In a letter of May 1919 Hardy told his friend Sir George Douglas he hadn’t been doing much, ‘mainly destroying old papers’. ‘How they raise ghosts,’ he added. He was still at it in September when he complained of the ‘dismal work’ of destroying papers that were of ‘absolutely no use for any purpose God or man’s’. Such remarks must sound particularly dismal to Hardy’s modern editors and biographers. They could certainly find a use for his papers. Hardy’s marvellous late harvest of lyric poetry is riddled with ghosts like those he mentions here, and many, like ‘The Photograph’ with its vivid account of a woman’s portrait burnt in a ‘casual clearance of life’s arrears’, must have been by-products of the literary bonfires at Max Gate. For all that, the ghosts of the papers are bound to haunt the scholars.
What Hardy didn’t tell Sir George (or anyone else for that matter) was that he had decided to pre-empt posterity and become his own editor and biographer. He was ‘ghosting’ his own life, to appear posthumously under his wife’s name. The destruction of his private papers was part and parcel of a plot to construct his public biography in such a way that it would have first-hand documentary authority without first-person responsibility – the exponent of candour in fiction was not one to practise it strenuously in his own life or Life – and without leaving any inconvenient evidence around which would counteract the official portrait he wished to be remembered by. The elaborately maintained fiction of its authorship was a particularly brilliant way of clearing his life’s arrears.
All the same, the editors have had plenty of work to do, and soon every scrap of paper that survived the purges at Max Gate will have been through the mill. Michael Millgate calls his new edition of the biography ‘The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy by Thomas Hardy’. Since he has stripped it of the thin marital disguise of his wife’s name and cleared it of Florence’s editorial emendations carried out after Hardy’s death, he feels able to present it as ‘an entirely Hardyan text – an autobiography in short’. But it’s not an autobiography, nor was meant to be. The book itself declares that Hardy had not ‘sufficient admiration for himself’ to write his memoirs, while Florence told Sydney Cockerell he would probably burn all his notes (i.e. the text) if it were ever referred to as an ‘autobiography’. I don’t think the third-person disguise was simply camouflage: it corresponded to a need in Hardy the writer as well as in Hardy the man protecting his privacy. It is written as if by his wife, a view from the outside, call it Hardy’s Not I, and should really be presented by the convoluted title: The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy by Florence Hardy by Thomas Hardy, edited by Michael Millgate. The secret surrounding the authorship of the Life was not only a device to shield the secrets of Hardy’s life (though it helped); it corresponded to something inherent in his vision of life and attitude to narrative. His novels don’t make significant use of first-person narration, however close his apparent identification with his characters. The Life, even in this new version which represents Hardy’s final text as far as that is possible, insists upon an unbridgeable formal distance from its subject (i.e. Hardy). ‘They all appear to have been fugitive,’ it asserts of his early infatuations with girls (Hardy presumably knew whether this was a true or false appearance); of a Venetian lady it says, ‘it is not known whether the Italian Contessa in A Group of Noble Dames was suggested by her’ (it must have been known by Hardy); and apropos his mood in 1870 it plays the detective: ‘a minute fact seems to suggest that Hardy was far from being in bright spirits,’ – a reference to his marking Hamlet’s words, ‘Thou wouldst not think how ill all’s here about my heart, Horatio.’ At one point Florence cut down the meaninglessly mysterious phrase ‘it is believed that he viewed’ from a dull account of some occasion at the Sheldonian and replaced it with ‘he viewed’, obviously exasperated at his parade of unknowing. There’s a fair degree of Nabokovian mystification about, as Hardy plays around behind the dead mask of the prose he thinks suitable for his wife, not too far removed from what he calls his ‘wilful purpose’ in the early novels ‘to mystify the reader as to their locality, origin and authorship’. His novels from first to last, for all their queer impersonal intimacy with the life of their characters, are usually written from outside. Even where, in the Life, he describes his mother’s walk, he falls back on the device of someone else’s view of it: ‘strangers approaching her from behind imagined themselves, even when she was nearly 70, about to overtake quite a young woman.’ The genre of the Official Life, on the model of Colvin’s Life of Keats, enabled him to use a combination of documentary (via quotation from letters, notebooks and so on), novelistic surmise, and projection into the viewpoint of a third person. The Life is a monumentally extended version of the device of the summary poem ‘Afterwards’ which conjures up a neighbour’s impromptu epitaph on him: ‘He was a man who used to notice such things.’
