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Hardy, the great novelist who found his true voice in poetry

Thomas Hardy was born the son of a builder and a servant girl. Despite the difference in their class, it was a good marriage. His father might have been more successful, but he was addicted to astronomy.

He spent many of his nights gazing at the stars until early morning with the best telescope he could afford. And yet he was able to send Thomas to a very good school where one of his teachers was the poet, William Barnes. Thomas did well at school and qualified as an architect.

He was writing novels from an early age, but most of them are amateur works. They still contain the seeds of his later good novels. While working at a church in the West Country, he met the local parson's daughter. They fell in love and they married. The marriage doesn't seem to have been a great success: indeed they lived apart for most of their lives. She looked down on Hardy as her moral and intellectual inferior but life went on. Hardy improved with every novel he wrote until he became greatly respected.

He was esteemed as a novelist and later became famous as a poet. His best novels are Tess Of The d'Urbervilles, The Mayor Of Casterbridge, Far From The Madding Crowd, Jude The Obscure. All are strong novels but marred by woeful improbabilities. We must, however, remember that these were all narratives about the 18th Century which in itself was an age of improbabilities.

This, however, doesn't excuse some of Hardy's more ridiculous passages. We must remember, too, that most of his novels appeared in serial form and that they needed a kind of question at the end of every piece. We have to keep in mind, as well, that two languages were spoken in the household: one was orthodox English and the other was the local dialect. If you meet strange usages in Hardy, this is the explanation.

When he was finished obeying publishers, he felt free financially and otherwise and he began his career as a poet. A little earlier, after his wife's death, he had let loose a stream of rough poetry as if trying to say all the things he couldn't express during their life together. Hardy wrote most of his novels in the second half of the 19th Century and so in a kind of way they are elegiac: they are looking back at the world in which his mother and father grew up. By Hardy's time the railway was just penetrating the south west of England.

He met strong resistance from the English middle classes: he was accused of being an atheist and having no moral values but this was completely untrue. In Tess, you meet a servant girl who was abused by a man who betrayed her. And yet her character is based on his mother whose lover did not betray her.

Tess is a powerfully drawn character: we follow her life with fascination until it comes to a tragic end. It begins on a morning when she was taking beehives to Casterbridge for her father: her pony collided with another pony and was killed. Tess had to go on service to farmers: some good, and some bad.

Eventually, she ran away with a good man and their escape together is like something out of a film. Before Tess escaped she had killed her false lover and when she is captured, she is found guilty and goes to the gallows. The last sentence in the novel is too well known: The President Of The Immortals had finished his play with Tess.

The other best known character in Hardy's novels is Jude The Obscure. He was a young man of a romantic mind who set out to acquire all the knowledge in the world. He, too, was trapped in an early marriage and his life went astray. In Hardy we meet the working class, especially the farm workers. We meet them in a body in a pub called The Alehouse. There is one man we cannot forget: his name is Joseph Poorgrass. The proudest moment in his life was when he helped to carry out the 'dead Black Bess' from the circus ring. There are also acute insights into psychology, especially into the minds of women who had a penchant of falling in love with the wrong men. This leads to all kinds of tragedy and usually death for the wrong man. This is especially true in Far From The Madding Crowd. And when someone disappears in Hardy's books, you can be sure that he will turn up again at a moment unfortunate for somebody else.

And why was Thomas Hardy a poet? Because he was essentially a wordman. And, in poetry, you have a liberty that you haven't in writing a novel. In poetry, he wrote to please himself and nobody else. Therefore, his poems appear pure and unconstrained. You can hardly include him in the Romantic tradition of which Keats and Shelley are the flagships. He is nearer to Manley Hopkins in the way that he writes to please himself, but he didn't introduce any new techniques, nor did he resurrect old words or give an especial meaning to new words. He is like a man talking to you with no barriers in between.

In that way, you can say that he was a 'simple' poet but in this sense implies a kind of genius.

He is more like his neighbour John Clare. Hardy, like John Clare, doesn't appear much in examinations except for a poem which everybody seems to know: it is called In Time Of The Breaking Of Nations.

"Only a man harrowing clods in a slow silent walk

"With an old horse that half asleep stumbles and nods as they stalk.

"Only thin smoke without flame from the heaps of couch grass;

"Yet this will go onward the same though Dynasties pass."

Hardy married again and seems to have been happy in his later years. He was almost 90 when he passed away in the early years of the 20th Century.

Fogra: Commiserations go to Conor Niland, the flagbearer of Irish Tennis, on his enforced retirement. We wish him well