“Literature is the written expression of revolt against expected things.” Happy Birthday to the least happy man ever, Thomas Hardy

“A certain provincialism of feeling is invaluable. It is the essence of individuality, and is largely made up of that crude enthusiasm without which no great thoughts are thought, no great deeds done.” — Thomas Hardy

That quote above from Thomas Hardy is something I have thought of, often, and used quite a bit in my own work, as a critic and also as a writer of other things, here, my script, everywhere. It is a reminder to stay specific, to not worry about being universal, to let that (and the reader) take care of itself.

He was criticized often for the “provincialism” of his novels. They all took place in a 10-mile radius. He delved deep into one particular slice of society and never left it or branched out. But depth is as valuable as WIDTH. I love some of his novels, although I had to come BACK to them after being forced to read them in high school (here is my post on Tess).

The interesting thing is: I think because he’s so firmly established in “the canon”, it makes it seem like he’s part of the status quo or something. I’m not a scholar, I’m just talking about the vibe. He’s seen as one of those Dead White Males who represent gatekeepers and canon and establishment. But that’s just retrospect and a lack of … people actually reading him? lol Hardy’s views were so anti-establishment he was basically perceived as a radical in his day. His first novel was rejected because its satirical lampoon of society was judged too harsh. He did not look around the world and find any of it good. This was then – and is now – a radical standpoint, and in some circles, damn near heretical. It could be seen as a very conservative viewpoint, the kind of conservatives who yearn for the past, seeing it as some sort of Eden, disliking the complexity of modernity – OR it could be seen as a rejection of the status quo, a firm NO to upholding the existing structures – burn it all down, in other words – which is basically the opposite of classical conservatism. The establishment now “claims” him but they rejected him when he was alive. Hardy published all these novels, famous great works – titanically angry and compassionate for the suffering of the “little” people, those with no voice or power – and then – abruptly – switched to poetry. He then wrote VOLUMES of poetry over the last decades of his very long life. He was born in 1840 and died in 1928. Look at the changes he witnessed. He watched an entire world pass away.

More after the jump:


Thomas Hardy had an epiphany one day that God didn’t exist. He wrote about it in a startling poem called ‘God’s Funeral’:

God’s Funeral
saw a slowly-stepping train —
Lined on the brows, scoop-eyed and bent and hoar —
Following in files across a twilit plain
A strange and mystic form the foremost bore.

And by contagious throbs of thought
Or latent knowledge that within me lay
And had already stirred me, I was wrought
To consciousness of sorrow even as they.

The fore-borne shape, to my blurred eyes,
At first seemed man-like, and anon to change
To an amorphous cloud of marvellous size,
At times endowed with wings of glorious range.

And this phantasmal variousness
Ever possessed it as they drew along:
Yet throughout all it symboled none the less
Potency vast and loving-kindness strong.

Almost before I knew I bent
Towards the moving columns without a word;
They, growing in bulk and numbers as they went,
Struck out sick thoughts that could be overheard: —

‘O man-projected Figure, of late
Imaged as we, thy knell who shall survive?
Whence came it we were tempted to create
One whom we can no longer keep alive?

‘Framing him jealous, fierce, at first,
We gave him justice as the ages rolled,
Will to bless those by circumstance accurst,
And longsuffering, and mercies manifold.

‘And, tricked by our own early dream
And need of solace, we grew self-deceived,
Our making soon our maker did we deem,
And what we had imagined we believed,

‘Till, in Time’s stayless stealthy swing,
Uncompromising rude reality
Mangled the Monarch of our fashioning,
Who quavered, sank; and now has ceased to be.

‘So, toward our myth’s oblivion,
Darkling, and languid-lipped, we creep and grope
Sadlier than those who wept in Babylon,
Whose Zion was a still abiding hope.

‘How sweet it was in years far hied
To start the wheels of day with trustful prayer,
To lie down liegely at the eventide
And feel a blest assurance he was there!

‘And who or what shall fill his place?
Whither will wanderers turn distracted eyes
For some fixed star to stimulate their pace
Towards the goal of their enterprise?’…

Some in the background then I saw,
Sweet women, youths, men, all incredulous,
Who chimed as one: ‘This is figure is of straw,
This requiem mockery! Still he lives to us!’

I could not prop their faith: and yet
Many I had known: with all I sympathized;
And though struck speechless, I did not forget
That what was mourned for, I, too, once had prized.

Still, how to bear such loss I deemed
The insistent question for each animate mind,
And gazing, to my growing sight there seemed
A pale yet positive gleam low down behind,

Whereof, to lift the general night,
A certain few who stood aloof had said,
‘See you upon the horizon that small light —
Swelling somewhat?’ Each mourner shook his head.

And they composed a crowd of whom
Some were right good, and many nigh the best….
Thus dazed and puzzled ‘twixt the gleam and gloom
Mechanically I followed with the rest.

A poor unsuspecting priest wrote to Hardy once asking him how the horrors of the world could be reconciled with God’s goodness. Hardy replied with a chilly little note, using the chilly third person:

Mr. Hardy regrets that he is unable to offer any hypothesis which would reconcile the existence of such evils as Dr. Grosart describes with the idea of omnipotent goodness. Perhaps Dr. Grosart might be helped to a provisional view of the universe by the recently published Life of Darwin, and the works of Herbert Spencer and other agnostics.

Hardy wasn’t fucking around.

He felt, eventually, that fiction was a cage. Bursting out of the cage led to an insane output. His “Collected Poems” is over eight hundred pages long!!

Thomas Hardy was married for many years and it was not a good match. They barely spoke for years. When she died, he found some things she had written about him – vicious things – her hatred and contempt for him revealed after her death. Hardy never really recovered from her death. Guilt? Perhaps. His eulogies for his long-hated wife are some of the most achingly sad and romantic poems in the canon. If you didn’t know the backstory, you would think this was one of the greatest love stories of all time. And who knows, maybe it was. Life is rarely simple or black-and-white. She didn’t inspire him to write when she was alive, but after her death, the floodgates of poetry opened. Art often happens like that.

He was, needless to say, not a happy man. I think he looked around at the world and thought, “What’s to be happy about?” His outlook is unremittingly bleak. If you’re in the mood for that point of view – and I often am – Hardy is a welcome tonic.

This poem kills me.

A Broken Appointment

You did not come,
And marching Time drew on, and wore me numb.
Yet less for loss of your dear presence there
Than that I thus found lacking in your make
That high compassion which can overbear
Reluctance for pure lovingkindness’ sake
Grieved I, when, as the hope-hour stroked its sum,
You did not come.

You love not me,
And love alone can lend you loyalty;
-I know and knew it. But, unto the store
Of human deeds divine in all but name,
Was it not worth a little hour or more
To add yet this: Once you, a woman, came
To soothe a time-torn man; even though it be
You love not me.

In a poem postdated December 31, 1900 – the final day of the 19th century – he wrote “The Darkling Thrush” (which had originally been called “The Century’s Deathbed.” )

The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.


Ezra Pound, on Thomas Hardy’s poetry:

“Now there is clarity. There is the harvest of having written twenty novels first.”

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

His awkwardness, often an ostentatious laboriousness, was both natural and cultivated. He is the first of the poet, so numerous now, who are suspicious of writing well.

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language:

Hardy’s poems, like his prose fiction, enact a paradox: how can the imagination be so free when Hardy himself is passionately convinced that no freedom for the individual self is possible? Hardy, like the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, believed that the rapacious Will to Live subsumed all individual will. Our desires are repetitious, and not openings to permanent love nor to possibilities of transcendence. Renunciation, negativity, tragedies of circumstance: these are the essence of Hardy.

John Cowper Powys:

Thomas Hardy taught me to like Edgar Allan Poe, and Poe taught me about those ‘Mimes in the form of God on high, blind prophets that come and go.’

Philip Larkin:

Oh, for Christ’s sake, one doesn’t STUDY poets! You READ them and think, That’s marvelous, how is it done, could I do it? and that’s how you learn. At the end of it you can’t say, That’s Yeats, that’s Auden, because they’ve gone, they’re like a scaffolding that’s been taken down. Thomas was a dead end. What effects? Yeats and Auden, the management of lines, the formal distancing of emotion. Hardy, well … not to be afraid of the obvious. All those wonderful dicta about poetry – “the poet should touch our hearts by showing his own,” “the poet takes note of nothing that he cannot feel,” “the emotion of all the ages and the thought of his own” – Hardy knew what it was all about.

W.H. Auden on Thomas Hardy, “A Literary Transference”:

“For more than a year I read no one else.”

Camille Paglia, “Love Poetry”:

Reflecting the Victorian taste for bereavement, Hardy’s early poetry features gloomy provincial tales of love lost: ghosts, graveyards, suicides, tearful partings.

Introduction to the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

His verse is based on tormented syntax and inelegant vocabulary, as if they, rather than eloquence, might best reflect the uncouth universe. He praised “dissonances” and “irregularities” in verse, and while his poems are in rhymed and metered stanzas, their unconsoling endings, jarring juxtapositions, and skeptical questionings also distort and dislocate Victorian conventions.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Early Success”:

All the stories that came into my head had a touch of disaster in them – the lovely young creatures in my novels went to ruin, the diamond mountains of my short stories blew up, my millionaires were as beautiful and damned as Thomas Hardy’s peasants.

Stephen King:

When I read Tess of the d’Urbervilles, I said to myself two things. Number one, if she didn’t wake up when that guy fucked her, she must have really been asleep. And number two, a woman couldn’t catch a break at that time. That was my introduction to women’s lit. I loved that book so I read a whole bunch of Hardy. But when I read Jude the Obscure, that was the end of my Hardy phase. I thought, This is fucking ridiculous. Nobody’s life is this bad. Give me a break, you know?

Thomas Hardy:

Art is disproportioning of realities, to show more clearly the features that matter in those realities.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, letter to Robert Bridges, October 28, 1886:

In my judgment the amount of gift and genius which goes into novels in the English literature of this generation is perhaps not much inferior to what made the Elizabethan drama, and unhappily it is in great part wasted. How admirable are Blackmore and Hardy! Their merits are much eclipsed by the overdone reputation of the Evans–Eliot–Lewis–Cross woman (poor creature! one ought not to speak slightingly, I know), half real power, half imposition. Do you know the bonfire scenes in the Return of the Native and still better the sword-exercise scene in the Madding Crowd, breathing epic? or the wife-sale in the Mayor of Casterbridge (read by chance)? But these writers only rise to their great strokes; they do not write continuously well: now [Robert Louis] Stevenson is master of a consummate style and each phrase is finished as in poetry.

T.S. Eliot, from “Andrew Marvell”, 1921:

Among contemporaries Mr. Yeats is an Irishman and Mr. Hardy is a modern Englishman–that is to say, Mr. Hardy is without [wit] and Mr. Yeats is outside of the tradition altogether.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

Thomas Hardy and Gerard Manley Hopkins stand like two warders at the portals of modern poetry. Hopkins died before the twentieth century began. Hardy lived almost to its third decade. Hopkins might be heraldically represented with an eye turned upward, whereas Hardy, whose poetry is retrospective and elegiac, would be posed casting a backward look.

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language:

My own favorite among Hardy’s poems is the post-Shelleyan “During Wind and Rain,” which makes a deliberate contrast with Shelley’s apocalyptic “Ode to the West Wind.” “How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!” Hardy cries out, while remembering that Shelley’s “dead leaves” will quicken a new birth. Hardy has no such hopes, or yearnings.

W.H. Auden on Thomas Hardy, “Making, Knowing and Judging”:

[Hardy] gave me hope where a flawless poet might have made me despair. He was modern without being too modern…If I looked through his spectacles, at least I was conscious of a certain eyestrain. Lastly, his metrical variety, his fondness for complicated stanza forms, were an invaluable training in the craft of making.

Michael Schmidt:

Blake, Wordsworth and Thomas Hardy imitated [Spenser] at the outset of their careers. His formal influence is felt in the early poems of Byron … Well into the twentieth century, poets pay him tribute.

Donald Davie:

Hardy appears to have mistrusted, and certainly leads other poets to mistrust, the claims of poetry to transcend the linear unrolling of recorded time.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

The archetypal scene in a Hardy poem is a man meditating on his losses, surrounded by ghosts of what he has loved or hoped for, preserving his identity in a friendless landscape only by the momentary intensity of his feeling. Time is not regained, as in Marcel Proust’s fiction and in traditional elegies; memory only deepens loss. The poet expresses afterthoughts, rather than thoughts, experiences remasticated rather than devoured, and returns obsessively to what is gone. The poem is a thermometer of present chill and past heat. The tone is almost always low pitched. Though Hardy’s sympathy goes out to those who are indifferently mistreated by indifferent masters of the world, there may be in him also a secret admiration for indifference, for power without feeling as opposed to human feeling without power. Perhaps he secretly longed to be free of choice and concern, unshakable aspects of human existence, and to ally himself with the workings of inhuman will. Yet his conscious purpose is always to defend and fortify insofar as possible, the human.

Thomas Hardy, letter, 1919:

Dissonances and other irregularities can be produced advisedly, as art, and worked as to give more charm than strict conformities.

Ezra Pound:

Hardy’s [useful hint] was the degree to which he would concentrate on the subject matter, not on the manner.

Thomas Hardy, preface to Winter Words (1928) – he left the birthday blank, meaning to fill it in with “eighty-ninth” – but the book ended up being published posthumously:

So far as I am aware, I happen to be the only English poet who has brought out a new volume of verse on his ____________ birthday.

From “An Ancient to Ancients”
By Thomas Hardy

The bower we shrined to Tennyson
Is roof-wrecked; damps there drip upon
Sagged seats, the creeper-nails are rust,
The spider is sole denizen;
Even she who voiced those rhymes is dust,

Foreword to the Seamus Heaney entry in the Norton Anthology of Contemporary Poetry:

Yet he recognizes his many debts to and affinities with British poets, from Beowulf (his prize-winning translation was published in 1999) to John Keats, William Wordsworth, Thomas Hardy, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wilfred Owen, W.H. Auden, and Ted Hughes, and his poetry ironically uses Anglo-Saxon alliterative effects and other techniques to suggest the sounds of Irish in English.

John Cowper Powys:

Thomas Hardy taught me to like Edgar Allan Poe, and Poe taught me about those ‘Mimes in the form of God on high, blind prophets that come and go.’

D.H. Lawrence on Thomas Hardy, 1928:

What a commonplace genius he has; or a genius for the commonplace.

Florence Emily Hardy (Hardy’s second wife), The Life of Thomas Hardy 1840-1928 (1968), on one of Hardy’s formative moments as a child:

He was lying on his back in the sun, thinking how useless he was, and covered his face with his straw hat. The sun’s rays streamed through the interstices of the straw, the lining having disappeared. Reflecting on his experiences of the world so far as he had got, he came to the conclusion that he did not wish to grow up. Other boths were always talking of when they would be men; he did not want at all to be a man, or to possess things, but to remain as he was, in the same spot, and to know no more people than he already knew (about half a dozen).

Robert Lewis Stevenson on meeting Thomas and Emma Hardy:

[He was] a pale, gentle, frightened little man, that one felt an instinctive tenderness for, with a wife — ugly is no word for it! — who said, “Whatever shall we do?” I had never heard a human being say it before.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

[D.H.] Lawrence opposed contemporary verse. He objected to W.B. Yeats’s poetry as sickly and A.E. Housman’s as stale. He was more sympathetic to Thomas Hardy, who, like him, cultivated a poetry of deliberate roughness, of intense and complicated feeling.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, letter to Robert Bridges, February 17, 1887:

Perhaps you are so barbarous as not to admire Thomas Hardy–as you do not [Robert Louis] Stevenson; both, I must maintain, men of pure and direct genius.

Michael Schmidt on Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey:

Surrey can be memorable. Thomas Hardy echoed lines of Surrey’s, such as “Now he comes, will he come? alas, no, no,” and who can deny that the poet who wrote “I Look into My Glass” did not have deep in memory Surrey’s lines, “Thus thoughtful as I lay, I saw my wither’d skin, / How it doth show my dinted jaws, the flesh was worn so thin”?

Ezra Pound, letter, 1934:

Nobody has taught me anything about writing since Thomas Hardy died.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

Hardy straddles the Victorian and modern periods not only because of his longevity, but also because of his aesthetic, which has the mournful vulnerability of the Romantics and Victorians and yet the skeptical detachment of the modernists–a very human attachment to the particulars of place and memory and yet an ironic, god’s-eye perspective. His forms are likewise semi-Victorian, semimodern. He writes in traditional stanzaic patterns, but invents many of his own. He adheres to the metered line, but roughs up prosody and syntax.

W.H. Auden:

“[I admire his] hawk’s vision, his way of looking at life from a very great height … To see the individual life related not only to the local social life of its time, but to the whole of human history … gives one both humility and self-confidence.”

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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4 Responses to “Literature is the written expression of revolt against expected things.” Happy Birthday to the least happy man ever, Thomas Hardy

  1. SeanG says:

    Hey Sheila, good to read your words again. Darkling Thrush is one of my faves, and there’s a hill nearby where I live and in the winter the trees on the hill with their branches are totally like “the tangled-bine stems, scored the sky…” :-D

    • sheila says:

      SeanG – thanks for reading and commenting!

      “scored the sky” is really quite extraordinary isn’t it.

  2. SeanG says:

    also Bloomsday is coming!

    • sheila says:

      I know!! and as far as I can tell, no Bloomsday gatherings – which is probably best although there may be some live events streaming which I need to look into. Every year when June starts, something in me starts preparing – always something to look forward to.

      I can’t remember if I wrote last year about a change-up in my regular ritual – a friend of mine, Jonathan, whom I met AT the regular Bloomsday thing I go to – was “tapped” to organize the Bloomsday celebration at Symphony Space here in NY – which takes place every year – I went to it one year, one of the last years where they read the whole book – over the whole course of the day – with people from Broadway, stars, etc. – all coming in to do parts. It was insane. I was there from 10 in the morning until 2 or 3 am. So anyway, they don’t do that anymore but they do a series of readings, etc. Much smaller time commitment. So they hit up Jonathan – a Joyce expert – to arrange and direct last year’s Symphony Space event – so I went to that instead of my normal party in the streets, just to support him. He did an incredible job – there was a small Irish string quartet onstage – some great performers. It was really fun.

      SO. Clearly all of this is cancelled this year – and I will have to find an alternate way to celebrate!

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