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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: May 2011

24 - Thomas Hardy

Summary

William Empson held views on modern poetry’s stylized discontinuities when expected to perform a Matthew Arnold-like ‘application of ideas to life’ (II, p. 320). In a review of The Waste Land manuscripts, he identifies a Dickensian thread: ‘but then, if Eliot was imitating Dickens, he was bound to scold … The difference is that Dickens had a plot, which allowed him to show adequate reasons for his scolding … but to scold without even a residual plot, as a Symbolist, is bound to feel self-regarding.’ Among Victorian novelists who combined scolding with plot was Thomas Hardy, who published his sixth poetry collection, Late Lyrics and Earlier (1922), in the same year T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land first appeared. Born in 1840, Hardy was largely shaped in his poetic tastes by Palgrave’s Golden Treasury (1861). On 12 August 1895, he wrote to Florence Henniker that ‘A good book for carrying on a long journey is the G. Treasury – as it contains so much in a small compass.’ Hardy’s Collected Poems (1930), published in a fourth edition two years after his death, follows the anthology in its miscellany of light songs, sonnets, ballads both lyrical and narrative, love-poems, and elegies, its mixing of dialect, folk, literary, private, public, and historical materials. Bringing fictional skills, learned in part from balladry and folk song, to the writing of poetry, Hardy might exemplify Empson’s preferred poetics. Why then did Empson not admire the poet more?

Reviewing a selection of Hardy’s poetry in 1940, Empson expresses irritation at the ‘flat contradictions’ of the philosophy, dwelling upon his ‘complacence’, his seeing ‘no need to try and reconcile the contradictions’. This was ‘the same complacence which could be satisfied with a clumsy piece of padding to make a lyric out of a twaddling reflection’. He speculates that Hardy ‘needed this quality to win through as he did. Most people who are admired for “unpretentious integrity” have it.’ We can enjoy the good (‘you want their honesty and find their beauty’) because the poet had to produce the padded ones.

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