A Pessimist in Flower
The love songs of Thomas Hardy.
In 1912, when he was 72, Thomas Hardy began to write a series of love poems about his wife, Emma. The poems were unlikely for several reasons. First, for years he and Emma had been estranged, and she had retreated to sleep alone in the attic, where she wrote letters to friends about his unkindness. By this point, Hardy was a literary celebrity, and had maintained flirtations with more than one woman. His reputation was based largely on his fiction; his controversial later novels, among them Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, had cemented his stature as a portraitist of country life and thwarted small-town aspirations. Second, Hardy was famous for his indictment of marriage—a bishop publicly burned his copy of Jude, and a Victorian newspaper, shocked by it, labeled it "Jude the Obscene." What no one, including Hardy himself, would have guessed was that Emma would prove to be, as Claire Tomalin claims in her brisk new biography of the author, "his best inspiration." That fall, Emma suddenly fell ill, and she died before Hardy got a chance to say goodbye to her. In the months after her death, numerous poems in her memory poured out of him—love lyrics of acute regret in which one of his recurrent themes was distilled in its most distinctive form. That theme could be said to be our failure to perceive the shadowy outlines of our own experience; life, in Hardy's view, was nothing but a strangely prismed window onto the peculiar workings of time.
In many ways, Hardy must have seemed, when he published these poems, to be a relic. At a time when Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and other Modernists were breaking open the conventions available to poets, Hardy deployed traditional English ballad forms and archaic, sometimes awkward, inversions. He saw celebrating the "old ways" of England as one of his missions. Yet the best of the poems about Emmafit no category, and his traditionalism obscures a kind of radical modernity, an outlook that pierced through Victorian pieties to see the bedrock truth of an actual marriage. This may be why Virginia Woolf, alive to what made his work fresh, said that Satires of Circumstance, the 1914 collection in which the poems about Emma appeared, was "the most remarkable book to appear in my lifetime." He followed no Modernist doctrine, yet could be said to be more forward-looking than many of those who did.
The son of a mason, Hardy was an enterprising social climber at a time when a rigid class hierarchy was still in place. And he attained the success he sought—a trajectory, unlike beleaguered Jude's, that might well seem the embodiment of an optimistic faith in social justice. In 1870, he met Emma Gifford on an architectural business trip to Cornwall. Taken with her wildness and her fresh, rosy skin, he courted her despite the objections of her family—she was of a higher class than he—and they married in 1874. He had spent years writing at night and working for an architect by day, and it paid off when his novel Desperate Remedies was accepted by a publishing house. (His first novel, an attack on the upper classes, was rejected for its radical politics; thereafter, many of his novels were written and revised to fit the demands of the marketplace.) For a period, the marriage was a happy one. But over the years, Hardy's world expanded while Emma's shrank, and she lost the looks that had caught his eye. Soon he was conducting dalliances with well-born women; refining his satirical take on the hypocrisies of Victorianism; and further exploring atheism. All this alienated Emma, who was more religious than he; by some accounts, she grew "half-cracked" and "defensive." When she moved to the attic late in the marriage, she was embittered and irrevocably distanced from Hardy.
What is so remarkable about the Emma poems? In the 80 or so he wrote before he died—many of which are gathered in "Poems of 1912-13" from Satires of Circumstance—the profound paradoxes of Hardy's work are evident. As Michael Millgate, his most painstaking biographer, has pointed out in Thomas Hardy: A Biography Revisited, Hardy was profoundly nostalgic for the customs of preindustrial England and yet deeply skeptical about the pillars of Victorian morality and religion. The remorse expressed in his poems about Emma is double-edged and hard-headed, capturing the games time plays on us by holding us captive to impossible desires. (No wonder Proust liked his work.) Hardy does not exactly chastise himself for his indifference to Emma. Instead, he invokes his longing for the period when the couple met in North Cornwall, for when "our day was fair." What Hardy misses is not his wife, per se,but the woman she once was, and the promise she briefly embodied ("You were she who abode/ By those red-veined rocks far West …/ While life unrolled us its very best.")
The poem is sentimental, to be sure, but it is sentiment of a brutally realistic sort: The poem briskly discards such longing to note, "Well, well! All's past amend,/ Unchangeable. It must go./ I seem but a dead man held on end/ To sink down soon … O you could not know/ That such swift fleeing/ … would undo me so!" Unlike the Modernists, Hardy places little value on individual experience; the speaker's loss is rendered as an immense foreground only to be dismissed with the matter-of-factness that earned Hardy the label "pessimist" (but that he might himself have merely called "realist"). In his view, bleakness is not fatalism, but an accurate portrayal of the mechanics of life. That he insists so while appearing to inhabit forgotten emotions all over again is the more extraordinary—and one of the reasons these poems, with their condensed bursts of insight, are the equal of his best novels.
Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.