Thomas Hardy: Biography - Victorian Novelist & Poet

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      Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) were best known as novelists, but his poetical works also demand respectful attention. Thomas Hardy is both a poet and novelist. His novels belong to the Victorian era. The Victorian intellectual quarrel over the theory of evolution induced in Hardy a tragic vision of life. It is interesting to know how much nineteenth century poetry lost because of the dominance of the novel as a literary form.

The Victorian intellectual quarrel over the theory of evolution induced in Hardy a tragic vision of life.
Thomas Hardy

Biographical Sketch of Thomas Hardy and Influences on Him

A Mason’s Son

      Deep and profound is the influence of Hardy’s early life on his works. He was born on June 2, 1840, at Upper Bock-Hampton, near Dorchester. He was the son of a builder and he himself practiced architecture in his early life for some time, so he received a mixed culture, in which precise notions, the sense of volumes, and of equilibrium of an architect are joined to a process of artistic refining. This fact has a lasting influence over the plots of his novels. He builds his novels as a mason builds a house. The string of every part is calculated, every stone has its place, every crumb of mortar bears its part. The creative work of Hardy is governed by a powerful logic—the logic of events infinitely deal, never moving by the tenth part of a millimeter from its appointed sequence. “The broad sweep of design” goes hand in hand with strict accuracy in detail. Nothing, not even the slightest part is neglected and forgotten. The ends of the final issues in Hardy’s stories are foregone conclusions. The things and circumstances being as they are, the results will be as they must be. No trait of Hardy’s work is so marked as this and none is so impressive. Of all the great writers of English novel he alone has in equal proportions, great gifts of imagination (for the poetic treatment of his subject matter) and extraordinary power of invention (of events and characters).

His Native Place is in the Lap of Nature

      The second important fact is that Upper Bock-Hampton near Dorchester in the neighborhood of which he has lived a retired and secluded life for practically the whole of his long and busy life, is situated in the lap of Nature. He was an imaginative lad, so impressions received of nature in his early life stamped his work later on. ‘‘Nature” in his novels is very important. It is not just the background in his drama but a leading character in it. Sometimes it exercises an active influence on the course of events: more often it is a spiritual agent, colouring the mood and shaping the disposition of human beings.

A Dweller of Countryside

      He lived among the “Sons of Earth” and he described the “Sons of Earth.” He simply could not choose successfully “men from the madding crowd” as his protagonists (chief characters). His characters are country-bred. His characters are plebeian, agricultural people rooted in the soil. Moreover, just as countryside is sparsely populated, similarly his canvas is not crowded with a large number of characters. Again, the calm and quiet atmosphere of rural life also prevails in his books.

Influence of Village Culture

      His stories contain in themselves relics of popular English superstitions which played so large a role in the stories he listened around the fire in the long winter evenings. And the ballad stories heard there left their mark too. Village humour that he enjoyed among the rustic folk permeates his novels.

His Surroundings

      His pessimism, for which he is so often blamed, is also simply an outcome of the impressions that he received of villagers’ life in his early life. There was plenty of tragedy in the life of the poverty-stricken Wessex-folk. Dependent and ignorant, exposed alike to the oppressions of the social system and the caprice of weather and “The President of the Immortals,” at every moment of their life the people, among whom Hardy lived and was brought up, were made conscious of man’s hopelessness in the face of circumstances. So he happened to entertain a perverse view of God and His ways. He believes firmly that circumstances are more powerful than human beings are and chance in its purely malevolent aspect enters our life so often and spoils its charm. Further, he believes, life is not worth-living because it is so full of sorrows and sufferings, trials and tribulations, pain and agony. For him “Happiness is but an occasional episode in the general drama of human pain and suffering.”

