Nowadays May is my favourite month – not many students would say that! – and my favourite lines from the poetry of Thomas Hardy are the following lines taken from ‘Afterwards’:
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like
Delicate-filmed as new spun silk….
Also by way of introduction to the poetry of Thomas Hardy, the English composer Edward Elgar and Hardy share the same birthday, 2nd June, 1840. Both were country lads and both contributed greatly in giving us an idea of what life was like in the late nineteenth century. Listen to Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor (YouTube) and if Hardy’s poems are ever made into a Hollywood blockbuster (very unlikely!) wouldn’t that be a beautiful soundtrack!
Helpful Background Information
- Thomas Hardy, English novelist and poet, was born near Dorchester in England. He was one of the great English writers of the 19th and early 20th century.
- Hardy’s father was a stonemason and influenced Thomas to take up a career as an architect. Gothic architecture influenced Hardy’s poetry. It provided a powerful model for artistic unity and complexity in his works.
- Hardy derived a love of music from his father and a devotion to literature from his mother. She introduced him to all the folk songs and legends of the Dorchester region as well as to Latin poets and French Romances.
- He learned French, German, and Latin, sometimes self-taught.
- Hardy could not afford to study at university. Instead he was apprenticed to a church architect and worked at this trade until he was 34.
- Hardy wrote continually during the architect phase of his life. He wrote unpublished poems which idealized the rural life. He wrote serialised novels.
- Success with serialised novels allowed him to give up the architect trade in 1874 and to marry the same year.
- Over the next 22 years Hardy wrote many novels, all set in the interesting and historic Dorset landscape. He disguised Dorchester as Wessex in his novels and poetry.
- Beginning at the age of 58, Hardy published many volumes of poetry-over 900 poems in all.
- His poetry is straight to the point [spare and unadorned]. Though some consider his poetry to be unromantic, Hardy was imaginative and explored interesting feelings, just like the Romantic poets did.
- Hardy’s most common theme is humanity’s struggle against fate. Hardy is pessimistic in the way he portrays humanity’s futile struggle against cosmic forces. His work has a tragic vision; a sense that human life has to be endured. Hardy’s vision is said to be stoical as it involves an acceptance of fate.
- Hardy had a vision of a post religious society. He grew up in an era of narrow religious values and certainties. These ideas were beginning to disappear during his mature years as a poet. Instead of the traditional ways of understanding, Hardy realised that science had reshaped humanity’s vision of itself.
- Hardy favoured the lyric and ballad forms of poetry.
- Hardy’s poetry explores the themes of rural life and nature, love and loss, cosmic indifference, the ravages of time, the inevitability of death and the inhuman ironies of war.
- Hardy’s poetry is characterised by fatalistic pessimism, earthy realism, and abstract philosophising. Hardy’s poetry contains great moral conviction.
- Hardy was fascinated by transience, change, mortality, time, human vanity, war, power, nature, human cruelty and the past.
- Hardy’s tone is typically ironic. He sees the unexpected twists and surprises that life throws at people.
- His work provides keen psychological insights. Hardy uses original images that appeal to the reader’s intelligence
- Hardy’s tone is often bleak and communicates a sense of loss. He is also nostalgic, idealising and longing for the past. Yet he can sometimes view a memory in an ironic or realistic way.
- A lot of Hardy’s poetry is relatively simple and yet skilful. Yet, some of his poetic writing can be difficult due to old-fashioned words and phrases
- Some of his poems are regarded as deliberately obscure. Hardy claimed that he often tried to hide his art or craft behind awkwardness. The poems on the course are relatively straight-forward.
- Hardy’s poems tend to be descriptive, lyrical, and regular in form. He does not tend to experiment with form.
THE POETRY OF THOMAS HARDY (1840 – 1928)
These notes are meant to assist those studying English (Higher Level) for the Leaving Certificate but obviously they can be used by all lovers of poetry – even those who studied Hardy’s poetry in Soundings long ago! For those studying for the Leaving Cert in June you need to become very familiar with at least six of Thomas Hardy’s poems. I would recommend that you concentrate on the poems which illustrate his ideas on life, the past, nature and God. The following is my personal selection (a baker’s half-dozen!):
- The Darkling Thrush, (TDT)
- Drummer Hodge, (DH)
- Channel Firing, (CF)
- The Convergence of the Twain, (TCOTT)
- During Wind and Rain, (DWAR)
- Afterwards, (A)
- When I set out for Lyonesse. (WISOFL)
The points made here in these notes represent one interpretation of his work. It is important that you develop your own response to each poem; where this differs from the suggestions given here, trust your own judgement! Become familiar with the poems and with the major themes running through Hardy’s poetry.
