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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Thomas Hardy (1840–1928)
Critical Introduction on Hardy’s Poetry by Gertrude Elizabeth Taylor Slaughter (1870–1963)
 
ALTHOUGH Hardy’s pre-occupation with the “visible dilemma” of the universe found its earliest expression in lyrics, it was only after the completion of the novels that he began, with the publication of ‘Wessex Poems’ in 1898, to win his reputation as a poet. In these twenty years he has devoted himself to lyric verse and to the colossal epic-drama, ‘The Dynasts.’  1
  The value of Hardy’s lyrics is the value of a dignified, sincere, apt, and often felicitous expression of an interesting mind. They are neither conceived by a powerful imagination nor executed by a master of diction. We miss in them the novelist’s imaginative treatment of nature. The poet sees in nature only more disheartening hatreds and rivalries than among men. Its message is that of ‘Yellham Woods,’ “Life offers—to deny.” He cannot escape the domination of a scientific formula, although in ‘The Darkling Thrush’ he almost attains to a poet’s freedom.  2
  The metaphysical background of the novels gains clearness and cohesion in the poems and receives its most comprehensive formation in ‘The Dynasts.’ The representation of the unequal struggle between individuals and the force of destiny—if struggle it may be called when material determinism controls the outcome—is repeated in numerous poems of incident or emotion which reveal, sometimes with a delicate sympathy, sometimes with irony, the poet’s pity for mankind. ‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’ is characteristic of his gentler mood:
  “Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by.
War’s annals will fade into night
Ere their story die.”
  3
  The chief concern of the lyrics, however, is to express the poet’s personal sense of the “rote-restricted ways” of life. The futile hopes, the lost chances, the vain regrets and dreams are all his own. He communes with phantoms and they show him the “sad, seared face” of life. He himself has slowly died and guards at best a fading memory for “sick life’s antidote.” He does not rebel. He forgives Blight and Death because they are, like himself, the slaves of Destiny. His mood is too passive to be called despair. He even dares to think, when the bird flings her song upon the gloom where there was “so little cause for caroling” that there may be
  “Some blessed hope whereof she knew
And I was unaware.”
  4
  There are moments of light and grace in this somber verse, as in ‘Shelley’s Skylark’ and ‘When I set out for Lyonnesse’; stories are sometimes told in a whimsical vein, as in ‘Lizbie Browne’; and in some of his later lyrics he seems to have grown less “old in apathy” and to have acquired a more serene outlook as well as a surer touch.  5
  ‘At a Lunar Eclipse’ represents Hardy’s prevailing mood and forecasts the metaphysic of ‘The Dynasts.’ The curving line of “imperturbable serenity” cast by the earth upon the moon excites wonder that “continents of moil and misery” can but “throw so small a shade.”  6
  ‘The Dynasts, a Drama of the Napoleonic Wars’ is conceived on a vast scale. It is more than a chronicle play. By the audacity of its plan it challenges comparison with Æschylean trilogy. Yet it throws aside the restraints of all drama, ancient or modern. It has the range of the great epics, and it attempts to do for the “modern cosmogony” what Milton did for the Hebraic. But it is not “an epic with Napoleon for its superman.” Its chief purpose is to show that the rôle of demigod is “a part past playing now.” Nor is it, as has been said, a “drama of nations.” Except for slight touches, like the rage of Prussia, there is no characterization of any of the “wan, weltering nations,” not even of France, to compensate for the lack of psychology in the treatment of Napoleon. ‘The Dynasts’ was obliged to dispense with both. What it does instead is to treat the chronicle of events, the whole sweeping current of the ten-years’ period between Napoleon’s crowning at Milan and his defeat at Waterloo, as a symbolization of the poet’s metaphysical conception of the universe. The drama becomes a vast moving-picture spectacle, three volumes long, with an audience of supernatural spirits who make their comments as the reel unwinds. These spirits, being conceived as emanations of the mind, express the meaning of events. Yet that mind itself, like the actors on the screen, is a figment of material energy.  7
  The splendid setting of the play is announced in the Forescene. The Spirit of the Pities and the Spirit of the Ironies, standing in general for the optimists and the pessimists, are discussing the state of Europe, with Napoleon ready to invade England, when the Spirit of the Years, who is the upholder of hard fact, bids them watch the spectacle and “count as framework to the stagery Yon architraves of sunbeam-smitten cloud.” After which,
          “The nether sky opens and Europe is disclosed as a prone and emaciated figure, the Alps shaping like a backbone and the branching mountains like ribs, the peninsular plateau forming a head. Broad and lengthy lowlands stretch from the north of France across Russia like a gray-green garment hemmed by the Ural Mountains and the glistening Arctic Ocean.”
