Was Thomas Hardy a poet or a novelist?

23 July 2013 Kerala Commentary

What was Thomas Hardy really, a poet or a novelist?

Language, Literature and Criticism
Link: http://lnkd.in/PxT5-6

What was Thomas Hardy really, a poet or a novelist?
P S Remesh Chandran Trivandrum

Thomas Hardy really was a poet. But when he began to write poems in 1862, there were nobody to read them. Therefore, to attract an audience and to gain a good financial position he began to write novels with determination. As he was trained as an architect and pursued this profession for 11 years till he abandoned it in 1873, he showed the same skill in building his plots which made Under the Greenwood Tree, A Pair Of Blue Eyes, Far From The Maddening Crowd, The Return Of The Native, The Trumpet-Major, Two On A Tower and The Mayor Of Caster bridge highly successful. The money gained thus made his life successful and this architect built a beautiful home for him in Dorchester in 1885. He mingled in the literary and social circles in London and made friendships with Browning, Matthew Arnold and Tennyson. After writing a few more novels including The Woodlanders, Tess and Jude The Obscure, he ended his novel-writing career in 1894.

Thus this determined poet, after gaining countless number of readers through novels, in 1898 began publishing the equally countless number of poems written through the years. They were as varied as poems on Nature and Man, Love, The Past and the Present of His Life, Poems Dramatic and Personative and Ballads and Narrative Poems. Nobody knew they were written many years back. The unknowing critics of his times considered his first volume of poetry as the mere caprice of an ageing novelist who would do better to stick to prose. He was sad about this and noted in his Life that many of these verses were written before their author dreamt of novels. He wrote, the date of publication is but an accident in the life of a literary creation and it denotes only when the contents start into being for the outside public. He always regarded him as a poet who had to write novels for a living. His poems are held in high esteem for their rich musical content. The poem on the British bombardments on the 'Valenciëen' will still look written yesterday, if the single word is replaced with Vietnäam. Other poems also are equally musical.

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Regarding the comment, ‘You know, I came here thinking you actually wanted to know. But you've already decided what the answer is. If you had asked me, my answer would have been: does it matter, and if it does, how do you define each? Even if you define those, what of people who do both well? Will you call them novelist-poets or poet-novelists? In the end, these labels are fairly arbitrary, wouldn't you say?’

P S Remesh Chandran Trivandrum • Thomas Hardy very much wished to be known as a poet rather than as a novelist. Unlike novels, poetry is condensed thought, and he wished to be known for poetry. It was only to draw an audience towards him and to make them read his poems that Hardy wrote novels, far later in life than he started writing novels. Unfortunately, his novels became tremendously successful and no one would admit he was a poet. Even then he stopped writing novels; not to write poems but to begin publishing them. If this intellect ardently wished to be known as a poet and we deny him this humble privilege, even without considering the merits of his poems over his novels, it is sad indeed. Many people who have read his novels, except littérateurs, do not even know he was an acclaimed poet, far better and precise in thoughts and in their expression than the novelist in him. When his overwhelming popularity as a novelist prevented his fame as a poet, he tried in every way to prove that he had been writing poems since very early years, quoting dates. How furious he became at this kind of denial of poet hood to him by his contemporaries can be gauged from other incidents which happened in London in those times. Another Londoner of his times, William Shakespeare, also wished to be known for his poems rather than for his plays. Shakespeare considered himself a poet, not a dramatist. When a Shakespeare Memorial Theatre was to be constructed in London, Thomas Hardy opposed it publicly and condemned the movement, vehemently protesting that Shakespeare was no more a playwright but a poet and predicted that he would soon be begun to be considered so. His prediction became true; Shakespeare has now been recognized as a poet and has ceased to be acted on stage; he is now being studied in universities as he wished. The people of his times denied Thomas Hardy poet hood. Why should we also?

Regarding the comment, ‘I suggested so such thing. Maybe re-reading my comment will help you understand what I mean.’ At least over here in the US, as well as in Europe, Shakespeare is still very much acted on stage.’

P S Remesh Chandran Trivandrum • No offense, dear Ms. ….. You never suggested any thing I do not agree with and I really appreciated your observation. As a critic, I really like you to use your pen like a surgeon's knife. That is what the greatest critic I mention in the end of this short note did in his lifetime.

