’Strange webs of melancholy’: Shelleyan Echoes in The Woodlanders

  • Lesley Higgins
Part of the Macmillan Literary Annuals book series (MLA)


Hardy’s mentor among Romantic poets, one might assume, was Wordsworth: the celebration of the commonplace advocated in the ‘Preface’ to Lyrical Ballads reaches its narrative apotheosis in the fourteen Wessex novels. Yet however much Hardy recreated ‘incidents and situations from common life’ featuring a ‘selection of language really spoken by men’, many of his philosophical and artistic impulses were shaped by his abiding admiration for the most erudite and esoteric Romantic, Percy Bysshe Shelley. The Dynasts and individual lyrics bear the imprint of Shelleyan thought and form; novels as superficially disparate as Desperate Remedies, Jude the Obscure, and The Well-Beloved are informed by deliberate allusions to Shelley’s poetry and subtle reinterpretations of such Shelleyan themes as Platonic idealism in love, the evanescence of human passion, and the tyranny of (to quote Queen Mab) ‘heart-withering custom’s cold control’. Yet little attention has been paid to The Woodlanders in this context.1 Begun in 1886, at the same time as Hardy was finishing The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Woodlanders is in many ways a ‘workshop’ novel: a flawed yet hauntingly original evocation of the homely beauties and the perilous fragility of the Wessex way of life, as well as a first attempt to develop narrative concerns and techniques only mastered in Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure.


Romantic Poet Human Passion Timber Merchant Notebook Entry Platonic Idealism 
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  1. 1.
    For an overview of Hardy’s allusions to Shelley, see William Rutland, Thomas Hardy: a Study of His Writings and Their Background (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1938) and F. B. Pinion, Thomas Hardy: Art and Thought (London: Macmillan 1977). Individual studies include: Phyllis Bartlett, ‘ “Seraph of Heaven”: A Shelleyan Dream in Hardy’s Fiction’, PMLA, LXX (1955) 624–37; Vern B. Lentz and Douglas Short, ‘Hardy, Shelley, and the Statues’, Victorian Poetry, 12 (1974) 370–2; Ian Ousby, ‘ “The Convergence of the Twain”: Hardy’s Alteration of PlatO’s Parable’, Modern Language Review, 77 (1982) 780–96; Michael Steig, ‘Fantasy and Mimesis in Literary Character: Shelley, Hardy, and Lawrence’, English Studies in Canada, I, 2 (Summer 1975) 160–71; Iris Tillman-Hill, ‘Hardy’s Skylark and Shelley’s’, Victorian Poetry, 10 (1972) 79–83; and G. Glen Wickens, ‘Romantic Myth and Victorian Nature in Desperate Remedies’ English Studies in Canada, VIII, 2 (June 1982) 154–73. Although he discusses Shelley’s influence on several Victorian novelists, Donald Stone does not feature Hardy in The Romantic Impulse in Victorian Fiction (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The remark comes in Hardy’s preface to the collected poems of William Barnes; quoted in Harold Orel, ed. Thomas Hardy: Personal Writings (London: Macmillan, 1967) p. 81.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    ‘Victorian’ Shelley is discussed in Carlos Baker, The Echoing Green (Princeton University Press, 1984) pp. 112–14; Roland Duerksen, Shelleyan Ideas in Victorian Literature (The Hague: Mouton & Co., 1966); Sylvia Norman, Flight of the Skylark: the Development of Shelley’s Reputation (London: Max Reinhardt, 1954); and Robert M. Smith et al., The Shelley Legend (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1945).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Sir James Barrie provided the first published account of Hardy’s beloved text of Shelley in ‘Barrie Reviews Hardy’, The Literary Digest, C (2 Feb. 1929) p. 22. Hardy’s annotations are the subject of a detailed article: Phyllis Bartlett, ‘Hardy’s Shelley’, Keats-Shelley Journal, IV (Winter 1955) 15–29. Robert Gittings, however, corrects Bartlett’s account of Hardy’s copies of Shelley in The Young Thomas Hardy (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd, 1978) p. 337, n. 17.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Michael Millgate, Thomas Hardy: a Biography (New York: Random House, Inc., 1981) p. 374.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Jean Brooks, Thomas Hardy: the Poetic Structure (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1971) p. 231.Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    Richard Fogle, The Imagery of Keats and Shelley (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1962) p. 49.Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    Milton Wilson, Shelley’s Later Poetry (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959) p. 103.Google Scholar

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© Norman Page 1987

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  • Lesley Higgins

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