by Anthony Domestico
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was one of the most accomplished poets and novelists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Hardy’s career spanned generations, his first novels appearing at the same time as Middlemarch and his late poems arising during the high modernist period. While primarily celebrated as a novelist during his own time, Hardy considered himself first and foremost a poet, and his poetry has been duly celebrated in recent years. His most successful and admired novels depicted Wessex county, a fictional rural area set in the southwest of England; his poetry is notable for its deeply philosophical pessimism and its simultaneously self-reflexive and autobiographical nature.
Hardy was born at Higher Brockhampton in Dorset, England in 1840. He received his education from his mother, who had a predilection for Latin poetry and French romance. After some formal schooling, Hardy was apprenticed as an architect. His firm would work primarily on restoring churches, an ironic task given Hardy’s later struggles with the possibility of a benevolent Christian God in his poetry and prose. While working as an architect, Hardy met Emma Lavinia Gifford; the two married in 1874.
Hardy moved to London in 1862 where he attended King’s College, worked at an architectural firm, and began to read deeply in the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer. Hardy wrote idyllic rural poetry while living in this urban environment, but his verse was roundly ignored. In 1867, he decided to move back to Dorset and devote himself to his writing.
At the behest of George Meredith and desperately in need of a living, Hardy tried his hand at writing novels. In 1871 and 1872, Hardy published two novels anonymously; in 1873, A Pair of Blue Eyes appeared under his own name. The next year saw the appearance of Far From the Madding Crowd, the first novel that introduced the Wessex area and the work whose success enabled Hardy to make his living by his pen.
Over the next two decades, Hardy published a number of novels that challenged Victorian ideas of sexuality, religion, and class. Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) was particularly shocking in its depiction of female sexuality and violence. Jude the Obscure (1895) caused even more of a maelstrom. Both novels were castigated by critics for their liberal treatment of adultery and their morbidity. They seem to paint a world of determinism, in which blood, environment, and even God limit agency. Beyond his willingness to depict the carnal side of rural experience, Hardy was perhaps most unsettling for this deeply fatalistic view of mankind, a view that seemed to hedge in, if not eliminate altogether, man’s freedom of action.
After the uproar over Jude the Obscure, Hardy vowed to never write novels again, and he moved back towards his first and true love, poetry. His poetry varied in theme and form, ranging from the historical epic The Dynasts (1904-1908) to the dark Poems 1912-1913 that dealt largely with Emma Gifford’s death. Many of his prewar poems, such as “Channel Firing,” seemed to foreshadow the irony and bleakness that would characterize the modernist movement during and after the First World War. Indeed, his immediate pre-war poems set the tone for the modernist response to the war. His unsparing irony and willingness to gaze into the abyss of a deterministic universe offer a bridge between Hardy’s late, great novels and his poetry. They are also what made him a writer so admired by Ford Madox Ford, Virginia Woolf, Philip Larkin, and other modernists, early and late.