Recasting Hardy the Poet (1996)

  • Peter Widdowson


Hardy’s poetry, on the whole, has not had a very satisfactory critical press — which may immediately tell us something about the difficulty of determining the nature of the achievement in his enormous poetic oeuvre. At the outset, when Hardy first turned again to poetry after completing his career as a novelist (see Chapter 1, pp. 25–6), the reviewers resented his decision to take up another genre and were often fiercely critical of his work in it. The Saturday Review, on the publication of Wessex Poems, infamously commented on ‘this curious and wearisome volume, these many slovenly, slipshod, uncouth verses, stilted in sentiment, poorly conceived and worse wrought’; rejected some of the ballads there as ‘the most amazing balderdash that ever found its way into a book of verse’; and wondered why ‘the bulk of the volume was published at all — why he did not himself burn the verse’.1 E. K. Chambers, also on WP, noted that Hardy’s ‘success in poetry is of a very narrow range’; and, in a view which has become a primary feature of Hardy’s critical reception and evaluation as a poet, limited his ‘success’ to a ‘small cluster of really remarkable poems’.2 On Poems of the Past and the Present, The Academy judged in 1901: ‘there is more of sheer poetry in his novels’; and The Athenaeum that Hardy ‘is wholly mistaking his vocation’ in switching from fiction to verse.3 Conversely, in the last quarter of this century, now that ‘the essential qualities of his genius’,4 so it seems, can be taken for granted and we know that his ‘voice’ is ‘capable of greatness’,5 Hardy’s poetry is the subject of long, painstaking critical monographs full of exegesis, appreciation and interpretation — which nevertheless still leave me, at least, unsure that I am any closer to an understanding of ‘the essential qualities of his genius’, of what constitutes his ‘unique poetic voice’.6 Trevor Johnson’s A Critical Introduction to the Poems of Thomas Hardy (1991), for example — devoted and thorough though it is — is too self-assured in tone and judgement to be convincingly illuminating; even Tom Paulin’s highly regarded, but by now ageing, Thomas Hardy: The Poetry of Perception (1975) raises a question as to the worth of linear critical narratives identifying themes, motifs or tropes in an individual writer’s work; and Dennis Taylor’s immensely learned two books on Hardy’s poetry, despite gestures towards contemporary theoretical initiatives, in fact continue the largely exegetical and descriptive tradition of critical attention paid to his poems.7 We are — to recast F. E. Smith’s classic mot — much better informed, but no wiser.


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© Peter Widdowson 1998

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  • Peter Widdowson

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