Thomas hardy – poet of time
By Prof. Wimal Dissanayake
Recently, an eminent literary scholar gave a lecture on Thomas Hardy's poetry. His central theme was the nature of desire in Hardy's poetry. After the lecture I decided to revisit Hardy's poetry. Thomas Hardy (1840 – 1928) is well-known as a novelist in Sri Lanka but his poetry does not seem to have generated the same degree of enthusiasm as his fiction. This was indeed the case in Western countries as well until recent times. Many of his novels have been made into popular films and television dramas. It is only now that Hardy is being recognized as a supremely important poet.
What is interesting to note is that apparently Hardy saw himself primarily as a poet, though he started publishing poetry only when he had given up writing fiction. To be sure, this statement is only partially true. Although he did not publish his first collection of poems until 1898 (He was fifty eight years old then), he had written them decades ago.
It is primarily as a novelist that Thomas Hardy had gained a worldwide reputation. His works of fiction such as The Mayor of Casterbridge, Far From the Madding Crowd, Jude the Obscure, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, The Return of the Native and The Woodlanders have been translated into numerous languages including Sinhala. In his novels the idea of suffering mostly that of women, fatalism and chance, decline of the peasantry and social change find repeated articulation. Some of these themes are carried over into his poetry. When speaking of Tess of the d'Urbervilles, the well-known British literary critic A. Alvarez made the following observation. 'the plangent, heartbroken, note of the great poems of loss and missed chances, which Hardy wrote more than twenty years later, after his wife's death, is already present in Tess, in the continually roused, hunting descriptions of the landscape which crystallize intermittently into visionary states of mind, and above all in the power and beauty of the heroine whom he created, and then unwillingly, destroyed.'
It took a while for Hardy's indubitable talents as a poet to be fully recognized. In recent times, there have been a number of important critical works that have sought to highlight the multi-faceted talents and complex weavings of Thomas Hardy as a poet.
There have been many distinguished poets who have acknowledged their indebtedness to Hardy. Among them are Robert Frost, Ezra Pound. W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas and Phillip Larkin. Ezra Pound once remarked that 'nobody has taught me anything about writing since Thomas hardy died.' Auden remarked that, 'no English poet, not even Donne or Browning, employed so many and so complicated stanza forms.'
Thomas Hardy is also the author of over nine hundred lyrics. They deal with the themes of loss, regret, remorse, suffering, the power of memory and the complex interactions with time. Some of his most moving poems address the issues of disappointment in love and life. He excelled in many literary forms – the lyric, the ballad, sardonic poems, monologues and dialogues and verse dramas. He had a great respect for tradition and was clearly inspired by the Romantics, most notably William Wordsworth. The Hardy scholar Samuel Hynes has said that, Hardy was 'explicitly English, descriptive, lyrical, and formally regular and whole,' This statement, it seems, captures an important facet of Hardy's concerns and accomplishments as a poet.
Let us consider a representative poem by Hardy. It is called "Neutral Tones" and was written during his early years as a poet.
We stood by a pond that winter day,
And the sun was white, as though chidden by god,
And a few leaves lay on the starving sod,
They had fallen from an ash, and were gray.
Your eyes on me were as eyes that rove
Over tedious riddles of years ago
And some words played between us to and fro
On which lost the more by our love.
The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing
Alive enough to have strength to die,
And a grin of bitterness swept thereby
Like an ominous bird a-wing
Since then, keen lessons that love deceives,
And wrings with wrong, have shaped to me
Your face, and the god-curst sin, and a tree,
Amid a pond edged with grayish leaves.
This is a quintessentially Hardy poem. The human interest, the sense of loss and absence, the reciprocities of landscape and human emotion are evident. The attempt to be neutral, as the title suggests, is ironic,
Thomas hardy's poems have their origins in deeply personal experiences. He is at one close to and distant from the experiences that stirred his imagination. As Samuel Hynes accurately points out, 'it is important, though, to recognize that at the time Hardy turned from pose to poetry, he was silently suffering deep feelings of personal loss, alienation, loneliness, of emotional and intellectual failure. For Hardy was essentially a lyric poet, and the sources of his lyric poetry are personal. I would argue that the sources of Hardy's philosophy were personal too, and that the poems in which he argues with God and Nature rise from the same personal sources.'
One of the dominant and pervasive themes in his poetry, in my view, is the negative and positive power of time. Indeed, many of his most successful poems deal with this theme. We see time passing through in his poems. They reshape memories as evidenced in his ballads as well as in poems dealing with the death of his wife Emma .The present becomes the past and observation becomes memory and the human valences of these movements are deftly captured in his poetry. Let us consider a poem like "During Wind and Rain".
What we perceive in this poem is the interaction of the observed present with the remembered past. As a commentator has pointed out "in the past, as memory preserves it, human beings gather together, act, and are happy; in the present, the only reality is in natural processes, which go on destructively and relentless (the poem occurs during wind and rain ) the weather survives the poem as the remembered actors do not". This poem seems to be suggesting that old age should be regarded as what it is, an inevitable process,
It is no exaggeration to say that very few poets belonging to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been obsessed with time as Hardy has been. In more than nine hundred of his poems, the theme of time finds diverse and varied expression. Time was important to Hardy because he was struggling to come to terms with the conflicts between the nineteenth century highlighting of consciousness and the emerging new sciences. The loss of traditional beliefs and commonly inherited forms of life was another factor that drove Hardy to engage with the negative and positive aspects of time (He saw time as both destructive and nurturing).
His interest in the processes of change impelled him to encounters with speculative and philosophical thinking after Charles Darwin. He was also intrigued by the reciprocities between time and the mind. These concerns of his find expression in diverse ways in his poetry.
J. Hillis Miller, who has written so insightfully on Hardy's writings, makes the following comment regarding two of the most important presuppositions which underwrite Hardy's poetry. "One is the assumption that time is an illusion. For him everything already exists before it happens and goes existing after it has happened in history. Related to this static view of time is the assumption that any event is a repetition of similar events which have already occurred over and over in history and will occur innumerable times again".
As stated at the beginning, there has been a resurgence of interest in Hardy's poetry in recent times. Certain critics with a post-structuralist and deconstructive orientation have begun to engage Hardy's poetry from diverse angles. One of the most stimulating post-structuralist readings of a Hardy poem that I have come across is J. Hillis Miller's analysis of Hardy's "In Front of the Landscape". This is a poem that deals with relationship between the poetic narrator and a swarm of ghosts from the past seen from the relative detachment of a hill. Many critics have commented on the deftness with which the poet has manipulated rhythm.
Analyzing this poem, Miller says that, 'it has to do with seeing and non- seeing, and with struggles for power, by way of appropriation and misappropriation.' Thomas Hardy enjoys a well deserved worldwide reputation as an outstanding novelist.
Equally, he should be regarded as a poet of the first order.
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