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.