Yvor Winters considered Thomas Hardy to be one of the greatest poets in the history of English literature. He included 10 of Hardy’s poems in his anthology of the greatest poems in English, Quest for Reality (see http://www.msu.edu/user/kilpela/quest1.htm for the Table of Contents and links to most of the poems). Ten is the third highest number of poems for any poet in the Winters Canon, exceeded only by J.V. Cunningham and Winters himself. (I must hasten to explain that Winters did not select his own poems for his distinction as “great”; Winters’s graduate student co-editor, Kenneth Fields, added Winters’s great poems to Quest after Winters’s death in early 1968.) Winters used passages of Hardy’s poetry as illustrations of superior craftsmanship dozens of times in his essays. Further, in those casual lists Winters made of the greatest poets or best poems, when he wished to get his readers to rethink what I call the “Standard Canon” or to point them quickly to works of art that best illustrate his ideas about true literary achievement, Winters regularly pointed to Hardy as among the six or seven finest poets in English.
Adam Kirsch leaves the clear impression that atheism stands the center of Hardy’s life and career. And yet you’ll find very little open mention of God or his alleged “death” in his poetry or the fiction. I would characterize Hardy as less atheist than “anti-Christian.” For his disagreement with Christian ideas and doctrines played a more significant part in his life and his writings, though some sort of atheist indeed he was. Still, Hardy wasn’t quite the pure and sure atheist that Kirsch makes him out to be. Many who have studied Hardy have discerned a unmistakable strain of the supernatural in his poetry. Also, quite evident at times is a sense of fate as some sort of divine power -- and the suggestion comes across in dozens of poems that Hardy at least entertained the thought that there might be gods or a god ruling over us (usually with the cautionary proviso that these powers are probably malevolent, as we can surmise, in Hardy’s judgment, from their unending mistreatment of us). This is why I think of Hardy as more anti-Christian than atheist, though I do admit that atheists will find affinities with many of his poems and ideas.
Kirsch claims that the baldest presentation of Hardy’s atheism will be found in the novels. Winters said almost nothing of the novels in his criticism, which concentrated almost solely on Hardy’s poetry. Like Winters, though, Kirsch leaves us with one suggestion that there might be something spiritually beneficial in Hardy’s atheism, though he leaves the comment for the very last phrase of his essay. Here’s the whole final paragraph:
It is this readiness to confront bitter facts, and to make their bitterness sweet through his art, that makes Hardy not just a great writer but a wise and trustworthy one. Poetry has had plenty of mystics and experimenters since Hardy’s death; even before he died, he saw that the modernists were turning toward the forbidden magics of vitalism, occultism, and nihilism. “At present,” he wrote in 1922, “when belief in witches of Endor is displacing the Darwinian theory and ‘the truth that shall make you free,’ men’s minds appear . . . to be moving backwards rather than on.” But almost a century later, when Yeats’s visions and Eliot’s piety and Pound’s politics seem to belong to a troubled past, it is Hardy’s sad Victorian rationalism that still has the power to convince, and to console.
A great deal could be said about the various sweeping summary opinions expressed in this one short paragraph, but I will make just three comments for now.
1. Does Hardy make the bitterness sweet? Hardly. He asks us to confront all that is bitter in life, and his art is his effort to understand the facts and properly orient our emotions to the understanding of the human condition gained thereby. There is no effort to make the bitter sweet as such, which suggests that Hardy was trying to transform poison into punch or help us get the poison down with a spoonful of poetic honey.
2. And where does that final phrase come from, stating that Hardy’s poetry has the power “to console”? There is no indication anywhere in Kirsch’s essay of what he Kirsch finds important in Hardy‘s atheistic poetry, besides its superior craft, until those final two words. But what Kirsch thinks is or might be consoling about Hardy’s vision of human life without a god is left for us to discover on our own. Kirsch should have at least given us more than a hint at his own views. The hint is in that quoted comment that Hardy thought that believing in God is in some sense a “moving backwards,” though Kirsch does not defend this position in any way and though it is highly contestable at every level. Sadly, Kirsch tells us nothing more of his ideas about what in Hardy’s treatment of a universe without god he finds consoling. Or whether it is the best or most rational consolation, though Kirsch makes it quite clear through the whole tenor of his essay that he believes that it is.