I was not labelling these two writers, Hardy and Shakespeare as poets, playwrights or novelists but was only repeating their well known wish to be recognized as poets, a position of much esteem in those times when novel was only blooming. It was a general observation that Shakespeare has ceased to be acted on stage as a dramatist but is being studied in Universities as a poet. It was his wish, like it was Hardy's. Actually his plays were poetical masterpieces, except for a few non-poetic utterances here and there, which shall be acknowledged as such and given due credit. We have to see that both Hardy and Shakespeare were master craftsmen in poetry- Hardy in poetry with individuality and Shakespeare in poetry imprisoned in his plays. Because they excelled in twin literary forms, we certainly are unsure of what to call them and our usual method in dealing with such situations is coining words to qualify them as both. But they themselves knew about this confusion which was there even in their own times and have cleared it for us, by revealing their express wishes to be recognized as poets. It is better to depend on their judgment. As pointed out, what will we call a few writers other than these, like, for example Matthew Arnold, who have led us into exactly similar situations?

Regarding the comment, ‘I have read many of Hardy's poems and enjoy them immensely. After reading one of his novels, and seeing a couple of his novels made into films, I decided I'd rather read his poetry! So for me he is a poet. Of course, we can't categorize him in such an offhand manner, but people are described how they are known generally and not how they want to be known.’

P S Remesh Chandran Trivandrum • Substitute the word Valencieën in Hardy’s poem with Vietnaäm, and the poem walks up two centuries. The poem Valencieënnes was written by Thomas Hardy in 1793, as sung by Corporal Tullidge in The Trumpet Major, written in memory of a pensioner soldier. He himself in his prefaces to his poems has said that under compulsive circumstances, he has had to have many of his poems loosened into prose instead of compressing imagination and ideas into poems as he wished. Keeping poems like this for years and years and years till he can gain popularity for novels and then making readers go through his poems was sad. We have never known or ever recognized Hardy as a poet who had sentiments on the horrors war victims undergo. He did create this as a poem instead of expanding and loosening it into a novel as his readers and publishers would have wished. Long years after the horrors of the Viet Nam War, decades after reading about the strong opposition to this war from American citizens, soldiers and congressmen, it would be how prophetically Hardy predicted things two centuries earlier. Those who read this poem simply substitute Valencieën with Vietnaäm, wherever that word appears and see how the poem seems to have been written yesterday.

The Valencieëns

We trenched, we trumpeted and drummed,
And from our mortars tons of iron hummed
Ath’art the ditch, the month we bombed
The Town o’ Valencieën.

‘Twas in the June o’ Ninety-dree
(The Duke o’ Yark, our then Comander been)
The German Legion, Guards, and we
Laid siege to Valencieën.

This was the first time in the war
That French and English spilled each other’s gore;
* dreamt how far would roll the roar
Begun at Valencieën.

‘Twas said that we’d no business there
A-topperèn the French for disagreën;
However, that’s not my affair –
We were at Valencieën.

Into the streets, ath’art the sky,
A hundred thousand balls and bombs were fleën;
And harmless townsfolk fell to die
Each hour at Valencieën.

They bore my wownded frame to camp,
And shut my gapèn skull, and washed en cleän,
And jined en wi’ a zilver clamp
Thik night at Valencieën.

‘We’ve fetched en back to quick from dead;
But never more on earth while rose is red
Will drum rouse Corpel!’ Doctor said
O’ me at Valencieën.

‘Twer true, No voice o’ friend or foe
Can reach me now, or any livèn been;
And little have I power to know
Since then at Valencieën.

I never hear the zummer hums
O’ bees: and don’ know when the cuckoo comes;
But night and day I hear the bombs
We threw at Valencieën.

Those who try to sing this song will soon realize that it has fine band music impregnated. The year of this poem is marked differently.

Regarding the comment: I am wondering where you discovered that Shakespeare wished to be known as a poet and not a dramatist. His plays and poems were both published in his lifetime. Shakespeare has not ceased to be acted on the stage. In fact he is quite alive on the stage and film.

P S Remesh Chandran Trivandrum • What I am wondering is how vehement might have been the uproar and fury when Thomas Hardy in his times in London raised this subject of William Shakespeare desiring to be considered as a poet rather than as a playwright. It was simply not acceptable then to recognize one for his poetic talents. Even today, among academics, we can see this reluctance to accept him as a poet, even while they teach his poems in universities. They simply explain that he is not a poet but a dramatist. They cannot walk back in time. It was this honour to be taught in universities that Thomas Hardy mentioned as a privilege of the poet. He predicted: Shakespeare will cease to be acted on stage and begun to be studied. Today, poets are the most discarded lot, in printing industry as well as in electronic media. Many websites and publishers say, 'no poetry please.' But till the time of the industrial revolution, to be recognized in society and in universities as a poet was a great honour which every poet of those times wished for himself. Not that playwrights had not a place but theirs was what is that of poets' now- secondary everywhere. It was great reluctance of academics in royal institutions then to recognize one as a poet; it was convenient and easier to brand him as a playwright, novelist or critic, as in the case of Shakespeare, Hardy or Arnold, regardless of what that writer actually wished to be known for. Let us leave it to Thomas Hardy to judge on what William Shakespeare of his times and of his city wanted to be recognized as, a poet or a playwright, if we are still adamantly refusing to accept that poethood was the most desired and covetous position for writers in bygone times, that Shakespeare mounted stage merely for making a living, and that his plays are nothing but poems with the exemption of a few unpoetic utterances here and there. Why did Thomas Hardy emphatically demand that Shakespeare must be recognized as a poet and studied in universities rather than as a playwright and acted on stage, and why did he vehemently oppose the construction of a drama theatre in London as Shakespeare memorial? When was Shakespeare actually begun to be studied in universities? Answers to these questions will shed more light on the secondary subject of this discussion, I think.

