Prose & Poetry - Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy English poet and regional novelist, whose works depict the imaginary county "Wessex" (=Dorset).

Hardy's (1840-1928) career as writer spanned over fifty years.

His earliest books appeared when Anthony Trollope (1815-82) wrote his Palliser series, and he published poetry in the decade of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. 

Hardy's work reflected his stoical pessimism and sense of tragedy in human life.

"Critics can never be made to understand that that the failure may be greater than the success... To have the strength to roll a stone weighting a hundredweight to the top of a mountain is a success, and to have the strength to roll a stone of then hundredweight only halfway up that mount is a failure.  But the latter is two or three times as strong a deed." (Hardy in his diary, 1907)

Hardy's own life wasn't similar to his stories.  He was born on the Egdon Heath, in Dorset, near Dorchester.  His father was a master mason and building contractor.  Hardy's mother, whose tastes included Latin poets and French romances, provided for his education.  After schooling in Dorchester Hardy was apprenticed to an architect.

He worked in an office, which specialized in restoration of churches.  In 1874 Hardy married Emma Lavinia Gifford, for whom he wrote 40 years later, after her death, a group of poems known as Veteris Vestigiae Flammae (Vestiges of an Old Flame).

At the age of 22 Hardy moved to London and started to write poems, which idealized the rural life.  He was an assistant in the architectural firm of Arthur Blomfield, visited art galleries, attended evening classes in French at King's College, enjoyed Shakespeare and opera, and read works of Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and John Stuart Mills, whose positivism influenced him deeply.

In 1867 Hardy left London for the family home in Dorset, and resumed work briefly with Hicks in Dorchester.  He entered into a temporary engagement with Tryphena Sparks, a sixteen-year-old relative.  Hardy continued his architectural work, but encouraged by Emma Lavinia Gifford, he started to consider literature as his "true vocation."

Unable to find public for his poetry, the novelist George Meredith advised Hardy to write a novel.  His first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, was written in 1867, but the book was rejected by many publishers and he destroyed the manuscript.  His first book that gained notice, was Far From the Madding Crowd (1874).

After its success Hardy was convinced that he could earn his living as an author.  He devoted himself entirely to writing and produced a series of novels, among them The Return of Native (1878), The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886). 

Tess of the D'urbervilles (1891) came into conflict with Victorian morality.  It explored the dark side of his family connections in Berkshire.  In the story the poor villager girl Tess Durbeyfield is seduced by the wealthy Alec D'Uberville.  She becomes pregnant but the child dies in infancy.  Tess finds work as a dairymaid on a farm and falls in love with Angel Clare, a clergyman's son.

They marry but when Tess tells Angel about her past, he hypocritically desert her.  Tess becomes Alec's mistress.  Angel returns from Brazil, repenting his harshness, but finds her living with Alec.  Tess kills Alec in desperation, she is arrested and hanged.

Hardy's Jude the Obscure (1895) aroused even more debate.  The story dramatized the conflict between carnal and spiritual life, tracing Jude Fawley's life from his boyhood to his early death.  Jude marries Arabella, but deserts her.  He falls in love with his cousin, hypersensitive Sue Bridehead, who marries the decaying schoolmaster, Phillotson, in a masochist fit.

Jude and Sue obtain divorces, but their life together deteriorates under the pressure of poverty and social disapproval.  The eldest son of Jude and Arabella, a grotesque boy nicknamed 'Father Time', kills their children and himself.  Broken by the loss, Sue goes back to Phillotson, and Jude returns to Arabella.  Soon thereafter Jude dies, and his last words are: "Wherefore is light given to him that is in misery, and life unto the bitter in soul?".

In 1896, disturbed by the public uproar over the unconventional subjects of two of his greatest novels, Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, Hardy announced that he would never write fiction again.  A bishop solemnly burnt the book, 'probably in his despair at not being able to burn me', Hardy noted.  Hardy's marriage had also suffered from the public outrage - critics on both sides of the Atlantic abused the author as degenerate and called the work itself disgusting.  In April, 1912, Hardy wrote:

"Then somebody discovered that Jude was a moral work - austere in its treatment of a difficult subject - as if the writer had not all the time said in the Preface that it was meant to be so.  Thereupon many uncursed me, and the matter ended, the only effect of it on human conduct that I could discover being its effect on myself - the experience completely curing me of the further interest in novel-writing."

By 1885 the Hardys had settled near Dorchester at Max gate, a house designed by the author and built by his brother, Henry.  With the exceptions of seasonal stays in London and occasional excursions abroad, his Bockhampton home, "a modest house, providing neither more nor less than the accommodation ... needed" (as Michael Millgate describes it in his biography of the author) was his home for the rest of his life.

During the remainder of his life, Hardy wrote several collections of poems.  His gigantic panorama of the Napoleonic Wars, The Dynasts, composed between 1903 and 1908, was mostly in blank verse.  Hardy succeeded on the death of his friend George Meredith to the presidency of the Society of Authors in 1909.  King George V conferred on him the Order of Merit and he received in 1912 the gold medal of the Royal Society of Literature.

Hardy kept to his marriage with Emma Gifford although it was unhappy and he had - or he imagined he had - affairs with other women passing briefly through his life.  Emma Hardy died in 1912 and in 1914 Hardy married his secretary, Florence Emily Dugdale, a woman in her 30's, almost 40 years younger than he.

From 1920 through 1927 Hardy worked on his autobiography, which was disguised as the work of Florence Hardy.  It appeared in two volumes (1928 and 1930).  Hardy's last book published in his lifetime was Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs and Trifles (1925).

Hardy died in Dorchester, Dorset, on January 11, 1928.  His ashes were cremated in Dorchester and buried with impressive ceremonies in the Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey.

According to a dubious literary anecdote his heart was to be buried in Stinsford, his birthplace, and all went according to plan until a cat belonging to the poet's sister snatched the heart off the kitchen where it was temporarily kept and disappeared into the woods with it.  Hardy's Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres appeared posthumously in 1928.

The centre of Hardy's novels was the rather desolate and history-freighted countryside around Dorchester.  His novels bravely challenged many of the sexual and religious conventions of the Victorian age, and dared to present a bleak view into human nature.

In the early 1860s, after the appearance Darwin's Origin of Species (1859), Hardy's faith was still unshaken, but he soon adopted the mechanical-determinist view of nature's cruelty, reflected in the inevitably tragic and self-destructive fates of his characters.

"Though he was a modern, even a revolutionary writer in his time, most of us read him now as a lyrical pastoralist.  It may be a sign of the times that some of us take his books to bed, as if even his pessimistic vision was one that enabled us to sleep soundly." (Anatole Broyard in New York Times, May 12, 1982)

Article contributed by Petri Liukkonen, website Author's Calendar.

Download "The Return of the Native" (Project Gutenberg Text)

Download "Wessex Poems and Other Verses" (Project Gutenberg Text)

Download "The Woodlanders" (Project Gutenberg Text)

The Austro-Hungarian declaration of war was the first ever delivered by telegram.

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Prose & Poetry