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Bill R. Moore
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Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) has the incredible distinction of being one of England's greatest novelists of the nineteenth century and one of its greatest poets of the twentieth. This is a testament both to his long life and his remarkable literary range; perhaps no other author has plowed both fields so well. Hardy began writing poetry in his very early teens and turned to it seriously in his late 20s but reluctantly moved to prose after a few rejections showed him that poetry was not the best way to make a living. This occupied him for about a quarter century, and within a few years he became one of the world's greatest and most popular novelists and short story writers and remains so. However, unbeknownst to the public, he continued writing poems. With a few trifling exceptions, none were published when his prose came out, but the extremely negative reception of his last two prose masterworks led him to act on his long-delayed goal of becoming a published poet. Wessex Poems, his first collection, came out in 1898, and seven more followed, the last - Winter Words - a few months after his death. His poetry was naturally first looked on with a mix of curiosity and suspicion, but about halfway into his poetry publishing career he became one of the most popular and acclaimed English poets and continues to be. Indeed, more than a century after his first collection and over seventy years after his death, Hardy is bigger than ever. This is all the more incredible when we realize that even the most famous, acclaimed, and popular of the great poets are read less than ever and that poetry in general has perhaps never been less read.
This magnificent collection essentially includes every poem Hardy wanted published. Hardy is my favorite poet, and this is my poetic Bible. To have so many great poems in a single book is almost beyond belief. The sheer number is amazing - hundreds, eight books' worth, over nearly nine hundred pages. I lack space to do justice to Hardy's range and productivity, but one piece of trivia says much - the index covers the entire alphabet. As editor Michael Irwin points out, Hardy is probably the only major English poet of whom this can be said. Here we get an appreciation of just how much ground Hardy covered. Though interested in a few core subjects that he returned to again and again - love, fate, theodicy, rural English life, the Napoleonic Wars, nature, animals, etc. -, he wrote at least one poem about every conceivable subject. His treatments were also widely variant; Hardy famously wrote some of the most depressing poetry ever but also some of the most beautiful, emotional - and, indeed, some of the most humorous. He can be both lyrically beautiful and intellectually vigorous and is one of the very few poets able to match form and depth without sacrificing either; only Alexander Pope and Percy Shelley among English poets are in his league here. Also, unlike even many of the best poets, he made a conscious effort to consistently vary prosody; out of the roughly 1100 poems he wrote, he used over eight hundred different meters. He constantly experimented with rhyme, stress, and other poetic tools, making his output perhaps the most diverse of all English poets'. On top of all this, despite being unusually prolific, he was a consummate craftsman, revising poems until they were perfect. Proof of this comes in the astonishing fact that some poems written in his 20s were not published until his last volume, he having toiled over them in intervening decades. One never tires of reading his poems because they constantly shift, keeping things fresh and vigorous. Perhaps even more notably, in striking contrast to nearly all artists in all fields, Hardy never lost his touch, writing consistently great work well into his 80s. Everyone will of course have a favorite among his poetry books, but his last was essentially as good as his first; one would be extraordinarily hard-pressed to find another artist of whom this could be said. W. B. Yeats is the only one who comes to my mind, but he lived significantly less long and was not nearly as prolific. Hardy's poetry is so consistent that no poem stands far above the rest, in great contrast to, say, T. S. Eliot; all are almost equally great. This makes him difficult to anthologize, as there is little to choose by other than subjective favorites, though a handful of poems have acquired near-universal acclaim. A full anthology is thus ideal, making this book an absolute treasure for enthusiasts and even better for novices. Hardy's consistent greatness makes any "Selected Poems" superfluous; even those who have never read him would be better off starting here. This is an imposing brick for neophytes, but they will be glad they invested in it; it will take a long time to read - and even longer to appreciate -, but it will be time very well spent. Besides, anyone who loves the poems will want to keep them forever, returning again and again to favorites and looking from time to time on forgotten ones with pleasant surprise.
Yet Hardy's poetry is not for everyone. His greatness has long ceased to be seriously questioned, but some are turned off by his style and much of his subject matter. It is too much to say that he is a poet one either loves or hates, but it is not hyperbolic to state that those who love him do so near-obsessively while others think him overrated if respectable. Several trademarks are recognizable despite the great variety. Hardy began writing seriously in the mid-Victorian era. Free verse had made major inroads in America and France, but formal poetry was still dominant - and, in England, almost exclusive. He continued writing formal verse though he lived well into the modern era where poets like Ezra Pound and Eliot made non-traditional forms the norm. He was nearly alone in preserving the old guard but did it so well that Pound himself later remarked that no one had taught him anything about writing since Hardy died. Those who prefer modern forms may thus find Hardy old-fashioned, stiff, and formal, though even many who swear by non-traditional poems make an exclusive or near-exclusive exception for him.
