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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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era