Philip Larkin on the life of his greatest influence, Thomas Hardy

Larkin piece republished on the anniversary of Hardy's death.

“Most English writers have been only too glad to get out of the working class, if they have had the misfortune to be born in it.” In his 1975 review of Robert Gittings’s Young Thomas Hardy, Larkin maps out the many traps laid for any would-be Hardy biographer, with characteristic morbidity:

These are hazardous times for Hardy biographers. The bonfires are still burning at the bottom of Max Gate garden, letters, diaries, photographs, notebooks (“he, she, all of them — aye”), and the ascending smoke assumes lurid shapes, like gargoyles, or foetuses in bottles.

He holds forth on popular disputes around Hardy’s life and conduct: unacknowledged children, incest, class, frigidity, the estate – justifying his acknowledged status as the inheritor of the Hardy's school of poetry, in which quotidian provincial life is transmuted into gruelling, philosophically downbeat lyric poetry.

Legend has it Thomas Hardy kept a copy of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations on his bedside table. Philip Larkin in turn kept a copy of Hardy. Each has attempted to “embrace” death in their work; to emphatically convey that nobody will be remembered, and nothing will survive, and that in times of crisis – this can be of comfort.

Hardy died on 11 January 1928. He was eighty-seven. His ashes were interred at Westminster Abbey, alongside Edmund Spenser, Aphra Behn and Matthew Arnold. But his heart, as he uncannily foretold in his poem “In death divided” – “I shall rot here, with those whom in their day / You never knew” – remains in his beloved Dorchester, interred beside Emma Lavinia Gifford, his first wife, about whom Larkin writes:

Hardy thought Emma was an intelligent and well-read woman, which she wasn't, and Emma took Hardy for a successful London professional man, which he wasn't either. It is hard to know who got the worst of it.

The Puddletown Martyr
Philip Larkin

Young Thomas Hardy by Robert Gittings
Heinemann, £4.95

These are hazardous times for Hardy biographers. The bonfires are still burning at the bottom of Max Gate garden, letters, diaries, photographs, notebooks (“he, she, all of them — aye”), and the ascending smoke assumes lurid shapes, like gargoyles, or foetuses in bottles. The little old gentleman with the light waistcoat and auctioneer's hat puts away his bicycle and trots in for luncheon with the Prince of Wales, but behind him innumerable dark trees thresh and ply, moaning of concealment, of betrayal, of domestic Sophoclean atrocities. “What has Providence done to Mr Hardy,” demanded Edmund Gosse as long ago as 1896, “that he should rise up in the arable land of Wessex and shake his fist at his Creator?” The last ten years have brought grim guesses in reply: births unregistered, parentages unacknowledged, speechless agonies in the eweleaze under the pitiless sun. The Life (for “Speaking generally, there is more autobiography in a hundred lines of Mr Hardy's poetry than in all the novels”) has been invaded by the Works.

Faced with the long and blameless senescence, the scrupulous destruction of private papers, the Chinese wall of the pretended biography, the Hardy biographer can take one of two courses: he can either treat the row of serene volumes as an explosive enigma, a kind of large-scale Sonnets from which a human anecdote must be construed, or he can turn investigator, a tracer of unpublished letters, a searcher of the records of long-closed schools and hospitals, a visitor of museums and registries. Dr Gittings elects the second: “The only true method is to start from the facts of the life itself.” Only then can sober consideration begin.

Eschewing sensationalism, Dr Gittings opens on the theme of class — less on its obvious manifestations in Tess and Jude than with an interesting account of how Hardy stealthily withdrew from his family background. In the Life he either upgrades the status of his relatives or omits them altogether; in a genealogical table he constructed in his old age his own branch of the family (“Hardy had about thirty first cousins”) was left virtually blank. At his first wedding his wife's family was represented but his was not: afterwards, her relations came to stay but his did not. Gittings does not bother to explode the legend of a reluctant Hardy dragged into Society by his wife (indeed, this belongs several decades later than 1876, when the present volume ends), but his case that Hardy was determined to get away from “the people who toiled and suffered” might have been strengthened by doing so. (It is salutary to remember that Hardy first met Mrs Henniker at the Vice-regal Lodge in Dublin in 1893, and dined with her husband the Major in the Guards’ Mess, St James's, in the following year.) Gittings thinks that by The Hand of Ethelberta “the note of social protest, which had begun with The Poor Man and the Lady, is virtually dropped”. To this deracination he ascribes some of the stress and turmoil of the later novels, not altogether convincingly: most English writers have been only too glad to get out of the working class, if they have had the misfortune to be born in it. But it is amusing that someone who wrote “all things merge in one another — good into evil, generosity into justice [etc.]” should have been so keen to avoid merging with his awful Puddletown relatives.

