One of the criteria for good poetry is that of truth. It is the criteria for good anything, really. We recognize truth by its resonance, and we know this resonance because there is a correspondence. Truth is when something of which we are in possession corresponds to reality. Truth is a function of propositions, certainly, but in poetry the propositions are a bit more than bare statements of fact. The insight of the words, the mood, the conclusions drawn given the premises on which the poem operates (a function of its coherence) are those things in which the resonance of truth is known.
Thomas Hardy wrote good poetry. While not usually known for his poetry, since he wrote so much fiction, yet a good amount of the last years of his life was dedicated to poetry. Hardy was a master of words and he practiced a lot before becoming serious about poetry, and then he wrote a lot of poetry, much of it good. He was particularly deft at his use of meter and its effects. Of course there has to be more than meter and effects, there have to be worthwhile insights achieved by his language and the effects, and when you read Hardy you have the sense that his insights are worthwhile besides being well-made.
It therefore follows that his poetry was somehow true. But simply to say it was true is not enough: it has to be shown how it was true, and on the way I’d like to also show you something of his ability.
Let me begin with some contrasts. Unlike Thomas Hardy, Gerard Manley Hopkins was a poet of rapture. Hardy was never glad the way Hopkins was. Hardy was a poet of melancholy. Another contrast is that Hardy lacked Hopkins’ faith, and it is not unlikely that these two points of contrast are related.
Another contrast is that unlike Hardy, William Butler Yeats rejected the materialism of his age with a great vehemence. Yeats was melancholy like Hardy, but Hardy’s melancholy was more passive than Yeats’. He was poignantly dismayed by the implications of the materialism scientists and thinkers of his day propounded, but he did not seem able to reject them with great, romantic convulsions.
I think Hardy was unhappy because he found the positivism of his age inescapable. Owen Barfield explains the positivism of that age as a sort of dead-end of the Scientific Revolution that tinged the thinking of 19th Century, and names its leading exponent as Auguste Comte. It was a sort of absolute materialism, a naturalism that had no place for spirit or for the supernatural.
Hopkins had faith to give him a spiritual realm and the supernatural. He was happy because the world was full of the grandeur of God. Of Hopkins’ blessed hope Hardy was unaware. Yeats had his occult researches, the unassayable evidence of the supernatural and spiritual in paranormal phenomena and the mists of Ireland, things which science could not adequately explain and which Yeats observed and pursued. But Hardy could only regard these things as quaint, his sense of wonder does not seem to have been romantic.
Hardy was fascinated by the material exchange of decomposition. This is the subject of “Transformations:” “Portion of this yew/is a man my grandsire knew.” Hardy repeats this idea often in his poetry. Let me add an aside about his skill: study the meter for a while, and notice how he creates the sense of rising with the yew, and falling with the thought of the man buried under it. The emphasis of the rhyme, coming as it does after the rushing anapest, is to settle the word ‘knew’ much deeper in the voice than the word ‘yew.’ And the initial anapestic foot of the second line seems to slide down after the discovery in the first line that not trochees but iambs are afoot. Just try saying it and pitching ‘knew’ higher than ‘yew.’ You can’t do it with any dignity; the construction of the lines require we descend.
But back to the fascination.
The thrushes sing as the sun is going,
And the finches whistle in ones and pairs,
And as it gets dark loud nightingales
Pipe, as they can when April wears,
As if all Time were theirs.
These are brand new birds of twelvemonths’ growing,
Which a year ago, or less than twain,
No finches were, nor nightingales,
But only particles of grain,
And earth, and air, and rain.
In “Proud Songsters,” only animals make the exchange, and yet how poignant it is. Notice how deftly he turns the whole poem toward meaning with the very last word. It would not be the same if he had not used the word “rain” with all the melancholy of the sense of a weeping world. It turns the bare observation into a subtle lament. That is Hardy’s gift.
Now consider this from “Rain on a Grave.”
Soon will be growing
Green blades from her mound,
And daisies be showing
Like stars on the ground,
Till she form part of them –
Ay – the sweet heart of them,
Loved beyond measure
With a child’s pleasure
All her life’s round.
You see his fascination with the material exchange as his beloved becomes part of the landscape. The point is the intimacy of the transformation as his beloved becomes the sweet heart (don’t let my observation cheapen the masterful way in which he transforms those words in the poem: sweet-heart) of the daisies.
This is irrational, but it shows how the thing haunts him. He has the sense of more, of ghosts, of spirit, but seems entirely unable to find another world for them. He can’t separate matter and spirit though he seems to know something of a distinction between them. If he did not, there would be no point in writing such a poem, no poignancy in the transformation he describes.
So Hardy was haunted by ghosts he did not believe in. That is paradoxical, though it is nothing new. Bringing truth out that way is, as G. K. Chesterton more or less remarked, simply a matter of the view you take on things.
Here is a poem that explores in a different way how the ghosts haunt Thomas Hardy.
You did not walk with me
Of late to the hill-top tree
By the gated ways,
As in earlier days;
You were weak and lame,
So you never came,
And I went alone, and I did not mind,
Not thinking of you as left behind.