The Life quotes a diary entry of 1888 which says: ‘Be rather curious than anxious about your own career; for whatever results may accrue to its intellectual and social value, it will make little difference to your personal well-being. A naturalist’s interest in the hatching of a queer egg or germ is the utmost introspective consideration you should allow yourself.’ Hardy, as the diary entries and the thousand pages of poems shows, was indeed a queer egg. Perhaps only a queer egg would see himself in that light. Yet for him the main interest of the Life was his ‘intellectual and social value’ as an author: the ‘egg’, the ‘germ’, is almost incidental, though glimpsed by flashes in the quotations from the burnt notebooks. So the book tells us little about Hardy’s well-being or how ill all was about his heart, but a lot about the progress of his ‘career’ as a Victorian Man of Letters. Like the early Hand of Ethelberta, it’s a story of remarkable social and literary success, but Hardy, like his ambitious and unhappy heroine, plays a role in the Life that obscures his real social and family background, like Ethelberta’s among the labouring classes of Dorset. It is not only his private life that Hardy keeps under wraps – we hear next to nothing of his unhappy marriage with Emma, for example, or his recurrent infatuations with pretty literary women, or the effect of his mentor Horace Moule’s suicide at Queen’s College, Cambridge; there’s no mention of his mother’s early life as one of seven children brought up on parish relief or of her time as a maidservant, of his uncle being a farm-labourer, or the blighted life of the intelligent, radical cobbler John Antell who married into the family. Instead, Hardy exaggerates the scale of the Rockhampton cottage where he was born, his father’s status in the social scale (he attributes his comparative lack of success in the building business to his being by nature ‘the furthest removed from a tradesman’ that could be imagined) and the family’s grander connections with the ‘Dorsetshire Hardy’s’, in honour of whom Hardy had considered changing his name to Thomas le Hardy. Hardy didn’t change his name mercifully, but he does tailor the facts to suit the respectable genteel image he wanted to promote and cuts out the names of many of his early family and friends, just as he reportedly ‘cut’ the Hands, Sparkses and Antells when he and Emma cycled past them through Puddletown. The Life, that is, quietly disowns the past that his Work made his own – the life of the rural poor of Dorset, the struggles of educated and upwardly mobile men and women estranged from the community they are born into, the local landscape – just as it ignores the marital unhappiness and sexual restlessness that Hardy shared with his main characters. Though none of his novels is strictly autobiographical in the manner of Joyce’s Portrait or Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, they reveal, with far greater intensity than the Life does, the profound tensions and cruel dynamism underlying Hardy’s struggle for literary and social success.
Millgate’s edition of the Life shows just how much it was all his own work in the first place. Anyone expecting any further revelations or greater candour from the unexpurgated edition will be sorely disappointed. The apparatus shows that Florence’s contributions were mainly a matter of editorial tact – in particular, cutting down on the tedious catalogue of guest-lists at London parties attended by the Hardys, toning down his numerous, often vitriolic diatribes against critics and reviewers of his work, pruning away the small indicators of Hardy’s eye for the ladies (a ‘full slightly voluptuous mouth’ here or ‘fair, pink golden-haired creature’ there) and numerous signs of the presence of his first wife Emma in her husband’s life. It is one of the Life’s sadder little ironies that Hardy’s comparatively few acknowledgments of Emma in their nearly forty years of marriage (‘an old-fashioned Evangelical like her mother’ is the closest we get to learning of her distress about the unorthodoxy of novels like Tess and Jude) should be made rarer by Florence’s jealous scissor-work, which abbreviates notebook entries like ‘Portsmouth with Em’ to plain ‘Portsmouth’, and cuts Hardy’s tributes to her ‘usual courage’ in rescuing him from thieves in Rome or to the beauty of her hair. Florence is also jealous of the starring role that Emma played in Hardy’s imagination after her death, and cuts a reference to their planned visit to the Cornish scenes of their courtship and his reason for going there later, which was to see his ‘design and inscription to her memory’. Having erased the inscription, it is perhaps not surprising that Florence also cut her own first version of Hardy’s death (it’s in the notes) which has it that ‘before the end ... a few broken sentences, one of them heartrending in its poignancy, showed that his mind had reverted to a sorrow of his past.’ This was because his last word seems to have been his first wife’s name, ‘Em’. Such trivial omissions make the text a submerged battlefield between his two wives – this is a Hardyan plot in itself – and make it hard to think of them resting in peace in the plot they now share in Stinsford churchyard with the remains of Hardy’s heart.