Major Themes in Hardy’s Poetry
Time/The Past: Hardy is keenly aware that civilisations and political arrangements last a limited time, pass and are replaced. Equally he knows that childhood and youth make way for a different future. Hardy frequently glorifies the past in order to emphasise its passing or to contrast it with the present. Sometimes Hardy ironically suggests people don’t learn from the past.
– ‘The Century’s corpse’ [TDT]
– ‘The world is as it used to be:/ All nations striving strong to make/ Red war yet redder’ [CF]
– ‘Again the guns disturbed the hour/Roaring their readiness to avenge, As far inland as Stourton Tower/And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge’ [CF]
– ‘Ah, no; the years, the years’ [DWAR]
– ‘He hears it not now, but used to notice such things’ [A]
Fate: Hardy believes that human lives and events are predestined, though we don’t foresee the outcome. He has a vision that death, decay and mistakes are inevitable in human life. The retrospective view of history is not the only way of understanding events -there are hidden forces that shape our future, long before the destined events occur. Though destiny is inevitable, humans cannot figure it out in advance. Unknown outcomes reshape the plans that people have for themselves. Tragedy, though unforeseen, is never far away. More rarely, Hardy depicts a happy turn of events.
– ‘The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything Prepared a sinister mate for her-so gaily great-A Shape of Ice’ [TCOTT]
– ‘Alien they seemed to be: No mortal eye could see The intimate welding of their later history’ [TCOTT]
– ‘They were bent by paths coincident On being anon twin halves of one August event’ [TCOTT]
– ‘The Spinner of the Years said “Now” ‘ [TCOTT]
– ‘They are blithely breakfasting all… Ah, no; the years O!’ [DWAR]
– ‘When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay’ [A]
– ‘No prophet durst declare/Nor did the wisest wizard guess What would bechance at Lyonnesse’ [WISOFL]
Transience/Change: Hardy shows an awareness of mutability in politics and human affairs. The present differs from the past, often regrettably. Hardy often displays nostalgia for childhood or for a more innocent time. Yet, one thing that doesn’t change in his view is the stupidity of war and human vanity. Sometimes nature illustrates change through its cycles. At other times, forces of nature represent permanence, in contrast to human feelings and prosperity.
– ‘The ancient pulse of germ and birth was shrunken hard and dry’ [TDT]
– ‘It’s gunnery practice out at sea/…The world is as it used to be’ [CF]
– ‘Ah, no; the years O! How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!’ [DWAR]
– ‘He was a man who used to notice such things’ [A]
Family and Relationships: Though Hardy is often an estranged observer of life, he cherishes intimacy and a sense of belonging. He recognises that these provide human identity. To him, they are essential and universal traits. He idealises family, community and marriage while persisting with his guise as the lone gazer or observer. When Hardy is the speaker, he sometimes seems to be a sensitive individual who internalises his experiences of life through recorded observation and reflection. Sometimes he uses dialogue to dramatise memories of family life. He alters or reworks moments of belonging or intimacy from the past in a romantic way, implying they were sweetly harmonious or more innocent than the present. He glorifies the beginning of his failed marriage as a moment from a medieval romance. He pictures an unknown peasant soldier [a drummer for a war machine] as homely and full of rural family values.
