Eliot versus Hardy

Thomas Hardy and T.S. Eliot are the two greatest 20th-century poets in the English language, despite what they may have thought of one another. It is remarkable that the readers of Hardy’s fiction remain unaware that his poems are far more affecting than any of his novels

Academia Critique Literature Publishing
Powerful personality: Thomas Hardy in 1910

Thomas Hardy has always been much better known as a novelist than as a poet. This is hardly surprising. Novels are generally easier to read than poems (nursery rhymes aside), and are able to survive translation into other languages more plausibly than poetry ever can. For much the same reasons, novels lend themselves to adaptation into stage-plays, musicals, and movies more readily than the general complexity of verse-forms would ever permit. All that said, it is remarkable that so many readers of Hardy’s fiction — who must still be numbered in tens of thousands all over the English-speaking world — are so little aware of his achievements as a poet. Yet it is Hardy as a poet that I intend to write about here, and I do so for the most direct of reasons: namely, that I find the best of his poems far more affecting than any of his fictions. 

To say that is not simply to dismiss him as a novelist: his most famous novels — among which I would include Far From the Madding Crowd, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure — will always deserve to find responsive readers. Yet my conviction of his greatness as a writer springs essentially from what he wrote as a poet, rather than as a novelist. I have no doubt that the two greatest 20th-century poets in the English language were Hardy and T. S. Eliot — however little either man might have cared to have his name and work yoked with the other’s. 

I do not think it merely perverse to speak of Hardy as a “20th-century poet”. His novels were all written and published during the 19th century, with the last of them, Jude the Obscure, published in 1895. Yet it was only after attempting to begin his career as a writer by sending poems to several of the journals of the day, and having had them duly rejected by the editors of those journals, that he turned with much greater success to the writing of fiction. Throughout his subsequent career as a novelist, however, he continued to accumulate poems and drafts of poems. He was later to say that it had been the howls of outrage that greeted Jude the Obscure — on the grounds of the novel’s supposed obscenity — that had led him to abandon fiction writing. Yet, given his persistence in continuing to write poems “in secrecy” (his wife’s phrase, purportedly, but widely believed to be his own) in the 30 years between the publication of his first novel and his last, one must wonder whether or not he made the change when he did because he felt that time was running out on him, and that if he failed to gather his poems together and publish them in the manner that he thought best, then the opportunity might be lost forever. 

His first appearance as a poet before the British public was with a volume called Wessex Poems and Other Verses (1898), just three years before the death of Queen Victoria. From then on, there was to be no stopping him. By the time he died in 1928, just a few months short of his 88th birthday, he had published hundreds upon hundreds of poems: lyrics, love-songs and little squibs; ballads, sonnets, and drinking songs; poems on public issues and events such as the sinking of the Titanic and the outbreak and ending of wars in South Africa (1899-1902) and Europe (1914-1918); tributes to other poets such as Shakespeare, Shelley and Keats; as well as extended dramatic pieces of a type that are almost impossible to define — the longest of these being “The Dynasts”, the mammoth poem about the Napoleonic Wars which was eventually published in three separate parts. Constantly writing and rewriting, discarding, elaborating and returning to the stock of poems accumulated during his adult life, he had in late middle-age effectively begun what amounted to a second career — which, in its public aspect, lasted for almost as long as his career as a novelist. 

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. 

Hardy himself never commented publicly on Eliot’s work, though according to his biographers, he did copy some passages from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” into his notebook, as an example of the “free verse” he reprobated in conversation. English social life being what it was (and in some respects still is), it would seem that Hardy never fully recovered from the humiliation of having had a cultivated mother, whom he loved greatly, employed as a domestic servant in other people’s households and a father who had earned his living as a stonemason. Like his fictional character, Jude, Hardy was tormented in his youth and later by the conviction that his own and his family’s lowly social status had denied him many advantages: the chief of these, perhaps, being the opportunity to get into Oxford. Yet for all he could know, and for all we will ever know, and certainly for all that Eliot ever knew, that enforced escape from Oxford may have been the making of him as an artist. The supposed absence from his life of “institutional attachment” or “objective beliefs” notwithstanding.


