Thomas Hardy: Victorian Novelist and 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

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. Harsn 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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