"The Dynasts is intended simply for mental performance, and not for the stage" — Preface, The Dynasts

Play or poem? Or both? The Dynasts1, which has suffered much from the ravages of time and changing tastes, deserves better treatment than it has lately received.2 In performance terms at least the military episodes have much beauty in themselves and are crucial to the spiritual and pacific mood which interlaces the piece and forms its finale. The Dynasts should be placed high in the ranks of performance poetry.

Published in three parts between 1904 and 1908, the terrestrial action runs from 1805 (the year of Trafalgar) to 1815 (Waterloo). Hardy visited the battlefield in 1876 and 1896 and the closing scenes suggest an intimate knowledge of the ground. There are some suggestions that Queen Victoria's name was chosen (1819) partly in honour of the victory.

The Dynasts runs to over 500 pages in most editions (140,000 words) and comprehends four broad elements:

1. Dialogue, some soliloquies (soldiers/ politicians/ emperors). The higher ranks speak in blank iambic pentameter ( / / / / /) and the lower orders in prose

2. Lyrics/ songs usually of the common soldiers and their loved ones

3. Musings of spirits and choruses in rhyming and blank verse, often monologues, sometimes dialogue inter se, occasionally speaking to the terrestrials

4. Intricate, occasionally panoramic, scene description

As Hardy's preface points out, there is a Wessex element in "Budmouth Dears" (Budmouth = Weymouth, Dorset) and "My Love's gone a-fighting" is set in Casterbridge (= Dorchester, Dorset). Hardy goes into some detail on the Wessex connection in the Preface: he refers inter alia to Nelson's Dorset-born flag-captain at Trafalgar.3 Since the action of The Dynasts spans the whole of Europe, Wessex plays a less prominent role there than perhaps in any other of Hardy's writings. Important Napoleonic connections with Dorset appear in several of Hardy's other works, including "The Alarm" from Wessex Poems and Other Verses (1898), The Return of the Native (1878), The Trumpet Major (1880) and the short story in Wessex Tales "The Melancholy Hussar" (1888). Boney actually plays the tourist on the Dorset coast in the short story, "A Tradition Of Eighteen Hundred And Four" (1882).

"When, as the first published result of these accidents, The Trumpet Major was printed, [1880],4 I found myself in the tantalizing position of having touched the fringe of a vast international tragedy" ("Preface"). By "accidents" Hardy means the Napoleonic Wars and the fortuitous Wessex connections as he saw them.

2. Engaging Spirits

In Henry V the Chorus introduces each act and closes the play with a sonnet. Tennyson and Hardy engage the spirits much more in the dialogue.


O hapless Harold!
King but for an hour!
Thou swarest falsely by our blessed bones,
We give our voice against thee out of heaven!
Sanguelac! Sanguelac! The arrow! the arrow!

HAROLD (starting up, battle-axe in hand).

My battle-axe against your voices. Peace!
The king's last word — 'the arrow!' I shall die —
I die for England then, who lived for England.

— Tennyson, Harold (first performed at Battle Abbey near Hastings, 1876)

The virtue of a spiritual interlocutor to focus the warrior on his grim reality will not be lost on readers of The Dynasts.


"Sic diis immortalibus placet," —
"Thus is it pleasing to the immortal gods,"
As earthlings used to say. Thus, to this last,
The Will in thee has moved thee, Bonaparte,
As we say now.

NAPOLEON (starting)

Whose frigid tones are those,
Breaking upon my lurid loneliness
So brusquely? . . . Yet, 'tis true, I have ever known
That such a Will I passively obeyed! — Dynasts, Part Third, VII, ix

3. "Heroic" Heroics

It is easy to see from where Hardy gets his ideas::


O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!


What's he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin:
If we are mark'd to die, we are enowv
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour. — William Shakespeare, Henry V, IV, iii (1598)

Hardy is the archetypal "gentlem[a]n in England now a-bed" . There seems to be no record of his even raising his voice in personal anger.

HILL (approaching)

I strongly feel you stand too much exposed!


I know, I know. It matters not one damn!
I may as well be shot as not perceive
What ills are raging here.


Conceding such,
And as you may be ended momently,
A truth there is no blinking, what commands
Have you to leave me, should fate shape it so?


These simply: to hold out unto the last,
As long as one man stands on one lame leg
With one ball in his pouch! — then end as I. — Dynasts, Part Third, VII, vii

So how do generals really speak to each other? Towards the climax of the Battle of Waterloo:

UXBRIDGE (starting)

I have lost my leg, by God!


By God, and have you! — Dynasts, Part Third, VII, viii

Sang too froid? Don't you believe it! Uxbridge's actual words were "My God, sir! I have lost my leg!" To which Wellington replied, "My God, sir, you have!" 5 The great problem is that the heroics of Hardy and his contemporaries have not stood the test of time. Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest still has audiences rolling in the aisles. A Woman of No Importance is horribly dated. No-one is to blame. We have moved on.