Sartre said somewhere that autobiographers recollect their past passions to inter them in a ‘calm cemetery’. Hardy says little in the Life about his passions and the tale of two marriages (he pretends that Florence was a friend of Emma’s and disguises his meetings with her while his first wife was alive). In the person of his second wife Hardy indirectly (and a touch disingenuously) refers to the time he’d begun writing the Life as follows: ‘Hardy’s mind seems to have been running on himself at this time to a degree unusual with him, who often said – his actions showed it – that he took no interest in himself as a personage.’ The Prefatory Note quotes Hardy’s reason for refusing to write his reminiscences as being because he ‘had not sufficient admiration for himself’ to do so. Why then did he write the book? The preface says it was in order to correct various biographical as well as critical misrepresentations that he agreed to set down the ‘facts of his career’. The distinction between a person’s reminiscences and the career of a ‘personage’ may be the point here. The memoir records the public life of the novelist and agnostic thinker as a ‘personage’. It was left to the poetry to explore the domain of memory – or memories. The poetry of Moments of Vision, written at this time, provides the dimension the Life lacks.
The great theme of the Life is that Hardy had always been at heart a poet: it is a kind of prosey Prelude, justifying the vocation that only came into its own late in life when he abandoned novel-writing. ‘Among those who accomplished late,’ he wrote, ‘the poetic spark must always have been latent,’ though ‘its outspringing may have been frozen and delayed.’ The late ‘harvest’ of lyric poetry which occupied Hardy’s last thirty years was a delayed outspringing of Victorian poetic habits (‘all we can do is write on the old themes in old styles,’ he notoriously told the young Graves), but also a delayed resurgence of the past. The author of Late Lyrics and Earlier was, late and early, a poet of lateness – often ‘too lateness’ – for whom poems were acts of delayed recognition, haunted by the ‘earlier’. If the great theme of the Life is that despite the delayed publication of his verse, he had always been a poet, though doomed for economic reasons to be disguised as a novelist for much of his life, the great theme of the poetry is the haunting, unpredictable persistence of the past as it may materialise in the memory of things and places: an old umbrella, a second-hand suit, a photo, an air-blue gown, a roadway. The Life quotes a diary entry which throws light on this: ‘I believe it would be said by people who know me well that I have a faculty (possibly not uncommon) for burying an emotion in my heart or brain for forty years, and exhuming it at the end of that time as fresh as when interred.’ The characteristic graveyard metaphor equating memories with fresh-dug corpses – as if the poet were a queer kind of recurrection man – gives a palpable body to ‘memories’ and turns his heart into a graveyard. The incident that gave birth to the poem ‘In Time of Breaking of Nations’ was noted in 1870 – the sight of two country lovers during the Franco-Prussian war – but not given poetic form until 1914. Such memories, like the poetic spark that’s ‘frozen and delayed’, are the source and resource of the great late poetry. It is a poetry of dispersed memories, not of shaping autobiography, haunted by the lives of others. The ‘earliest discoverable’ of Hardy’s poems, ‘Domicilium’, is a poem of Wordsworthian autobiography about his ‘paternal homestead’. It’s a brilliant imitation of Wordsworth’s descriptive blank verse manner (‘In days bygone – /Long gone – my father’s mother, who is now/Blest with the blest’), yet it seems absolutely alien to the vision – and the technique – of the late lyric poetry of memories and suggests a mode of autobiography antithetical to Hardy’s.