– ‘Young Hodge the Drummer – fresh from his Wessex home’ [DH]
– ‘They are blithely breakfasting all–Men and maidens–yea, Under the summer tree’ [DWAR]
– ‘My radiance rare and fathomless/When I came back from Lyonnesse With magic in my eyes!’ [WISOFL]
Mortality: Hardy focuses a lot on death, sometimes to a. morbid extent. Hardy implies that his fellow humans are not conscious of death, though he is always conscious that death is imminent
– ‘They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest uncoffined’ [DH]
– ‘Foreign constellations west/ Each night above his mound. Young Hodge the Drummer never knew -/ Fresh from his Wessex home’ [DH]
– ‘They sing their dearest songs-He, she, all of them-yea’ – ‘Ah, no; the years, the years; Down their carved names the raindrop plows’ [DWAR]
– ‘When my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom’ [A]
Human vanity: Hardy despises human pride and presumption. He refers with relish to events that show the futility of human schemes. Hardy is didactic in the way he uses mishaps and failures as lessons in the stupidity of human presumption. Hardy mocks the inability of religion to prevent war or better the human condition. He portrays the Christian God as a joker who converses with cows and skeletons. However, he is an enthusiastic advocate of the existence of superior forces or laws in the universe. For Hardy these are scientific rather than theological. These forces show that our grandiose displays of power are frivolous. Hardy delights in narrating reversals to human purpose and above all to smugness. Our hidden destinies frustrate or negate our intentions.
– ‘His homely Northern breast and brain/Grow to some Southern tree ‘ [DH]
– ‘In a solitude of the sea deep from human vanity, And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she’ [TCOTT]
– ‘Over the mirrors meant to glass the opulent The sea-worm crawls — grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent’ [TCOTT]
– ‘What does this vaingloriousness down here?’ [TCOTT]
– ‘God cried… they’d have to scour/Hell’s floor for so much threatening’ [CF]
– ‘Instead of preaching forty year/ my neighbour Parson Thirdly said “I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer”.’ [CF]
– ‘And brightest things that are theirs…. Ah, no; the years, the years’ [DWAR]
War: Hardy feels war is irrational and cruel. It is not heroic. Individual personality and family identity, two opposites cherished equally by Hardy, have no place in military life. He portrays the disposal of a soldier’s corpse in undignified terms. Hardy regards human being as always ready to participate in the game of warfare, without ever learning a lesson from past wars. Innocents, like the boy Drummer Hodge, are sacrificed meaninglessly. Hardy imagines modern warfare as the apocalypse. He mocks warfare by having God describe warfare as insane. He uses Dorset peasants to create his perspective on war.
– ‘They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest /uncoffined- just as found’ [DH]
– ‘His homely Northern breast and brain grow to some Southern tree’ [DH]
– ‘We thought it was the Judgement-day’ [CF]
– ‘The world is as it used to be /All nations striving strong to make/ red war yet redder. Mad as hatters’ [CF]
– ‘Again the guns disturbed the hour, roaring their readiness to avenge’ [CF]
Nature: Hardy felt a mysterious power and presence in Nature. Hardy was conscious of awesome cosmic forces, the dread power of nature, the ominous signs of nature’s disasters and the amazing beauty of nature.
– ‘And strange-eyed constellation reign’ [DH]
– ‘Winter’s dregs made desolate the weakening eye of day’ [TDT]
– ‘The wind his death-lament’ [TDT]
– ‘Such ecstatic sound’ [TDT]
– ‘Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew and I was unaware’ [TDT]
– ‘In a solitude of the sea’ [TCOTT] ‘In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too’ [TCOTT]
– ‘The only prime/ and real love-rhyme/ that I know by heart, ‘And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings, Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk’ [A]
– ‘The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight Upon the wind-warped upland thorn’ [A]
– ‘He was one who had an eye for such mysteries’ [A]
Hardy writes in a variety of tightly structured forms with well-defined rhyme schemes. Many of his poems are arranged in regular stanzas, with set line length. The course poems show that he mainly favours a line of three beats, sometimes alternating with a four beat line. He relies mainly on varieties of lyric form, sometimes achieving a song-like effect with his refrains and striking rhyme patterns. Hardy’s poems have a strong final line, bringing closure to the lyric through a declaration or a reversal.
Hardy is sometimes the autobiographical speaker, though he also uses an abstract observer as the speaker. Hardy also favours dramatic dialogue in some poems, where he uses multiple speakers. He sometimes favours a question and answer format.
Hardy’s tone ranges from awe to despair. Images of nature are frequently accompanied by a tone of amazement, while images of human foolishness are usually conveyed in a bitter or hopeless tone. In his role of detached observer, Hardy’s tone is frequently full of knowing irony.
