You are here:   Civilisation >  Critique > Eliot versus Hardy
 

This time, though, no one thought of sending his poems back to him. Writers returning from the war, such as Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and T. E. Lawrence, admired and paid court to him. So did the half-crazy American expatriate Ezra Pound, who had settled in London and wrote warmly to Hardy about his work, adding for the recipient's perusal two of his own recent publications. (According to Michael Millgate's biography, Hardy responded to these gifts with "polite discretion": "I will not try to express my appreciation of their contents," he wrote, "as I am a very slow reader; & as, moreover, your muse asks for considerable deliberation in estimating her.") By contrast, T. S. Eliot, the other expatriate American poet who had recently settled in London, and whose fame as a poet was soon to outstrip not only that of Pound but Hardy's too, had greeted the older man's fictions with an unmistakable chilliness. Admitting that at times Hardy wrote "overpoweringly well" (though without offering any illustration of what he meant by this, which by and large was unlike his usual practice), Eliot went on to condemn Hardy's novels for what he insisted they stood for: i.e. "extreme emotionalism", "passion for its own sake", and "decadence". He also lumped Hardy together with D. H. Lawrence in order to say that both men might have been better poets had they not devoted so much of their energies to the novel. 

These remarks appear in After Strange Gods, a short series of lectures Eliot delivered in the US in the early 1930s, which the author himself later withdrew from circulation. Inasmuch as these lectures are remembered today, it is probably because of the speaker's generous warning to his audience against the "danger" of admitting any large number of "free-thinking Jews" into "the society that we desire". (This within a year of Hitler's coming to power.) What is more to the point in the context of Hardy's work, however, is to say how extraordinary it now seems that, while writing in generally derogatory terms about Hardy's fiction, Eliot managed to say not a word about his verse. For him, apparently, it simply didn't exist, though by then Hardy, who had died just a few years before the lectures were delivered, had been an established figure on the British poetry "scene" for some 30 years. Instead, on the subject of Hardy in general Eliot offered this kind of comment: 

The later work of Thomas Hardy is an interesting example of a powerful personality uncurbed by any institutional attachment or by submission to any objective beliefs; unhampered by any ideas, or even by what sometimes acts as a partial restraint upon inferior writers, the desire to please a large public. He seems to have written as nearly for the sake of ‘self-expression' as a man well can; and the self which he had to express does not strike me as a particularly wholesome or edifying matter of communication. He was indifferent even to the prescripts of good writing; he wrote sometimes overpoweringly well, but always very carelessly...

And so the passage goes on, until it winds up in a manner characteristic of much of Eliot's criticism at this period of his life, with a general condemnation of Hardy's appeal to "[a] majority...capable neither of strong emotion nor of strong resistance..." and which imagines "passion to be the surest evidence of vitality. This in itself may go towards accounting for [his] popularity."

It is difficult not to believe that Eliot's harshness here arose, in part at least, from Hardy's tenacious rejection of religious belief in any form. (Notice, among much else, the flat, meaningless phrase about the older writer's indifference to "the prescripts of good writing" or to "any objective beliefs", as though his readers would be bound to know exactly what meaning such phrases were supposed to bear.) It is also difficult to resist the conviction that in adopting this tone in talking about Hardy, Eliot was in some degree led by a snobbery of a particular kind: i.e. the snobbery of one arriviste grown supremely confident of his capacity to dispose of another. The lectures in After Strange Gods were delivered a few years after Hardy's death. By that time, his verse had been widely in circulation for about three decades, yet, incredibly, none of it seems in Eliot's judgment to have deserved so much as a mention. 

View Full Article
 
Share/Save
 
 
 
 
Mark Richardson
November 19th, 2010
2:11 AM
Very well done. Hardy's body of work as a poet from about 1912 through 1928 is the best of the period, I believe, and more thoroughly "modern" in its thinking (as against its style) than any other poet besides, perhaps, Frost. Eliot, take him all in all, pales by comparison. He was never modern in his thinking, and though the stylistic innovations are interesting & "modern-ist," well, there's a certain psychosexual pathology to the early poems ("female smells in shuttered rooms," etc.), a marked note of misogyny, and then the problems of such things as "After Strange Gods." One small point I'd add to the following remark: "This little poem is simply yet mysteriously called "Waiting Both".... The mystery clears a bit when we acknowledge what "change" means, here, and that Hardy is borrowing the essential phrase in the poem from the book of Job (14:14): "If a man die, shall he live again? all the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come." Cf.: http://eraofcasualfridays.net/2009/09/27/waiting-both-t-hardy/ Mark Richardson

Post your comment

CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.