His Wessex

      In the end we must record another aspect of his early life that left its mark upon his works. The place where he lived, rural Dorset is a remote place and it was more remote in the early years of the nineteenth century that it is now. Feudal and sequestered, centering round church and village inn and Squire’s manor house, its life little touched by the changes of the great world revolved in the same slow rhythm as for hundreds of past years. The region is full of the smoldering relics of by-gone ages. And he has a sensitive, brooding imagination that loves to play over the past. Its outcome is the land of his invention, Wessex, that he had dealt with in so masterly a manner that it has become an immortal region, in the “Realms of Novel.”

      First impressions of a writer are the most fundamental and the most durable. They cast their deep shadow over his works and this dictum is far more true in case of Hardy, the novelist.

Thomas Hardy as a Novelist

      Thomas Hardy's novels are tinged with pessimism and present striking similarities with the French naturalistic writings of Flaubert and Zola. Hardy published his first novel Desperate Remedies in 1871, and from that year until the appearance of Jude de Obscure in 1895, he produced novels regularly of which the most memorable are Far from the Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Woodlander and Tess de Urberville. Jude de Obscure is his last novel which came in for harsh and bitter criticism for its alleged immorality and pessimism. Hardy gave up novel-writing and took to poetry again.

      An architect by profession, he gives to his novels a design that is architectural, employing each circumstance in the narrative to one cumulative effect. The most important contribution of Hardy to English novel is that he gives to the novel a philosophy of life, a philosophy which is made of pessimism, fatalism and realism. George Eliot, George Meredith and Thomas Hardy are distinctly modern and their common keyword is truth inner truth scientifically interpreted. Against a background of village and moorland that is conceived accurately and in spiritual harmony with the action, they show us living people stripped to the very soul, wrestling with the great problems and temptation of the age. Hardy is a realist to the extent of seeing and representing the facts of life as they are and he is an idealist to the extent of going to the significance of facts; he is a psychologist because he shows through the incidents the gradual interplay of his characters.

      He shows us Nature in its grim destructive aspects, shows us men in their relations to the pitiless and powerful forces of nature. Hardy's vision is essentially tragic. He looks upon men and women driven by a blind and cruel destiny and laid low by the forces which they cannot resist. He indicates the disintegration ot Agrarian economy and the rise of industrialism and its accompanying evils. He shows us men and women driven by the relentless forces in this mechanistic universe. Nature is not the 'kind mother of Wordsworth, it is cruel and malignant. This view of Nature is due to the influence of Darwinism. However, he is not a pessimist - he has faith in the goodness and heroism of men and women. He is a meliorist. But his heroes and heroines are ennobled by the fight with these forces. They are fine delicate spirits worn out by the struggle with adverse destiny. Hardy has never lost faith in humanity. Moreover, he presents life and nature in a close-knit dramatic structure of the novel. In the coherence of structure, easy flow of the narrative, depth of characterisation with realistic details, beauty of landscape painting, wealth of language and profound philosophy of life, Hardy makes a momentous contribution to the English novel.

      Hardy's contribution to the English novel is unique. He presents in his novel a new aspect of contemporary life. He stood in revolt against the conventional life of the age. He denounces the whole of modern civilization which has created so many problems in the lives of the dwellers of the towns. Civilization produces moral prigs, theorists, artificial and complex types of humanity. In deliberate reaction against this, he took up for his themes the lives of the lowly, humble rustics, who live far from the madding crowd. He is, indeed, the first of the English novelists to choose English peasant types for the heroes and heroines in the series of his masterpieces. The scenes of his novels are laid in a primitive corner of England, where civilization has not yet made its appearance. For this region he has revived the ancient name of 'Wessex' and he has recreated it partly as a land of the imagination.

      Thomas Hardy spent the greater part of his life in this region and studied it with the scientific precision of an antiquarian and the imaginative enthusiasm of a poet. In his novels he has given to 'airy nothings' a local habitation and a name. Dorset was the centre of this region and it was extremely conservative and backward, scarcely touched by the industrial revolution which had transformed the midlands and the north of England. Wessex is a country of sleepy old towns and secluded villages, where traditional customs, manners and beliefs still prevailed.