The memoir only devotes 80 pages (about one-sixth) to his first 30 years, preferring the formed to the formative years, the fate of the finished work to the process of creation. In general, Florence did a good job in making the Life more readable by trimming away his social boasting and the prickliness against the reviewers of his ‘cowardly age’, though Michael Millgate has done a better one in restoring them to the text. The Life, for all Hardy’s repeated claims of lack of ambition, is a success story, and the litany of the good and the great at the parties he attended is a dull display of his social credentials by an author professing no interest in ‘society’, a visible sign of the ‘popularity’ which he says made him welcome everywhere. His criticism of critics, restored in full with all its vinegary violence, is a mark of the artistic confidence behind the apparent modesty. He wants to dismiss his novels as pot-boilers, yet he needs to justify them in the face of the Philistinism and conservatism of his critics. One sees why Florence cut these expressions of snobbery and artistic defiance, but they are important evidence of Hardy’s double attitude towards the Establishment. He calls The Hand of Ethelberta ‘socialistic’, and from ‘An Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress’ to Jude, Hardy shows the romance of ‘class’ to be hideously divisive. As far as the Church is concerned, his whole writing life was founded upon his sense of the inadequacy of Christianity to cope with the sadness of post-Darwinian man and on a corresponding trust in his greater scope for happiness within a more rational secular ethics. Yet the Life shows Hardy as a frequenter of ‘society’ and a churchgoer. He defends Jude and Tess and The Well-Beloved, not as the brave flamboyant polemical studies they are, flying in the face of Christian and social orthodoxies, but as essentially unimpeachable. ‘Unhappily for himself,’ he says, ‘Hardy was in fact like the “stretch-mouthed rascal” in The Winter’s Tale, always supposed to “mean mischief” against Church, State, or morals.’ Yet later he was to smile ruefully when Granville-Barker’s production of The Dynasts made him seem as ‘orthodox as a church-warden’ and, in 1905, defended men of letters as free to ‘express unpalatable or possibly subversive views on society, religious dogma, current morals’. He thought writers inherently ‘unreconciled’ to life, yet he could never reconcile himself to the kind of notoriety and criticism Tess had exposed him to. We must hope it is in a spirit of mischievousness that the Life denies he meant mischief to Church, state and morals in the great novels of the Nineties.
The Life is profoundly incongruous in this respect, while showing how early Hardy’s stance was defined. It describes him as a small child staring at the chromatic effect of the setting sun on the staircase every evening, reciting Watts’s ‘Now another day is gone’, or dressing up in a tablecloth to imitate the parson on wet Sundays, or, like the boy Jude, staring up at the sun streaming through the holes in his straw-hat and realising he did not want to grow up. His inveterate fear of ‘social ambition’ and change, his mournful hymn-like sense of passing days, and his ‘churchiness’, had already taken root. The air of a sad boy wrapped up in a tablecloth mimicking a parson on a wet Sunday pervades much of Hardy’s verse. Like his constant gravitation to the church and churchyard in poems and novels, it helps make his brave agnosticism, his sense of a life lived in the shadow not only of extinct life-forms but of extinct religions, shareable – less pompous than that of most of the Higher Atheists. One wishes there was a fuller, more anecdotal account of his childhood, given the suggestiveness of these incidents. Florence added a few nice episodes, illustrating, for example, his fear of being touched as a boy and in adult life, and it’s sad that these are now buried in the notes at the back, along with her descriptions of Hardy’s appearance and Max Gate. Hardy’s amazement as a child that his mother could not ‘enter into’ his ‘conclusions on existence’ seems to have stayed with him all his life. He wanted both to affirm his idiosyncrasy of vision and have it recognised by the flock.
The real idiosyncratic life of the Life is in the extracts from the destroyed notebooks. They suggest comparison with the notebooks of Coleridge, Thoreau, Hopkins or Chekhov in their quirky blend of observation and arresting generalisation. If the vogue for such journals had been established, Hardy might not have junked his, but it’s more likely that the Life was an escape-hatch for this secret material. The notebooks show him developing a subtle non-naturalistic aesthetics and a secular philosophy of vision, committed both to the weathery vicissitudes of the natural world and the redeeming idiosyncrasies of the artist’s vision. They stress ‘provinciality of feeling’ against Arnold’s urbane ‘tone of the centre’, the beauty of association which makes a battered tankard more important than the finest Greek vase, and a worn threshold more interesting than mists and mountains. They celebrate individuality, irregularity, and optical distortion against both academicism and contentious ‘naturalism’ – and constitute a kind of fragmentary poetics by which we can read his fiction and verse.