Wyndham Lewis’s 1938 portrait of T.S. Eliot 

In Hardy’s verse, as in his prose, there is never any intimation of a supernatural world that can be reached or should be striven for beyond the common, earthly one that all humans inhabit. The “objective belief” that Hardy clung to throughout his life was that while we bring to the world a variety of passions which help to determine our fates, overall our lives remain governed by a mixture of choice, chance and temporal succession, from which there is no escape and to which we ultimately have to submit as stoically as we can. For  Hardy, it is precisely the sense of a remorseless, blind successiveness ultimately governing all human (and animal) experience that makes so heartbreaking the crucially significant moments that many of his poems describe. Such moments may change our lives at a stroke, yet whatever their origin or outcome may be, they remain indifferent to both our hopes and inclinations and are incapable of responding to the meanings we impute to them or may try to take from them. Indeed, in large part it is our sense of their inscrutability, their “out-of-reachness”, that helps to make these moments as significant to us as they are.

Strangely enough, it is precisely in this connection that one can find a similarity of sorts between Eliot and Hardy: which is to say that they are both preoccupied with the unpredictability of whatever moments of illumination may come our way, and hence with the consequences they may bring in their wake. Given the differences between the two men in background, character, taste, belief, modes of versification and habits of mind, they obviously express this preoccupation in different ways and draw different conclusions from what any such visitation might suggest. Nevertheless their openness to this kind of experience does make them brothers of a kind. Both men are obsessed with what Hardy called “the quality of time”. Hence, as poets, they share not only a capacity to describe in their verse moments that they feel to have been of a truly transfiguring intensity, but also the compulsion to try to relate such moments with “the waste sad time stretching before and after”, as Eliot calls it, with a note of both despair and dismissiveness that is special to him, and which is seldom heard even in the most melancholy of Hardy’s poems. 

Glum and despairing the latter’s poems often are — at times even half-comically so, like a child kicking at a bedstead; and all the poet’s invocations to God, the Fates, the Spirits, the Immanent Will, Voices from the Graveyard and countless other such capitalised Presences, cannot conceal from the reader that references of this kind are never to be taken literally. Rather, they are no more than the words the poet uses to reveal our incapacities: never a mode of actually calling in aid the processes that are forever going  about their business around us, and of which we are, willy-nilly, a part. Whereas Eliot — certainly in what can be called his devotional poetry — writes out of hope and expectation, and seldom does so with more intensity than when he actually chides himself for daring to hope and expect: 

I said to my soul, be still, and wait
                               without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong                   
                   thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong 
                   thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope  
                       are all in the waiting…

At this point, I should confess that my enthusiasm for Hardy’s poems came as a relatively late discovery, whereas I was simply overwhelmed by my first unaided attempt to read something of Eliot’s. That event (I felt it to be nothing less than an event, at the time) took place in the library of the Witwatersrand University, Johannesburg, when I came on two lines from his “Whispers of Immortality” in Poems: 1920:  “And breastless creatures under ground/ Leaned backward with a lipless grin” — a sequence of phrases that made it impossible for me to continue sitting at my desk. Instead, I found myself wandering about the lawn, trying to get over what I had just read. I realise now that much of the power of the lines springs largely from their extraordinary assimilation of life and death to one another: the skeletons “lean backward”, like people exchanging jokes in a pub or at a party. But how can they behave in that fashion, given the loss and ruin they have already suffered? And to what end do they do it? From that moment I was hooked, a devotee, compelled for decades afterwards to have unbidden lines and entire verses from one Eliot poem or another constantly passing through my head at random moments, as if nothing would ever be able to banish them. By comparison, Hardy — inasmuch as I knew his verse — struck me as something of a simpleton, a bumpkin, a striker-off of jingles, of tortuous rhymes and phrases, an eager deliverer of solemn queries masquerading as deep thought.

Since then, my feeling about the two poets has gone through something akin to a revolution. It is plain to me still that many ineffective or sub-standard poems are included in Hardy’s Collected Poems — something that cannot be said about the roughly comparable volumes by Eliot, which are much more finely winnowed. However, while remaining convinced that the best of Eliot’s work will continue to be read as far into the future as anyone might care to guess, I now believe that Hardy, who was happy to declare that “all we can do is write on the old themes in the old styles”, and who described critics as “parasites no less noxious than autograph hunters”, is ultimately the more rewarding of the two poets. The combination in Eliot’s early verse of bravura and desolation, of high spirits and self-doubt, of sexual humility and moral hauteur, of snobbery and self-abnegation — not to speak of the plaiting together of all these moods and appetites, and others, with a hunger for both religious certitude and public success — was indeed revolutionary, as many critics in succeeding generations were eager to declare. (Though never quite in the terms I have just used.) And in the meantime, though his life on earth was long since over, Hardy’s verse seemed to plod on indomitably, occasionally striking his readers with a fine line here and a worse one there, while all too often revealing the author’s remarkable gift for never seeming to know the difference between these two possibilities. 

