Thursday, March 5, 2009

Literature moment: Thomas Hardy

Currently I am reading Tess of the D'Urbervilles--book review to come next week. But when I was reading the intro to the novel, there was a piece of biographical information that brought back to mind my studies of Thomas Hardy in my British Literature survey course I was required to take at University. Oddly enough it wasn't Hardy's novels that we studied--but his poetry. Before he made a name for himself as a novelist with books such as The Return of the Native and Jude the Obscure, he started out with poetry. His poems weren't originally well received, and so he turned to fiction, with great success--until the "scandalous" nature of his last two novels, Tess and Jude, created such an uproar of Victorian sensibilities that he turned from fiction back to poetry. He was a famous Victorian era novelist--and became a famous twentieth century poet, who inspired the likes of T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden (also favorites of mine). Because poetry isn't generally read as widely as fiction nowadays, I wanted to share a couple of my favorite Hardy poems. I think it is such a shame that his poetry isn't as well known as his novels, because that "bifurcation" of his career, from Victorian novelist to twentieth century poet is for me both brilliant and intriguing. The first poem, "Neutral Tones," was an early poem, published in 1898. I love the stark images, the ominous tone, the line, "alive enough to have strength to die," sends chills down my spine every time I read it. Pure brilliance. The second poem was written in 1914, is about WWI, and references in the title a line from Jeremiah 51:20, "Thou art my battle axe and weapons of war: for with thee will I break in pieces the nations, and with thee will I destroy kingdoms."

Neutral Tones

We stood by a pond that winter day,
And the sun was white, as though chidden of God,
And a few leaves lay on the starving sod;
--They had fallen from an ash, and were gray.

Your eyes on me were as eyes that rove
Over tedious riddles of years ago;
And some words played between us to and fro
On which lost the more by our love.

The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing
Alive enough to have strength to die;
And a grin of bitterness swept thereby
Like an ominous bird a-wing. . . .

Since then, keen lessons that love deceives,
and wrings with wrong, have shaped to me
Your face, and the God-curst sun, and a tree,
And a pond edged with grayish leaves.

In Time of "The Breaking of Nations"

Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.

Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.

Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by:
War's annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die.
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