The Gritty Realism of Thomas Hardy

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It is a commonly held opinion that Thomas Hardy, the prolific Victorian poet and novelist, is a pessimist. This perspective is documented well in a recent article in The Guardian wherein Hardy’s oeuvre is Talmudicaly mapped by its “AMPS” (or, its degree of “Abject Misery Per Sentence”). I discovered just how common this opinion is among today’s readers when I decided to write my undergraduate thesis on Hardy’s poetry. Very few people could understand why I would want to spend my time with so much gloom. But the opinion was also common among readers of Hardy’s own day, and Hardy himself had to try to fight against the judgment during his lifetime.

In the 1922 Apology which introduces his Late Lyrics and Earlier, he declares that “what is to-day, in allusions to the present author’s pages, alleged to be ‘pessimism’ is, in truth, only such ‘questionings’ in the exploration of reality, and is the first step towards the soul’s betterment, and the body’s also.”[1]

Granted, Hardy does tend to present a fairly bleak world in his poems and novels. Fate works blindly against decent people, and if there is a god, it is probably nothing more than a distant, amoral force. It is up to human beings to make something good of the universe, and we needn’t look about us very much before we conclude that human beings can’t really be relied upon for such a task. This is the basic characterization most people ascribe to Hardy, and it certainly has a firm basis.

But Thomas Hardy wrote nearly 1000 poems. There is a lot there, and we hardly do him justice when we simply label him a pessimist and cast him aside.

So, for a poem like “The Man He Killed,” in which Hardy leaves us with a sense of the unquestioning, blind obedience of soldiers in war, causing us to wonder if we can believe that humanity can ever possibly move beyond that blindness to cause substantial change, there is also the poem “Often When Warring,” in which a man gives water and comfort to an enemy soldier and thereby demonstrates a “larger vision than loud arms bespeak.”[2] Both are powerful poems, demonstrating two very different perspectives of the human condition, one telling us of a harsh reality, but the other speaking of hope for an ultimate moral victory through the good actions of individual human beings. So while he certainly shows us the darker sides of life, Hardy doesn’t shy away from considering the possibility of the good overcoming the bad. It is this latter side of Hardy that is so often overlooked by his readers.

In doing justice to Hardy, we need to keep in mind that his work is, according to Hardy himself, a collection of “unadjusted impressions” possessing “little cohesion of thought or harmony of colouring.”[3] For him, “the road to a true philosophy of life seems to lie in humbly recording diverse readings of its phenomena as they are forced upon us by chance and change.”[4] Thus, his large body of poetry offers us a realistically multi-textured view of life, common to any normal person’s experience: sometimes life seems very bad, and other times it looks very good. That is what Hardy’s poetry really shows us.

Yet, while Hardy is successful in painting this realistic image of life’s varied impressions for us, he doesn’t ultimately succeed in depicting real hope. Poems like “Often When Warring” serve to balance out their more nihilistic counterparts like “The Man He Killed,” but that is often the most that they can do. The positive impressions Hardy records often fail to succeed in taking us above and beyond the ever-present reality of the negative.

What Hardy’s poetry of impressions ultimately does for us, then, is demonstrate the fact that mere observation is not the path to redemptive hope. As long as we rely on our perceptions and impressions of life, we will always see both the good and the bad, and the good will never truly conquer. Observation was as far as the agnostic Hardy was able to convince himself to go, and as a result, readers continue to find few moments in his works which can create a lasting impression of hope or joy or goodness.

But Hardy’s poetry also has the potential to point us towards recognizing the deep need in the human spirit for discovering hope that the world will someday be better, rooted in the recognition that things should and could be different than they are. Hardy demonstrates that reality is problematic: it is morally offensive that things should be as they are. This recognition is a first step on the road to faith in something truly Good, if only we can believe in a reality outside of the walls of our perception as well as our understanding.

 

[1] Thomas Hardy, “Apology,” in Thomas Hardy: The Complete Poems, ed. James Gibson (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 557.

[2] Hardy, “Often When Warring,” Ibid., 545, lines 7, 14.

[3] Hardy, Preface to Poems of the Past and Present, in The Complete Poems, 84.

[4] Ibid.

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