Gittings deals fairly with the first marriage, and with Emma. He rejects the notion, entertained by Hardy and disseminated by his second wife, that there was madness in Emma's family: her eldest brother certainly died in an asylum, but of Bright's disease. With her life-long energy and high spirits she was, according to Gittings, a perpetual adolescent. He also points out, shrewdly, that both parties were deceived in each other: Hardy thought Emma was an intelligent and well-read woman, which she wasn't, and Emma took Hardy for a successful London professional man, which he wasn't either. It is hard to know who got the worst of it. Emma's eccentricities and overbearing manner must have been gall to Hardy, but she had to endure his poems to other women and to discover “that this obsessive, complicated, brooding mind could be unconsciously insensitive and accidentally cruel”.

Gittings also accords a central position to Horace Moule, the first of Hardy's two mentors (the second was Leslie Stephen). Moule, who had attended both Oxford and Cambridge, was Hardy's university, telling him what to read and how to write; indeed, if Gittings offers a reply to Gosse's question, it is Moule's alcoholism, illegitimate child, and suicide that he names:

The certainty is that, from the time of the death of Moule, Hardy never portrayed a man who was not, in some way, maimed by fate . . . we can date the emergence of Hardy as a fully tragic artist, an expounder of life's true miseries, from the suicide of his friend, and the appalling revealed ironies of that personal history.

The existence of the illegitimate child apparently rests on the authority of the second Mrs Hardy, who told R L Purdy about it in 1933. One wonders if it is more firmly founded in fact than Emma's in-heritance of madness. Gittings also brings forward Moule's successor in Hardy's life, Leslie Stephen, who acted as American-style editor to Far From the Madding Crowd (“Muttering to himself in the manner pilloried by his talented daughter in To the Lighthouse, he would go through the manuscript scribbling in its margins and some-times all over it”). It was Stephen who gave Hardy his poetic credo in a sentence that is really all anyone needs to know about writing poetry:

The ultimate aim of the poet should be to touch our hearts by showing his own, and not to exhibit his learning, or his fine taste, or his skill in mimicking the notes of his predecessors.

One is grateful to Dr Gittings for his meticulous research (who would have dreamed that Hardy had “a walk-on part in The Forty Thieves at Covent Garden”?) and for his considered judgments, but at the same time a certain disappointment must be registered. The picture of Hardy that he draws — a prosaic, undecided, somewhat devious young man concerned to rise in Society — hardly squares with the poignant perception of even his earliest work. One asks sometimes whether he really likes Hardy: his first chapter repeats the view that the crypto-autobiography is dull. Since the greater part of it is a fascinating jumble of anecdotes, vignettes and observations taken from Hardy's diaries before their destruction, it is in fact supremely readable, especially precious for its aphorisms on poetry (“the emotion of all the ages and the thought of its own”). Then we are invited to smile at Hardy's “grand assault on poetry” in 1865: on the evidence of the 1866 poems alone, this is like deriding Jack Johnson for learning to box. His contention that what makes Hardy “consistently our most moving lyric poet” is that his “Words . . . were never solely literary; they were almost always linked to a remembered and familiar tune, undivided” omits the element of meaning: almost always, too, Hardy is saying some-thing original. Dr Gittings makes a foray into the question of Hardy's sexual development, or lack of it: “speculation about almost every woman he meets” may be a sign of “delayed or imperfect physical development”, but it might equally be the opposite. There is no mention of his strange comment on the servant-girl's baby: “Yet never a sign of one is there for us” — strange, in that it seems too intimate a reflection for one of Hardy's temperament to publish (it is in the Life), unless it is a deliberately planted false clue. And in that case what are we to make of the last will (14 August 1922), providing for “the first child of mine who shall attain the age of twenty one years”? Nor is Dr Gittings entirely guiltless of unjustified assertion: his claim that in 1871 Hardy sent valentines to both Emma Gifford and Tryphena Sparks is made on entirely circumstantial evidence. There is no proof that Hardy ever sent a valentine to anyone.