  8
  The “key-scene of the whole” is then laid bare:
          “A new and penetrating light enduing men and things with a seeming transparency exhibits the organism of life and movement in all humanity and vitalized matter.”
  9
  The action begins at length with a realistic scene designed to reveal the meaning of “this Corsican mischief” to the inhabitants of the coast of Wessex, where the landing of Napoleon’s troops is hourly expected. From the rustics of the heath to the French admiral who says, “An emperor’s chide is a command to die,” the power of the “Mighty Futility” is reflected in people of every class and country. Through a bewildering succession of scenes in which the men and women of the streets, the toilers and the fighters, play their parts along with the rulers, the statesmen, generals, and queens, while the reader is swept from sea to sea, over broad plains where armies crawl like caterpillars, across rivers that wind like ribands or plunge in torrents as the view is from near or far, into ball-rooms and parliament house and tents and hovels, on the fields of great historic battles or in the thick of sea-fights,—through a stupendous variety of incident and scenery a certain unity is maintained by the continued portrayal of the effect of Napoleon’s character upon the individuals of the multitude.  10
  The scattered episodes are further united by the action of the chorus, who gather them into symbolic cohesion, involving them in one universal force, the Will that has no volition.
  “So the Will heaves through Space and molds the times
With mortals for its fingers. We shall see
Again men’s passions, virtues, visions, crimes,
Obey resistlessly
The purposive, unmotived, dominant Thing
Which sways in brooding dark their wayfaring.”
  11
  For this gain in unity there is a corresponding loss. Near the beginning, one spirit tells another to imagine for a while that men are responsible for their acts. If this illusion—so valuable for Art—could have been maintained the story would have been more interesting. But it is quickly dispelled; and whenever we become interested in a possible choice of action—as when Napoleon is reminded of his compact with Liberty—we are told at once that no choice is possible. Moreover, Napoleon is commended for understanding this fact. It enables him to justify himself on all occasions,—to Josephine, for example. What might have seemed cowardice becomes a virtue! His remorse, therefore, as typified by his vision of the Duc d’Enghien and the skeletons, has no deep significance.  12
  The “whirlwind of the Will” entails another loss. Nothing is more praiseworthy in ‘The Dynasts’ than the sense of wide horizons, of unrestricted motion and swift change. Yet the constant insistence upon the “predestined plot” cramps the space and imparts rigidity to the whole. Hardy attempted to relieve this rigidity by the repeated suggestion that the power he calls “It” may one day wake to consciousness. At the close of the Afterscene, the Pities chant the hymn they would have sung if things had been as they are not:
  “To Thee whose eye all Nature owns,
Who hurlest Dynasts from their thrones
And liftest those of low estate,
We sing, with Her men consecrate.”
And then we have this total breaking away from the main theme:
              “But a stirring fills the air
            Like to sounds of joyance there
            That the rages
            Of the ages
Shall be cancelled and deliverance offered from the darts that were;
Consciousness the Will informing till It fashion all things fair.”
  13
  The end is out of harmony with a plan designed to make clear “the intolerable antilogy of making figments feel.” The outcome on the human side is more fittingly expressed:—
  “Yet is it but Napoleon who has failed.
The pale, pathetic peoples still plod on
Through hoodwinkings to light.”
  14
  Hardy’s treatment of the “pale, pathetic peoples” is more impressive than his treatment of the dynasts. His beacon-keepers and effigy-burners are vital human beings, not related to the “economy of vitality,” and they are more real than his kings and diplomats. But when one considers the tragedy of the novels, one understands why Hardy chose Napoleon as the symbol of the tragic reality in the scheme of things. The greatest of puppets, he is of those who “wade across the world to make an epoch” and are in truth,
  “Like meanest insects on obscurest leaves
But incidents and tools of earth’s unfolding
Or as the brazen rod that stirs the fire
Because it must.”
  15
  He is an ignoble figure from the first. “His gait is defiant rather than dignified and a bluish pallor overspreads his face.” Pitt said, after Austerlitz,
      “Realms, laws, peoples, dynasties
Are churning to a pulp within the maw
Of empire-making lust and personal gain.”
Only in his collapse at the end is there a touch of the heroic:—
  “Most men are meteors that consume themselves
To light the earth. This is my burnt-out hour.”
  16
  There was needed a mighty singer for so great a venture as ‘The Dynasts.’ Hardy is at his best in the prose descriptions. His panorama is unforgettable. He has created also a sweep of action that carries one through masses of detail and much indifferent blank verse. He has given us many scenes of great power. And his treatment of the elements of warfare is remarkable. The human elements are all there, the most sordid and the most heroic, and the natural elements as well. The most beautiful lyrical passage is the Chorus that chants, above Waterloo, the consternation of all living things at the welter of war.  17
 
 
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