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20 January 2021

From the NS archive: Cobwebs on Hardy

16 May 1942: Would Thomas Hardy have been one of the great English poets?

By Stephen Spender

In this review of Edmund Blunden’s new biography of Thomas Hardy, Stephen Spender questions the author’s method. Blunden tracks the reception of Hardy’s work, taking the approach “of a guide book”. Spender is convinced by the biography that Hardy’s life was boring and uneventful — but its examination of Hardy’s under-explored poetry redeems the account of this great writer’s life.

***

Mr Blunden remarks, in his account of Thomas Hardy’s death, on the inevitable irony of circumstance by which his corpse was cut open, the heart being buried in Stinsford Churchyard, the body in Westminster Abbey. Perhaps a similar irony hangs over this book, which reads at times like an obituary notice in the Wessex News. It is surrounded with an atmosphere of cobwebs, part of Mr Blunden’s curious method being to quote amply from the reviews of nearly all Hardy’s novels.

We read that the reviewer in the Spectator in 1871 found in Desperate Remedies “talent of a remarkable kind — sensitiveness to scenic and atmospheric effects, and to their influence on the mind, and the power of rousing similar sensitiveness in his readers”. Later in the book we read another quotation from the Spectator, this time about the Dynasts: “The blank verse tends to be spasmodic and unrhythmical and the lyrics suffer from a deplorable lack of music. The diction is strained, and, when metaphysics begin, we flounder among quasi-technical platitudes. But in spite of a hundred faults, there is a curious sublimity.”

For the rest, the earlier part of the book is a narration of the events of Hardy’s uneventful life, and the times of publication of his novels. Mr Blunden’s approach is that of a guide book. He shows a great deal of tact and discrimination in presenting his material, and his own comments are made in short asides, as though with the purpose of not impeding the visitor’s view to the great novelist’s shrine. The literary pages of periodicals seem to alter remarkably little from year to year, and the respectable critics describe literature much as they might describe cooking: a good novel is a good novel much as a good cake is a good cake, because the cook has used the correct ingredients and utensils; however, sometimes the cake does not “rise,” and sometimes it is “heavy”: so with Hardy’s novels and poems for about 30 years, until some dirt began to get into the kitchen, and then the critics were outraged.

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[See also: From the NS archive: Conflict thoughts]

Viewing Hardy in this way, one has very little sense of development, or of psychology. However, there is something to be said for Mr Blunden’s method. I am fully persuaded from his book that Hardy’s life was remarkably dull, and this being so, reviews must have been very important events in it. As a matter of face they were, because he was even more sensitive than most writers to adverse criticism. When we have finished three-quarters of Mr Blunden’s book, we do have the impression not of a passage through time, but rather of one across an almost featureless landscape. Disappointing as it is to have to put up with “The Trumpet-Major also pleased most of the reviewers, and drew from The Athenaeum the compliment…” etc., as Mr Blunden’s contribution to criticism on what many people consider one of Hardy’s best novels, nevertheless, if he had intruded more, we would perhaps have got more of the feeling of Mr Blunden, and less the curious bare cosiness of Hardy’s own world. One cannot help feeling, at the end, that Hardy himself would hove “perused” (to use the verb he would have chosen) these pages with lively pleasure and interest: all the remarks that people made about his books, the criticisms in the press, the atmosphere of misunderstanding, yet all the time the growth of his own reputation like a huge tree, which had no relation to what people said about his books, and yet invisibly and invincibly grew.

[See also: From the NS archive: The wound and the bow]

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In the last quarter of the book Mr Blunden overcomes his modesty and writes with real perception of Hardy’s poems. These poems — there are 918 of them — certainly require a guide for the uninitiated. One needs to have their beauties pointed out, and here Mr Blunden is quite excellent. He is sensitive to what is best in the poems, and he ruthlessly exorcises the bad. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that nine-tenths of the poems might well be forgotten. He wishes that Hardy were one of those classics most of whose works have been mercifully lost in antiquity.

In these last pages Mr Blunden tactfully introduces the names of Robert Browning and John Milton. However, he does not press the suggested association forward to the point of comparison. Had he done so, this book might have been more searching, both as literary criticism and as psychology, though perhaps the truly devastating note should not be struck in the “English Men of Letters” series. Yet the fact remains that the comparison between Hardy’s narrative poems and Browning’s Dramatic Lyrics, immediately draws attention to Hardy’s peculiar isolation from the main European tradition of literature. His gift was tremendous, but its development lies too much in the way of idiosyncrasy, and it is impossible to relate his achievement to that of another artist, such as Browning, who had perhaps a less interesting mind, a less audacious vision, without stumbling against something in Hardy’s work which cannot stand up against the standards which Browning and Milton set themselves. Mr Blunden never goes really into the question of Hardy’s amateurishness, though he skirts it several times. Condemning his novels almost wholesale, this biography suggests the conclusion that Hardy would have been one of the greatest English poets had he devoted himself entirely to poetry. No one can read the astonishing poem “We Are Getting to the End,” written at the end of his own life, without realising that here is a quality of insight that other members of his generation in literature never attained. Perhaps Hardy wrote novels because poetry had already become too much a hole-in-the-corner occupation in his time for so broad and human a talent. The main literary vehicle was the novel, and he must attempt it, uncomfortable as the journey was. The Dynasts suggests that he might have invented — indeed, did for the purposes of that one masterpiece improvise — a new medium, the dramatised poetic novel. His greatness lies in that and in the poems, with their peculiar flavour, which will always have a message and a meaning, often imperfectly fused into their texture.

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