I walked up there to-day
Just in the former way;
The familiar ground
By myself again:
What difference, then?
Only that underlying sense
Of the look of a room on returning thence.
You sense there the emptiness death leaves behind. It is demonstrated peculiarly by that odd, ending blankness. He expected the unexpected and only got the expected, which he did not expect. (That which I just did is a terrible thing to do to a poem, but it has the advantage of being clear, and clearly, the poem is more.) But what he does is show how pervasive the sense of loss is, how it penetrates everywhere and the deceased now strangely haunts all the world.
Notice how he elaborates on that in this poem.
They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
Uncoffined – just as found:
His landmark is a kopje-crest
That breaks the veldt around;
And foreign constellations west
Each night above his mound.
Young Hodge the Drummer never knew –
Fresh from his Wessex home –
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
The Bush, the dusty loam,
And why uprose to nightly view
Strange stars amid the gloam.
Yet portion of that unknown plain
Will Hodge forever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellation reign
His stars eternally.
Again you have the transformation, and the sense of place is fixed by the stars. And yet what Hardy writes about is the wrongness of that place, even though Hodge has been transformed into a part of the scenery. It is done by the sense of his home juxtaposed with his grave far from home. That it should be significant, that it should mean anything strange and somehow tragic is the thing that gets Hardy’s attention, and the thing he shows us.
That transformation is material, and you’re left with a sense that while Hardy could not escape the positivism of the learned of his age, he was still not able to escape the sense of spirit in the world.
The truth of Hardy is that the material world is not all, cannot be all, even if your premise is that there is nothing else. His observations would not have the poignancy they do, there would not be the tragedy or pathos he leaves as a ghost after his poem if the assumptions of materialism were not juxtaposed with his intuitions of immateriality.
A further development: a dialogue of inanimate objects.
The Two Houses
In the heart of night,
When farers were not near,
The left house said to the house on the right,
“I have marked your rise, O smart newcomer here.”
I interrupt here, and summarize. The gist of what the house on the left says to the house on the right, which has rather disparaged the house of the left’s aged appearance, is that having been full of life is better than being new.
“–Will the day come,”
Said the new one, awestruck, faint,
“When I shall lodge shades dim and dumb –
And with such spectral guests become acquaint?”
“–That will it, boy;
Such shades will people thee,
Each in his misery, irk, or joy,
And print on thee their presences as on me.”
Even inanimate objects take on their significance from a world of meaning: the impressions left to them, the memories haunting them, the immaterial riches the lives of spiritual beings leave to them. And though we don’t believe in talking houses, what they say is perfectly true. Spirit leaves its print on the material world.
The world of spirit, of qualities, has to be the realm of poetry. It is the only realm in which Hardy could have been successful laboring as a poet. Anybody, for that matter, but you see how keenly poignant it was for Thomas Hardy.
Here is a further development.
The Shadow on the Stone
I went by the Druid stone
That broods in the garden white and lone,
And I stopped and looked at the shifting shadows
That at some moments fall thereon
From the tree hard by with a rhythmic swing,
And they shaped in my imagining
To the shade that a well-known head and shoulders
Threw there when she was gardening.
I thought her behind my back,
Yea, her I long had learned to lack,
And I said: ‘I am sure you are standing behind me,
Though how do you get into this old track?’
And there was no sound but the fall of a leaf
As a sad response; and to keep down grief
I would not turn my head to discover
That there was nothing in my belief.
Yet I wanted to look and see
That nobody stood at the back of me;
But I thought once more: ‘Nay, I’ll not unvision
A shape which, somehow, there may be.’
So I went on softly from the glade,
And left her behind me throwing her shade,
As she were indeed an apparition—
My head unturned lest my dream should fade.
Hardy even goes so far as to fear a world without ghosts! Notice, by the way, the line with the rhythmic swing, how the meter and rhythm conspire, how the consonant cluster slows you down and underscores what he’s saying. It is also a climactic poem in the train of thought I have been trying to develop, or to demonstrate; it underscores what I’m saying. It is the fear of the materialist which haunts Hardy because he knows that the most valuable things are immaterial, and he is struggling to reconcile what he believes from science with what he understands through poetic insight.
One can’t help feeling he could have used a book of two by Owen Barfield. Indeed, the evolution of consciousness, the renewed and different awareness of withinness can be seen in poems such as “On the Way” and “Romantic Day” which show how we live in a world of our own perceptions (and this is what the haunting in all his other poems implies). You see there how the spiritual world is the inside of the material world, and how our consciousness is a nexus. At the same time one is glad Hardy did not have Barfield to read, because if he’d had a solution, what would he have written about?
So this is chiefly what I enjoy about Thomas Hardy. This is the truth that makes his poetry good, which resonates: his resistance of materialism even at the point of capitulation, his grasp on truth through poetic insight warring with the cosmos of the implications of his day’s collective representations. When science was emphasizing quantity above all, he still retained and preserved for us the vital sense of quality in his peculiar way.