Similarly to other reviewers, Allen’s piece focuses on Hardy’s alleged pessimism, a matter which I have offered some comments on as well. I have opined that Hardy was not exactly a pessimist in the strongest or simplest sense of that term. In fact, I would argue that Hardy rather enjoyed many aspects of life and felt a certain measure of intense joy in his time. But his joy was ever alloyed with his sharp and somber comprehension of the great sorrows of life. Allen thinks both biographies focus quite heavily on addressing the question of the origins of Hardy’s pessimism, Tomalin paying closer attention to the poems, Pite to the novels -- if, as I say, his fundamental attitude can be characterized as simply or purely pessimistic.
I would say, further, that understanding the origins of Hardy’s understanding of the nature of human existence is quite a bit less important than understanding his insights into that nature. Winters considers Hardy’s stoic stance toward human suffering and death to be essential to leading a good and strong life. I’ll be coming ‘round to Winters’s and my views on Hardy again and will save deeper comment for later. Allen’s brief review is well worth your time. Hardy’s poems and novels are essential reading for those drawn to the study of Yvor Winters. For Winters believed that studying Hardy's art can lead to deep spiritual growth. Here’s how he put it in the 1930s, in the essay “The Morality of Poetry,” which was reprinted in In Defense of Reason:
Thus we see that the poet, in striving toward an ideal of poetic form at which he has arrived through the study of other poets, is actually striving to perfect a moral attitude toward that range of experience of which he is aware. Such moral attitudes are contagious from poet to poet, and, within the life of a single poet, from poem to poem. The presence of Hardy and Arnold, let us say, in so far as their successful works offer us models and their failures warnings or unfulfilled suggestions, should make it easier to write good poetry; they should not only aid us, by providing standards of sound feeling, to test the soundness of our own poems, but, since their range of experience is very wide, they should aid us, as we are able to enter and share their experience, to grow into regions that we had not previously mastered or perhaps even discovered. The discipline of imitation is thus valuable if it leads to understanding and assimilation.
Arnold sank a bit in Winters’s estimation in his later years (which is a subject much worth discussing), but Hardy stayed at the top of his list of great poets throughout his career, those supremely fine exemplars of the poetic art of all time.