I never could get on with Thomas Hardy's novels. The themes aren't to my taste, I don't like the characters, the language distracts me from the plot, and everything is so depressing. In contrast, however, I am very fond of his poetry. Admittedly this is quite depressing as well, but can be digested in small bites, and instead of annoying characters, you get a more intimate understanding of the writer. Hardy provides a glimpse into his psyche through an exploration of nature, love, loss, and melancholy. It therefore seems ironic that this nineteenth century author had far more success in publishing novels than he did poetry.
Thomas Hardy was born in 1840, Higher Bockhampton near Dorchester. He left school at sixteen to apprentice as an architect, but also worked tirelessly in an attempt to publish his poetry. But Hardy was writing during the Romantic period, up against poets such as the Laureate Lord Alfred Tennyson. The young Hardy refused to conform to Romanticism's fluidic musicality, in preference for experimental work that was harsh on the ears and used obscure, colloquial, or dialectal terms.
After years of no success, Hardy eventually turned to novels. This was a far more prosperous, allowing him to give up his career in architecture and write full time. Now established, Hardy's poetry was now more appealing to publishers, and so, for the last thirty years of his life, wrote nothing else. Between 1898 - 1928 eight volumes were published, (the last being posthumous) tallying almost a thousand poems.
Thomas Hardy wrote on a great many subjects, but one theme he kept returning to was that of nature and the countryside. Hardy was very fond of his Dorset homeland, and it features frequently in his work. Most notable is his Wessex Poems and Other Verses collection. One such poem featured is 'Wessex Heights' (1896), which although much more rhythmical than his early work, still has a non-traditional style with sentence long lines that make it look like paragraphs from a novel.
One particularly significant collection is Poems of 1912-13 is focus on Hardy's late wife, Emma. They had an exasperated marriage that ended without much fondness for one another, but after her death, a sense of regret and guilt appeared to take over. Many of Hardy's poems from this period suggest that he is talking to a ghost rather than his reader. My favourite is 'The Voice':
%%'Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.
Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!
Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?
Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.'%%
Some of Hardy's most poignant work, however, is on the topic of war.
In 'The Man He Killed', Hardy calls war 'quaint and curious'. War does not really make sense because although two men are foes on the battlefield, if they 'had but met/By some old ancient inn' they would probably have been friends. Here Hardy is referring to the Boer War, but it could be said of any conflict - just consider the Christmas football match of 1914.
Out of all Hardy's poems, my favourite is %%'Drummer Hodge':
'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 for ever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
His stars eternally.'%%
Here a young boy who understands nothing of the Boer War in South Africa, fights, not knowing why, and ends up getting killed. He is thrown into a pit, in country that is not his own, with no proper burial or respect. The true tragedy is that we did not learn our lesson. Just a few years later, bright eyed young men went off to France full patriotism and idea of glory, only to die in vain.
While I feel that Hardy's novels take a while to get to the point, he is able to convey strong emotions very concisely through poetry.