Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), the English novelist and poet, is perhaps better known by many people for his novels than his poetry. Naming just a few of his stories—Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Far from the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge and Jude the Obscure, for example—brings instantly to mind Hardy’s native Dorsetshire, called Wessex in his books, along with his naturalism and pervasive sense of fatalism.
Adverse criticism following the publication of Jude the Obscure in 1896, however, led Hardy to abandon writing fiction. In a 1912 Postscript to the book, Hardy discusses the harsh criticism leveled at it sixteen years earlier by critics in England and America. He writes: “So much for the unhappy beginning of Jude’s career as a book. After these verdicts from the press, its next misfortune was to be burnt by a bishop—probably in his despair at not being able to burn me.” He goes on to say that, in time, “somebody discovered that Jude was a moral work—austere in its treatment of a difficult subject.” After that, he tells us, “many uncursed me, and the matter ended.” But for Hardy, it was too late; he notes the effect that all of this had on him: “the experience completely curing me of further interest in novel-writing.”
Fortunately, Hardy, an incredibly gifted writer, turned his attention to poetry. A few years ago, I picked up a collection of poems Hardy wrote after the death of his wife Emma Lavinia Gifford (1840-1912), titled Unexpected Elegies: Poems of 1912-13 and other poems about Emma. Claire Tomalin selected the pieces and wrote an introduction to the volume. The distinguished American critic, the late Harold Bloom, said of Tomalin’s collection: “A superb volume of forty poignant lyrics by one of the half-dozen major poets of the English language in the twentieth century.”
“Half-dozen!” Think about that: William Butler Yeats, A. E. Housman, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Elinor Wylie, Robinson Jeffers, Marianne Moore, T. S. Eliot, John Crowe Ransom, Conrad Aiken, Edna S. Vincent Millay, Hart Crane, so on and so forth. You get the idea of where Bloom places Hardy’s poetry. Indeed, it is high praise from Bloom for an author who many people still know primarily, if not exclusively, through his novels.
In his book, The Best Poems of the English Language, Bloom includes the following Hardy poems: “Neutral Tones,” “The Darkling Thrush,” “During Wind and Rain,” “Moments of Vision,” and “Afterwards.” However, I want to look briefly at a Hardy poem not included in the Emma collection or Bloom’s list, the poem “The Man He Killed.” Here is a copy of the poem from The Delphi Complete Works of Thomas Hardy.
THE MAN HE KILLED
“Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!
“But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.
“I shot him dead because –
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That’s clear enough; although
“He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,
Off-hand like — just as I –
Was out of work — had sold his traps –
No other reason why.
“Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown.”
Earlier, I mentioned Hardy’s fatalism. There, I was thinking primarily of its presence in his novels. But it is also found in his poetry. Fatalism is defined as “a doctrine that events are fixed in advance so that human beings are powerless to change them; also : a belief in or attitude determined by this doctrine.” [Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition] One senses Hardy’s fatalism in the last stanza of “The Man He Killed.” If, as the poem’s narrator muses, he had met the fellow he killed in a bar instead of on the battlefield, he would not have killed him. But his and his victim’s destiny was to encounter one another not in a bar but “ranged as infantry” in opposing sides of a war.
In his work On the Universe, the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote, “A man’s character is his fate.” I’m not sure if Heraclitus would have said the reverse is also true, that is, that a man’s fate is his character. But I think Hardy might have. In Hardy’s world, a man’s fate is the fixed arena within which his character is developed and ultimately reflected.
But something is missing. There is a component in the definition of “fatalism” in The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion concerning fate’s nature, not found in the Merriam-Webster definition. “Fate can be conceived of as impersonal (e.g., a cosmic law to which even the gods are subject, the rule or influence of the stars, natural causality, etc.) or as personal. In the latter case it might be interpreted as the will of an omnipotent God” [p. 251].
In my reading of Hardy, it seems that his sympathy lies with what the Oxford Dictionary labels “impersonal” fate. Concerning Judaism, however, the Dictionary says that “Generally speaking, Jewish theological tradition emphasizes the element of freedom: everything…is directly subject to God’s will, but God permits himself to be influenced by prayer, repentance, and good works.” If there is a role for fate at all, Judaism, I think, would understand it in the guise of what the Oxford Dictionary called “personal” fate. The classic Biblical illustration of the Dictionary’s scenario is recorded at the beginning of 2 Kings, Chapter 20.
In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death. The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz came to him, and said to him, “Thus says the Lord: Set your house in order, for you shall die; you shall not recover.” Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord: “Remember now, O Lord, I implore you, how I have walked before you in faithfulness with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.” Hezekiah wept bitterly. Before Isaiah had gone out of the middle court, the word of the Lord came to him: “Turn back, and say to Hezekiah prince of my people, Thus says the Lord, the God of your ancestor David: I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; indeed, I will heal you; on the third day you shall go up to the house of the Lord.
Text is from The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha (p. 572). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
And so it happened. I find enormous consolation in this passage.
There is a beautiful line from one of Heloise’s letters to Abelard. It captures from someone who suffered much in her life a sublime understanding of the balance between fate and free will: “Riches and power,” she writes, “are but gifts of blind fate, whereas goodness is the result of one’s own merits.” [Letter 2, Heloise to Abelard.]
All the best,
I first encountered Hardy’s poetry at school and immediately loved it. I also love his novels. He was a great all round writer.
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I’m looking at this through a modern lens of war, whether the conflict in Israel or the war in Ukraine and wondering if it’s possible for the fighters in those wars are able to think of the other side in Hardy’s terms – whether those fighters could ever conceive of sitting at a bar together. I also enjoyed the last bit about King Hezekiah – good thoughts for the month of Elul.