They also bear witness to a lifetime’s dedication to collecting morbid incongruities: a chicken’s roost under a gilt placard of the Lord’s Prayer, a dead baby on a doctor’s mantlepiece, a crucified Christ rising from a parterre of London bonnets, children seen dancing in the streets through the ribs of a skeleton, a vicar paying a social call to a widow only to be told he’d buried her that morning. Brief glimpses of an English Dance of Death. These play more part in the notebooks than the events of Hardy’s life, and show how his sense of life, for all his affirmation that we are ‘inveterate joy-makers’, fed first and last off his sense of death. The many ghosts show it too – a shade in Stinsford churchyard, the souls gliding about the Reading Room in the BM, Prinny’s ghost beaming at the tarts in Regent’s Street. More than ghosts, it is the idea of ghostliness that hooked Hardy, who notes his ‘melancholy satisfaction’ in putting on the ‘manners of ghosts’ by ‘regarding the scene as if I were a spectre not solid enough to influence my environment’. Thus the ‘ghosted biography’, the many spectres in the lyrics and overshadowing the epic action of The Dynasts, and the habitual device of the hypothetical observer in his fiction (‘a spectator glancing up at her bedroom window from the graveyard would have seen ... ’). The novelist is a spectral voyeur upon the familiar. Hardy’s ghostly ‘moments of vision’ are the antithesis of Yeats’s Vision, and his homely haunters wouldn’t have much to say to the Irish poet’s lofty Byzantine spooks. Hardy’s supernaturalism is a reflection of his profound commitment to the life of the natural world whose passing away he finds intolerable. So, the notebooks also register the order in which leaves fall from the trees, think of the grandchildren of rabbits seen in a park, regret the transience of church architecture against geological time, and record at the end of one 12-month period that it was ‘an epoch to insects, to leaves a life, to tweeting birds a generation, and to man a year’. Hardy’s sense of time colours everything. Perhaps this is one reason the Life is not a conventional autobiography. ‘Persons are successively various persons’, one of the notes tells us, ‘according as each special strand in their characters is brought uppermost by circumstances’ – an idea recapped in the late poem ‘So Various’. It is a pity that the biography is not more candid or informative about the real circumstances of Hardy’s life – or that Michael Millgate, his scholarly biographer, has not shown how Hardy tailored circumstances to fit his own self-image. There is a danger that all the textual paraphernalia will obscure the real interest and importance of the book.
The Life moulds a version of Hardy’s career which emphasises his successful upward-mobility by disguising his family’s working-class history, and suppressing the strains of his respectable marriage and position. In a chapter on Hardy’s novels in his study of Agrarian England between 1600 and 1900, The Annals of the Labouring Poor, K.M.D. Snell shows how the novels, praised by conservative and radical critics alike for their ‘verisimilitude’ and ‘realism’ in treating rural life, actually offer a highly unrepresentative, romanticised image of Dorset in Hardy’s lifetime. He argues that Hardy sees the village labourer as something all too like the Hodge stereotype attacked in Hardy’s essay on the Dorset labourer, and that his vision of work in the countryside is shaped by his allegiance to the professional, metropolitan values celebrated in the Life at the expense of his lowly background. Far from being ‘a fairly true record of a vanishing life’ as Hardy claimed, the novels ignore or disguise the real circumstances of rural labour as Snell reconstructs them from agricultural records, statistics and contemporary reports.
According to Snell’s researches, Dorset had the lowest agricultural wage of any English county although its farms were on average 50 per cent larger. It had some of the worst rural housing, much of it due to the influence of those non-migratory small-holders whom Hardy saw as the ‘backbone of village life’. It was also a county with a history of strong resentments and political hostility between labourers and farmers, as shown in the ‘Swing’ riot of 1830 which were particularly acute in Tess’s Blackmore Vale, and in the widespread arson which made it difficult for farmers to get adequate fire-insurance in some parts. All of which is very unlike the world of Far From the Madding Crowd, let alone Under the Greenwood Tree. As for detailed misrepresentation, Snell calls the Mayor of Casterbridge’s feat of upward mobility from bungling hay-trusser to local big-shot frankly ‘incredible’, Tess’s work with the steam thresher ‘almost unheard of’ (women were increasingly restricted to dairy work), and the annual hiring fair described in Far From the Madding Crowd a minor aspect of the labour market, since after the 1830s most labourers would have been paid by the day or week. In general, Snell criticises Hardy’s dependence on the bovine and ludicrous image of the peasant (he even christened one of them Worm!) and his bucolic picture of both agriculture and landscape. Far from offering the viewpoint of someone who was a ‘peasant himself’, as Raymond Williams has argued, Hardy saw the countryside from the vantage-point of a grammar-school educated, professionally-trained and socially-estranged intellectual writing for a London audience.
