Essay on Thomas Hardy

He has a kind of naked face, in which you see the brain always working, with an almost painful simplicity—just saved from being painful by a humorous sense of external things, which becomes also a kind of intellectual criticism. He is a fatalist, and he studies the workings of fate in the chief vivifying and disturbing influence in life, women. His view of women is more French than English; it is subtle, a little cruel, not as tolerant as it seems, thoroughly a man’s point of view, and not, as with Meredith, man’s and woman’s at once. He sees all that is irresponsible for good and evil in a woman’s character, all that is unreliable in her brain and will, all that is alluring in her variability. He is her apologist, but always with a certain reserve of private judgment. No one has created more attractive women, women whom a man would have been more likely to love, or more likely to regret loving. Jude the Obscure is perhaps the most unbiased consideration of the more complicated questions of sex which we can find in English fiction. At the same time, there is almost no passion in his work, neither the author nor any of his characters ever seeming able to pass beyond the state of curiosity, the most intellectually interesting of limitations, under the influence of any emotion. In his feeling for nature, curiosity sometimes seems to broaden into a more intimate kind of communion. The heath, the village with its peasants, the change of every hour among the fields and on the roads, mean more to him, in a sense, than even the spectacle of man and woman in their blind, and painful, and absorbing struggle for existence. His knowledge of woman confirms him in a suspension of judgment; his knowledge of nature brings him nearer to the unchanging and consoling element in the world. All the quite happy entertainment which he gets out of life comes to him from his contemplation of the peasant, as himself a rooted part of the earth, translating the dumbness of the fields into humour. His peasants have been compared with Shakespeare’s; that is, because he has the Shakespearean sense of their placid vegetation by the side of hurrying animal life, to which they act the part of chorus, with an unconscious wisdom in their close, narrow, and undistracted view of things.

In his verse there is something brooding, obscure, tremulous, half-inarticulate, as he meditates over man, nature, and destiny: Nature, ‘waking by touch alone,’ and Fate, who sees and feels. In The Mother Mourns, a strange, dreary, ironical song of science, Nature laments that her best achievement, man, has become discontented with her in his ungrateful discontent with himself. It is like the whimpering of a hurt animal, and the queer, ingenious metre, with its one rhyme set at wide but distinct and heavily recurrent intervals, beats on the ear like a knell. Blind and dumb forces speak, conjecture, half awakening out of sleep, turning back heavily to sleep again. Many poets have been sorry for man, angry with Nature on man’s behalf. Here is a poet who is sorry for Nature, who feels the earth and its roots, as if he had sap in his veins instead of blood, and could get closer than any other man to the things of the earth.

Who else could have written this crabbed, subtle, strangely impressive poem?


A shaded lamp and a waving blind,
And the beat of a clock from a distant floor;
On this scene enter—winged, horned, and spined—
A longlegs, a moth, and a dumbledore;
While 'mid my page there idly stands
A sleepy fly, that rubs its hands.

Thus meet we five, in this still place,
At this point of time, at this point in space.
— My guests parade my new-penned ink,
Or bang at the lamp-glass, whirl, and sink.
'God's humblest, they!' I muse.
Yet why?They know Earth-secrets that know not I.

No such drama has been written in verse since Browning, and the people of the drama are condensed to almost as pregnant an utterance as Adam, Lilith, and Eve.

Why is it that there are so few novels which can be read twice, while all good poetry can be read over and over? Is it something inherent in the form, one of the reasons in nature why a novel cannot be of the same supreme imaginative substance as a poem? I think it is, and that it will never be otherwise. But, among novels, why is it that one here and there calls us back to its shelf with almost the insistence of a lyric, while for the most part a story read is a story done with? Balzac is always good to re-read, but not Tolstoi: and I couple two of the giants. To take lesser artists, I would say that we can re-read Lavengro but not Romola. But what seems puzzling is that Hardy, who is above all a story-teller, and whose stories are of the kind that rouse suspense and satisfy it, can be read more than once, and never be quite without novelty. There is often, in his books, too much story, as in The Mayor of Casterbridge, where the plot extends into almost inextricable entanglements; and yet that is precisely one of the books that can be re-read. Is it on account of that concealed poetry, never absent though often unseen, which gives to these fantastic or real histories a meaning beyond the meaning of the facts, beneath it like an under-current, around it like an atmosphere? Facts, once known, are done with; stories of mere action gallop through the brain and are gone; but in Hardy there is a vision or interpretation, a sense of life as a growth out of the earth, and as much a mystery between soil and sky as the corn is, which will draw men back to the stories with an interest which outlasts their interest in the story.

