Jan 31, 2007

Another Review of the New Thomas Hardy Biography

The New York Times Book Review has joined the current discussion of Thomas Hardy, one of the great poets of the English language whose work is well represented in the Yvor Winters Canon of the greatest poems. It has published Thomas Mallon’s review of the major new biography of Hardy that initiated all this activity. The biography is entitled Thomas Hardy, by Claire Tomalin. (By the way, Mallon is a fine journalist and writer, who has delved into some interesting topics in his career. His popular survey of the history of memoirs, A Book of One’s Own, I highly recommend.) Mallon’s insightful, if rather brief, review is entitled “Thomas Hardy’s English Lessons” and can be found at:


There is much to ponder in the piece. Mallon considers, as Tomalin does, the so-called Emma poems to be central to Hardy’s literary career. As Tomalin apparently does, Mallon stresses that these poems about his late wife explore some kind of guilt and regret Hardy experienced over their troubled marriage. Once again, I must stress, as I have in previous posts, that Hardy’s poetry, even the poems that we can discern to be about Emma, make few direct references to his first wife or to any specific troubles in their marriage. Few, too, are the references to any specific mistakes either spouse may have made or to any specific cruelties dished out (so I hope no one will start reading Hardy’s poetry to find some sensational details about his peccadilloes). Rather, Hardy studies his experiences of and with Emma mostly in generalities, though his inexplicit language is beautifully concrete. There are many examples of his poetic method, but I chose one, which I happen to know well, that I think more clearly shows his typical way of composing a poem. This is not a great poem, but it is a good one and illustrative:


That night, that night,
That song, that song!
Will such again be evened quite
Through lifetimes long?

No mirth was shown
To outer seers,
But mood to match has not been known
In modern years.

O eyes that smiled,
O lips that lured;
That such would last was one beguiled
To think ensured!

That night, that night,
That song, that song;
O drink to its recalled delight,
Though tears may throng!

The night is called “that” night, but which night is not specified. Nor are the song, the eyes, the lips, the night, the delight. The poem is not discernibly about Emma, or about any occasion Hardy was willing to identify, as the title tips us off. This shows Hardy’s common method, in my opinion, which differs from what Mallon suggests you will find in Hardy’s poetry about Emma. The final two lines, I note in passing, may stand as one of the most sparklingly concise expressions of Hardy’s view of life in his poetry: life has delights, but tears will fall in recalling them. Note, however, that we don’t quite know from this poem what might cause the tears to throng.

Mallon also touches on a number of large topics, such as Hardy’s curmugeonliness, his fascination with those who delight in the world despite its obvious pains and sorrows (he appears to have been one of these people himself, like Tess of his famous tragic novel), and his final great novel of cosmic injustice and cruelty Jude the Obscure. Yvor Winters, I must note, had very little to say about Hardy’s novels, even when he chose to discuss serious fiction in his essays. I presume Winters read them, just because of his high regard for Hardy’s poetry. Judging from his critical bent overall, I think we can safely conjecture that Hardy’s novels were much too melodramatic for Winters. Melodrama, in which the emotions conveyed far outstrip their occasion, is a form of sentimentalism, an emotional tone or stance which Winters derided in any form of literature; he considered sentimentalism an unjust and inappropriate, perhaps even a dangerous, emotional bearing to take toward any profound or important subject matter. Mallon also mentions Hardy’s “memory of [Christian] belief,” which his alternating beliefs in atheism and the malevolent god he speculated about had pushed aside. This stands in distinction to Adam Kirsch’s strong stress upon Hardy as an atheist, which I discussed briefly in a recent post. Yvor Winters had little regard for Hardy’s metaphysical opinions, considering him an amateur as a philosopher. But he also believed that the value of his poetry did not lie in his overt philosophy, but in the supreme intelligence of the way he wrote about his views. (This is a crucial matter of Winters's critical theoriy I must and do plan to return to shortly in this blog.)

In his final paragraphs, Mallon admits to a curious opinion about Hardy’s writings:

To those, like this reviewer, who have always thought Hardy as unwise to have given up fiction as George Meredith was to neglect poetry, even for a time, Tomalin’s treatment of the Emma poems prompts at least a tentative reconsideration.

This is a striking admission for a learned literary journalist to make, that he has long disregarded the great poetry of Thomas Hardy. At least Mallon has been inspired, though only tentatively, to give Hardy’s poetry another look. I join Yvor Winters in offering a much stronger commendation, as you might guess. Hardy’s poetry deserves a lifetime of study, for its searching examination of the meaning of life, its moral profundity, its emotional power, and its superior language and poetic skill.

Final Note: I quoted Hardy's great poem "My spirit will not haunt the mound" in a recent post on Thomas Hardy. Several different aspects of this poem are discussed by Aaron Haspel in his "God of the Machine" blog. Just go to the blog, which has a link on my front page, and search on the poem's title. Much of Haspel's discussion of the poem, especially concerning its technical aspects, is worth reading.

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