Snell’s reading of Hardy is a salutary reminder of the realities of work, family and class in rural Dorset, but there’s a stubborn literalism in his approach (understandable in a historian of labour) which makes this account of the novels weirdly incomplete. He may be right in demostrating the ways the novels misread and misrepresent the actual social history, and this may indeed change our view of the novels, but he seems to misread and misrepresent the actual experience of the novels. Accurate or not, Tess doesn’t only give a ‘bucolic’ view of work: it gives harrowing accounts of winter work on the uplands as well as the sweat and danger of harvest. The Mayor may be implausible social history, but again its view of life in Casterbridge is bleak and complex, dense with social detail, and doesn’t represent a comfortable ‘mystification’ any more than King Lear does. What other English novelist evokes the world of work and community within a palpable landscape as Hardy does? Or is less patronising to working people like Gabriel Oak or Tess or even Diggory Venn? Snell’s isn’t the whole story, even if Hardy’s isn’t the whole history.
One might think that the new editions of Hardy’s Literary Notebooks and Emma’s Diaries would uncover truths disguised by the Life. Anyone expecting anything comparable to the sad energy and quirky intelligence of the notebook entries in the memoir will be sadly disappointed by these so-called Literary Notebooks. They are scissors-and-paste workbooks made up of quotes and summaries from philosophical, critical and historical books and articles, dutifully transcribed by Hardy or one of his wives acting as amanuensis. Snippets from the Reviews like Macmillans’ Magazine or the Fortnightly Review, titbits from Herbert Spencer, Comte or Matthew Arnold, snatches of Max Muller on solar myths or Mahaffy on Greece, pages of Carlyle’s French Revolution, 75 maxims of Balthasar Gracian: the notebooks are a giant sampler of the thought of his time (often the more po-faced and tedious utterances of the Zeitgeist at that), a monument to the seriousness with which Hardy took his intellectual life: but they can’t show much of his ‘idiosyncratic mode of regard’ since they don’t include his own comments or reflections, only bald transcriptions. Reminders of life before the photocopier and of the secretarial duties of his wives, these unliterary notebooks serve as a massive index of Hardy’s reading but are themselves unreadable. The text is heavily annotated by Lennart Björk (the first 24 pages of notes are accorded 40 pages of dense scholarly annotation) and may be useful as a very grey reference-book for those trying to trace Hardy’s relation to the intellectual mainstream. But the truth is that these are the Wrong Notebooks.
The same could be said of the Diaries of Emma published in facsimile by Richard Taylor, and containing memoranda of four holidays the Hardys took abroad, starting with their honeymoon. When Emma died in 1912 Hardy read not only the haunting Some Recollections describing her childhood and the Cornish romance with her husband but what Florence called ‘Voluminous’ and ‘diabolical’ diaries, reportedly called ‘What I Think of my Husband’, and full of violent denunciations of him written over twenty years. The result of course was the rich sequence of elegiac reminiscent poetry written in 1912-13 out of remorse and reawakened love, one of the greatest sequences of love lyrics in the language. Hardy published an edited version of the Recollections, but burnt the ‘diabolical’ diaries. The poems were written to ‘make amends’ as he wrote in a letter, but the diaries’ record of what it was he had to make amends for was wiped out. The travel-diaries survived, presumably because they are so charmingly inconsequential. An editor has pounced, and here they are in the kind of lavish facsimile accorded Blake’s notebooks.
As scatty souvenirs of Victorian holidays, the sort of thing that might turn up inside one of Great Granny’s hat-boxes, they have their appeal – and as mementoes with some ‘beauty of association’ with Hardy. Emma’s jottings on their trips abroad flesh out Hardy’s chronicle in the Life with odd details of menus, bus-tickets, sketches of hotel rooms and tour-sites. The past that interested Hardy isn’t her thing. ‘Old frescoes are horrid entre-nous,’ she confides to her diary in Italy, and at Waterloo she got thoroughly exhausted and irritable (‘I’m greatly fatigued and Tom is cross about it’) while Hardy pursued the ghost of the battle and the idea for his spectral epic, The Dynasts. Their travels are covered more fully in the Life and ‘Poems of Pilgrimage’, though her touristic sketches of sights and sounds and menus give a more genial picture of Emma (‘The people gaze at me as much or more than I at them ... Am I a strange-looking person – or merely picturesque in this hat’) than we can get elsewhere. These Diaries will add ‘picturesque’ local colour in future Lives of Hardy, but in these diaries she’s not much interested in the lives of the Hardys. They are the Wrong Diaries. The editorial work on this homely travelogue is immaculate, save for a misprint which makes Emmas speak of ‘an old fact with toothless jaws’ and a glaring factual error in the introduction which states that ‘in Florence they visited the graves of Keats and Shelley.’ Hardy, who commemorated their graves in his verse, would probably be dismayed to see them ascribed to the Wrong Graveyard.
