Mr. Thomas Hardy Composing a Lyric

William W. Morgan

Illinois State University


What would happen, I have sometimes wondered, if we put aside all scholarly detachment and the deliberateness of our critical methods in order to ask some simple and perhaps naive questions about Thomas Hardy and his poetry--questions like Why did he write verse? How did he write it? What were his feelings about the process of writing and about the poems that emerged from it? What kind of emotional investment was involved for him? To what extent did he become, as it were, "someone else" when he was in the act of writing verse?--or, did he think of writing poetry as an unmediated, direct, and sincere revelation of self? Such questions are unapologetically humane--the kind one would hope to hear, perhaps, from a sensitive interviewer talking with a living poet-- and they are engaging because they offer to restore the writer to a position of importance in the reading of his own works and to legitimize critical curiosity about the poet as human being. But for all their fresh promise, they lead, finally, to critical and intellectual dead ends: they focus our attention somewhere outside language and locate the most significant behavior of the poet in a domain that is, ultimately, inaccessible; they suggest that the verse Hardy created is most appropriately understood as the consequence of an order of desires that exists independent of that verse, and they promote that extra- linguistic, extra-poetic order of desires into a position of prominence and interpretive authority. We probably have no difficulty believing that as citizen--as human being--Hardy lived within such a structure of desires or that his verse is in some tenuous sense the "fallout" from them, but even if we believe that specifically as poet he also had a life that was extra-linguistic, that "poet's" life, like the life of the citizen, died with him on January 11, 1928. All that is left to us is language--his own and that of others--in his poems, novels, letters, and notebooks, and in the huge body of commentary that has arranged itself around his life and work.

Whenever, therefore, I have actually tried to begin "interviewing" an imaginary Hardy from the kind of starting point that my opening questions imply, I have inevitably had to fall back upon the methods of literary analysis in which I have been trained, since all of the sources of available information are stubbornly textual--and therefore insistent on having things their own way. I have not, however, been quite willing to give up the questions as dilatory irrelevances, since it seems to me that if they can be turned into questions about writing they open up new possibilities for talking about the poet as thinking-feeling subject in relation to the language that he writes--or that, in some critical formulations, "writes" him. If the phenomenon we call Hardy the Poet, which for us can only be signified by a collection of fairly miscellaneous texts, is to be known more fully, the only route of access is through texts. Instead of abandoning my questions, therefore, I have displaced them, and collapsed them all into this double one: "What goes on in the rhetorical moment, i.e., in the immediate texture of intentions and choices in which Hardy the poet is situated when he writes?--and what sources of evidence are there to help me see him within this process?" With this pair of questions in mind, I have tried to blunt the usual authority of the "finished" text of his poems by taking each textual state of a poem as a text in itself and by treating his extra-poetic writing (notebooks, letters, and the like) with the kind of seriousness that is usually reserved for the privileged "final" text of a poem. I have examined any source I could find among the residue of his career, in an effort to conjure for myself an image of Hardy the poet in the act of being Hardy the poet. The image I have been pursuing, once formulated, might be called, "Mr. Thomas Hardy Composing a Lyric." Some readers will know this phrase as the title of the Max Beerbohm caricature of Hardy after which, as a small tribute, I have named this essay. We might fancy that Beerbohm was thinking about the same kinds of questions when he created his cartoon: it shows a rapt Hardy (with a huge head and a slight body) alone atop a hill in a barren landscape just at nightfall, watched over by an owl and a moon (or is it a setting sun?), looking abstractedly past the viewer towards some indeterminate point at the near-right horizon outside the frame, and apparently mulling over an idea while he leans on his stick, chin in hand. One of my students has said the drawing should be called "The Darkling Owl."

But clearly Beerbohm's implicit proposal about Hardy's method of composition, charming as it is, won't get me very far, since it is decidedly anti-textual: there isn't a sign of pen and paper, and what I want to know is how it felt for Hardy to write in the fullest sense of the word--to encounter feeling, thought, language, textuality and the poetic tradition in a moment (or series of moments) of creation--not just to brood about writing. From bits and pieces gathered here and there, I have constructed for myself an image of Hardy at work, and I have derived what I take to be a model of the process that he used for writing verse. What I propose to do in this essay is, first, to summarize my idea of his process of composition, second, to describe the last step in that process, the step we call revision, locating and defining it as a part of the larger process, and, finally, to try to offer a coherent image of Hardy the poet at work in not just one but several different rhetorical moments--all of this as a way of suggesting how we might more profitably (because more knowledgeably) read him and his poetry. Each of the steps in his practice seems to have had a particular kind of emotional resonance for Hardy, and I would propose that knowing what the steps were and what they meant to him can open up new rewards for us as readers of Hardy's verse, whether we choose to read it in a scholarly edition complete with variant readings (as I usually do), in a battered old copy of Collected Poems (London: Macmillan, 1930) as most of Hardy's non-academic readers have done for over 60 years, or in a college textbook as most of our students will do. . . .

JEGP (July 1993): 342-58.