Dr Gittings reserves the heretical Providence and Mr Hardy (1966) for an appendix. Few of his readers will be unaware of its contention that Hardy was, at the time he met Emma Gifford, engaged to his cousin Tryphena; that he had an illegitimate son by her; and that she turned out to be not his cousin but his niece. Taking these assertions in order, Gittings concedes that the first may well be mostly true: the second Mrs Hardy (that source again!) used to say that Tryphena sent back Hardy’s ring, which he then bestowed on Miss Gifford. The second he shoots down in flames: it rests on the unsupported statement of Mrs Bromell, an 85-year-old sufferer from cerebral atherosclerosis; no birth, death, marriage, census, school, apprenticeship, or employment records support the existence of such a son, and the “long, hot autumn of 1867” when he was supposedly conceived had in fact an above-average rainfall. And there is not only no factual support for the third, “it is based on a denial of all personal and documentary evidence.”

If Dr Gittings is frankly severe about this book, it is because it has had an influence entirely out of proportion to its merits: it “seems to have exercised some sort of hypnotic effect on many people’s critical faculties”. On the other hand, Dr Gittings does not deal with what for some readers was the strongest part of its appeal: that it provided a hypothetical explanation for some of Hardy’s most puzzling poems. The last stanza of “On a Heath”, for instance, is crucial to the Lois Deacon-Terry Coleman argument:

There was another looming
Whose life we did not see;
There was one stilly blooming
Full night to where walked we;
There was a shade entombing
All that was bright of me.

If this is not an unborn child, one wants to ask, what is it? In 1920 Vere Collins put the question to Hardy himself:

C. Who or what is that referred to in the last stanza?
H. There is a third person.
C. “Another looming”, “one stilly blooming”, “a shade entombing” – are not there three different things?
H. No, only one.

The same speculations apply to “The Place on the Map”: “And the thing we found we had to face before the next year’s prime…” Well, of course, we have Hardy’s often-repeated assertion that “those lyrics penned in the first person… are to be regarded, in the main, as dramatic monologues by different characters”: the little old gentleman shuts the front door firmly in our faces. But the poems remain, and Gosse’s question remains. The Deacon-Coleman solution may have been wildly and ludicrously wrong, but it felt true. Even though it is put to flight, its place is unlikely to be taken by the unfortunate Mr Moule.

18 April 1975

Introduction by Philip Maughan.

Philip Larkin and Monica Jones outside Westminster Abbey. Photo: Hulton Archive via Getty Images.

Philip Larkin (1922-1985) was a poet, novelist and librarian. He contributed poetry and criticism to the New Statesman in the early 1970s.

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Mother of all bloodlusts: Sexual politics and Greek tragedy

New interpreteations of ancient stories show the deep roots of our thinking about sex and gender

During the 1960s Pier Paolo Pasolini made two films based on ancient Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex and Medea. In the latter, Maria Callas played the heroine with predictably operatic bravura – dark eyes flashing out dark emotions, thrilling voice conveying ferocity and pain. Pasolini’s Oedipus, by contrast, was almost silent (there was dialogue, but very little of it) and unmitigated by consoling theatricality. Distant figures crept across a scrubby desert. Thebes’s mud walls rose, like an organic growth, from the bare ground. The leading actor’s face was thuggish and inexpressive. The soundtrack was dominated by the soughing of the wind. Pasolini used barely a line of Sophocles’s verse, but I remember the film as having a desolate grandeur unmatched by any of the theatrical productions I have seen since. It was nothing like the tragedies acted out by masked performers in 5th-century Athens, but its harsh beauty felt appropriate to the Bronze Age legends on which those tragedies were based.

Those legends are still attracting new interpreters. “The finest tragedies are always on the story of some few families,” wrote Aristotle. He was thinking of the House of Atreus, whose terrible sequence of internecine killings provides the material for Colm Tóibín’s latest novel; of Oedipus’s incest-entangled web of relationships, now unravelled by Natalie Haynes; of Medea, the heroine of David Vann’s Bright Air Black, a sorceress whose royal status, adventurous spirit and unearthly powers have all been eclipsed in the collective memory by her shocking transgression against family values – the slaying of her own children.

Sexual politics has been intrinsic to these tales since the Greek tragedians first explored them: 21st-century gender politics isn’t going beyond, merely keeping pace with, the thinking of the ancients here. ­Aeschylus framed the Oresteia as a conflict between mother-right and father-right and concluded with a judgement from Athena. The motherless goddess, born from her father’s head – woman but also all-man – ordains that humanity must find a way to reconcile the male and female principles. When Robert Icke, in his recent adaptation of the Oresteia, located the origin of the family’s trouble in Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter – the killing of a girl child for the sake of her father’s manly honour – he wasn’t making an anachronistically feminist point: he was faithfully following Euripides.

