may even degenerate into a rant. The inspiration for it came to me about three weeks ago. I had recently introduced a selection of poems for the “Poetry for Pleasure” group, which meets at the Cornerstone Community Centre. In fact my wife, Nikki, read the introduction for me, because I was temporarily unable to speak. My choices were based on the teachings of a great literary critic, the late F. R. Leavis. He was among the first to direct our attention to the outstanding quality of the poetry written by Thomas Hardy (pictured) You may be surprised to hear that he wrote hundreds of poems. In fact during his adult life he was working on a poem almost every day.
Hardy’s reputation as a novelist is now firmly established. After his death in 1928 there were some doubts about his status as a major novelist, but respect for his work soon started to grow. He is now regarded as one of our very greatest novelists, with the achievement of novels like ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ and ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ recognised throughout the world. A number of successful films have led to wide popular awareness of his work, although, sadly, only a minority of those who have enjoyed the films go on to read the original novels.
But what about Hardy the poet? He began when English poetry was beginning to change. Wordsworth and the Romantic poets had begun to loosen or reject the forms which had dominated the 18th century. Almost unconsciously poets in Europe, as well as in Britain, began to feel that each poem must have its own form. I believe it was Karl Marx who coined the phrase, “the form of its content.” Every section of Tennyson’s poem ‘Maud’, so admired by Queen Victoria, is in a different poetic form. Hardy, although it was not acknowledged at the time, was a leader in this development. He wrote hundreds of poems and almost every one of them is given a unique form, its “own” form. As poetry changed during the 20th century, several poets found Hardy’s example an important guide for their own development. What is more, like F. R. Leavis, they began to praise his poetry for its outstanding quality.
Now, well into the 21st century, it has become obvious that Hardy is one of the most important figures in our literature, equally important as a novelist and a poet. But does the British public really understand that? I am afraid that our education system is so inadequate that many adults could not reliably name some of our major novelists and poets. So what chance for Hardy, who should be near the top of the list for both achievements?
I feel very unhappy about this, but what can be done to change it? Let me at least try to convince anyone who reads this article. When Hardy’s wife died in 1912, he was moved to write a series of poems which are among the greatest in our language. I have asked the editor to print one of these poems as an addition to this article. I hope you will enjoy it.
After a Journey by Thomas Hardy
I come to interview a Voiceless ghost;
Whither, O whither will its whim now draw me?
Up the cliff, down, till I’m lonely, lost,
And the unseen waters’ soliloquies awe me.
Where you will next be there’s no knowing,
Facing round about me everywhere,
With your nut-coloured hair,
And gray eyes, and rose-flush coming and going.
Yes: I have re-entered your olden haunts at last;
Through the years, through the dead scenes I have tracked you;
What have you now found to say of our past –
Viewed across the dark space wherein I have lacked you?
Summer gave us sweets, but autumn wrought division? Things were not lastly as firstly well
With us twain, you tell?
But all’s closed now, despite Time’s derision.
I see what you are doing: you are leading me on
To the spots we knew when we haunted here together,
The waterfall, above which the mist-bow shone
At the then fair hour in the then fair weather,
And the cave just under, with a voice still so hollow
That it seems to call out to me from forty years ago,
When you were all aglow,
And not the thin ghost that I now frailly follow!
Ignorant of what there is flitting here to see,
The waked birds preen and the seals flop lazily,
Soon you will have, Dear, to vanish from me,
For the stars close their shutters and the dawn whitens hazily.
Trust me, I mind not, though Life lours,
The bringing of me here; nay, bring me here again! I am just the same as when
Our days were a joy, and our paths through flowers.