The latest volumes of the Oxford poems and letters allow us to hear the voice of late Hardy himself. Volume V of the Letters opens in January 1914, at the time of his second marriage, which he announces with conspicuous reticence. ‘Miss Dugdale and I were married yesterday at Enfield,’ he tells a friend: ‘we came straight back here, and I am going to put over my study door “Business as usual during the alterations”.’ They close in December 1919 with Hardy, keeping up with intellectual developments as usual, commenting to the philosopher McTaggart on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity: ‘Really after what he says the universe is getting too comic for words.’ In between, the correspondence is overshadowed by the tragic ‘four years dance of death’. ‘The difficulty about the war for men at home,’ he wrote, ‘is that what we feel we must not say, and what we say we seldom think.’ He refused to talk about it publicly, though he thought England’s role in it ‘innocent for once’; privately, he thought it showed the ‘utter failure of theology’ and believed all the Churches of Europe should form a new religion that had at least ‘some faint connection with morality’ (he knew people would laugh at this). He says he wasn’t good at patriotic poems because he saw ‘the other side too much’, and the letters are hearteningly free of patriotic or other rhetoric: nevertheless with the marching-song ‘Men Who March Away’ and the Armistice poem ‘There came a great calm’ he pulled off the almost impossible in writing newspaper poems on public events which were memorable and popular without poetic claptrap. Even in Dorset, Hardy noticed ‘sentries with gleaming bayonets’ on the roads, the ‘steady flow’ of soldiers heading for France by night, and ‘through chinks’ glimpsed a thousand German prisoners. In 1918, he looks back mutedly on ‘the row of poor young fellows in straw hats who had fallen in in front of our country hall ... lit by the September sun’ – the phrase, like the poem which commemorated this moment, shows Hardy lighting up a past moment with a specific sense of place, time and physical vulnerability (the touching detail of the ‘straw hats’, the way ‘fallen in’ includes ‘fallen’). The same quiet attentiveness to other lives and absence of phoney consolations shows in his letters to friends on their griefs – ‘once a wound, always a scar left, it seems to me,’ ‘I am very sorry ... I offer no consolation, there may be some, but I do not know it.’
For the most part it is business as usual, despite the war, and a high proportion of these brief letters are the routine small change of a man of letters’ correspondence: response to books and articles, transactions with editors (even over film rights to his novels), and answers to public questions and invitations. Hardy fulfils these dusty duties with marvellous tact and distinctiveness, as in the 43 minute thank-you letters to poets who’d sent him a birthday tribute, or the beautifully attuned letters of condolence. There’s an impressive continuity in his stance, whether stressing the importance his poetry has in his output, or supporting animal rights or arguing against superseded beliefs. Though they are as public as the Life – there are even fewer strictly personal letters than in the early years – these letters, in their trim, spry way, are a model of their kind, showing Hardy playing the role of Grand Sad Old Man of English letters with quiet peppery dignity and crisp civility.
In the letters he frequently turns on critics who treated his novels in isolation from or as more important than his poems. He had spent more than half his writing life as a poet and it was only in poetry, one letter states, that his ‘self-expression had been quite unfettered’. Volume III of Samuel Hynes’s edition contains his last two books, Human Shows and Winter-Words, written in his Sophoclean eighties, and a host of uncollected poems. He isn’t a poet who needs much annotation, but as in the previous volumes, Hynes’s brief introductory accounts of each book and notes to individual pieces are consistently helpful. There is also a glossary of Dorset words – resonant local terms like ‘stillicide’ meaning ‘dripping of water’ or ‘coll’ for ‘to take fondly round the neck’ – and of place-names such as ‘Mill-Tail Shallow’ or ‘Pummery Tout’, as well as a list of dated poems in chronological order. Such information is more than an academic rite in Hardy’s case, given the difficulties in sorting out his development as a poet and the deep local strain in his imagination.