So there is nothing new about the way modern reinterpretations zoom in on the women. Colm Tóibín gives the husband-killing Clytemnestra a voice; Natalie Haynes does the same for Jocasta, the mother of her son’s children, and for one of her daughters. As for David Vann, he allows Medea to devour him and his readers: to read his book is to be swallowed down into her mad mind.

In House of Names Clytemnestra is the initial narrator. Tóibín has written about many mothers, including, in The Testament of Mary, the mother of Christ. None of them conforms to any sentimental ideal of the maternal. This one is particularly problematic. Clytemnestra was duped into delivering her daughter Iphigenia to a horrible death. She was an adulteress who took a lover while her husband, Agamemnon, was away at war, and subsequently murdered that husband. She killed the enslaved Trojan princess Cassandra out of jealousy. She so signally failed to win the love of her surviving children, Electra and Orestes, that they killed her.

Tóibín, writing in grandly simple, declaratory prose, gives her a raging energy and a bitter intelligence. The unfolding of the story she tells – that he tells through her – will surprise few readers, but he structures it subtly enough to maintain its tension. Clytemnestra speaks at first in flashback, recounting the ghastly tale of Iphigenia’s sacrifice from a much later point in time, while Agamemnon’s and Cassandra’s bodies lie exposed outside the palace walls. The violence is gruesome and Tóibín doesn’t spare us any horror, but the folding of chronology creates a kind of decorous formality.

Clytemnestra’s story is one we know. When Tóibín shifts his attention to her son Orestes the book becomes stranger, its narrative more original and its tone more hallucinatory. None of the canonical texts tells us much of what Orestes was up to in the interim between his father’s murder and his own return, years later, to avenge it. The ancient sources speak of him growing up in a foreign court. Tóibín ignores that tradition and has him marched off instead, along with a column of other boy hostages, and imprisoned in an infernal complex of caves. He escapes with a charismatic older boy, a teenaged guerrilla named Leander. They wander through a landscape of poisoned wells and killer-infested groves as inhospitable as Pasolini’s imagined desert.

The journey makes for a haunting story, largely because Tóibín tells it in spare, resonant prose, from Orestes’s point of view. He is a child and then a bewildered, emotionally stunted adolescent. Filtered through his consciousness, his dangerous exile and even more dangerous return to his mother’s court are at once materially vivid and bafflingly vague. He just doesn’t understand the political and sexual currents eddying around him, and his incomprehension makes them all the more potently alarming.

Tóibín’s other addition to the story is a reimagining of the usually opaque Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover and accomplice. Here he is not just Agamemnon’s rival in love and power: he is his shadow and counter-image, a king of darkness. Confined in a dungeon beneath the palace, he commands a hidden, irregular army. Once released he becomes a sexual predator, roaming the palace corridors by night in search of men or women to suit his appetites. After Electra’s coup d’état Aegisthus’s legs are broken to prevent him from leaving to establish a rival power base. Immobile in his chair, he still dominates the council meetings.

It is probably too simple-minded to ­suppose, just because Tóibín is Irish, that we should read into this a reworking of Ireland’s history of clandestine armies and generation-spanning revenges. Yet the tentative hopefulness of his book’s ending, involving the fading of a grim ghost, a benign forgetting and a baby’s birth, does seem to speak (albeit quietly) of better times.

“Can you name another man who has ever done what you have done?” Thus Tóibín’s Leander to Orestes. A son’s killing of his mother is an unheard-of transgression. Orestes realises that he is being kept at hand by the ruthless new regime as a
potentially useful tool, because he “had proved to them that he was someone who would do anything”. Medea’s crime – a mother’s killing of her sons – is the mirror image of his own, and breaches an equally powerful taboo.

In Tóibín’s Mycenae, a culture defined by its gods is giving way to a secular society. Clytemnestra has stopped praying: “The gods have their own unearthly concerns, unimagined by us. They barely know we are alive.” By the end, her consciousness fading, the only deity she can remember is the inhuman rapist who defiled her mother – Zeus, in the form of a swan. Her daughter Electra laments that as obfuscating superstition dwindles, the world is increasingly exposed to the light of day. That enlightenment, Electra thinks, is a blight. “Soon it will be a world barely worth inhabiting.” The world David Vann’s Medea inhabits is subject to no such diminishing daylight. We are in a dark age.

Rachel Cusk recently updated Euripides to present Medea as a modern wronged wife. Vann does the reverse. He is not interested in drawing parallels with banal, latter-day domestic upsets: he is conjuring up a pre-classical sorceress cloaked in darkness, fornicating on the deck of the Argo amidst the decomposing remains of her dead brother’s body and opening her mouth to show the vile worm that lies where her tongue should be.

