Try living in the real world, instead of a shell
I was bored before I even began, crooned Stephen Patrick Morrissey in the dim and distant days of the eighties.
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There was a time that I, as a young man gazing in befuddlement at the folly of man, might have nodded my head in agreement with that statement. However, the realm of introspection can lead to a world of deep confusion and foolish misinformation. I come from a strong lineage of stubborn inward-types who point-blank refuse to ask others for help, even when it would be in their best interest to do so. As a consequence, my father grew up thinking that bonfire meant some French exclamation to indicate a wonderful fire, and that a cashew was a type of nut that made you sneeze. I wont even mention what he made of pistachio.
Woe, Woebegone & Woe Betide
As soon as I worked out just what this meant for me in the real world a state of tentative apprehension and self-imposed dislocation from normal people I turned to gloom-filled novels for comfort. Enter then, stage left, laughing boy Thomas Hardy. Throughout the late 19th century, this troubled genius from Dorset gave us a slue of far-from-optimistic texts such as the unavoidable Tess of the DUrbervilles (1891) and the ultra-tragic Jude The Obscure (1896). These two novels were perfect fodder for my short-lived craving for woe; the latter about a lass driven to murder followed by her subsequent hanging and the former about a man fighting against class prejudice followed by the subsequent suicide of his brood. All misery-soaked and glorious texts that helped me ride the storm cloud for a bit.
In fact, throughout the entire published oeuvre of this novelist, one will find a generous helping of woe. Allow me to elaborate. I know you are just dying to know. Excuse the pun. Under The Greenwood Tree (1872) began this dedication to the ways of woe when his idyllic character had no choice but to marry his wife, which is not exactly horrific, granted, but this forced ending has a purpose the limitation of the protagonists options here are deployed to illustrate the bitter ironies of life. But there are worse examples. Just you wait. The remainder of his texts are dominated by characters who are not masters of their own fates, shock-horror, but who are at the mercy of indifferent forces that manipulate their behaviour with other people. He also likes to stage cruel coincidences to show how ambition and desire within a person can often be at a crossroads, and that fate is the most malevolent bastard of all. So, all in all, the perfect novelist for the woe-seeker I once was. What halcyon days
Mind That Hap
Despite all this downbeat material, Thomas Hardy was by no means some fatalistic fool wallowing in the crummy side of life. In fact, he described himself as a meliorist, which I found out just a second ago means someone who believes the world can be improved through sheer human effort. More importantly, he claimed to demonstrate this belief throughout the bulk of his poetry, of which this is a definitive collection. There, I mentioned it just give me a Not Helpful now, ye critical swines! Hardy was a finer novelist than he was poet, it is true, but I find that a great bulk of his work is in fact hugely rewarding and works hard to convey an elegiac feeling of loss or regret. It is true that the same pessimism that dogs his written works can also be found in his poetry, which arguably works to improve its emotional impact. Some of his poems are verse anecdotes that again deal with the perversity and cruelty of fate, whereas others deal with more profound subject matter including inevitably death.
Hap is an example of a poem where he bleats about a world ruled by chance, that boasts the joyous third line: Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy. Whereas in contrast to this there are remarkable poems such as The Walk about the loss of his wife that manage to articulate a sense of loss with such precision his poetic talent is undeniable. His poetry has, by some nasty critic types, been criticised as amateurish, but other nasty critic types argue that it manages to thrive and impress because of its convincing authenticity, and that his conviction is often wrung from making his rhymes sound as though they might have come from a trained poet (Hardy was largely self-taught). His use of ballad rhythms (the four-line stanza) apparently often give an elemental and spontaneous edge to his work that means it adequately conveys real profundity when dealing with heavy themes in the human condition. Impressed yet?
Hardy By Name
For those who remain unconvinced Thomas Hardy deserves to be thought of as one of the great English poets, this collection should help convert all doubters. Here is one gratis snippet just for the sake of indulgence. Neutral Tones is one of my own personal favourites from this collection, capturing personal memories of a moment with his own wife from the foliage around him and perhaps demonstrates him at the height of his sorrowful, natural powers:
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 grey.
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 greyish leaves.
Another fine reason I shall never attempt to write a single line of poetry again. That one was free but the rest will cost you. Other favourites of mine here are those poems on death, which are some of the strongest on the grave subject (all apologies), such as the emotive One We Knew and the ironic Ah, Are You Digging On My Grave? He also tackled hot issues in the Victorian world around him, such as the Anglo-German naval squabbles of Channel Firing and the rather menacing lines he penned about the Titanic disaster The Convergence of the Twain.
Hardy By Nature
There are lots of poems here I know little about, thanks to my limited intelligence, but are captivating in their execution nonetheless, such as the moody The Darkling Thrush and the sniping The Workbox. But that should not ruin enjoyment for all those erudite peoples versed in much verse. He also etches some characters and has mini-dramas at play in some of his longer works, such as his devastating The Ruined Maid (self-explanatory) and A Trampwomans Tragedy (lots of walking).
This collection, or for that matter any similar collection with all his verse, is the last piece of intrigue for the Thomas Hardy devotee, since for the last thirty years of his life his writing consisted of just these merry poems and no novels. His work is of course public domain, and all his poems can be found on the internet for free, but he looks damned fine in ones bookcase all the same. Those with a penchant for poets with a stern, resilient voice and unbreakable verbal and emotional integrity, searching for answers amid the bitter ironies of life should fine this collection a blast. Hands up, anyone? Everyone else pick up the best of Pam Ayres. Adieu.
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