Friday, May 22, 2015

Reading Hardy's poems, although we knew no laugh lay there

I read Thomas Hardy’s first three collections of poetry.  Now I will rummage around in them.  They are:

Wessex Poems and Other Verses (1898)
Poems of the Past and Present (1901)
Time’s Laughingstocks and Other Verses (1909)

Like everyone else, I skipped the enormous verse play The Dynasts: An Epic-Drama of the War with Napoleon (1904-8).  And there are five collections to go, if I counted right, published between 1914 and Hardy’s death in 1928.

He had such an unusual career.  Like most collections of lyric poems, these books are grab bags, with poems ranging from the 1860s up to the moment of publication.  The earlier volumes are heavier on poems from the 1860s, but not all that much heavier.  All three books are poems of the past and present.

from Middle-Age Enthusiasms

      We passed where flag and flower
      Signalled a jocund throng;
      We said: ‘Go to, the hour
      Is apt!’ – and joined the song;
And, kindling, laughed at life and care,
Although we knew no laugh lay there.  (from WP)

Hardy’s poems are still a little bit on the miserable side.

The story of the career – I am writing this out for my own benefit – is as follows.  As a student and architect during the 1860s, Hardy wrote large numbers of poems, good ones, too, but almost none were published.  When he turned to novels in the 1870s, he wrote fewer poems.  Many that he did write appear in the novels, either as songs or as prose – Hardy would break poems up for kindling, so to speak.  In the late 1880s, he began to write poems in greater quantities.  The idea that Hardy abandoned the novel for poetry because of the ill treatment of Jude the Obscure (1895) is nonsense.  He was looking for an excuse.  It would be nothing but verse for the next thirty years.

This is odd, right, as a career?  Twenty-five years of substantial novels, then thirty years of poetry?  But the poetry was there all along, first, middle, and last.

For long the cruel wish I knew
That your free heart should ache for me,
While mine should bear no ache for you;
For, long – the cruel wish! – I knew
How men can feel, and craved to view
My triumph – fated not to be
For long!...  The cruel wish I knew
That your free heart should ache for me!  (“The Coquette, and After,” stanza 1, PPP)

Those who remember Jude the Obscure better than I do will recognize this language from Chapter 3, where Sue pours here heart out to Jude – “’it began in the selfish and cruel wish to make your heart ache for me without letting mine ache for you.’”  In the second stanza, the coquette finds that she, in the end, suffers more, as “women always do.”

The poem must have been written just before the novel.  It is a triolet, an adorable medieval French form that had just been popularized in English by Robert Bridges.  He wrote a number of good ones, but not as many, or as good, as Hardy (the Wiki entry uses a great Hardy triolet as its example).  The signature of the form is the repetition of the first lines, however punctuated or placed in a sentence, which fits well with the way Hardy’s characters think, in circles, or even backwards.

The poems are full of Hardy characters and Hardy stories, without the tin-eared sentences that make me wince.


  1. I will follow with interest your postings on Hardy's poetry, especially as I anticipate (or hope for) your focus on Hardy's agon with higher powers (e.g., God) in some of his poems (e.g., "Convergence of the Twain" and others). Although my own blogging and reading interests are now limited to American writers and God (e.g., God and the American Writer), I remain interested in Hardy.

  2. Yes! There are some good examples in these three books, minor and major. Not as major as "The Convergence of the Twain." Hardy became even better over time.