Jan 23, 2007

Another Web Essay on Thomas Hardy

Slate has come out with a brief, sharp, informative essay on Thomas Hardy’s poetry -- or at least a portion of the poetry: the famed poems that he wrote about the death of his wife, whom he mistreated for long periods, the beloved Emma Hardy. The essay, “A Pessimist in Flower: The love Songs of Thomas Hardy,” is by Meghan O'Rourke, Slate's literary editor and can be found at:


O’Rourke offers many an insight into Hardy’s work, and her explication of Hardy’s poetry discusses his atheism very little, in contrast to what Adam Kirsch did in his recent New Yorker piece on Hardy (see my previous post). Kirsch apparently believes that atheism stands at the center of all Hardy’s writing. Instead, O’Rourke points to Hardy’s “realism” about life and death, a philosophical and moral stance which Yvor Winters found to be the most important achievement of Hardy’s work:

Unlike the Modernists, Hardy places little value on individual experience; the speaker's loss is rendered as an immense foreground only to be dismissed with the matter-of-factness that earned Hardy the label "pessimist" (but that he might himself have merely called "realist"). In his view, bleakness is not fatalism, but an accurate portrayal of the mechanics of life. That he insists so while appearing to inhabit forgotten emotions all over again is the more extraordinary -- and one of the reasons these poems, with their condensed bursts of insight, are the equal of his best novels.

I consider this an apt summarization of Hardy’s Emma poems. I would quibble with the idea that he “dismisses” his individual experience of love and joy, or that he does so almost nonchalantly, as O’Rourke implies. I think Hardy’s work usually feels a little cold and distant, at times downright bleak, because there was no convention of detailed personal confession that we have grown so accustomed to over the last 60 years or so. Consider just Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton (two sometimes bleak poets whose poems feel strangely personally warm) as examples of the convention, among thousands of poets -- if not millions. Hardy felt the joys of life strongly, I believe (I would argue his poetry shows this well), but the poetic convention he employed is one that reaches thousands of years back. A poet did not speak personally in his or her work, or refer to the small events of private life, but spoke in generalities and abstractions, because in olden days poets endeavored to speak of general truths in this fashion (a fashion that Yvor Winters highly approved and championed throughout his criticism, by the way). For these reasons and others, I agree with O’Rourke that labeling Hardy as a “pessimist” is inaccurate for the most part.

No comments: