lorence Hardy points out in her biography of her husband (or, more accurately, Thomas Hardy himself points out through her) that he had "between five and six years' constant and varied experience" of London, "as only a young man at large in the metropolis can get it — knowing every street and alley west of St Paul's like a born Londoner, which he was often supposed to be; an experience quite ignored by the reviewers of his later books" (82). Thanks to Hardy's strong association with his native Dorchester, these years still receive little attention, except perhaps in connection with "his two concerns, career and women" at that time (Gittings 133). Yet a particular experience, which involved neither his future prospects nor his tendency to fall in and out of love too easily, contributed immensely to the tone and sometimes the specific subject matter of his work, not least his poetry.
Hardy had a lifelong connection with London, but the years which made the deepest impression on him were the years of his early twenties, from 1862 to1867, when he worked as an assistant-architect in the already well-established practice of Arthur Blomfield. In some respects, these were happy years. Blomfield himself, whom Hardy first met as "a lithe, brisk man of thirty-three" (Hardy 48), was such a live wire that he and his brother had been nicknamed "Thunder and Lightning" at Cambridge (Gittings 90). Hardy found him to be "a genuine humorist, like his father the Bishop" (Hardy 23), and the two men shared a love of music. At first, the young Dorset man seems to have flourished in his new context, both professionally and socially. In 1863 he won a silver medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects for an essay entitled "Coloured Brick and Terra-cotta Architecture" (since lost, unfortunately), as well as the Tite Prize offered by William Tite, the architect of the Royal Exchange, for the design of a country mansion. Having joined the office choir, Hardy took rather easily to London life outside the office as well, lunching and dining out, and going to galleries, balls and the theatre. He also enrolled at King's College on the Strand for French lessons.
Nevertheless, he was later to describe the "fitful yet mechanical and monotonous existence that befalls many a young man in London lodgings" (74). This other side of his city experience is hinted at in the poem "Coming Up Oxford Street: Evening," in which a "city clerk" feels utterly trapped in "the rut of Oxford Street," and "goes along with head and eyes flagging forlorn." True, at the end of this poem, finally published in 1925, Hardy added a note to the effect, "As seen 4 July 1872" (CP, 717). This links it to one of the shorter London stays of the early seventies, when Hardy had just published his second novel, Under the Greenwood Tree, yet manuscript corrections to these very lines show him playing with the idea of putting the poem into the first person (CP, 966 n.). Hardy liked writing dramatic monologues, but this still suggests his empathy with the hangdog clerk. He did not forget easily.
Some of Hardy's problems in London were mundane enough. He complains in his letters of rain, the pea-souper fog, and the dreadful rib-crushing crowds of people in town for the illuminations when the Prince of Wales got married in 1863. More significantly for his future, he complains too of the scope of his work, which apparently called for architectural drawing rather than original design. This he found boring, a kind of drudgery, with the result that his interests increasingly tended elsewhere. At various times he had thoughts of a career in the church, or as an art critic specializing in the area of architecture. He also thought of getting some practical experience of the theatre, with a view to becoming a playwright. But what drew him most strongly were the literary ambitions which he had harbored even before coming up to London. He started writing poetry seriously in 1865, and began sending it round to various magazines in 1866 (this was before he had made any similarly serious attempts at writing prose). From that point on, success as an architect seems to have affected him less than the rejections he was receiving for this poetry. Hand in hand with a decline in spirits went a decline in health. The social scene palled on him. He declared himself uninterested in social advancement, and spent his evenings reading, shut up in his lodgings in Westbourne Park. Looking back, he blamed this and the heavy atmosphere of the office on Adelphi Terrace, beside the muddy river with its notorious stench, for making him pale and listless, to the point where he hardly had the "physical power left him to hold the pencil and square" (70).
Something had to be done. Blomfield was concerned enough to persuade Hardy to return to Dorset in 1867, to get his strength back. Leaving most of his books behind, along with those manuscripts deemed worth keeping, Hardy took his advice. Although Blomfield urged him not to stay away too long, he never returned to his old post.
These early London years, however, were not lost. Some of the poems from this period did survive. As Dan Jacobson has suggested, his insertion of them into later volumes helps to account not only for the sheer bulk of his poetic output once it found its way into print, but also the lack of "any kind of development, any growth or decline in power, any change in subject matter, technique, or even emotional tone, from the beginning to end of his poetic career" (338). Another way of putting this is that Hardy's characteristics as a poet, including his range of tones, were established very early on — in this first period, in fact. And they hardly seemed to change.
This can be illustrated by one of the most memorable experiences he had in those days, and the effect it had on him. In about 1865, Blomfield gave Hardy a particularly macabre assignment. He was to oversee the disinterment of graves in the St Pancras Old Church churchyard behind St Pancras Station, work carried out for the Midland Railway Company. Hardy's chosen "biographer," Florence, described his role thus:
throughout the late autumn and early winter ... Hardy attended at the churchyard — each evening between five and six, as well as sometimes at other hours. There after nightfall, within a high hoarding that could not be overlooked, and by the light of flare-lamps, the exhumation went on continuously of the coffins that had been uncovered during the day, new coffins being provided for those that came apart in lifting, and for loose skeletons; and those that held together being carried to the new ground on board merely; Hardy supervised these mournful processions when present, with what thoughts may be imagined. [58-59]
Sometimes Blomfield turned up, too, and when the friends met later in life after a long separation, one of the first memories they shared was about an incident there when a coffin fell apart to reveal a skeleton with two skulls: "Do you remember the man with two heads at St Pancras?" asked the humorist (qtd in Hardy 59).
Among the poems dating from this time is the much-admired "Neutral Tones" [text]. This does indeed relate to one of the young Hardy's persistent "concerns" — his relationships with women. It might be significant that the tree from which leaves have fallen in this autumnal work is an ash tree ("They had fallen from an ash, and were grey.") It was round an ash tree in the churchyard that Hardy clustered the redundant tombstones, a dismal task which has a dismal reminder to this day, in the shape of "The Hardy Tree" which still stands there, the stones now embedded in its roots. The mournful colourlessness of this poem of love-gone-wrong is often remarked upon, with some surprise that the individual experience should have been so hauntingly universalised by such a young man. John Middleton Murry was one of the earliest to comment on its maturity (83). With some knowledge of this background, it is easier to understand the poet's receptiveness to "keen lessons" about love and life here, and the way his own regret and bitterness are subsumed into the larger picture.
But there are much stronger associations between this episode and later poems. One such poem, "The Levelled Churchyard," is about exactly the situation at St Pancras. In manuscript, this poem has the deleted title "W — e Minster" (CP, 958n). It was written in Wimborne, Dorset, where Hardy and Emma moved in 1881, and there is some controversy over how much Hardy refers to the churchyard of the beautiful old local church, which had also been restored in fairly recent years, and how much (if at all) to the bygone experience in London. Robert Gittings provides a compromise, pointing out that this was the time when Hardy and Blomfield met again and exchanged memories of St Pancras, and suggesting that Hardy "exploited"(407) the earlier experience in this poem inspired by the minster:
O passenger, pray list and catch
Our sighs and piteous groans,
Half stifled in this jumbled patch
Of wrenched memorial stones!
We late-lamented, resting here,
Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear,
'I know not which I am!'
The wicked people have annexed
The verses on the good;
A roaring drunkard sports the text
Teetotal Tommy should!
Where we are huddled none can trace,
And if our names remain,
They pave some path or p-ing place
Where we have never lain!
"There's not a modest maiden elf
But dreads the final Trumpet,
Lest half of her should rise herself,
And half some local strumpet!
From restorations of Thy fane,
From smoothings of Thy sward,
From zealous Churchmen's pick and plane
Deliver us O Lord! Amen!"
Who is the speaker here, and who does he address? (Not such an easy question as it seems. Note that "passenger" is glossed "passer-by" in Pinion ). That would probably have seemed archaic even then, but Hardy did use archaisms.) The mood of this poem is very different from that of "Neutral Tones." How would you describe it? What purpose does Hardy's tone here serve, and what effect does it have? How does it compare with the tone of the main speaker in another poem about the disturbance of the dead — "Ah, Are you Digging on My Grave?" [text] Would you say that the latter poem, published over thirty years later in 1913, is more typical of Hardy? If so, why? If not, why not? Which ending do you think is the more effective, and why?
Another a skeleton narrates the well-known "Channel Firing" (text; 1914). What has disturbed this skeleton, and how is he mistaken? Why do the skeletons lie down again, and in what mood? What makes Parson Thirdly's name comic, and what does he regret now? How is it that once again the mood is not what might be expected from the setting or the subject matter, especially considering that one of the speakers is God? Again, the last stanza is ironic, but in what way?
Undoubtedly, Hardy's loss of faith as a young man had some bearing on all these "skeleton" poems. However, they may well make us think specifically of the episode in St Pancras churchyard when Hardy and the cheery Blomfield must have got through their sombre watches by joking.
In other "grave" poems, however, the tone is quite different. It is different too from the flat bitterness of "Neutral Tones." In these poems, the lovers are estranged by death. The voice from the dead person is unheard, or uncertainly heard, but it is keenly listened for or to; the haunting is unseen or seen only briefly, but much desired; the narrative includes a bystander still devastated by his sudden bereavement. These are among Hardy's greatest poems, the poems of personal loss and longing which he wrote after the death of his first wife Emma. Compare and contrast "Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave" with "Rain on the Grave," written 31 January, 1913, about two months after Emma's death.
"Folk all fade" says Hardy baldly and bleakly in "Exeunt Omnes," dated the following June. It is a bitter lesson to take in. It is not truly absorbed in some of these poems, in which the dead seem as alive as the living. No wonder there is no indulgence in sentimentality in such poems. Instead, death is treated with a wry, comic or satiric detachment, and used to comment on the world at large. But deep personal tragedy, when it came, could not be deflected by humour or turned to account for narrative effects or conveying messages. Only then perhaps was the full horror of death revealed. At this point, perversely, it is the living who, suffering under the burden of this knowledge, become more like the dead themselves: they are haunters as much as haunted, allied to the numb "corpse-thing" of "The Dead Man Walking" (1890). Of course, there is no room for sentimentality here, either.
Look out for the many coffins, corpses, and images of the grave (such as the "loamy cell" in "I found Her Out There" or the "yew-arched bed" in "Lament") and hauntings which litter Hardy's poems, and consider how much they contribute to the overall mood of his poetic oeuvre. But note, too, that Hardy could be humorous like his old superior Blomfield, and that he continued to learn "keen lessons" from even the harshest experiences. In the fine "After a Journey" (1913), for instance, he is able to speak positively about the self, the love and even the joy which survives bereavement: "I am just the same as when/ Our days were a joy, and our paths through flowers!" It is not strictly true to say that there is no kind of development in Hardy's poetic oeuvre, for here we have, finally, a "comprehensive vision of the past whose happiness as well as sorrow are given equal and full recognition" (Banerjee 8).
Banerjee, A. Introduction. An Historical Evaluation of Thomas Hardy's Poetry, ed. A. Banerjee. New York: Edwin Mellen, 2000.
The Complete Poems of Thomas Hardy [CP], ed. James Gibson. London: Macmillan, 1976.
Gittings, Robert. Thomas Hardy. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2001.
Hardy, Florence. The Life of Thomas Hardy, 1840-1891. London: Studio Editions, 1994.
Jacobson, Dan. "Thomas Hardy: The Poet as Philosopher." In An Historical Evaluation of Thomas Hardy's Poetry, ed. A. Banerjee. New York: Edwin Mellen, 2000.
Middleton Murry, John. "The Poetry of Mr Hardy." In Thomas Hardy: Poems. A Casebook. Ed. James Gibson and Trevor Johnson. London: Macmillan, 1979.
Pinion, F. B. A Commentary on the Poems of Thomas Hardy. London: Macmillan, 1976.
Last modified 25 November 2016