Other characteristics exacerbate this tendency. Like many writers of his era, Hardy had little formal education and was essentially self-taught. Also, unlike nearly all writers then, now, and before, he came from a very humble background and was always haunted by social stigma. This comes across even with his constant refining; though technically impeccable, he certainly lacks the formal sweep of liberally educated poets. Thus, somewhat paradoxically, he is too formal for some and not formal enough for others. Exacerbating this last is his heavy use of dialect, surprisingly not so much in dialogue as in narrative. Hardy was steeped in the history, culture, and folklore of his native Southwest England - an area he made world famous as Wessex -, which profoundly influences every aspect of his writing, not least in his near-unequalled sense of place. Those attune to or appreciative of such things will love his work all the more, but those indifferent to them may have hard going, and those who dislike them may be unable to get past them. Additionally, perhaps partly because of his background, Hardy uses many non-dialect terms that may be best called "dictionary words" - often archaic words known to very few and used by almost no one, especially in speech. This would seem pretentious in most writers but clearly came naturally to Hardy. These things make reading his poems somewhat slow and difficult at first, but as usual with such things, they are second nature after a relatively short time. It would truly be a shame if anyone declined to read him because of them. Those familiar with his prose will not have much trouble, as these elements appear in his fiction to a lesser degree. Indeed, despite all this, Hardy is not really obscure; in fact, generally speaking, he is remarkably clear and concise. Unlike many pre-modern poets, he does not revel in allusions, especially classical ones, that are now obscure. Unlike nearly all moderns, he does not revel in allusions that are simply obscure per se. He is notably direct, writing bluntly about subjects of interest to all in plain ways that are far more accessible to most than poetry often is even at its best. This may be the main reason for his enduring popularity.
Finally, though Hardy's doom and gloom reputation is exaggerated because he wrote many light-hearted poems, including a surprising amount of satirical and even simply humorous ones, he does have an unusually high number of dark poems, and the general bleakness of his thought comes through at nearly all times. Those who prefer optimistic literature should certainly look elsewhere - though they will be missing some of the greatest poetry ever written, not to mention much of reality. Conversely, readers interested in Hardy's life and philosophy will be very interested in this aspect, as the poems give great insight into these areas. Hardy frequently said that there is more autobiography in a hundred lines of his poetry than in all his prose, and we can see this in many instances. It is clearest in the famously moving poems about his wife's death but also vivid in those memorializing minor events. However, not all the poems are personal; Hardy is as diverse here as elsewhere. There are many contemporary references, the most famous being a poem about the new century ("The Darkling Thrush," perhaps his greatest work), a Queen Victoria memorial, and some of the finest World War I poems. Their most notable feature is lack of didacticism or any heavy-handedness; even the war poems cannot be called political in the usual sense. Hardy not only strenuously avoided party politics but also repeatedly insisted that poetry should record impressions rather convictions - an important truth forgotten even by greats like William Wordsworth and Alfred Tennyson later in their careers. Thus it is that many of the poems, even some of the most personal, have widely different, even contradictory, views and conclusions. Hardy was unapologetic, well aware how receptive he was to chance and change. Also, like all thinking people, some of his views changed over time - though he was in general remarkably consistent, forming core positions in his 20s and 30s and keeping them through his long life. All this gives his poems a strong sense of verisimilitude and is doubtless a large part of the reason so many identify with them so strongly and intimately.
As for this particular edition, it is ideal for anyone wanting Hardy's collected poems in an inexpensive edition. Aside from the few surviving poems Hardy did not want published, everything is here except his long verse dramas The Dynasts and The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall. Though very popular and highly regarded in his life, especially the former, these are now considered well below the works included here and are somewhat hard to find. The dedicated will certainly want to seek them out, especially after reading this, but their inclusion would have swelled the book to unmanageable size. The exclusion is no major loss at any rate, and there is certainly enough here for anyone. However, those who want a deluxe edition may be unsatisfied; like all Wordsworth publications, this is meant for general readers who do not want to spend much. The value is simply incredible for what is included, but devotees and nitpickers may miss a few things. There is an excellent editorial introduction but no footnotes. Hardy's obscure vocabulary and plethora of local references makes this last an occasional pain, but a glossary greatly alleviates the former, even if more than a few words that should be there are absent. Title and first line indices make browsing easy, and the print, unlike some other Wordsworth omnibuses, is quite large. Lack of line numbers will bother some but will not be a problem for most. The binding is not on par with more expensive editions' but is very good for the price; my copy has held up almost perfectly over years of frequent browsing.
All told, this is essential for anyone who loves Hardy's poetry or is curious about it. This last should include anyone who likes English poetry, especially from the Victorian era, and fans of Hardy's fiction. It would be hard to find even an anthology containing many poets that has more greatness and variety than this - and we cannot but be in awe when we see this is the work of one man. Fans already know it well, and it is hard to believe others will not after reading.