His Medea has doubts about the myths that supposedly explain her world. If the sun is her grandfather, how come the human race, which should be only two generations old, is so numerous? But she has no understanding to put in its place. Her eye is innocent, not in the judgemental moral sense but literally. She knows what the golden fleece is – one of the sheepskins used to pan for gold in the rivers of Thrace and left glittering with gold dust – yet she knows almost nothing else. Her wonder at the sea, and the way its water buoys her up, prompts a beautiful passage. Her freedom from guilt verges on the absurd. She is a kind of Martian, travelling to us not from outer space but from the deep past.

Vann’s novel shares with Tóibín’s book an interest in power: how to get and keep it, how legitimacy is trumped by assertiveness. Just as Orestes, returning to Mycenae, is baffled to find that, king’s son though he is, no one sees him as a potential ruler, so Medea and Jason share a naive belief that when they return with the sparkly sheepskin the old king will abdicate the kingdom to them. He doesn’t. The novel’s narrative swings round on the shocking passage in which it dawns on Medea that her betrayals and outrages aren’t to be rewarded with a throne, but have delivered her into slavery.

Vann’s title is borrowed from Robin Robertson’s version of Euripides’s Medea. Vann is indebted to poets, and he grants himself great poetic licence in his handling of syntax. His prose is as hacked and chopped as the corpse of poor King Pelias after Medea has bewitched his daughters into jointing him for a stew. It is as though Medea, barbarian from an immeasurably ancient world, has yet to reach the evolutionary moment when the human mind comprehended that causes had consequences, and sentences have main verbs. Vann writes always from her point of view. The resulting narrative can be wearisome, like spending time with someone too stoned to think connectedly, but it is also vivid, often appalling, sometimes piercingly
sad and frequently striking. This Medea is all sensory perception, no reflection. “The men wet and shining, skin burnt dark. Medea’s skin far whiter, turning red now, painful.” And so it goes on, right down to the final horror. “Hot blood on her hands, Aeson [her little son] jerking against her side.”

If Vann drags the reader with him into chaos and old night, Natalie Haynes seems intent on illuminating and rationalising the cluster of legends about Oedipus and his family. Haynes is an expert populariser. Her story is enriched by archaeological know-how. She gives us a clear account of the layout of the palace at Thebes. She describes markets and dresses, pots and meals. In its physical details, her story is a plausible reconstruction of urban life in a Greek palace-state – complete with obsidian mirrors and wax writing-tablets, dark rooms and sacrificial fires.

She has two narratives, arranged in orderly fashion in alternating chapters. The story of Jocasta’s marriage, widowhood and remarriage to a good-looking young stranger (who turns out to be her own son) is told in the third person, simply and realistically. Ismene, one of her daughter/grand-daughters, narrates the chapters that deal with her experience. She is attacked by an assassin. She looks on as her brothers compete for power in Thebes. She distrusts her uncle Creon. She doesn’t reveal, until the very end, when she is about to be reunited with him, that she knows why her father is a blind wanderer, and why her mother is dead.

The bipartite structure is efficient. The narrative progresses satisfyingly. But Haynes not only demystifies, she demythologises, stripping the story of its ­numinous charge. King Laius is homosexual: he orders a slave to take his place in the marriage-bed and impregnate his young wife (which means that Oedipus’s inadvertent killing of him is not actually a parricide). The sphinx is neither a fabulous monster nor a riddler: it is a predatory tribe. Jocasta kills herself not because she is shamed by the revelation of her incest, but because she has been infected with the plague and doesn’t want to pass it on to her children.

There are horrors certainly, but they are mundane ones. Eteocles’s corpse lies rotting in the sun when Creon denies it burial, but it is ghastly for its smell, and the circling vultures, rather than the offence against ­human dignity and divine decree. Even the characters’ names have been deprived of the resonance two and a half millennia of remembering have given them. Antigone and Ismene become here “Ani” and “Isy” – two ordinary girls in a tricky situation. The book is entertaining, but Pasolini it most certainly is not. Aristotle, who expected these stories to purge their audiences’ minds by overwhelming them with pity and terror, would have been sorely disappointed. 

House of Names 
Colm Tóibín
Viking, 263pp, £14.99

Bright Air Black 
David Vann
William Heinemann, 252pp, £18.99

The Children of Jocasta 
Natalie Haynes
Mantle, 336pp, £16.99

Lucy Hughes-Hallett is the author of “Heroes: Saviours, Traitors and Supermen” (Harper Perennial). Her latest novel, “Peculiar Ground”, is newly published by Fourth Estate

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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