Hardy delights in contrasting human expectation or vanity with fate and reversal. Frequently, Hardy illustrates the cruel irony of people’s lives. Occasionally the reversal in a poem is a happy one, though this is not usually the case. When dealing with war or human pretence, the irony is sarcastic.
There is a lot of variety to Hardy’s use of language. Frequently, Hardy uses archaic or rustic diction and syntax. Sometimes he capitalise words mid-line to emphasise a moral point or an irony. Hardy often uses capital letters for his abstract nouns, a traditional habit of English Poets. Sometimes Hardy uses unusual compound words. Often, Hardy describes a scene or event in a series of adjectives.
A lot of Hardy’s imagery is descriptive and real though it is interspersed with figurative imagery. Hardy uses metaphorical language frequently. Some of his images are symbolic of ruin or decay. Hardy often uses nature as a symbol of the passing of time. He sometimes contrasts permanent natural forces with images of change in human life. Hardy also uses certain images ambiguously. He also uses personification.
- Verbal music
Hardy uses the typical poetic devices of line rhyme, internal rhyme, alliteration, consonance, sibilance and assonance to beautify his subject or to enhance meaning and tone. He also uses onomatopoeia to create sound effects. He produces both euphony and cacophony to deepen meaning through musical effect. Search the poems and you will find many examples of these traits.
My Personal Response to the Poetry of Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy is unusual in that he was also a very successful novelist, writing such masterpieces as Far From the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. However, he regarded poetry as a higher form of art and was only drawn to writing novels because it paid better. He has a very unusual and individual outlook on life and it is often cynical, pessimistic and depressing.
He was born in 1840 and so inherited the mantle of the Romantics but his outlook on nature is often far from ‘romantic’. As a young man he read a recently published book by Charles Darwin entitled The Origin of the Species. In this groundbreaking work, which continues to define how we understand the world in which we live, Hardy first became familiar with the theory, which utterly disputed the notion that God created man as a special being in His own likeness. Darwin’s theory was that the development of all species, including man, was the result of competition among and within each species, which weeds out the less fit.
Because of these new scientific theories, nature began to be viewed differently. It was no longer really possible to see the natural world as a happy one of co-existence amongst all God’s creatures. Darwin’s world-picture was different: ‘We behold the face of nature bright with gladness’, he writes in The Origin of the Species, but ‘We forget that the birds which are idly singing round us mostly live on insects or seeds, are thus constantly destroying life; or we forget how largely these songsters, or their eggs, or their nestlings, are destroyed by birds or beasts of prey’. Hardy was someone, who from a young age was sensitive to the natural world as a place of struggle. A friend remarked that he was a writer who was ‘sorry for Nature, who feels the earth and the roots, as if he has sap in his veins rather than blood, and could get closer than any other man to the things of the earth’. Therefore, Darwin’s theory meshed perfectly with Hardy’s own naturally gloomy outlook on life. He had always thought Nature a cruel thing and in this he differed greatly from Wordsworth and the major poets of the Romantic period who liked to think that the natural world contained a powerful moral force that could raise the spirits and better anyone who took the time to appreciate it. Instead Hardy spoke of ‘the chronic melancholy which is taking hold of the civilised races with the decline in belief of a beneficent Power’. As the nineteenth century drew to its close, man was becoming more and more confident in his abilities to shape the world around him. Darwin basically signalled the demise of religion and the rise of science in the Western world. Hardy appreciated the optimism that came from these changes, but he was more inclined to write about the grim fact that man was also abandoned on the face of the earth and ultimately at the indifferent mercy of passing time!
As a person and a poet Hardy was obsessed with the past. He was acutely aware of the passage of time and the changes it visited upon people and the world around them. ‘During Wind and Rain’ conjures up a golden past, sketching four beautiful images from a family’s past life. What all these images have in common, and what makes each of them so special, is that they feature a moment of togetherness, a time when the family are gathered close and engaged in some mutual activity, whether it be singing, telling stories or eating breakfast. This poem provides us with Hardy’s most moving lament for time’s ravages. The passage of time, we’re told, strips away the family’s happiness just as ‘a rotten rose is ript from the wall’. (See also ‘The Oxen’ and ‘The Self Unseeing’)
‘When I set out for Lyonesse’ is another poem based around a memory of the past. Here he writes about one of his most precious memories, the occasion of his first meeting with his first wife Emma Gifford. Unlike the other memory poems, however, Hardy does not explicitly lament the passage of time. The poem is straightforwardly happy, with the poet moving from a state of ‘lonesomeness’ to ‘radiance’ thanks to his encounter with this beautiful woman. This poem also celebrates England’s mythic past, for Lyonesse, according to legend, was associated with King Arthur and his knights.