      Thus it is a romantic idyllic life that Hardy represents in his charming romances. Agriculture is the main occupation of the people. It is the focus of the lives of the rustics. The men and women of the place are essentially the children of the soil untouched by the faintest sprinkle of civilization. If civilization sometimes encroaches there in the persons of Troy, Farfare, Wildeve etc. It produces disasters in the lives of the people. These people are simple-minded, old-fashioned, ignorant and superstitious. Theirs is a robust vitality unimpaired by the disease of thought, which is the product of civilization. They live a life of instinct rather than of thought. They love, hate, drink, chatter, suffer without protest and die calmly. They live on the whole of self-satisfied life; their hopes and ambitions do not run high; they little rebel against circumstances and their resignation to fate is characteristic. This is the idyllic picture of the life of the primitive children of the soil that emerges from the novels of Hardy. Indeed, Hardy has accepted and executed in his novels the same programme that Wordsworth had undertaken in his poetry, namely to choose incidents and situations from humble and rustic life and at the same time to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, so as to make them more appealing than reality.

Thomas Hardy as a Poet

      Thomas Hardy is not a philosophical poet as Meredith. He began as a poet, but his earlier verse found no publisher. He resumed writing verse with the turn of the century after a successful career as a novelist from 1874 to 1896. Harsh and bitter criticism of his last novel Jude the Obscure (1896) turned his attention again to poetry which he continued to write till his death. As a matter of fact, Hardy the novelist belonged to the Victorian age, but his poetry belonged to the twentieth century. As his volumes of poetry came one after another, his reputation as a poet began to challenge his reputation as a novelist. The fact is that Hardy himself prizes his poetry more than his novels. To be a poet and to devote his whole life to poetry was Hardy's desire from early days and in "later life he spoke with the utmost patience of those who insisted on regarding him as a novelist rather than as a poet." (Scott James) In reality Hardy the poet and Hardy the novelist are one and the same personality. A unity of temperament is discernible in his novels and poetry. A poetic vision inspires all his novels.

      Hardy's poetical works are included in Wessex Poems (1898), Poems of the Past and Present (1902), Time's Laughing Stocks (1909), Satires of Circumstance (1914) and Moments of Vision (1917). He wrote epic drama in three volumes, The Dynasts (1904-1908). His Wessex Poems manifest the same characteristics as the novels. Hardy's people are elemental beings, thwarted by the irony of circumstance. Evolutionary thought that provided Meredith with the comic view of life evoked the tragic view of life from the sensitive Hardy. Hardy concentrates on the tragic waste in the Darwinian struggle of survival. Hap typifies Hardy's tragic despair at the impersonal universe. Nature's Questioning is Hardy's questioning of Nature in the light of Darwinism. In the Poems of the Past and the Present are included such poems as August Midnight, The Darkling Thrush, God-forgotten, Tess's Lament, etc. Time's Laughing Stocks is strong in short narratives contemplating the sad, ironic fate of man. In Moments of Vision is included the poem. ln Time of the Breaking of Nations which is known as one of the great poems. Human love and human labour will always continue long after the memories of war have vanished.
      Hardy has a tragic vision of life. Man is the plaything of a blind and cruel destiny. But Hardy always brings out the splendour of human spirit that suffers humbly or rebelliously the caprices of a cruel power. In his poetry he is responsive to the beauties of Nature and life. Many of his short lyrics breathe a spirit of joy. In The Darkling Thrush, the poet is pleasantly surprised by the carol of sweet sounds amidst the gloom of Nature. His short lyrics show also his poetic craftsmanship. In his poems, "beauty springs from the powerful concentration, the economy of words, the severe choice of epithets and images, from a vocabulary rough and singularly rich in association." But his poetry sometimes suffers from strained rhythm and uninspired language. Sometimes he sinks to a flatness which is irritating. Like Wordsworth Hardy is most unequal as a poet. Hardy's The Dynasts is the vastest poetical work of modern times. It describes Napoleon's struggle against Europe, combining historical realism with the symbolism of a new mythology.

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