It is a little difficult to get accustomed to Hardy, or to do him justice without doing him more than justice. He is always right, always a seer, when he is writing about ‘the seasons in their moods, morning and evening, night and noon, winds in their different tempers, trees, waters and mists, shades and silences, and the voices of inanimate things.’ (What gravity and intimacy in his numbering of them!) He is always right, always faultless in matter and style, when he is showing that ‘the impressionable peasant leads a larger, fuller, more dramatic life than the pachydermatous king.’ But he requires a certain amount of emotion to shake off the lethargy natural to his style, and when he has merely a dull fact to mention he says it like this: ‘He reclined on his couch in the sitting-room, and extinguished the light.’ In the next sentence, where he is interested in expressing the impalpable emotion of the situation, we get this faultless and uncommon use of words: ‘The night came in, and took up its place there, unconcerned and indifferent; the night which had already swallowed up his happiness, and was now digesting it listlessly; and was ready to swallow up the happiness of a thousand other people with as little disturbance or change of mien.’

No one has ever studied so scrupulously as Hardy the effect of emotion on inanimate things, or has ever seen emotion so visually in people. For instance: ‘Terror was upon her white face as she saw it; her cheek was flaccid, and her mouth had almost the aspect of a round little hole.’ But so intense is his preoccupation with these visual effects that he sometimes cannot resist noting a minute appearance, though in the very moment of assuring us that the person looking on did not see it. ‘She hardly observed that a tear descended slowly upon his cheek, a tear so large that it magnified the pores of the skin over which it rolled, like the object lens of a microscope.’ And it is this power of seeing to excess, and being limited to sight which is often strangely revealing, that leaves him at times helpless before the naked words that a situation supremely seen demands for its completion. The one failure in what is perhaps his masterpiece, The Return of the Native, is in the words put into the mouth of Eustacia and Yeobright in the perfectly imagined scene before the mirror, a scene which should be the culminating scene of the book; and it is, all but the words: the words are crackle and tinsel.

What is it, then, that makes up the main part of the value and fascination of Hardy, and how is it that what at first seem, and may well be, defects, uncouthnesses, bits of formal preaching, grotesque ironies of event and idea, come at last to seem either good in themselves or good where they are, a part of the man if not of the artist? One begins by reading for the story, and the story is of an attaching interest. Here is a story-teller of the good old kind, a story-teller whose plot is enough to hold his readers. With this point no doubt many readers stop and are content. But go on, and next after the story-teller one comes on the philosopher. He is dejected and a little sinister, and may check your pleasure in his narrative if you are too attentive to his criticism of it. But a new meaning comes into the facts as you observe his attitude towards them, and you may be well content to stop and be fed with thoughts by the philosopher. But if you go further still you will find, at the very last, the poet, and you need look for nothing beyond. I am inclined to question if any novelist has been more truly a poet without ceasing to be in the true sense a novelist. The poetry of Hardy’s novels is a poetry of roots, and it is a voice of the earth. He seems often to be closer to the earth (which is at times, as in The Return of the Native, the chief person, or the chorus, of the story) than to men and women, and to see men and women out of the eyes of wild creatures, and out of the weeds and stones of the heath. How often, and for how profound a reason, does he not show us to ourselves, not as we or our fellows see us, but out of the continual observation of humanity which goes on in the wary and inquiring eyes of birds, the meditative and indifferent regard of cattle, and the deprecating aloofness and inspection of sheep?

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