Tomalin condemns the terrestrial parts as having "neither spring not strength but feebly apes Shakespearean historical writing" (Tomalin, p. 293). But then:


If but a Kremlin cannon-shot had met me
My greatness would have stood: I should have scored
A vast repute, scarce paralleled in time.
As it did not, the fates had served me best
If in the thick and thunder of to-day,
Like Nelson, Harold, Hector, Cyrus, Saul,
I had been shifted from this jail of flesh,
To wander as a greatened ghost elsewhere.
— Yes, a good death, to have died on yonder field;
But never a ball came padding down my way

. . . To shoulder Christ from out the topmost niche
In human fame, as once I fondly felt,
Was not for me. I came too late in time
To assume the prophet or the demi-god,
A part past playing now. My only course
To make good showance to posterity
Was to implant my line upon the throne.
And how shape that, if now extinction nears?
Great men are meteors that consume themselves
To light the earth. This is my burnt-out hour! — Dynasts, Part Third, VII, ix

The out-and-out battle dialogue is difficult to digest and may be less sprightly, although, as has been shown, Hardy was working with the real words and his intention was to make the terrestrials and sprits foils for each other. This is the argument of Samuel Hynes but no-one who has actually performed The Dynasts would conceive it any other way (Hynes, ch. 9). To have made all parts equally "poetic" would have destroyed this balance. The reflective parts — when considered (wrongly) in isolation — are much more poetically enjoyable.

4. World War I and Hardy's "Heroic" Poetry

Few avoided family tragedy during World War I: Kipling's son Jack died at Loos in 1915. Hardy's relative and heir Frank George was killed at Gallipoli in the same year. The war greatly chastened the writers who started off in patriotic vein. Kipling was never the same again: Compare: "Tommy" (1890) with "Mesopotamia" (1917). In 1923 Sir Henry Newbolt spoke of his Vitai Lampada as "a kind of Frankenstein's Monster that I created thirty years ago".6

But Hardy was always less overtly martial. For his un-Victorian sensitivity to the relationship between a military father, his (initially) unmilitary son and perhaps one of the first diagnoses of delayed post-traumatic stress disorder read the short story "The Grave By The Handpost."7 Hardy was ahead of his time and his sensitivity is carried into The Dynasts. Hardy's pre-war/ early war verse was less gung-ho than Kipling's or Newbolt's but Hardy in the later years of the war/ post-war is a man who has been changed by the devastating events.

In our heart of hearts believing
Victory crowns the just,
And that braggarts must
Surely bite the dust,
Press we to the field ungrieving,
In our heart of hearts believing
Victory crowns the just. — Hardy, "Men who March Away" (1914)

'Peace upon earth!' was said. We sing it,
And pay a million priests to bring it.
After two thousand years of mass
We've got as far as poison-gas. — Hardy, "Christmas: 1924" (1924)

5. Lyrics, Songs


When we lay where Budmouth Beach is,
O, the girls were fresh as peaches,
With their tall and tossing figures and their eyes of blue and brown!
And our hearts would ache with longing
As we paced from our sing-songing,
With a smart CLINK! CLINK! up the Esplanade and down. — Dynasts, Part Third, II, i

He's having a laugh! The "Hiawatha" metre will resonate with readers west of the Atlantic.


My Love's gone a-fighting
Where war-trumpets call,
The wrongs o' men righting
Wi' carbine and ball,
And sabre for smiting,
And charger, and all. — Dynasts, Part Third, V, vi

Beautiful and haunting in their own right these lines are all the more powerful in the context of the whole.

6. The Interplay of the Elements

The interplay between the "heroic", lyric/ song and spirit elements is one of the great charms of The Dynasts and to condemn the way the military men are made to speak ignores the stressing of the message that those who climb high have a long way to fall.


To Thee whose eye all Nature owns,
Who hurlest Dynasts from their thrones,
And liftest those of low estate
We sing, with Her men consecrate!

These verses would not have the same impact without the setting up of the great characters for their fall in the sense that Hardy does.

Ver Poets' centenary performance (2008; see opened with "My Love's gone a-fighting" (see "Lyrics, Songs above") and ended with the same verses cut into the final speeches of the spirits:


Should it never
Curb or care
Aught whatever
Those endure
Whom It quickens, let them darkle to extinction swift and sure.


But — a stirring thrills the air
Like to sounds of joyance there
That the rages
Of the ages
Shall be cancelled, and deliverance offered from the darts that were,
Consciousness the Will informing, till It fashion all things fair! — Dynasts, Part Third, After Scene

7. The Dynasts — "a vast international tragedy"

So, then, to the true spiritual and pacific mood of the piece, a mood which would have been far less intense without the overt militarism. We may now struggle with the heroic treatment of Harold Godwinson, Henry V and Wellington. The spiritual part of The Dynasts endures in its defiant capacity to move us as we see the innocent and bewildered victims of conflict in the twenty-first century. This is one of the reasons why the following passage is still held in great regard by those who know The Dynasts.

This essay was written in January 2009 during the Israeli incursion into Gaza and the firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel. There was warfare in many other parts of the world with great civilian distress. Because it has been going on so long where there is no UK presence it is scarcely reported here. It would be wonderful if when you read this there is no current parallel and the vast international tragedy which "Yea, the coneys" encapsulates could be consigned to the dustbin of history.


Yea, the coneys are scared by the thud of hoofs,
And their white scuts flash at their vanishing heels,
And swallows abandon the hamlet-roofs.

The mole's tunnelled chambers are crushed by wheels,
The lark's eggs scattered, their owners fled;v And the hedgehog's household the sapper unseals.

The snail draws in at the terrible tread,
But in vain; he is crushed by the felloe-rim
The worm asks what can be overhead,

And wriggles deep from a scene so grim,
And guesses him safe; for he does not know
What a foul red flood will be soaking him!

Beaten about by the heel and toe
Are butterflies, sick of the day's long rheum,
To die of a worse than the weather-foe.

Trodden and bruised to a miry tomb
Are ears that have greened but will never be gold,
And flowers in the bud that will never bloom. — Dynasts, Part Third, VI, viii

Last modified 17 January 2009