3. Does Hardy’s poetry have the power “to convince” us that there is no god? That, my friends, is also highly contestable. Hardy makes no philosophical case for his atheism in the poetry. He just assumes it. If you are convinced by other means that atheism is true, you will find Hardy’s ideas roughly congenial to your views. But Hardy offers nothing in his poetry or fiction other than a vague argument against the existence of a god on the basis of the problem of evil. This objection to a god is answerable and has been answered in many ways down the centuries and during all the decades since Hardy lived and wrote. Hardy’s metaphysics do not convince me, and naturally so, for they don’t seem to have been intended to convince anyone of anything. Hardy assumes his philosophy for his art; he does not bother to defend it therein.
Nonetheless, I applaud Kirsch’s piece, even if I find it a little off-kilter overall. I recommend it for all interested in one of the greatest poets of all time, a status that Winters so ably defended throughout his career as a critic.
So where should you start with Hardy? There are 10 great poems found in the Quest for Reality anthology, most of which are available through links on my Quest web page or by searching on google. Perhaps the first poem one should try to absorb is one that Winters discussed most often when he wrote of Hardy, “My Spirit Will not Haunt the Mound,” which is part of the Winters Canon:
My spirit will not haunt the mound
Above my breast,
But travel, memory-possessed,
To where my tremulous being found
Life largest, best.
My phantom-footed shape will go
When nightfall grays
Hither and thither along the ways
I and another used to know
In backward days.
And there you'll find me, if a jot
You still should care
For me, and for my curious air;
If otherwise, then I shall not,
For you, be there.
I don’t want to come off as bashing Adam Kirsch, but let me point out how this more representative poem belies Kirsch’s general opinions of Hardy. First, you see that the disbelief in immortality is quietly assumed in the poem, which does not explicitly argue against immortality. Second, there is little bitterness about life expressed in the poem, and little effort to make the bitter sweet. Rather, the sweetness of life is strongly suggested. The evils and injustices of life are not mentioned. For these reasons, this hardly sounds like the work of someone whom we would call “God’s Undertaker,” the phrase with which Kirsch summarizes Hardy’s career. Indeed, we could harmonize the ideas found in this poem with a conception of immortality and a belief in a god or gods or some sort of higher power (a “Something More,” as William James called humankind’s wildly varied conceptions of the supernatural and divine), since the poem speaks to the earthly existence of the speaker after his earthly death, not to whatever existence he might have beyond this universe (though certainly, from all indications, Hardy’s intention was to write of existence from a position that there is no human immortality).
“My Spirit” is a sharp and lovely poem offering what Hardy believed, at times, to be the only consolation we have in death, our spirit’s living in the memory of those who knew us. The particular emotional effect of this poem (and dozens of others in Hardy) arises from its use of the ballad style. Kirsch does not discuss the style of Hardy’s poetry in detail, which derives from and deepens that ballad convention in English. But it seems clear that the use of ballad form in this poem and hundreds of others lends a striking emotional resonance that can be found in no other poetry in English. I feel Hardy calling on us to accept all we can achieve and to enter death with the spiritually steadying knowledge of whatever we found in life to be “largest” and “best” -- a life that might have been sweet but is, sorrowfully (“tragically” in Winters’s opinion), temporary. How we might define what is or should be “largest” or “best” in life is left open to our personal scruples.
Though not all readers who are moved by this poem will be atheists, this poem gives us one aspect of the human condition. This earthly life could be all we will ever have, yes. But there could be more. For myself, I do hope for more, though the hope is dim. Though I am not a Christian or an adherent of any religion that teaches immortality, I have a hope of immortality like that articulated by the non-Christian scientist Martin Gardner in his very fine book of popular philosophy The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener (which I recommend highly). There is consolation in Hardy’s great poem, however minimal, however thoroughly mixed with sorrow, but he expresses little bitterness in this statement of how his spirit might live on (though there is plenty of bitterness elsewhere in Hardy, especially the fiction). As a study of the tragedy of human life and human death without immortality, it is a brilliant presentation of an understanding of the human condition and a proper emotional stance toward that understanding. It does not and cannot give us the whole story about life and death, but it shows what the poetry of the Winters Canon can do so nearly perfectly: rationally treat a subject and properly adjust our emotions to the understanding achieved.
Note, in conclusion, that this discussion of Kirsch on Hardy and Winters’s greatest Hardy poem ties right into our discussions of Winters’s and Janet Lewis’s opinions of Christianity, which I have discussed recently -- as well as into our discussions of Charles Baudelaire, whose poetry, as we have seen, made an effort, in part, to adjust our lives to an understanding of the hegemony of Evil in human life and to our utter extinction in death.