Hardy—the Man and Poet
ARNOLD is wrong about provincialism if he means anything More than a provincialism of style and manner in exposition. A certain provincialism of feeling is invaluable. It is of the essence of individuality, and is largely made up of that crude enthusiasm without which no great thoughts are thought, no great deeds done."
This was a note written by Thomas Hardy in the winter of 1880, and it would be hard to find words anywhere that more exactly cover his own especial case.
It may seem strange at first sight to emphasize these words, " crude enthusiasm," the " crude " apparently deprecatory, the " enthusiasm " surely emphatic on the wrong side of his Steady, grey philosophy.
It is not so. " Crude " in its finest, grandest meaning Hardy is, and his works are, and there can be no reader of this present Volume who, if he be perceptive, will not have consciousness of the strong, shy, courageous enthusiasm that beats within this great man's spirit.
It is at first sight possibly difficult to detect. I fancy that in the first reading this volume may disappoint. It has a 4tarkness and simplicity about it that is absolutely right but forbids the graces.
.There is no dressing up, no pandering to any kind of fictitious embroidery, whether of poetry or humour or irony. Mrs. Haidy has done, in my view, the one inevitable right thing, linking fact to fact, making the background as clear as one Of Hardy's own architectural designs, but doing no more than that, and the result is that Hardy's own words—comments, descriptions, ironies, simplicities—stand out with a beauty and drama that is perhaps only fully realized when the book is closed.
I have, indeed, only one criticism to make, and that is that we are given, in the second half of the book, too frequently the list of persons whom Hardy met at dinner, luncheon, or tea. It matters nothing at all to-day that he had, on a day, a good time at Lady Jeune's. Everyone had a good time at Lady 4une's in those days when there was time for a good time.
For the rest this seems to me a grand book—grand in the real sense that it places the reader in direct contact with fine Original grand things, nothing and nobody intervening between him and them. That is where Mrs. Hardy has seen so rightly—that it is only Hardy who matters and that every- thing must go in comparison with him.
The actual events in these pages are few and are in the main well known. Born on June 2nd, 1840, in a lonely and silent spot between woodland and heatherland," the son of a builder and master-mason, Hardy becomes for us at once the hero of one of his own novels—indeed, as we read on we seem to be passing through the notes, visions, circumstances, of a new Hardy romance, kept from us until now. Not, of course, a romance in any sense but the Hardy one. The hero has the shyness, beautiful " crudity " of one of his own natives. His life expands in circumstances of bell-ringing, old country dancing, travelling cumbrously to remote villages, tender, delicate courtship and wedding, all against exactly that Wessex background of heath and wood and moor that we have all by now absorbed into our own spiritual selves.
Then, just as in the novels, into the middle of this true and simple " crudity " there is flung the observation and wide- sweeping philosophy of genius. Again and again places are seen, people described, ideas stated that have all the grand strength of absolute first-hand contact with life. This, for instance :— " Evening. Just after sunset. Sitting with E. on a stone under the wall before the Refreshment Cottage. The sounds
are two, and only two. On the left Dartatone Head roaring high and low, like a giant asleep. On the right a thrush. Above thti bird hangs the new moon, and a steady planet."
Of whom does this remind us in its authenticity and beauty ? There is only one other who has seen nature like this and of her we think again and again in this volume—Dorothy Wordsworth, who is Hardy's own sister. This poetic authen-: ticity, which is perhaps at the heart of that word " crudity," is united with the enthusiasm," which is another name for creative zest.
Hardy's power of creation was a strange one and was almost; entirely in its impulse poetic. Again and again in this book we find him kicking against the pricks of the novel. He doesn't want to write novels, he would rather do anything else in the world ; if it is the only form that can provide him with livelihood that form he must adopt, but he is poet, poet, poet all the time. Running through these pages a constant, almost poignant refrain, is the idea of The Dynasts, at long last, when he is liberated from his novel tyranny to find glorious freedom. In a later preface to Desperate Remedies he explains that the reader may find in it certain of his poems translated into prose, and that is because he was in despair, when Desperate Remedies was first published, of finding any market for his poems and so preserved them thus rather than lose them altogether.
We can understand after reading this book that he wag never at ease in the technique of the novel, that his dialogile, when it tries to be " novel " dialogue, is unreal, that his plots are clumsy and depend too often on incredible coincidence; and we can understand, too, how, in spite of these things, his native creative zest carried him over all his hostility to the form, all his ignorance of the technique, all his stiffness of polite dialogue. Bathsheba Everdene, Tess, the Reddle Man, these and the others have insisted on their own existence: He is carried along whether he will or no, poet by desire; novelist by compulsion, creator by divine inheritance.
In the same way the pessimism of which he has been sci often accused (an accusation that to the last he half-humorously resented) is seen in this book to be no acquired philosophy but a poetic vision of life that is unreasoned because it is for him so inevitable. He carried it with him everywhere, whether it is on the moor of his own Wessex or at the tea-table of Edmund Gosse, or in the streets and lanes of the city. And as he lives this philosophy gives him a size and a grandeur because it gives him a noble independence. He is curiously by himself in this book, not lonely nor unhappy, but of a different race, as though he had tumbled from another planet and can never quite recover from his bewilderment at the odd conditions of this one.
How right and true is this. We are told that when he was writing Far From the Madding Crowd he would occasionally find himself without a scrap of paper at the very moment that he felt volumes. In such circumstances he would use large dead leaves, white chips left by the woodcutters, or pieces of stone or slate that came to hand. He used to say that when he carried a pocket-book his mind was barren as the Sahara. " White chips left by the woodcutters . . ." Ink and paper are only to intervene when they must. Thera is the essential " crudity " of first-hand contact. Nothing must intervene.
We feel, perhaps, a kind of despair as we look round us now and see how with every day more things must intervene. Second-hand opinion, second-hand thought, every mechanical assistance to our acquired laziness I Only poetry can save us, and the authentic genius of this great and individual man shows us the way.