TS Eliot, in After Strange Gods, said of Thomas Hardy:
‘[He] seems to me to have written as nearly for the sake of “self-expression” as a man well can; and the self which he had to express does not strike me as a particularly wholesome or edifying matter of communication.’
But Virginia Woolf, in The Second Common Reader, was lavish in her praise:
‘Thus it is no mere transcript of life at a certain time and place that Hardy has given us. It is a vision of the world and of man’s lot as they revealed themselves to a powerful imagination, a profound and poetic genius, a gentle and humane soul.’
The two views are antithetical but Eliot’s the more accurate.
That a commanding poetic and critical genius of Eliot’s stature should find nothing worthy to say about Hardy is perplexing, and suggests an insufficient or hasty scrutiny of the poet’s work as I shall demonstrate below. Woolf’s evaluation, not surprisingly, stems from a poor critical grasp. That he had a powerful imagination is not altogether true, but he was undeniably gentle and humane. That he was profound or a poetic genius may be stretching the imagination somewhat and serves only to appease critics who idealize him.
Eliot has been criticised (mostly by Hardy devotees) for imposing too harsh a view on his poetry and not doing him justice as a critic. But Eliot is vindicated in that much of Hardy’s poetic work is sentimental and merely seeking, as he correctly pointed out, “self-expression”. Hardy has the unwitting knack of deceiving the less guarded on a first reading, when a closer examination reveals the weakness:
I glanced aloft and halted, pleasure-caught To see the contrast there: The ray-lit clouds gleamed glory; and I thought, ‘There’s solace everywhere!’
A Meeting with Despair
The poet betrays the weakness in ‘pleasure-caught’, ‘The ray-lit clouds gleamed glory’ and the effusive, ‘There’s solace everywhere!’ Such striving after effect cannot signify a major poet and, to Hardy’s credit, it was something of which he was unaware because in some of his elegiac poetry he comes close to achieving major status. But he should not be remembered, or celebrated (as he is so often), for his oeuvre as a whole.
Eliot’s comment that:
‘ … the self which he had to express does not strike me as a particularly wholesome or edifying matter of communication.’
shows a distinct and surprising lack of insight from arguably one of the finest critics in the language and betrays, as it does, a smugness suggestive of cursory dismissal. For Hardy, following the death of his first wife, rose to the occasion and produced some fine elegiac poetry that can only be construed as particularly wholesome and decidedly edifying as matter of communication.
That a poet can go from the contrived and would-be dramatic:
‘I have seen the lightning-blade, the leaping star, The caldrons of the sea in storm, Have felt the earthquakes lifting arm, And trodden where abysmal fires and snowcones are.’
to the keenly sensitive and poignantly felt:
‘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.’
Should provide much interest and speculation for the literary historian who possesses a close critical proclivity. There is nothing contrived here, only pure pathos, and the final stanza consolidates and reinforces the poet’s keenly felt sensitivity to the memory of his dead wife:
‘Thus I; faltering forward, Leaves around me falling, Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward, And the woman calling.’
How finely felt and evocative is this image of a confused, desolate and grief-stricken man. The reader feels, and is drawn by compassion to, the misery.
Hardy’s lesser poetry (and it is mostly second-rate) suggests he spent inordinate amounts of time trying to ‘feel’, as if he desperately wanted to be a poet and convey faithfully what he saw and ‘felt’:
‘I have seen the lightning-blade, the leaping star, The caldrons of the sea in storm…’
is a striving to feel and express and is written, as Eliot said, ‘…as nearly for the sake of “self-expression” as a man well can.’ But when the feeling is real, and emanates from a personal and confounding grief, the tautness and concoctions of the lesser work give way to a natural and true expression:
‘Here is the ancient floor, Footworn and hollowed and thin, Here was the former door Where the dead feet walked in.
She sat here in her chair, Smiling into the fire; He who played stood there, Bowing it higher and higher.
Childlike, I danced in a dream; Blessings emblazoned that day; Everything glowed with a gleam; Yet we were looking away!’
The effect of this simple verse is telling and can claim to be at least considered among what is good in English poetry. Had Hardy been less impelled to produce, more of the same quality might have been forthcoming. Had he read, and noted, Samuel Johnson’s praise of Denham’s Cooper’s Hill:
‘It has beauty peculiar to itself, and must be numbered among those felicities which cannot be produced at will by wit and labour, but must arise unexpectedly in some hour propitious to poetry.’ – Life of Denham
he might have fared much better.