The poems in these last books are mainly variations of old themes, but they are also astonishingly various. Samuel Hynes includes Hardy’s calculations found on the flyleaf of his proofs, disproving the charge usually brought against him that he was just a down-in-the-mouth pessimist. Out of the 152 poems in Human Shows he reckoned 60 (or two-fifths) were tragic, while 92 (or three-fifths) were comic, reflective or love-songs. Most other spiritual accountants would question these figures. Though there’s wit and a gloomy relish in many of his bagatelles, as in the self-parodying ‘Epitaph on a Pessimist’ (‘I’m a Smith of Stoke, aged 60 odd’), or in the fairly light-hearted versions of traditional songs and ballads (‘My old love rises from the worms/Just as he used to be’), they depend on Hardy’s characteristic sense of disappointment and death. Like the earlier books, they ‘mortify the human sense of self-importance’, as he put it in the Life, and re-work the old paraphernalia of graves, ghosts, worms, unhappy lovers and lousy weather. There are only a few directly autobiographical poems here, but they include the marvellous close-up of a child taking shelter under ferns, ‘making pretence I was not rained upon’ (‘Childhood under Ferns’), and ‘Ten Years Since’, the record of Emma’s absence from the house, measuring absence by the progress of inanimate things and by a self-enclosed poetic form:
And the trees are ten feet taller,
And the sunny spaces smaller
Whose bloomage would enthrall her;
And the piano wires are rustier
And the smell of bindings mustier,
And lofts and lumber dustier ...
As usual, the best poems are full of circumstantial references of a novelistic kind. Though their stance is passive, the poems characteristically begin as abruptly as Donne’s, often with memorable close-ups – ‘The trees are undressing,’ ‘The broad bald moon edged up,’ ‘The white winter sun struck its stroke on the bridge’ – before going on to develop their long perspectives on absence. That sharp vision of appearance underlies the poet’s subtle music of disappearances.
The Hynes edition prints the variants and earlier versions of the poems and these show above all else the care that went into registering movement. In the poem ‘No Buyers’, which depicts a couple trying to sell their wares from a cart, almost every verb gets adjusted – ‘walks’ becomes ‘foots’, ‘creeping’ ‘shambling’, and so on. In a lightly macabre ballad the end is changed from worms that ‘glide’ to the more deliberately grotesque ‘worms that waggle in the grass’. ‘A Gentleman’s Second-Hand Suit’, the hypothetical biography of the wearer of a suit of clothes seen in a pawn-shop is a brilliant instance of these late ‘shows’. The poem creates a phantom dance for the suit, but where the MS had ‘Well used to the dancer’s spin and sway’, the printed version makes the suit ‘long drilled to the waltzer’s swing and sway’, where the repeated assonantal pairing of ‘i’ and ‘o’ sounds, coupled with the triple alliteration of the ‘w’s’, evokes a whirring echo of ¾ time from the imagined past, with ‘drilled’ remembering the time passed learning it. At the close, the poet asks:
‘Where is, alas, the gentleman
Who wore this suit?
And where are his ladies?
And he half-answers:
Some of them may forget him quite
Who smudged his sleeve,
Some of them think of a wild and whirling night
With him, and grieve.
‘Smudged’ had been the more neutral ‘marked’, and the ‘wild and whirling’ night had been the much less particular ‘particular night’.
Absence and separation – particularly of lovers – is the real preoccupation of the bulk of these poems but, as the revisions show, to make them come alive the poet has to use melody and descriptive detail with great precision. As a boy, Hardy used to play on his fiddle at country dances and the Life celebrates his sensitivity to melody from then on. The old man’s performances vindicate this, and a high proportion of Human Shows and Winter Words has as much precision as any Imagist poem, but combined with the sad resonance and sense of ghostly human presence which make Hardy the great poet he is. Perhaps, as Hardy himself claimed, the years of training as a poet helped him as a novelist, but it is equally certain that the years of novel-writing gave his verse an everydayness and circumstantiality, a habitation, that little poetry attains. Samuel Hynes’s ‘Oxford Authors’ Hardy is the fullest and best selection of the poems to date – five hundred pages of verse, using the texts and notes of the Complete Practical Works. In this mournful, intimate cornucopia we touch upon what seems a crowd of dispersed lives. Reading them, we find not only traces of Hardy’s real autobiography but of our own. It was Hardy’s antithesis, Ezra Pound, who said: ‘No man can read Hardy’s poems collected but that his own life, and forgotten moments of it, will come back to him, a flash here and an hour there. Have you a better test of true poetry?’