Learning to love Thomas Hardy

I couldn’t have been introduced to the poems of Thomas Hardy at a worse time. Starting my English A’Level aged sixteen, with a massive schoolgirl crush on heroic rebel poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, I was not impressed with Hardy’s gentle country bumpkin reflections on the harshness of rural Dorset life.  My poor English teacher was faced with a task equivalent to my parents trying to persuade me to see the merits of the Dubliners compared to the Stone Roses. I was literally about 30 years too young to get it.

I did come out of my A’Level years with an appreciation of Shakespeare and Arthur Miller, but despite the best efforts of a lovely and enthusiastic teacher, I couldn’t feel anything other than contempt for poor old Thomas Hardy (and Howard Jacobson’s description of him in Peeping Tom as a ‘prurient little Victorian ratbag’ only convinced me that I was right). At the time my best friend and I considered ourselves rather brilliant satirists, and penned a Hardy-style piss-take, which if memory serves went something like:

Oh the pain!

Through the rain

Death looms again

I wait in vain

Of course all this arrogant teenage contempt had its consequences, and I made such a mess of the Hardy question on my final exam that it dragged my grade down to a B. So fast-forward a quarter of a century, and it’s a surprise to realise that I now like Hardy’s poems so much that some of them actually bring a lump to my throat. Just as certain song lines become earworms, part of the soundtrack of your life, because they describe your own experience so well, I find myself muttering random Hardy quotes in times of heightened emotion.

Of course 13YO and 7YO find this rather alarming, as I refer to their resemblance to their granny with the words “that immortal thing in man that heeds no call to die”, or I stomp along on winter walks muttering about how ‘every spirit upon earth seems fervourless as I”… And when I insist on reading aloud The Oxen on Christmas Eve, well, they can’t get out of the room quick enough, and frankly, who can blame them?

Last week’s Song Lyric Sunday prompt (to share a song about getting old) got me thinking about Hardy again. Because really, that’s his thing. If Victorian publishers had talked in terms of USP’s and distinctive offers, lump-in-your-throat-reflections-about-the-passing-of-time-and-missing-your-dearly-departed-loved-ones was what Hardy brought to the table. So having shared a song about getting old a few days ago, I’m going to share a poem on the same theme, The House of Hospitalities. Because Christmas can be a grim time if you’re remembering family or friends who are no longer around, and this reflection on an empty house … well, for me, it just nails it:

Here we broached the Christmas barrel,
Pushed up the charred log-ends;
Here we sang the Christmas carol,
And called in friends.

Time has tired me since we met here
When the folk now dead were young,
And the viands were outset here
And quaint songs sung.

And the worm has bored the viol
That used to lead the tune,
Rust eaten out the dial
That struck night’s noon.

Now no Christmas brings in neighbours,
And the New Year comes unlit;
Where we sang the mole now labours,
And spiders knit.

Yet at midnight if here walking,
When the moon sheets wall and tree,
I see forms of old time talking,
Who smile on me.

Thomas Hardy, reproduced from https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-house-of-hospitalities/

So there you go. Time has gradually turned me into a Hardy fan – does this mean I’m getting old? (I also found my foot tapping along to the Dubliners not so long ago, so I’m afraid it does!)

6 thoughts on “Learning to love Thomas Hardy

  1. I always felt inflicting Hardy on sixth-formers verged on cruelty, and would never do it. But I imagine you must have come across a war poem which I taught as part of an FWW anthology “In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations'”, which we always found powerful because it was so skilfully understated…

    Liked by 1 person

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