This respect for England’s past is also evident in ‘Drummer Hodge’ where Hardy uses the old term ‘Wessex’ for the area of England that Hodge is from. (Many of his novels are also set in this imaginary place). Ancient England is also mourned in ‘Channel Firing’ where Hardy concludes the poem by listing sites associated with myth and legend: Stourton Tower, Camelot and Stonehenge. He implies here that the glory and nobility of bygone days has passed out of the world. Modern man, in comparison, is a debased and violent creature who strives to make ‘red war yet redder’. ‘The Darkling Thrush’, too, laments the passing of a golden age, in this case the great era of Romantic poetry. Hardy seems to suggest that as the twentieth century dawns, with its science and machines, the great age of art and literature is sliding into oblivion. Poetry, he suspects, will have little place in the new technological age.
Hardy’s views on God and religion were constantly changing. There is very little evidence of an afterlife in his work and this gives it a very pessimistic, even atheistic, outlook. In ‘Afterwards’ the poet considers what will become of him after his death and he hopes to live on in his neighbours’ memories. We receive no impression, however, that the poet expects to be welcomed into heaven (or hell, for that matter) once he leaves this world behind. ‘Drummer Hodge’, too, deals directly with an individual’s death and once more there is no sense that Hodge’s soul will live on after his body has decayed. The only ‘afterlife’ Hodge experiences is the mingling of his corpse with the South African landscape where he is buried: ‘Yet portion of that unknown plain / Will Hodge forever be’.
In ‘The Darkling Thrush’ Hardy comes across as a conventional scientific atheist. He seems to lament the fact that scientific discoveries have made it harder and harder for a rational person to believe in God. The bleakness and coldness in this poem, it has been suggested, spring from its somewhat grim atheistic world-view. It presents us with a universe that has no God and no afterlife, nothing beyond our tiny human lives. In ‘The Convergence of the Twain’ Hardy replaces God with something he describes as ‘the Immanent Will’, a cruel and vengeful spirit that rules the universe with an iron fist. This view is even bleaker than that expressed in ‘The Darkling Thrush’. The Immanent Will is presented as a particularly nasty piece of work that brings the Titanic to its ruin with the loss of so many lives. A universe ruled by the Immanent Will, therefore, is an unpleasant place to be. God does make an appearance in ‘Channel Firing’. It is important to note, however, that this is by no means a conventional spiritual view of God as a kind and loving father. Instead Hardy seems to poke fun at Him, presenting him almost as a pantomime character engaged in a bit of banter with the skeletons of the dead. God complains about humanity almost in the same way as your grandmother sometimes goes on about ‘the youth of today’!!! In ‘Channel Firing’, then, we find Hardy gently poking fun at a god he can no longer believe in.
Hardy, in keeping with his bleak, pessimistic view of the universe, had a fairly low opinion of humanity as a race. Mankind’s war-like tendencies, in particular, disgusted him. He was not a pacifist, however, and he believed that war was necessary in certain circumstances. What he despised was needless bloodshed caused by human vanity, by each nation’s pointless striving to be the greatest. The kingdoms of the world, Hardy felt, squabbled like kids in a playground, except that these were quarrels that cost thousands of lives. His low opinion of mankind is very evident in ‘Channel Firing’, where man’s history is depicted as one endless attempt to make ‘Red war yet redder’. ‘Drummer Hodge’, meanwhile, depicts how in war it is inevitably poor young men who are sacrificed to further their leaders’ dreams of glory. ‘The Convergence of the Twain’, too, deals with human vanity, detailing how man dared to defy nature by attempting to create a ship that could not be sunk. In this case, as is so often the case, mankind’s pride comes before his fall.
‘He was one who had an eye for such mysteries’.