What I did not notice in Hardy’s poetry then, or dismissed glibly because it seemed to me so deliberately “unsmart”, was how much steel there is in it. Nor did I pick up on its tenderness. Or its proud and close attention to detail. Or the poet’s singular capacity, almost as if he were working in filigree, to create a sense of surprise and elevation by way of both his most elaborate and his most humble-seeming rhymes and rhythms; as he did also with the patterns constantly being drawn and redrawn on the page by the varying lengths of his lines. Yes, there are failures and absurdities in the poems — how could anyone deny it? — but they are more than balanced by utterances that fuse the speaker, the reader and the people figured in the poems into a unity from which none of them can escape. And from which they would not wish to escape, if only they knew themselves better.

Woman much missed how you call to me,         
                                           call to me, 
Saying that now you are not as you were 
When you had changed from the one      
                           who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.
Can it be you that I hear? Let me view     
                                        you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the          
                                            town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I               
                                  knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown…

The subtlety of the versification is extraordinary, from the urgency of the opening line to the see-saw grammatical complexity of the next three, which force the reader to ravel out, as the speaker himself is doing, the wavering flow and recoil of the fractured relationship between the two lovers. All of which brings in its tow the speaker’s recollection of something that appears at first to be descriptive merely — though in that line, in that single, astonishing phrase (“Even to the original air-blue gown”), the poet has once more recreated the intensity and evanescence of the relationship they had shared. Air-blue? In that place, at that moment in the poem, the line is masterful, and I would never trust the ear or sensibility of anyone who thought it merely just another instance of Hardy’s proneness to strange locutions. 

That poem, entitled simply “The Voice”, is surely one of the better-known among the long sequence of memorial poems Hardy wrote after the death of his first wife. It goes on for a further two stanzas, with the last of these following a different rhythm and rhyme-scheme to those preceding it. Yet the note of distress in the six syllables of the last line of the poem (which reads simply, “And the woman calling”) does more than repeat in compressed form the first line of the poem; it leaves the speaker with no way out of his loss. The woman’s voice, and with it the sense of his own failure, will accompany him wherever he goes. However, to indicate in the briefest possible compass the range of tones to be heard in Hardy’s verse, I will offer a remarkably short, witty poem which is hardly known at all, but which will, I hope, add some weight to my remark about “the steel” that is seldom entirely absent from his verse. This little poem is simply yet mysteriously called “Waiting Both”:

A star looks down at me,
And says, ‘Here I and you
Stand, each in his degree: 
What do you mean to do, —
          Mean to do?’

I say: ‘For all I know,
Wait, and let Time go by,
Till my change come.’-‘Just so,’
The star says. ‘So mean I: —
                So mean I.’

It is a funny yet chilling little affair: that much cannot be denied. Having read the two verses, we are left in no doubt as to which of the two speakers in the poem is going to far outlast the other. How then, as both comedy and warning, is it to be rated when compared with some of Eliot’s sinister-jocular lines: with, say, this largely unpunctuated exchange from “Fragment of an Agon”? 

SWEENEY: I know a man once did a girl    
                                                   in.
Any man might do a girl in
Any man has to, needs to, wants to
Once in a lifetime, do a girl in
Well he kept her there in a bath
With a gallon of lysol in a bath
SWARTS: These fellows always get pinched in the end.

SNOW: Excuse me, they don’t all get
                      pinched in the end.
What about them bones on Epsom  
                                      Heath?
I seen that in the papers
They don’t all get pinched in the end…

Given the differences between them, any attempt at a direct comparison between the two passages would be implausible; yet no one would wish to deny the power of the machine-gun rat-tat-tat of Sweeney’s assertion of what any man has to, needs to, wants to, once in a lifetime “do” with a troublesome partner. Yet, to my taste, “Waiting Both” is the funnier of the two passages, and the more grown up — and much the grimmer, too.


Rewriter: A draft of “The Waste Land”