Why Hardy continues to surprise us
Satires of Circumstance by Thomas Hardy was published exactly 100 years ago and it featured those extraordinary, desolate poems written on the death of his wife Emma, to whom he had become estranged in the later decades of their marriage. "Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me," runs the first line of one of these heartbreaking poems of loss and regret.
Hardy came late to poetry and I came late to Hardy's poems: my loss entirely, though better late than never, for they are among the most truthful and lovely in the English language.
Philip Larkin, to whom I came early, thought so, too, and I should have heeded his enthusiasm much sooner. Larkin began writing verse under the influence of WB Yeats, who died 75 years ago this month, but found his real voice when he began to read Hardy -- feeling a "sense of relief that I didn't have to try and jack myself up to a concept of poetry that lay outside my own life".
You'll find that observation in Larkin's absorbing collection of reviews and essays, Required Writing (Faber), where he also notes approvingly that Hardy wrote so much verse (the Wordsworth paperback of the Collected Poems runs to 900 pages and costs only a few euro). "One can read him for years and years and still be surprised," Larkin says, "and I think that's a marvellous thing to find in any poet."
Indeed it is, and that's why Hardy's poems, along with those of Larkin, are constantly on my reading desk. Yeats is there, too, as well as Edward Thomas and his great friend Robert Frost, whose first mature collection, North of Boston, is also 100 years old this year -- though the poems seem so modern that you'd hardly think so.
Still, a year later, TS Eliot was to publish The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, which announced the arrival of a differently distinctive sensibility altogether.