Saturday, May 23, 2015

Past things were to her as things existent - types of Hardy poems

Looking at the twenty pages of Hardy poems in my Norton Anthology of English Literature, 5th edition, I almost feel bad about my superficiality.  Not bad enough to stop.  In concentration, what a great poet.  A great benefit of reading Hardy in his original form, of reading his books, is to dilute him, to make him less great.  Plenty of more ordinary poems, or lines, certainly; lots of repetition and explorations of the same themes.

If anything, I am more impressed with Hardy’s poems now.  The Norton selection skimps on truly late poems, the ones Hardy wrote in his seventies and eighties, but the book that would be up next for me, Satires of Circumstance (1914), wow, that is going to be a good one.

Although there are some new ones, the themes mostly extend those of the novels.  The first volume is titled Wessex Poems, but they are all Wessex poems.  Hardy keeps intact the names (Casterbridge, Mellstock), landscape, and ethos of the novels.  The past constantly intrudes on the present.  A poem about Hardy’s grandmother says it bluntly:

She seemed one left behind of a band gone distant
     So far that no tongue could hail:
Past things were to her as things existent,
      Things present but as a tale.  (“One We Knew,” ll. 29-33, from TL)

But more common is the mixture of “The Roman Road” (in TL) which “runs straight and bare / As the pale parting-line in hair / Across the heath,” and which “thoughtful men” use to evoke Roman legions.  The poem’s narrator, though, remembers walking on it himself with his mother, “A mother’s form upon my ken, / Guiding my infant steps.”  It is a scene from a novel Hardy did not write (or one he wrote but I have not read?).

Similarly, a descriptive poem about an agricultural fair (“After the Fair,” TL) ends with “the ghosts / Of its buried burghees / From the latest far back to those old Roman hosts,” who were “just as these,” just as today’s farmers.

The poem has one terrific stanza, which I will stop and admire for a moment (remembering that the scene is just after the fair):

The shy-seeming maiden so mute in the fair
     Now rattles and talks,
And that one who looked the most swaggering there
     Grows sad as she walks,
And she who seemed eaten by cankering care
  In statuesque sturdiness stalks.  (ll. 13-18)

It is like the confluence of three potential Hardy novels, three Hardy heroines who will now go on to bear their illegitimate children.

Hardy’s narrative poems, are obsessed with illegitimate children.  It is clear that he found, in the poetic form, the freedom to approach the subject directly.  The notes in the edition I am using, The Complete Poetical Works of Thomas Hardy, Vol. 1 (Oxford, 1982), make it clear that Hardy was subject to constant censorship and rejection by magazines and newspapers because of his shocking subject matter, but in his books he could do what he wanted, which was to publish “The Flirt’s Tragedy,” “The Trampwoman’s Tragedy,” “The Ruined Maid,” and many more of the like.

That last one is unusual in that it is satirical, not gloomy, but it is early, from 1866:

–‘You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,
Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks;
And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers three!’ –
‘Yes: that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,’ said she.

I had not known about the satirical Hardy.  Maybe that would make a good post.  I have a list: theodicy poems (the satirical ones, usually), ecological poems (ahead of his time), pessimistic poems, war poems.  Lots to write about, if I wanted.  A great poet.


  1. You touch upon the blessing and curse of literature instruction in colleges/universities: the damnable and embraceable anthologies. Negatives: Editors make odd choices, students do not have opportunities to appreciate more completely authors, and teachers become lazy by limiting the reading assignments. Positives: Editors give broad samplings of authors and periods, students are forced to try varieties within the economically offered buffet, and teachers can cover more material in single semesters. You, of course, have the luxury of turning to more expansive readings of single authors, and you get to recognize the anthologist's short-comings. Well done! When I taught, I tried to avoid anthologies whenever possible but realized I was fighting a losing battle (e.g., departments rather than teachers made text selection decisions, and I and students were stuck with those decisions).

  2. I wouldn't have realized that stanza was about sex if you hadn't said so, but it makes sense now.

  3. Maybe someday I will write about my college experiences with the Norton anthologies. They were highly positive. A particular professor used them ingeniously. It was years later when I realized what he had done.

    The "ruined" poem is pretty funny, Every stanza is good. Probably, in 1866 when it was written, unpublishable.