Regarding the comment: 'I don't think we can judge Shakespeare only through the eyes of Thomas Hardy. You have the likes of Samuel Johnson, Coleridge and Pope and myriads of scholars to contend with as well, just to name a few of those who sometimes admired and sometimes did not admire Shakespeare as a poet and as a dramatist. I think you will find that Shakespeare has been read in universities at least since the middle of the 19th century and produced on stage since the Restoration. And in Shakespeare's time, dramatists were sponsored by royalty, Shakespeare eventually belonged to the Kings Men, so they were acknowledged and their works were published. While his works weren't always in the public's eye, after the Restoration he became very popular and editions of his works remained in print. What seems important is not that Shakespeare be studied in universities, but that he is produced and watched and that people do learn about poetry from him. Any time you have to produce, read, speak or write about Shakespeare, you must acknowledge the poetry and the drama. 
In his case, I don't think you can separate the poet from the dramatist. I wonder if Hardy's demand, which I vaguely recall from my reading since I am also an admirer, is to see Shakespeare exclusively as a poet. The answer to your question about his opposition to a Shakespeare memorial is easily found on Wiki Answers.' 

P S Remesh Chandran Trivandrum • As I was eager to collect more information on Hardy's questioning the relevance of celebrating Shakespeare not as a poet but as a playwright, I looked up Wiki Answers as Ms. Linda Stumbaugh suggested, to find an informative answer to my question, why Thomas Hardy vehemently opposed the construction of a drama theatre in London as Shakespeare memorial. What I saw there was, I regret to say, unfortunately what I myself wrote there sometime back, as Sahyadribooks, my user name. That information is not enough; a more comprehensive academic answer was what I sought. I am reproducing here what I found.

'Why did Thomas Hardy disapprove establishing a Shakespeare Memorial Theatre?


Thomas Hardy was once invited to join a committee to establish a Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. His reply was that he was feeling against the desirability of such a memorial to Shakespeare. His observations and opinions on Shakespeare were uncommon but genuine. Hardy believed that Shakespeare did not particularly belong to the theatre world. His distinction as a theatre man was infinitesimal beside his distinction as a poet and as a man of letters. That his expression of himself was cast in the form of words for actors on the stage and not in the form of books to be read, was an accident of his social circumstances which he himself despised. Thomas Hardy here also made the prophetic remark that, of all poets of high rank whose works have taken a stage direction, Shakespeare will someday cease altogether to be acted on stage, and simply begin to be studied. Hardy thus proclaimed his stand against any material monument to the poet, as his works were a great monument. However he later consented to the commissioning of some 'colossal' statue in some place public. Hardy himself has noted these in his Life. He specifically noted the word 'colossal' to denounce the tastes of the vulgar minds of his times, which are exactly applicable to us in our modern times. Vulgarity never changes with Ages.


As Ms. ….doubts, Hardy’s attempt was not to disparage Shakespeare as a playwright but to establish him as a poet. I thank her for the comment which is enlightening in most points.'

A picture of this 'colossal' monument for Shakespeare which Hardy finally consented to can be seen by visiting http://nut.bz/.ajc3xow/ at Sahyadri Books's Blog.

Who contributed to this discussion:

Annette C. Boehm, Patricia Pat Blake, Linda Stumbaugh,
and your editor, P.S.Remesh Chandran, Trivandrum.


There are several learned, informative and interesting comments in this discussion. To see the original discussion page in Linked In, this link can be used. Link: http://lnkd.in/PxT5-6 . Due to Linked In policy of protection of privacy, only Linked In members can view the profiles pages of those writers, editors and publishers who contributed to this discussion. If you have a Linked In account you can use it or you can create one using this link. Thank you for reading through this discussion.

This discussion is posted in Language, Literature and Criticism
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23 July 2013 Kerala Commentary